DAMASCUS, Syria — The Street Called Straight, long bereft of its bustle, was crowded again. Wall to wall, people shuffled forward in a slow procession. Shopkeepers had closed their shutters, packing away the goods that no one had been buying anyway, to clear the sidewalks for a funeral parade.
Trumpets and drums beat out the soaring refrain of Beethoven’s Ninth. The coffin, heaped with daisies, spun like a helicopter rotor above the crowd as the pallbearers danced past a mosque to a neighboring church, both centuries-old structures striped with light and dark stone.
Women ululated and threw rice. The dead man, a Christian, was to have been married, but he and his Muslim driver were kidnapped and killed south of Damascus, two more victims of Syria’s civil war, and the funeral was the closest thing he would have to a wedding.
“Syria! Syria!” the crowd called, hailing the young man, Fadi Francis, as “a martyr of the neighborhood.”
Straight Street, the most storied thoroughfare in Syria, huddles these days in a wary calm, marred now and then by mortar attacks, and every day by anxiety.
The street has been known since at least the early years of Christianity for its ramrod course through the twisting alleys of the old city of Damascus. It contains along its cobblestoned stretch much of what many citizens see as the best of their country: ancient history, diversity, entrepreneurial spirit. But now, residents fear its very existence is in danger — though they disagree on who presents the greatest threat — the rebels, the government, or, as many see it, both.
“I’m tired of watching people wearing black,” Leena Siriani said, looking down at Straight Street from her balcony. “Deep down, there is no longer anything that makes us feel happy.”
Many shops close early nowadays, and the foreign tourists are long gone. Shelling can be heard in the distance, and new militiamen guard the street. No more does President Bashar Assad stroll past on his way to dine with Damascus power brokers by the marble fountain at the restaurant Naranj.
The Bible says that after the apostle Paul was struck blind on the road to Damascus, God directed him to “the Street called Straight” to find a man who would baptize him, on a spot now marked by the nearby Hanania church.
Along the street, the remnants of a Roman colonnade, plastered in places with worn posters of Assad, testify to millennia of habitation. Geometric stonework dates to the medieval Ummayad era, when Damascus was the seat of the caliphate ruling the Muslim world. For centuries, people of many faiths and ethnicities have rubbed shoulders daily here, if not always in complete harmony, then in common worship of urban life and commerce.
Today, high-end antique shops alternate with cubbyhole workshops where carpenters and metalworkers make and sell their wares, much as they did centuries ago. Ottoman mansions and tiny swaybacked dwellings still shelter, respectively, the wealthy and the poor.
Scarves and carpets spill onto the street, from the third-century arched gateway at Bab Sharqi to the Medhat Pasha Souq, where market stalls under an arched tin roof sell spices, lingerie and toys. At night, from the window of Abu George’s tiny and venerable bar, dim light still glows through colored liquor bottles, a kind of stained-glass beacon of religious diversity and neighborhood fellowship.
“If Muslims didn’t drink,” Abu George, a Christian, likes to say, “alcohol would be a lot cheaper.”
Abu Tony sat on the curb one recent morning in front of his antique shop, drinking coffee. There were no customers, but he and his merchant neighbors had opened up anyway, to pass the time. He surveyed the row of shops, which to him symbolized the spirit of the street. “I’m Christian,” he said. “Next door, he is Sunni; the next one is a Shiite” — who, he said, rents his store from the Jewish owner, who left for America but stays in touch.
To Abu Tony, the rebels were extremists, alien to Syria.
“It’s the land of civilization,” he said. “Christianity went out to the world from this street.”
Many here share his view, and his support for the government. At the funeral, a few days later, many Christian mourners said they were sure the killers were Islamist rebels bent on driving them away. For them, the fact that Muslim clerics helped locate the bodies was proof enough.
But even here, under scrutiny in the heart of Assad’s capital, people whisper a range of opinions. Some blame the government’s crackdown on dissent for riling up sectarian division. Others fear everyone, from politically minded killers on both sides to criminal gangs taking advantage of the chaos.
After the funeral, Sawsan, a Christian woman left impoverished after the conflict sapped her husband’s tailoring business, sat overlooking the street in a kitchen so tiny that spare propane tanks doubled as stools.
Downstairs, her Sunni neighbors wholeheartedly supported the government line, dismissing rebels as terrorists. Sawsan did not. “They are all our men,” she said.
Asked if she shared other Christians’ fear of being targeted for their faith by the mainly Sunni rebels, she jutted her chin upward in the Syrian gesture for no. “This is the idea they try to spread,” she said, without specifying who. “To make people fight each other.”
Her grown daughter was less confident. She recalled a story widely circulated by those who fear — or incite — sectarianism: that early protesters chanted, “Christians to Beirut, Alawites to the grave.”
A shell thudded in the distance. “If they hit us,” Sawsan’s small grandson declared, “the house will be destroyed, but we won’t die.”
Nearby, a Sunni salesman said it was the government’s job to strike a peace deal.
“If they want to end this, they can,” he said, folding silk brocade scarves woven with damascene geometric patterns. “It’s their people. They cannot kill them all.”
Another merchant pointed out a blank space on his wall where Assad’s portrait had been. He whispered that he had supported the peaceful protests when they began more than two years ago and did not blame the opposition for taking up arms. “If someone kills your son,” he said, “what do you say — ‘OK, thank you?’”
But now, he said, he felt trapped. His wife was afraid to send their children to school a few blocks away. With his wealth tied up in inventory, he could not afford to flee. “We thought it would take two or three weeks,” he said. “We thought he would go.”