The city fathers may have designated it ‘Sharia al-Mutanabi’, but the locals know it as ‘American Street’ – a few blocks in central Lattakia crowded with western-style restaurants, fast food joints and trendy cafés, all decorated in what Syria imagines to be the American style, and where, every night, a curious Syrian version of a very American tradition plays out: young people cruising the strip.
From early evening onwards, reaching a peak about 10 p.m., young people mix and mingle along American Street, coalescing, dividing and recombining in small groups all along the street.
The girls are slim and pretty, unveiled, wearing makeup and jewellery to highlight their dusky, alluring faces. A few wear skirts but most are in tight jeans matched with brightly-coloured tops and high-heeled shoes. They chatter and giggle and snipe like girls anywhere.
The boys are all swagger in their fashionable jeans, Armani t-shirts and shiny leather shoes, their think black hair slicked back or cut short and complemented with a neatly trimmed beard and a saturnine air. They swap cigarettes and stories and watch the girls go by, like boys anywhere.
Outside the Belgian waffle place, a pair of youths lean against a steel cabinet and pass the time of day. Watching from the 50s retro diner ‘Café Express’ across the street, what they’re talking about I don’t know, but I bet it’s football. The whole of Syria is talking about football – it’s World Cup time. A couple of other Lattakian lads wander by and soon two become four, or six, then two again. It’s never the same kids standing there, but they’re always there.
Later in the evening, it starts getting busy after about eight. The restaurants fill up and the street is thick with adolescent hormones. Crowds of boys linger on the corners, lean against lampposts and sit on railings, individuals moving freely from group to group and the chatter and laughter perfuming the air. The girls move in groups too, nervously past the boys and into the cafés, all of which have big windows so no-one has to miss the action taking place on the street.
It’s a scene from 1950s America – a newly-liberated ‘younger generation’ toying with newfound freedom to occupy the streets and revel in youthful desire and desireability – but with a distinct Middle Eastern flavour: a kind of ‘Syrian Graffiti’. Despite all the primping and pouting on one side of American Street, and the swaggering and strutting on the other, the two groups rarely mingle, and you won’t see young lovers parading arm-in-arm down the street or making out in the back seat of a borrowed car: this may be American Street, but its still Syria.
Whether the dance ever moves beyond the furtive glance of the occasional exchange of a few clumsy words, I don’t know – I could only observe from a distance, through the big glass windows of the Express Café, and wonder at the familiarity of it all.
Photo above: Boys outside the Belgian waffle place on American Street. Photo by Brent Allan.