Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Which way you gonna go?

The Middle East, and maybe the world, suffers from a kind of schizophrenia. This picture below epitomizes two major visions driving people in the region.

On the left side you have icons of modern Arab pop culture, such as Amr Diab, Tamer Hosny and Nancy Ajram. On the right you have Nasrallah and the symbols of Hizbollah. The thing is that these symbols and icons are often not contradictory, in that people frequently incorporate both into their beliefs and identity.

In many ways these icons are polar opposites. The pop music and video industry trades in images of a life most people can never live, of fast cars, big houses, sexy women and stylish men. The videos and stars are often accused of corrupting the minds of the society, much like the Christian right in the US says. The Nasrallah and Hizbollah images trade in the culture of resistance, pride and violence. It probably respresents a reality that people here experience much more directly, because even those who don't live under occupation, feel profoundly and directly affected by it. Christians in Lebanon will praise Nasrallah. Secular Sunni women in Syria will have Hizbollah key chains clipped on their purses.

It is much like the modern form of hijab, or the head scarf, that predominates much of the Middle East. So many girls who cover their heads, then also wear as much make-up as Tammy Fae Baker with pants, shirts or skirts as tight as you could imagine. They are doing the absolute minimum society expects of "good girls", while wearing as little or as tight as they can get away with. They want to live and look like Nancy Ajram, but still be respected by Nasrallah.

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Saturday, March 17, 2007

A day in Syria

There is no doubt that Syria is still a police state. Joshua Landis has a good post today on how the government treats Kurds in Syria, and you can find numerous reports of other ways the government abuses the human rights of its citizens. But be that as it may, there are forces inside the government who are trying to find ways to allow more room for its citizens to organize and open up more to the outside world. It was never Saddam Hussein's Iraq, and nor is it Hafez al-Asad's Syria.

I won't belabor the rights issue here, not because it isn't important, but because others have done so much more effectively. I'm just going to talk about what I saw while I was there. So again, yes it is a police state, and yes there is torture, and yes they host and support groups like Hamas, Hizbollah and Islamic Jihad. But the country is much more diverse than the simple stereotypes most people already know from the news, and Syrians themselves deserve a much better exposition of what their country is really like.

Syria is in many ways much like any other country. It has regular people who are just trying to make a living and raise a family. Although the political opening that many Syrians hoped for when Bashar Asad took power from his father never materialized, there has been more promising developments on the economic front. The economic liberalization has largely benefited a few elite families, there is no doubt that others are doing better too, as evidenced by the large number of designer stores, sharp restaurants and the gleaming new Four Seasons hotel.

There is no end to the historical and cultural places you can visit, and just wandering the streets of Old Damascus, Baramka, Abu Rummaneh, Sha'lan and al-Maliki is pleasent enough in itself. Here's a video of a busy corner in Abu Rummaneh to give you a sense of the place. I hope to figure out how to embed these videos soon, but until then you'll have to just follow the link if you want to watch.

Some of the more interesting things I stumbled upon was a institute for teaching arts at the Ministry of Culture. The ministry building is actually really nice, done in a somewhat artistic style! I saw a couple people wandering around inside, so I walked in and started looking at the architecture. I heard bits and pieces of piano music coming from one of the window, and as I got closer started to hear voices. It seemed like there were a lot of people inside so I figured I’d go see if anything was happening.

Sure enough, when I got to the entrance the place was full of people. I tried to ask the guard what was going on, but he assumed I was talking something other than Arabic, so he asked a guy standing there to find out what I wanted. The guy started speaking in somewhat broken English, and then baby Arabic. I was like, just speak normally, but he clearly wanted to practice his English so I entertained him for a while.

Anyway, turns out this was some kind of advanced arts institute, and the fourth year students were giving the final performance of the year, a play by a Russian playwrite called the Qirmizi Island? The guy's name was too long to remember. Anyway, a couple of the second and third year students befriended me and so I joined them to watch their friends perform. The play was decent, about a theatre troupe trying to put on a play in the Soviet Union, and the fear and power of the censor at the Ministry of Oversight, or something. It was pretty good and I saw it as in part a veiled critique of the Syrian government itself, which was suprising to me.

That's all I've got time for today. I'll send some other updates as soon as I can.

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Monday, March 12, 2007

Coming to Syria

Syria has changed in the past 15 years. Last time I was here was 1993, and there is a noticeable difference, at least on a superficial level. As I’m here for only a few days, and most of that will be work related, my impressions will have to be superficial, but you can really feel a difference here.

The change is most apparent at the border. When I used to come the customs people were rough, rude and generally unhelpful. They fit perfectly the stereotype of what you would expect from employees of a police state. This time people smiled, joked and talked. In some offices they have music videos playing, with Nancy Ajram, Haifa, and Elisa singing and shaking as you change money or buy the ever present stamps that let you do whatever official business you have to do. No wonder these customs guys are happier.

What is with the magical stamp business in Arab countries anyway? For any official document you want processed you have to go to a little kiosk to buy stamps. Stamps are the oil on which Arab bureaucracy seems to run. Anyway it couldn’t have taken more than 20 minutes to get through the border this time, whereas in the past it seemed to take hours.

Both the Jordanian and Syrian side of the border now also have beautiful duty free shops! I don’t even think there was a duty free store in Syria before. Maybe there was, but it was so insignificant that I forgot it completely. But now it is like a huge department store, with the latest tvs, phones, appliances, designer clothes and watches. It seems that consumer society has crept into the Syrian state too. This seems to hold true somewhat for Damascus too. I think all they used to have is old Soviet-bloc style consumer goods and stores. It seems there’s a lot more variety and better quality cars and goods in Syria these days. Bashar’s economic reforms seem to be having at least some effect.

Another thing I quickly noticed is that the omnipresent pictures of Hafez al-Asad, Syria’s former president, have for the most part not been replaced by pictures of the current president, Bashar. Arab states are also known for displaying pictures of the leader in every office official building. Syria used to take this practice to an extreme. The man’s pictures were everywhere. It was oppressive. I swear. You really felt you were in a “big brother” type police state when you entered. The leader was everywhere, glowering down at you, watching you, even knowing what you thought. Bashar’s pictures are there, as are some of Hafez’s. But it’s nothing compared to how Hafez was EVERYWHERE. Bashar is there now too, but not even as much as King Abdullah's picture is in Jordan. Bashar clearly is trying to downplay the leader-worship thing.

In the center of the city another thing you quickly notice is the enormous Four Season’s hotel. Syria used to have a couple of nice hotels, but they were run like a Soviet bureaucracy too. The facilities were less then impressive and the staff also rude and unhelpful. Not that I’m staying at the Four Seasons! My employer doesn’t pay for that kind of spoiling. The neighboring streets also seem to have changed. There are numerous little stylish restaurants and cafes to go to, filled with legions of sharp and well-dressed youth of Syria’s middle class. I'm sitting in a pretty cool little cafe, with Green Day playing while I work on wireless internet. I don’t remember there being many such places before.

So again, these changes may be pretty superficial, and part of it may be because I’ve changed. When I came here before I was a student, and would go stay in flea-bag hotels and visit the historic sites I had read about during my studies. I’ve done the five-dollar a night transient worker hotel thing and I’m just not there anymore. I like to have clean sheets and don’t want to get dysentery from eating from street carts anymore. It’s really not so much fun.

But I think it’s more that some things have changed in Syria. For sure some things have not changed, and I’ll post more about that later. But at least on some levels it seems more open and modern then when I last came, and felt the ever present eyes of the state watching me. I don't doubt they're still there watching, but they take breaks to watch Haifa every once in a while.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007


Ha ha!! I looked at my old posts and saw I had all kinds of comments I never read. I thought, "wow, people started looking at my posts, I've got fans I didn't respond to!" Turns out most of them are spam advertisements.

That never seemed to happen before, so I have to wonder if it's because I've written some posts that are mildly critical of the US and Israel. Such harrasment by their most ardent supporters comes with the territory, which is why I'm suspicious. It's no fun dealing with Middle East political issues sometimes. You feel like you have to watch every word you say for how it will be parsed by some asshole who happens to be offended and then used against you to destroy your reputation and job prospects at some future date. And then there's the routine harrasment of hate mail. They try to chase critics from the feild so they can monopolize the discussion.

So I've now restricted comments to only registered members until I can figure out how to moderate comments.

I'm back

For some reason I'm reinspired to start writing again. Maybe it's because I no longer have a car 24/7. It's amazing how much difference walking around a city can make. I used to basically drive my car to work in the morning, sit at my desk almost all day and drive home. That doesn't leave a hell of a lot to write about.
It's kind of good to be out of the car, it somehow puts me more into the flow of life around me. I talk to a lot more people and notice a lot more things happening around the city. Just the other day I rode in a taxi with a guy who was reading and memorizing Quran as he drove! We got into an interesting conversation about religion, with him trying to convince me to be a more committed Muslim and me trying to convince him to get his head out of the clouds and lighten up. I haven't had one of these conversations in a long time. I got tired of them a long time ago and generally have tried to avoid them as often as possible. But this guy was interesting, and at least I could see him thinking about what I said, which is more than most of these kinds of guys do.
He was a total stereotype of a modern "Islamist". Up until 5 years ago he didn't even pray. Now he reads Quran as he drives, prays every prayer in the mosque and spends the first three hours of the day memorizing Quran in the mosque. I guess that's admirable on some level, but I know the type. They're looking for answers, they get cornored by these religious fundamentalist types who give them all the answers they're looking for and draw people into a brainless cult-like group of people who do nothing but think about religion all day. He should spend that three hours a day with his kids instead. When we were arguing about the difference between "people of the book", basically Christians and Jews, and "deniers" or kuffar, he called his friend to help him remember why people of the book are considered kuffar. I told him he shouldn't rely on his friends for answers but use his brain instead. That didn't go over so well.
Anyway, it's been about six months since I've posted anything here. There's lots of reasons for that, not least of which is I just got way too busy. Another is that I didn't really like my own blog. It was too dry and there is better analysis on the web anyway, so why would anyone want to read it. So now I'm just going to write about what I see around me more, without trying to think to much about it, because oftentimes thinking is just way over rated.