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Damascus - Things change slowly in the Middle East; perhaps reputations change slowest of all.

There was a vivid example here last week when reports arrived of an explosion in the Syrian capital that killed three people.

With bombings in several parts of the region a regular occurrence, and Damascus not immune from such attacks, most people immediately assumed some kind of terrorist attack or assassination.

The blast, it soon was revealed, had involved a bus bearing Iranian pilgrims to a site outside the city. It added that three people had been killed.

Aha, most thought: "Iran," and the plot thickened.

Next came word from Syria's Interior Ministry that terrorism was NOT involved in the explosion. Perversely, this had the effect of confirming that terrorism must have been involved.

This was not totally unreasonable, since it had been previous government policy to frequently deny any terrorism or military acts carried out in the country, including last year's car-bomb killing of Imad Mugniyeh, once a leading figure in Hezbollah's military wing.

Things looked even more convincing when journalists were barred from the scene and images of the blown bus and its shattered windows were shown on state and other Arab television networks. At the same time, the Interior Ministry issued a statement saying the blast was the result of a tire exploding as it was being repaired at a garage. The dead had included the bus driver, a repairman and a boy. No one believed it.

The juxtaposed image and the ministry's apparently lame explanation did not compute.

The statement seemed completely crippled when a government spokeswoman was asked in a televised interview how a tire explosion could possibly have wrought such damage. "It's a big bus," she insisted. "It has big tires." She added that "It must have exploded when too much air was pumped into it."

The denial/confirmation seemed valid and journalists set about writing the story with sinister tones.

Then it emerged that a couple of reliable western diplomats had been on the scene prior to the government's order to bar outsiders. They reported that the site showed no evidence of an explosive device being used and that a police sniffer dog had shown no excitement or other behaviour to indicate explosives. They said that the damage was consistent with an air compressor (rather than a tire) exploding, sending shrapnel through the windows, and killing the people close to the tire.

Turned out the government wasn't hiding anything after all, even if it offered some lame assumptions as fact.

What has changed

What has changed in the 14 years since I last spent much time in Damascus is the social scene. There are more western shops, more small charming hotels, more foreign culture, and more cafés.

On the unseasonably warm sunny days that have blessed this place most of the last week, people are packing the outdoor cafés, enjoying the good life.

My favourite spot, where I've met with several of the people I wanted to interview, is the Downtown Café, located on a small, relatively quiet street that falls on the border of two neighbourhoods built during the French mandate/occupation years from the mid 1920s to late 1940s.

None of the apartment buildings that line the street is more than four storeys high, and each was built to house commercial outlets on the ground floor. Where there is not a café, bar or restaurant, one will find tony fashion shops, mostly for women, shoe stores, lingerie boutiques, even a United Colours of Benetton outlet.

Sitting at the Downtown Café one day, an interviewee pointed out all the cafes and restaurants in view. Rather than competitors, he said, all of them are owned by the same man: the son of a former minister of the interior.

Some things don't change.

Around the corner, on a lane you'd swear had been transported from the fifth arrondissement in Paris, is a delightful, newly-opened bookstore/café/library called Etana.

Owned by the enterprising Maan Abdul Salam, the place offers you (for a small fee) access to all the books you can't easily find in Damascus, and a comfortable place to read them while sipping a coffee - no need to purchase them. You can take the book home, if you prefer, just like a lending library, or buy and keep the text. There is a small number of interesting books in English as well.

Upstairs, there are several computer terminals, just like a tasteful Internet café, and an area where kids can play and do crafts.

The shop is closed Fridays, and open Saturday only for programs dedicated to children - story telling, game playing, crafts; all related to books.

It's the first bookstore of its kind in Damascus, and one you don't find often anywhere.

Mr. Abdul Salam, who has experienced the frustrations of operating a small publishing house in the television/Internet age, says: "We have to teach the next generation to appreciate books more than this one does."

From Jerusalem with love

Last evening, on a cool Monday in December, I decided to check out Damascus's imposing new opera house. Built over several years (there were frequent periods of no activity) the building sits on one of the corners of the massive Umayyad Square (which really is a circle).

Its grounds are rife with modern marble sculptures, and neatly carved out gardens.

One giant bronze sculpture of the late president Hafez al Assad, father of the current president, Bashar al Assad, towers above the rest. (The house is formally called Dar al-Assad for Culture and Arts - meaning the Assad area for culture etc.) Inside, the building has five floors, every one filled with art. There are three concert halls in varying size, and plenty of space for receptions or art shows.

Last night, three programs overlapped: the opening of a one-man show by a prominent Turkish painter; a choral concert of oriental music performed by the Chamber Choir of the nearby High Institute of Music, and a performance of Samuel Beckett's The Last Tape.

The art show was packed with the usual diplomatic and cultural types, the small theatre that housed the Beckett was full, while the middle-sized auditorium was only about half full for the choir's performance.

Too bad; it was wonderful. The 12 men dressed in tuxedo, the 11 women in traditional embroidered Arab dress with their hair flowing, were a mixture of Christian and Muslim. They sang beautifully, richly conveying the complexities of traditional Arab music.

The highlight came as the choir introduced its last number, a kind of ode to Jerusalem. As they sang, a slide show of Jerusalem scenes was shone on the back of the stage. A mixture of Christian and Muslim music was blended as the two faiths were portrayed behind the choir.

At the climax, the women held the last note of an Alleluia, while first one, then another and another of the men let out the "Allah hu Akbar" sounds of muezzins, just as one might hear in Jerusalem, or in Damascus for that matter.

It was breathtaking and the audience erupted into sustained applause until the choir repeated much of the song.

There is no denying the attachment for Jerusalem that is held far and wide in the Muslim and Christian world.

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