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Syrian Actor Bassem Yakhour’s Tour of Damascus Shows Extent of Currency Collapse

Syrian Actor Bassem Yakhour’s Tour of Damascus Shows Extent of Currency Collapse

Monday, 22 February, 2021 - 08:15
Actor Bassem Yakhour tours the streets of Damascus. (YouTube screengrab)

Syrian actor Bassem Yakhour toured last week the streets of Damascus to demonstrate the extent of the collapse of the local currency after 10 years of war.

In a humorous video posted on his YouTube channel, the actor said he would challenge himself and his film crew to buy a grilled meat sandwich with only 1,000 pounds. He then embarked on a tour of local markets to determine what 1,000 pounds would buy him today.

Before the war, 1,000 pounds traded for some 21 dollars, but now it’s worth no more than a third of a dollar.

Yakhour said that before the war, 1,000 pounds would have bought a kilo of meat, with vegetables and fruits. It would have been enough for a family to spend comfortably and prepare two to three days-worth of food. What about today?

As he toured the markets, viewers could not help but notice that the actor was sporting an expensive watch, worth thousands of dollars. “Why bother wondering what 1,000 pounds can buy when you are wearing such an expensive watch?” asked one.

At the Salhiyah market, Yakhour remarked that 1,000 pounds wasn’t enough to buy decent men’s cotton underwear. The cheapest he could find cost 3,500 pounds. Before the war, a cotton blend underwear would have cost around 100-300 pounds, while 400-600 pounds, or 8-12 dollars, would have bought the customer the best quality available. An excellent quality bra would have cost 150 pounds before the war, while now the price has skyrocketed to 8,000 pounds.

Clothes vendors said that prices now are much cheaper than before the war, if counted in dollars. Now, as they struggle to cope, the spike in prices has led to a drop in quality to meet the people’s purchasing power. Finding an item of clothing for 1,000 pounds is almost impossible, they said, noting that even before the war cheap polyester socks would have cost that much. Yakhour’s tour showed that 1,000 pounds would now buy a paltry five walnuts or an ear of boiled or grilled corn.

A thousand pounds is not even enough to buy traditional sweets from the Shaalan market. The price of 200 grams of knefe or madlouka starts at 1,100 pounds, Yakhour found out. He did manage to find two sandwiches that cost 800 pounds: The famed wrap from Bisan, although they are hardly filling.

Standing before a display of smuggled biscuits, Bakhour did not even bother to ask about their prices (3,000 pounds a packet). A local selection of biscuits can be bought for 1,000 pounds.

Yakhour dared to head to a famous shop known for selling western sweets. Confiding with viewers that he was expecting to be kicked out for asking if it sells cakes for a 1,000 pounds, he was surprised to learn that he could buy small pastries for 1,000 apiece. A slice of cake starts at 1,200 pounds.

For vegetables and fruits, the actor headed to the old al-Hal market, which sells produce at prices 30 percent cheaper than other parts of the capital. There, he bought the ingredients for his grilled sandwich: potatoes and onions at a cost of 850 pounds. He then headed to a gas station to buy some diesel – enough to fill a small teacup. The owners gladly sold it to him for free.

Yakhour then gathered some wood from a field on the outskirts of Damascus, lit a fire and grilled his potatoes and onions, before wrapping them up in a sandwich, winning the challenge. The crew dismissed his claim, with Yakhour jokingly replying: “Did you expect me to invite you to meaty meal worth 1,000 pounds?”

The war has deprived the Syrian people of countless things, including a kilo of goat meat, which now sells at 30,000 pounds or half the monthly salary of a state employee.

The pound sank to a new record low on Sunday with a scramble for dollars in a country hit by sanctions and facing a severe foreign currency crunch, dealers and bankers said.

Traders said it cost as much as 3,450 Syrian pounds to buy 1 dollar on the street on Sunday, more than 18% lower than the end of last month.

Its last freefall was last summer when it hit the psychological barrier of 3,000 to the dollar over fears tougher US sanctions would worsen the country’s dire economic plight.

One leading Damascus-based licensed exchange dealer said the dollar had been rising with demand that far exceeded supply after months of relative stability in the 2,500 range.

Also squeezing the inflow of dollars has been a financial crisis in neighboring Lebanon where billions of dollars held by Syrian businessmen were frozen by its hard-hit banks, businessmen and bankers say.

Lebanon’s financial sector has for decades been a safe haven for leading Syrian businessmen and also firms associated with the government who used some of its banks to circumvent sanctions to import raw materials.

The country has been forced to reduce subsidies on fuel and conserve foreign currency for essential imports, businessmen say.

The collapse of the currency has driven up inflation as Syrians struggle to afford food, power and other basics.

Bankers say although the central bank vowed last week to intervene to prop up the collapsing currency, it is reluctant to support the currency in order to protect its scarce remaining foreign reserves. They were estimated at $17 billion before the 10-year conflict began.

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