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Thursday, April 24, 2008 

Damascus in words

It's not often a description of Damascus captures me completely. But Qunfuz has done it. This deserves to be published.

If you have never been to Damascus - read this, it will take you there.

If you love Damascus but you're not there - read this, it will take you home.

If you're in Damascus - read this, it will make you cry, then go out into the street and give the city a big hug.

"Damascus certainly deserves cultural capital status more than some cities that have held the title in previous years. After Beirut and Cairo, Damascus has the best bookshops in the Arab world. Syria has always boasted an impressive range of poets and musicians, and produces TV dramas which are of much higher quality than the Egyptian competition. Its taxi drivers can recite classical and contemporary poetry. Its pop singers sing Nizar Qabbani, the most influential and best loved modern Arab poet. Damascus is a city in which your host is likely to serenade you with his lute after dinner. And it is, as the tourism ministry likes to repeat, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world."


The full piece is here: Cultural Capital.

Sasa,

Thank for pointing out Qunfuz's post. It is another gem of piece as only Qunfuz could have composed.

I usually appreciate Qunfuz's posts and always republish them on the net, but this one is highly idealistic and romanticized that it hardly reflects the truth about Syria. Most of the Syrian bloggers who write in English are expats and their posts reflect their very dispositions than Syria itself.
I know that Syrian expats miss Syria and long to belong to it, but they damage it once they idealize it. They shouldn't be writing about Syria, but about their longing to it, or imagined one.

It clearly says "for tourists" at the top. People living in Syria can idealise their city too, not just those on the outside. Qunfuz's post is deliberately poestic and romaticised. That doesn't detract at all from the picture he painted.

I don't think Qunfuz was aiming for objectivity. Everyone's writing about Syria represents their dispositions - even you. No-one has a claim on a 'more real' Syria than anyone else.

Sasa, it is unquestionable that people "can" do and write whatever they wish to, but, their discourse should be clear that they are writing what they're writing "as" expats, not as inhabitants of damascus. The difference between an expat and an inhabitant is that while the former's memory is full with "experiences", the latter's is "looking" for an idealized memory to live in an exotic place like Damascus.

Qunfiz's post is touristic, hence its audience is both of the syrian expats like yourself, and of tourists as well. not sure if I lived in Beirut for three years with monthly visits to Damascus would make me an expat. while you and some syrian bloggers "visit" damascus, i actually "lived" in it. That's why i find this idealism and romanticism offensive to me "if" it suggests "true" image of Damascus. You cannot say Qunfiz's post is a "description of Damascus". It is a "description" of himself in Damascus. That's more authentic and honest. To Damascus, and to your readers.

This comment is addressed to you, I have a post in mind in response to Qunfuz.

and i wouldn't entitle the post as "Damascus in words", but "Damascus in Syrian Expts' minds".

This comment has been removed by the author.

Guys honestly, what a waste of time this debate is. Qunfuz wrote a great post, he clearly labelled it as for tourists and he wasn't saying anything wrong, cliched perhaps but not wrong.

Razan, I disagree with what you say. What makes you think you are "more Syrian" than people who have had to make a living abroad? As if that disqualifies them from writing about their own country. Please, I'm sure we could all direct our energy to something more productive.

wassim, i read your comment and i have nothing to say as it offers no points whatsoever.

A bit like this discussion ;)

Guys, guys,

Please don't tear eachother apart! There is an important argument here.

Razan's view is interesting - she does have a valid point which I wholeheartedly disagree with. And it opens on to something much bigger... the right of expatriates to be part of their home country's "civil space".

I wrote about it here: http://saroujah.blogspot.com/2007/11/outsiders.html

And I clearly said that Outsiders have a warped view of the motherland. BUT - and this is a massive 'but' Razan - that doesn't mean their opinion is any less valuable.

The thing which annoys me the most is that there is some assumption that Insiders have access to some objective "truth" about their country.

Living in Damascus doesn't make your view any more neutral. It is coloured by experience just as much as Qunfuz's is coloured by sentiment.

Razan, you talk about a "true" Damascus - is your writing "true"? No, of course not, it is "your" Damascus - remember how you once wrote about our "Damascuses".

Yes, I agree Qunfuz's post is a description of himself in Damascus. But you must accept that yours is also a description of yourself in Damascus. Just as mine are as well (notice the change in tone when I am posting from Damascus, compared to when I am posting from London).

Now that's what I call a comment, Wassim you should try it sometimes, it's cool.

Sasa says: "Razan's view is interesting - she does have a valid point which I wholeheartedly disagree with. And it opens on to something much bigger... the right of expatriates to be part of their home country's "civil space"."

I say: my point was not suggesting that expatriates do not have the right to be part of their "homeland" (please cite me where I said that). What I am saying is that while anyone can say whatever, anyone as in expats, tourists and insiders, their rhetoric should NOT suggest facts and truth. You cannot say "this" is the description of Damascus or "Damascus in words" but perhaps "this is what I have noticed, as a visitor" or whatever-you get the point. Or else you'll be misleading yourself and your readers. What I am saying is that we should take our posts, blogging, and language seriously. Accurately. And so we should take our reading to posts and comments, seriously.

Your blog is often critical to the western media's terminologies towards the middle east, you shouldn't be doing the same by linking to an expat's idealized and romanticized post and entitling your post as "Damascus in words" and introduce the post with "the description of Damascus". You say that you know you are introducing a romanticized picture of Damascus yet your presentation is self-righteous, not self-conscious that you and Qunfiz are expats.

The western media present its rhetoric "as" facts, and as "the" middle east. That's why the new media, which blogging is part of, is trying to provide an alternative middle east written and reported by its inhabitants not by imported so called journalists. Expats should be self-conscious that their visits to Damascus are "visits", and their reading to Damascus during these visits may or may not present the truthful image. And so far, every single post I read written by an expat Syrian blogger is romanticized and untruthful of Damascus, except Rime for that matter. That's because she is not a reactionary blogger or a journalist, her criticism of the western media is different from the rest, in my humble opinion.

Insiders as well, and according to their locations and internal dislocations do vary in their readings to Damascus or to Syria. But their readings as they vary, are different AND not in the same way from that of that expatas'. This is a bit complex idea and I wish to write about it this weekend. So bare with me on this now.

Sasa says: "that doesn't mean their [expats] opinion is any less valuable."

Again Sasa, please cite me where did I say that.

Sasa says: "the thing which annoys me the most is that there is some assumption that Insiders have access to some objective "truth" about their country."

Again, cite my words.

Sasa says: "Living in Damascus doesn't make your view any more neutral. It is coloured by experience just as much as Qunfuz's is coloured by sentiment."

Razan says: again?

Sasa: "Razan, you talk about a "true" Damascus - is your writing "true"? No, of course not, it is "your" Damascus - remember how you once wrote about our "Damascus"."

You said it yourself, I did say it is "my" Damascus, not "the description of Damascus." And I did entitle my post as "my imagined city".

Sasa: "Yes, I agree Qunfuz's post is a description of himself in Damascus. But you must accept that yours is also a description of yourself in Damascus. Just as mine are as well (notice the change in tone when I am posting from Damascus, compared to when I am posting from London)."

That's what I am saying. But your terminology and that of Qunfiz's does not imply what you're saying. You are presenting "the description" of "the" Damascus, not yours. You should be implying what you're saying.

I really don't understand what the problem is here. You want a disclaimer at the top of every post I make saying: "warning, this is just MY view of Syria"?

I think most readers are intelligent enough to assume that.

You seem to be caught on this idea that Outsiders have a view of Syria which is coloured by their Outsideness.

Razan says: "Insiders as well, and according to their locations and internal dislocations do vary in their readings to Damascus or to Syria."

So location is the only thing which affects their view of Syria? No, of course not. It is much more highly affected by experiences. You really don't seem to accept this? Or do you?

No-one has a "truth" about Syria. And I find it patronising to assume that Insiders have that truth while Outsiders don't. You call for me to cite examples - this is the IMPLICATION of what you're saying. So deny it if you don't believe it.

Razan, you're well aware and first hand of what I'm capable of if I want to make a point. Like Sasa, I don't really understand where the problem is and what motivates you to write an essay in the poor mans comment section. It just seems like an exercise in intellectual navel gazing. Then again what do I know, I fail to meet your stringent requirements of "Syrianicity" :)

Hi. I'm from Canada and I find the blog interesting. But I'm trying to get in touch with someone in Syria by e-mail, but I can't find an e-mail address anywhere on this site! Please contact me at johnsthorne@hotmail.com. It would be much appreciated.

Thank you.

Sasa - Thanks for linking to my blog. It seems you've brought your readers with you.

I'm sorry that I've upset Razan. I see her point, but don't see why I've upset her so much. I wrote a post in January called "Visiting Syria" which gives a much more critical account of my recent visit to the country. Here, as others have pointed out, I've written something directed at foreign tourists (although my readers so far seem to be Syrians!). I was recently reading an article about Syria in the travel section of the Daily Telegraph (UK) which also romanticised the place. The article was followed by comments by Syrian expats complaining that the country was a dictatorship and so it was a crime to write nice things about it (so you see, Razan, there are different kinds of expats). I must say I disagree with this. 90% of the media coverage of Syria in the West (and the Arab world!) is negative. Nobody thinks Syria is prosperous or democratic. It isn't necessary to bang this home. But Westerners have no problem visiting Egypt or Israel on holiday, countries with problems as great or greater than Syria.

There is also the issue of writers not being duty-bound to follow a 'correct' line. You'll find on my blog that sometimes I attack Islamists and sometimes I defend them (not Wahhabi-nihilists); sometimes I praise Hamas and sometimes criticise the organisation, same with the Syrian regime, and so on.

As for authenticity, I don't claim any. I happen to have a Syrian father. I also pontificate about Iraq, Palestine, the US, Egypt, without having any 'authentic' ties to these places.

Best wishes to all

I'm sorry for causing so much controversy Qunfuz!

We all read things we don't agree with. But if the blogosphere is really going to be a civil society space, then we shouldn't shoot each other down for giving a positive account when we'd prefer a critical one, or vice-versa.

I don't think Razan's point was with the content of your post (although may I be presumptuous to say she didn't agree with the content?), but with the fact that you don't happen to be in Syria right now.

To me, that argument is patronising. And it claims ownership of the debate. As if no-one in Syria would be stupid enough to write a positive account of Damascus. I completely disagree. For one, Sami Moubayed is a proud Syrian living in Damascus, and he writes eloquently and passionately about his city.

Authenticity is important - but it comes from other things than where you live.

Qunfuz,
thank you for your comment. unlike Sasa and wassim's, it really answered many of my worries and actually addressed every point i mentioned in my comments.
I will respond to your post anyway, and i will into consideration what you have presented here.
best wishes,
ps. i am not at all upset by you or by your post, but by the personal attacks launched on me by wassim, and by the constant misreading of my comments by Sasa. but this would be my last visit here since no one deserves to be challenged.

Razan may or may not read this, but I'm constantly astounded by her infantile response to anyone who dares voice a different opinion to hers, something she considers to be a personal attack. Anyway, each to their own. I suppose I should say good riddance but I know that Razan can sometimes come up with very relevant debates and she's also a really nice person. Sasa, I'm sorry if my comment triggered this quixotic attack on you.

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  • Written by sasa
  • From Damascus, Syria
  • From Damascus to London via Beirut. Based in and out of the central Damascene hamlet of Saroujah. News and feelings from the streets every day. I'm talking rubbish? Leave a comment. Welcome to the information democracy. See below for info about this site.
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