At a street seller's stall in Bab Touma, a borough in the Old City of the Syrian capital Damascus, a young girl with her friends spends around ten minutes negotiating with the street seller, who is selling Valentine gifts, trying to get the best price for a red teddy bear holding a bunch of flowers .
The vendor wants 7500 SYP (around 15 USD) and the girl is offering 5000 SYP, as she still needs to buy a box and some flowers for her fiancée. She murmurs to her friends, "I can't believe how expensive everything is" and the man responds, "You can get a smaller one for 3000." The negotiations end with the girl paying 6000 SYP after borrowing 1000 SYP from one of her friends.
It is Saturday afternoon. The neighborhood, a commercial area, is filled with shoppers and pedestrians as February 14th, Valentine's Day, is approaching. Some are looking for presents for their loved ones, others are enjoying a stroll around the shops, which are crammed with all types of gifts: boxes, teddy bears, musical snow globes, heart-shaped balloons, mugs and pillows, mostly coloured red. Prices range from three dollars for the smallest gifts to around $200 for huge bears or pandas.
However, with the desperate economic situation in a country that has experienced a brutal war for more than seven years, not many people indulge in buying gifts for the Day of Love, or "Eid of Love" as it is called in most Arab countries.
The occasion became more celebrated in Syria in the years preceding the war, especially in the big cities. Today around 80% of Syria's population lives in poverty according to UN estimates and the Syrian pound lost ten times its value during the war, causing an unprecedented rise in price in all commodities. As most of the wages did not increase accordingly and with the average salary still around $100, celebrating Valentine's Day seems a luxury for most Syrians.
"Last year, with mortars falling all around the city and battles in the suburbs still going on, our work was almost dead even in seasons such as the New Year or Valentine's Day," said Ibrahim, one of the local shop owners. "This year is a bit better but people still prefer to spend their money on basics such as food and health. They always come and ask for discounts and I try my best just to keep my work going."
In other parts of the city such as Shaalan and Abou Rummaneh, considered the richest neighbourhoods in central Damascus and the hubs for luxury goods, prices rise for some gifts and those who wish to celebrate Valentine's Day pay tens of dollars for good presents.
"It's only a few days till Valentine's Day and not many buyers are entering my shop," said a shop assistant in a gifts shop in Shaalan. preferring not to give his name. "But we can't complain or expect more sales. We're still going through a war that affects all aspects of our lives."
Is it really a time for celebrations?
In the city centre and around it from February 1st, restaurants and bars started announcing Valentine's Day evening parties. Some are hosting parties with well-known Arab singers whilst others have only a DJ or bands. The wealthiest families in the city make their reservation early, with the cost ranging between $50 and $150 per person.
"Most places for our Valentine's party are reserved by now and we expect more people to book in the next few days," said Rania, a woman who works in one of the biggest hotels in Damascus. She considers this very normal as people still need to celebrate love and forget about all the tragedies of the war. "We can't ask Syrians to stop their lives--on the contrary, we look for any opportunity to forget all the violence and brutality we've experienced in the past years."
But with the war in Syria entering its ninth year, celebrating Valentine's Day does not seem reasonable for many in the country.
"How can we have such celebrations and spend huge amounts of money while the majority of Syrians are living in poverty and some of them don't even have homes to live in?" said Mariam, a 35-year-old woman who works for a private company.
"We do need love in our country but we need it to build Syria again and to bring divided people together, not to have noisy parties, while in the next street there are families in dire need of the most basic things. I think we need another type, a new type of love here," the woman added.