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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Blogger slartibartfast said...

An Amazing Orientalist in the worst Edward Said formulation.

Syria is a "police state" that practices torture, etc.

Would you be prepared to label the US, my country as such, since we do exactly what the Syrians we are informed do....

If your affection to those who deprived the Palestinians of food and shelter and others of resources and opportunities, is sooooooo deep, don't you think this will impinge on your 'development' work? I would say so, because your references to the Syrian people reads of some sort of a genetic deformity.... to the extent that you express your surprise at their desire to live a normal life.

I would say this is the kind of a White Man who is trying locate a burden... and cannot find it! A kind that is no longer required, as heralded by the not-so-white President we have in the US.

6:27 AM  

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