The Bread Tragedy Continues In Syria

By: Azzam Al-Turkmani | Tharwa Exclusive | May 26, 2008 

A month has passed since the latest Ba’athist “Act of Generosity”, this has been accompanied by an insane increase in the price of goods and necessities.  This is best evidenced by the current bread crisis which can be seen by a trip to any overcrowded bakery. The long lines at the bakery seem as though they will likely continue.

I went through a long tour of the bakeries of Damascus without any success. The queues in front of the bakeries make you want to instantly give up. My need for bread led me to the Al-Mazah bakery. Much to my surprise, the line in front of it was similar to the line I saw in front of the automated bakery in Al-Zahirah, even thought it was 1 a.m.! I decided to enter this marathon with hope that God could get me through. 

The situation was indescribable… a flow of people from here and from there, and their final destination was the bakery’s three windows. The unorganized, overcrowded lines quickly became chaotic as there was nothing to organize us but the screams of those who felt that others were cheating the line.

Perhaps what eased my wait, was that I met an entertaining friend in the queue. Although I did not know him beforehand, the time that we spent together in front of the bakery made me categorize him as a friend, and I called him “entertaining” because he made me forget the long hour and a half wait.  When I arrived, I heard him confidentially murmuring to himself that he owns a taxi, and that this endeavor to buy bread forced him to stop driving his taxi one hour every morning and two hours every night.

When I asked him “why do you not send any of your kids to bring the bread instead of you?” He told me that one of his sons was studying to earn his bachelor’s degree and that the other was too young and was at home sleeping. He also informed me that for two days now he had not had any bread in his house.

The “Entertainer” arrived here following an unsuccessful attempt, in front of one of the other bakeries, which took about an hour and a half. After expressing his complaints, the “Entertainer” started telling jokes mixed with sorrow and frustration, in an attempt to pass the time and forgetting what was happening around us.

I would divide the time I spent waiting into two periods, the external and the internal. During the first period, we all waited on the stairs outside for about an hour. We waited impatiently for someone to leave with bread in his hand so that the queue would shorten. Yet, with no rhyme or reason the queue would shorten and then lengthen again. When I finally arrived at the bakery’s window sill, the queue suddenly froze for half an hour. I realized that there was no rule guiding this process. The reason the queue froze was because of intrusions by policeman, army officers and even the baker’s friends.  Their way was open and easy. Their easy way complicated and lengthened the crisis.

The internal period was like swimming in waves. I witnessed events that made me simultaneously laugh and then cry.  I heard uproars that the ears cannot stand and comments that made me laugh out loud. I also saw pushing matches that quickly escalated to fist fights. What pained me most was when a disagreement over whose turn it was in line escalated to a clash between two people. No one moved a muscle to break up the fight, I even heard someone say, “Let them kill each other..I won’t lose my turn because of them”.

Often my attention was turned to the cheers of a woman, who would let it be known that she got her quota of bread. It was like a perfect marriage, the groom wants the bride (or in this case the bread) and the place is even full of attendants. The questions that remains are: Will the attainment of one day’s worth of bread become something to be celebrated? Will the citizen have to contribute three hours out of every day to get this bread?

The most troubling aspect of all this is the negative more moral outcomes, as the overcrowded bakeries and the unruly crowds outside of public transport buses foster aselfish disregard for others.  For example, I saw an old man ask a young man in line if they could switch places, the young man harshly refused and told the old man to get to the end of the line.  After two hours of waiting, I reached the end of the line, where the master and lord of order, the baker, who distributed bread with arrogance, as if he were a King distributing his endowment to peasants, gave me my bread, which I accepted with gratitude. I went swimming back into the crowd, leaving behind a crowd that never decreased. I thanked God fifty times for coming out of this war safely. Who enters there is lost and who comes out is born.

Outside I asked a man, named Mohsen Abdul Rahman, waiting in the queue, what he thought about this? He answered, “I consider this crisis to be the making of some individuals, as bread has always been available”. He believes that there is no connection between the rise in price of mazot (gas/oil) and this crisis. When I asked him if he thought there had been a codification of flour, he responded, “I do not think there is rationing, but vulnerable souls are the ones causing this crisis, as I have read in some newspapers, there is bread smuggling, as I learned there is an increase in the price of fodder.” He continued, “Solutions don’t come that fast, but I think that the Ministry of Economy should intervene in the matter”.  Mohsen added, “I came here yesterday to buy bread but the bakery was closed, and I usually buy five packages of bread to save myself coming here and waiting in front of the bakery. What got my attention was the ban of the sale of bread in the shops and grocery stores, which was leading to price control”.

We asked Mohsen about his proposal to resolve the crisis, he answered: “the solution is to educate people, and for us to tolerate each other, and as long as bread is available, why do people fear it’s cessation and flock profusely to the bakery? I do not think that the crisis will drag on”.

During our talk with Mohsen, someone returned escaping from the crowd, we asked him:

“Why did you return without buying bread?” He answered: “I think you need five hours to get the bread and get out”. He went on, “Usually we don’t find this kind of pressure on the bakery…it is almost 1am now and the crowd is growing”.  He pointed out that there are some bakeries that sell the bread for twenty lira, which is five lira more than the usual price, among them the Al-Zahrah automated bakery. He added, “I am a resident of Sahnaya, and there is only one bakery there, so how will it alone fulfill the needs of the people?!”

In response to the question of, “Where are the other bakeries?” Mohsen replied that they are not functioning, and as you can see there are more than three hundred people here.

The crowd that was assembled with us in front of this frightening scene of over crowdedness and push and shove, appealed to the government to find a solution for this crisis. It is unreasonable – according to them – that a citizen waits for three hours to get bread!

Mohammad Hassan, an employee in the media, expressed his pessimism in regards to the situation saying, “This situation is unacceptable, and shameful indeed, these queues are unreasonable”. In regards to the reason of crisis he said, “The bakeries do not receive adequate allocation, also some of them don’t work because of the price increase of mazot”. He pointed out that the quality bread that used to sell for 40 lira, sells now for 50 or 60 lira because of the current crisis. Mohammad said that he waited for more than two hours and did not receive the quantity he desired. Mohammad believes that government should raise the price of bread of provide flour to the bakeries, anything to help solve this crisis.

During our tour, we met with the manager of Al-Mazah bakery, who refused to reveal his name.  He blamed the current situation on the citizens who roam to Al-Mazah bakery from other areas and neighborhoods. He said, “The citizens come from far away places to get bread, and they mentioned that the bakeries there aren’t working”.  He added that some come from Al-Hajjar Al-Aswad and the Yarmouk camp, knowing that there are more than ten bakeries in these areas and he wondered aloud, “Why are they all closed?!”.

The manager of the bakery denied that crisis was a result of the unavailability of flour, he said, “flour is always available, despite the different specifics of each bakery”. He told us that his bakery works day and night. He blamed the bread crisis on the “director of supply and the owners of the non-functioning bakeries.”

A citizen tired from the long wait blamed the crisis on, “the arrival of the villagers to the bakeries of the city”.  He continued that maybe “the rise of the price of mazot to 25 lira, forced private bakeries that buys mazot for that price, to stop working, because in that case, they would lose money”.

Anas Hamdan, a bookshop owner, said that the Ministry of Economy has to intervene.  Quality bread prices have increased, and he fears that this price increase could extend to normal bread.

Asked if he had suggestions to solve this crisis, Hamdan said, “I suggest that people voice their opinion in the media, and the government has to hold a media and advertisement campaign to inform people and provide them with reassurances that bread is available and bakeries continue to produce it”.  He added, “I think the crisis worsened since the increase in price for mazot and gas, and there are some people who trade in bread, as they buy it from the bakery for 15 lira, and then sell it for 25 lira, which increases the pressure on the bakery”.

Whatever the background and justification for this phenomenon is, it must stop. The decision makers in the government, specifically the Ministry of Economy, have to intervene to protect the livelihood of a large section of the population. The citizen that works 14 hours a day, and barely survives on that, cannot contribute an additional three hours waiting in line for bread. These chaotic and unfamiliar scenes bring further hardships to those who are already exhausted.