A rally last night in Harasta, northeast of Damascus
Sipping tea in a smoky Damascus cafe, Adnan and his wife, Rima, look ordinary enough: an unobtrusive, thirtysomething couple winding down at the end of the working day in one of the tensest cities in the world.
But like much else in the Syrian capital, they are not what they first seem: normally, he is a software engineer and she a lawyer; now, they are underground activists helping organise the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.
It is dangerous work. Over the past 10 months, thousands of Syrians have been killed – perhaps twice the 5,000 figure given by the UN – as Assad has pursued a ruthless crackdown that shows no sign of ending. But his opponents are equally determined to carry on.
Adnan and Rima are unable to work or contact their families. They have false identities. Adnan changes his appearance regularly. He has just shaved off his beard. It clearly works: a friend at a nearby table fails to recognise him.
Most of their friends are on the run from the mukhabarat secret police. "It used to be scary but we've got used to it," said Adnan. "The revolution destroyed the wall of fear. At school, we were taught to love the president – Hafez – first. And it didn't get any better when Bashar took over. Now, everything has changed. Assad's picture is defaced everywhere and we are certain that at some point we will topple the regime."
On the face of it, Damascus is calm. The bloodiest frontlines of the revolution may be in Homs, Hama, Idlib and Deraa, but the appearance of normality in the capital is deceptive. Intrigue, fear and anger are just below the surface.
"Damascus is crucial to the survival of the Assad regime," a leading opposition figure told the Guardian. "They will never allow a Tahrir Square here. If Damascus falls, it's all over."
Large protests organised by the tansiqiyat, local co-ordination committees, are held almost nightly in many suburbs, and always on Fridays. Even in the centre, daytime "flash" demonstrations last for a few minutes and disappear before they are pounced on by security forces, the worst of whom are shabiha louts in army trousers and leather jackets who loiter at junctions and squares.
The demonstrators are ingenious: in one case, volunteer drivers created traffic jams all around the old Hijaz railway station to create a space in which a brief but eyecatching protest could be held.
Creativity and secrecy are crucial. On the first day of Ramadan, loudspeakers concealed in the busy shopping area of Arnous Square blared out the stirring song "Irhal ya Bashar" ("Leave, Bashar"), written by Ibrahim Qashoush, who was murdered in July after performing in Hama. His killers cut his throat and carved out his vocal chords.
"At first, people were frightened," said one Damascus resident who had heard the song. But when it was played for a second time, they relaxed. "By the third time, they were laughing," he said.
The speakers were positioned on a roof and the area around them was smeared with oil to make it harder to silence them.
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