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quickly noticed is that the omnipresent pictures of Hafez al-Asad, Syria’s former president, have for the most part not been replaced by pictures of the current president, Bashar.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.


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