It's 8 p.m. on a Friday night at Rawda, a coffee house in the Al Sahin district of Damascus, Syria, and the regulars are filing in. They occupy chairs and tables under languid ceiling fans and a haphazardly joined ceiling of corrugated plastic sheets. Water pipes are summoned, primed and ignited, and soon the din of conversation is dueling with the clatter of dice skittering across backgammon boards.
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Once a movie theater, Rawda is an enclave for artists and intellectuals in a country where dissent is regularly smothered in its crib. Lately, it has become a bosom for the dispossessed. The war in Iraq has triggered a mass exodus of refugees to neighboring Syria, and Rawda plays hosts to a growing number of them. Most are artists, orphaned by a conflict that has outlawed art.
"We can no longer work in Iraq," says Haidar Hilou, an award-winning screenwriter. "It is a nation of people with guns drawn against each other. I can't even take my son to the movies."
Some two million Iraqis have fled the sectarian violence in Iraq. They are Sunnis driven out by Shiite militias and Shias threatened by the Sunni insurgency. They include some of the country's most accomplished professionals—doctors, engineers and educators—targets in the militants' assault on the Iraqi economy.
But there is another war in Iraq, one on artistic expression and critical thought. Among the exiles slumping their way to Damascus are writers, painters, sculptors, musicians and filmmakers, who are as important to Iraq's national fiber as its white-collar elites. Rawda, which means "garden" in Arabic and was itself founded by Russian émigrés before World War II, has become their smoke-filled sanctuary.
"People from all walks of life come here," says dissident Abu Halou, who left Baghdad in the 1970s and is now the unofficial "mayor" of Syria's Iraqi diaspora. He says the owners were once offered several million U.S. dollars in Syrian pounds by a developer who wanted to turn Rawda into a shopping mall. "They turned him down," Abu Halou says, seated as always at the main entrance, where he appraises all new comers. "The family understands how important this place is to the community."
For the Iraqis, Rawda is a refuge of secularism and modernity against pathological intolerance back home. They swap tales, like the one about the Baghdadi ice merchant who was attacked for selling something that did not exist during the time of the Prophet, or the one about the motorist who was shot by a militant for carrying a spare tire—a precaution that, for the killer, betrayed an unacceptable lack of faith. In Syria, at least, the art colonists of Rawda can hone their skills while the sectarian holocaust rages next door.
"The militants believe art is taboo," says Bassam Hammad, a 34-year-old sculptor. "At least here, we can preserve the spirit of Iraq, the smells of the place. Then maybe a new school can emerge."
After the fall of Saddam Hussein, Hammad says he was cautiously optimistic about the future. But as the insurgency grew in intensity, so did proscriptions against secular expression. Liquor stores were torched, women were drenched with acid for not wearing the veil and art of any kind was declared blasphemous. In July 2005, Hammad was commissioned by a Baghdad municipal council to create a statue that would honor 35 children who were killed in a car bombing. It was destroyed by militants within two months, he says.
Though Hammad turned down two more such commissions, he began receiving death threats taped to the door of his home. He remained locked indoors for five months before he abandoned Iraq for Syria. "They made me a prisoner in my home," he says. "So I came here."