Family eating cactus fruit
A family in Damascus relaxes at an outdoor street vendor’s table while eating fresh cactus fruit. Rasha Elass

DAMASCUS, Syria -- Back in the day, Rukn al Din was a fairly ordinary neighborhood, part of a sprawling, middle-class concrete jungle in the eastern part of the city bordered by a busy, two-way avenue and a green space of citrus trees and olive groves.

But since Syria’s uprising-turned-civil war began more than two and half years ago, the thousands of Damascenes who call Rukn al Din home have watched as their neighborhood has been transformed into a frontier in a war zone.

Today, government missile batteries can be seen on high ground throughout the neighborhood. Several times a day, the batteries fire rockets that fly over the private homes of ordinary civilians and land in suspected rebel strongholds. Among the usual targets is nearby Jobar, in the suburb of Ghouta, where a horrendous chemical attack on Aug. 21 killed an estimated 1,400 people, many of them children dressed in bedtime pajamas.

During a visit on Thursday evening to a private home inside an apartment building in Rukn al Din, it appeared people were no longer fazed by the now all-too-common motif of blasts and booms in the skies above them.

This Lattis family (whose names here are pseudonyms, to protect their identities) sat in their modest living room, a yellow canary in a cage in one corner, a television on mute in the background.

Ibrahim, 50 and a father of four, snoozed on the sofa after a day of work at his textiles shop, where business has been slow for months. His wife Kinda, 47, brought in a plate of freshly peeled cactus fruit, a sweet and juicy popular treat during the summer months in Syria. She offered it around the room, then sat down to chat.

“Oh, Kerry, tell me the news before gheiri,” she said, almost absent-mindedly. (“Gheiri” is Arabic for “anyone else.”)

She was echoing the light-hearted play on words that quickly spread among Damascenes on the heels of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s speech to the American people, as he made his case for an American-led punitive military strike against the Syrian regime.

Since President Barack Obama announced he wanted to strike Syria and, a couple of days later, said he would first seek congressional approval to do it, the mood in Damascus has waxed and waned like the whims of an anxious teenager, complete with satire and gallows humor.

First there was disbelief, followed by a citywide frenzy of food and water hoarding. Then disbelief again. And then confusion as Syrians watch the unfolding debate in the U.S. and the world over the controversial military action.

“What happened to the element of surprise?” asked one perplexed Damascene. “All this talk gives [Syrian President Bashar] Assad time to protect himself and hide his military assets.”

Indeed, thousands of military and state security men have descended upon the capital in recent days, seeking refuge in city schools and mosques after abandoning their garrison compounds on the outskirts, presumably for fear they will be targeted in the imminent U.S.-led strike.

There have also been numerous, but difficult to verify, reports of the military moving equipment all around the country, in effect redrawing the map of what constitutes potential military targets.

But, on this evening, none of the maneuverings mattered much to Kinda and her family. For days, like everyone else in Damascus, their main concern has focused on one question: When is the U.S. strike coming? Also for days, the family has agonized over whether its members should flee town, “just until the strike is over.”

Thousands of Syrians did flee shortly after Obama’s initial announcement, thinking a strike was coming in a matter of days. But many have since returned to their homes in Damascus, only to wonder about what they should do next.

The Lattis family parents now seem resigned to ambiguous fate. Their 11-year-old daughter, Lina, no longer asks whether school will start on Sept. 15, as it is supposed to do. Their adult son no longer says he misses his two brothers, who -- like thousands of young Syrian men -- fled the country months ago to dodge their mandatory military service. And nobody in the family speaks anymore of their recent time in Egypt, where they fled for several weeks hoping the violence in Damascus would abate, only to find unexpected violence erupt in Cairo.

In most ways, the Lattis’ life is a microcosm of what it means to be Syrian today, except that they are comparatively lucky. They have not lost a family member, they still have their home, and, unlike so many Syrians in other parts of the country today, they usually have electricity and always have plenty to eat.

“Turn it up. Turn it up,” Kinda commanded her daughter, looking toward the TV, and the girl promptly obliged with the remote control. The top of the news hour is about to begin on Al Jazeera, and maybe this time there will be a clue as to when the strike is coming.

But the news report leads with the Group of 20 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, offering seemingly nothing but extra noise to the Lattis family.

“So, who are the G-20 and why are they talking about us?” asked Lina, as she munched on a cactus fruit.

“Well, unfortunately, these days everyone seems to have an opinion on Syria,” Kinda said with a shrug.

Ibrahim, half awake from his snooze, tilted his head and said: “The G-20 are an economic group. Why are they discussing politics?”

He does not wait for an answer before shutting his eyes again and turning his head away from the ceiling lamp light to continue his snooze. The canary in the corner squawked and began a repetitive up-and-down motion.

Then the news was about U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who supports intervention in Syria, and reports that he played poker on his mobile phone while his colleagues discussed military action.

Kinda started absent-mindedly gathering the dishes from the table, while seeming to resume a private debate over who or what will determine her and her family’s fate -- and when.

“McKin me, oh, McCain,” she said, chuckling at her own wordplay. (“McKin” in this context translates as “reassure.”)

Then she muted the TV again and added, “Not tonight, I suppose. No one is giving us answers tonight.”