Espero Café: Our space that fell apart

The story of a Tartous café frequented by the city’s disillusioned youth offers a ground-level look at the hopes that drove the revolution and the fractures that tore the country apart.

[Editor’s note: The below article was produced as part of Al-Jumhuriya’s 2017 Fellowship for Young Writers. It was originally published in Arabic on 11 May, 2018.]

Along the coast of a calm Syrian city, Tartous, lay several cafés; a handful I can recall from my childhood; and one of them was “Espero Café”.

This single-story lot was not always a café; some elders said it was once a slaughterhouse. There were various arguments about what Espero was over the many phases of its history. Some say it was part of the walls of the citadel the Crusaders had built in Tartous to secure the pilgrimage road to Jerusalem. Others say it was a horse stable at some point. There are more stories, but I was unable to find one confirming what it was right before it became a café. It’s typical of popular memory to weave narratives, meshing fact with fiction.

I knew Espero since my early youth; an ancient stone structure, probably of the Crusader style. Inside, it took the form of brown sandstone arcades, eaten away over time by damp, with a foyer tiled to protect it from rain, though the ceiling was ridden with gaps and missing tiles ever since I first laid eyes upon it. The remaining tiles were supported by metal scaffolds, rusty and worn.

In those days, we would escape our prison-like schools, and usually go to one of the five nearby cafés along the beach. Espero happened to be near a dock, from which boats set sail to Arwad; the small island opposite the city. At first glance, one would think it was deserted, as no one bothered to maintain or repair it.

Espero, like all cafés in Tartous, offers maté tea as a staple menu item. No one asks you to re-order or re-fill your drink, no matter how long you stay. Kettles of hot water, with hardened calcium on the inside, and signs of considerable wear on the outside, are always on offer. Many times, you might even be able to leave without paying the already-paltry price.

Despite the beauty of the interior stone arcades, they seem fatigued and run-down, with rubble falling off every now and again onto the heads of the café’s patrons, who were few compared to those of other cafés. There were always only few customers when I started frequenting Espero, and they comprised only two demographics: elderly people from the nearby old quarters of Tartous—al-Saha and al-Khandaq, or from Arwad island—who were friends of “al-Khal” and “Nakhleh,” the two brothers who rented out the place many years ago. Those regulars usually arrived in the morning, perhaps after a fishing trip, or before going to work, and would converse loudly in their distinct local dialect. Soon, that crowd would start thinning out with the passing of the early morning hours, and the next group would start to arrive: the youngsters escaping their conventional communities, and from our Father Leader’s schools, which seemed to have been designed more for punishment than education.  

Every morning, al-Khal (“the Uncle,” as he liked to be known) would arrive. He had long been a member of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, before eventually leaving it. He knew all the townspeople, from the north to the south, and from the east to Arwad island. Whenever he met someone for the first time, he would ask about their family and relatives, and wouldn’t stop asking until he found someone he knew; usually from the person’s closest circle, or second-closest at the least. If he didn’t know the father, he knew one of the uncles. As for Nakhleh, his brother, he would arrive later in the afternoon, with a vastly different personality than al-Khal’s. He would refrain from addressing strangers, arrive sharply dressed, and harshly scold the employees for any or no reason.

By the time I became a regular at Espero, there were only two employees. One was Isam, who would arrive every morning from a nearby suburb to open the place to morning attendees. He would often flatter the customers, especially the sailors, and when I asked him why, he replied with pride: “These people sail the seas and earn hard currency; Syrian pounds mean little to them.”

The second employee was Muhsin, whose shift lasted from the afternoon till midnight. Since his village was far from the city, he would sleep in one of the abandoned corners of the café. During his shifts, there came a different type of customer; youths hell-bent on wasting their time on anything except homework, who would object to anything and everything. We had a better relationship with Muhsin than with Isam, and used to chat with him over matters serious and trivial alike.

This was Epsero café when I became a regular, but it wasn’t always the case. During the 2006 World Cup, for example, it was one of the most successful cafés in town; brimming with football fans, and employing plenty more workers. Yet, due to neglect by its management, and the heavy competition it began to face from other cafés, it gradually declined from 2007 onwards—the year I first visited with a friend, to discover what distinguished it from other places in Tartous.

What struck me upon first entering the café was the poor service, with the menu options confined to tea, maté, and the unpalatable coffee hastily prepared in a kitchen so dirty it looked in need of sterilization. Often, after we became familiar with the place, we would make the drinks ourselves, without asking either Isam or Muhsin.

There were only a few dozen weekly attendees, and so they all knew one another, despite their class, religious, and intellectual differences representing all the components of Syrian society.

There were no boundaries for humor, nothing was above ridicule and satire, especially antiquated beliefs and the conventions and habits of the townsfolk, which drove us crazy at the time. We would see families in the city trying to be similar in every way, from their style of dress to their mindsets, with inherited customs passed on from one generation to another without a hint of critique or scrutiny. Everyone wanted their children to become doctors or engineers at the very least, and pressured them accordingly with no concern for the children’s own ambitions or desires. It was like a mania needing to be cured.

At the time, I was much like the other youngsters of the town; looking for a way to pass the time until I finished high school, when my fate would then be decided by my baccalaureate exam results, in that style of education that snuffs ingenuity and hinders excellence.

For all the differences in the families and backgrounds of the youths attending Espero, they had one thing in common; a bleak and hopeless view of the future of the country, and of emigration being their only salvage. They would boast about their differences in every aspect, from their everyday lifestyles to their tastes in music and clothing. You could look around the circular table and see five starkly different individuals: one dressed head to toe in black, proud to say he only ever listened to heavy metal; and to his right a young man who had just begun his new life a sailor, wearing a suit without a tie; and on their left another in hip-hop attire, low-riding pants, and an oversized t-shirt; and beside them all two kids in school uniforms. They would share jokes and banter, mocking one target after another, as though to combat societal norms with their ridicule. I recall that some Espero regulars faced arrests and interrogations on suspicion of being Satanists.

Yes, we were each unique, and our differences were a constant source of levity and laughter. If someone lacked self-confidence, or was alien to our social setting, they would think there were contempt underpinning the mockery. But they’d soon realize, as we leapt from one topic to another, and dealt with anything brought up with nothing but irony, that we were more like a discussion group, albeit one of lazy and illiterate thinking.

The oddity of that place was that no one scheduled an appointment to meet another there. Whenever one of us arrived, they’d find an acquaintance to spend time with, in either humor or argument. In some cases, I would find three or more tables to hover between and kill time on an afternoon.

We used to believe Espero was the only “anarchist” place in the city. We would spend an unholy number of hours there. Following an entire school day spent there, we would go home only to change out of our ugly uniforms, and then come back. There, under the café’s central dome, no conversation was off-limits, and everything was a subject of humor. No one would try to end a discussion by saying it was too serious a matter; instead, they would wait for you to finish before mocking whatever it was you said, or you as an individual, or existence itself. The hours we spent there made it impossible to miss an occasion to laugh, even at the expense of a fellow patron.

When the Syrian Revolution began, the desire of many people to emigrate receded and hope was initially restored, but this hope quickly evaporated, and harmony within Espero, as everywhere else, was shaken by a schism that couldn’t be concealed. The café, and Tartous as a whole, was increasingly dominated by regime loyalists. Even so, our strong relations permitted me to express my opinions freely and without fear or caution. There were those who argued with me and disagreed, and others who agreed the regime was committing unforgivable deeds, and we had to get rid of it.

The café’s regulars began to dissipate, as some left the country, and others joined the army. Some became too busy working due to the crumbling economy, and others stopped coming to the café altogether due to the tense atmosphere in the country at large. Several were arrested after participating in demonstrations, or as a result of reports from regime informants. Ironically, some of those who were arrested before the revolution on suspicion of Satanism were then arrested again after the revolution on suspicion of Salafism or Muslim Brotherhood membership.        

By 2013, the already-scant number of patrons at Espero had diminished further, since most of us graduated high school and went on to colleges or institutes. In my last intermittent visits to Espero, I noticed the spread of hashish smoking among several regulars, and soon, some youngsters started taking pills in order to escape the grim reality, and the social and security pressures that undermined all forms of diversity in the city, in fear of the "cosmic conspiracy" that official state media had promulgated. These circumstances changed the nature of the place, and allowed a new class to occupy it.

In its final days, Espero was known as a place for cannabis smoke and narcotic pills, with no acceptance of difference or pluralism. This persisted until it was closed down completely, and became a deserted site on the beach, seemingly devoid of memories or a soul, and began to fall apart into oblivion.

Espero was shut down at the end of 2013, when most of the regulars I’d known had left the country. In a photo I saw of Espero a few months ago, it was abandoned, with parts of the wall surrounding the foyer collapsed, and most of its ceiling tiles fallen. It has become a ruin. Neighboring cafés spill over into its space when they’re overcrowded. To me, that eerily resembles the rest of Syria these days; a ruin abandoned by its people, the displaced and those who fled, while its territories are exploited by others.

Espero, like Syria, will never return to what it was before, yet no one knows what the future holds. Will it be replaced with a modern touristic project; a sea-view hotel perhaps? I am certain I would hate whatever replaces it. Alternatively, will the café remain the same, damp-eaten ruin, while other cafés trespass upon it and take advantage of its spacious floor?