Saturday, April 26, 2008 

Explosive claims

But what's behind it?

Claims that Syria was trying to build a nuclear reactor with North Korean help tell us more about the US than they do about Syria.

There's nothing new here. These accusations were leveled when Israel destroyed a building in Syria with an air raid last September. Now the US has produced photographic 'evidence' and given it to the UN nuclear agency. But they're not happy - the IAEA is furious at the delay in handing these photos over.

So why the delay? Look at the timing. It comes on the day America is about to finish negotiating with North Korea. And it comes two days after Israel revealed it was willing to return the whole Occupied Golan Heights in return for a peace treaty with Syria.

It is the biggest news story in the west about Syria for many many years. But even the right-wing media seem sceptical. The Colin Powell Iraqi WMD presentation has had an effect.

There is speculation even on the BBC (which normally steers away from comment in news pieces) that this nuclear 'revelation' is an attempt by Dick Cheney, and the neo-con regime remnants to undermine Bush.

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.

Sunday, April 20, 2008 

The Destruction of the Old City - part three *Exclusive*

In Amara, the destruction was avoided, in Medhat Pasha renovation is underway - but in Saroujah, the argument goes on. Official documents show a decision is going to be made by the end of the year - a generation after the controversy began.

Saroujah holds a special place in my heart. I named my blog after the area - it is MY Damascus. And I get incredibly defensive when it is threatened. But Saroujah is defined by the threat of destruction. For thirty years, plans to destroy Saroujah - not renovate it - have hung over this area.

Saroujah is an odd case. It is just outside the city walls (you can see the Umayid Mosque in the background - below), but because it is hundreds of years old, it comes under the remit of the Old City renovation authorities.

Souq Saroujah - the Saddlemakers' Market - is concentrated around one thin road of the same name. The Mosque (below) and Hamam (the dome in the picture above) are at the centre of the community.

But not many people live in Saroujah any more. Thirty years ago, the Damascus authorities started evicting residents, to build ugly modern tower blocks for the booming population.

Work to get rid of the old houses, and put up tower blocks, started in the south-west corner of Saroujah. But this modern corner of Saroujah isn't all bad - the pure-white French Cultural Centre (the CCF) is a work of art. It was designed by French architect José Oubrerie in the 1980s, and looks as fresh today as it did two decades ago.

The remaining residents knew their houses would be next. But as suddenly as the work started, it stopped again. Many old Saroujans are some of the city's richest people. And with wealth comes power. They weren't going to let their area fall victim to modernisation. A temporary halt was placed on the demolition.

But with the threat of eviction hanging over them, no-one was going to waste money repairing a house which could be seized. So they let their houses fall into disrepair.

And gradually they moved out - ironically, many went to the modern European-style flats in the neighbouring Ayn Kirsh, just to the north of Saroujah.

But recently, the organisation which looks after the Old City - and works well with the European Union to do it - has taken over responsibility for Saroujah. So is a change in Saroujah's fortunes in store?

In the past few months, they have re-paved part of the area (with far less inconvenience than in Medhat Pasha).

So does this mean destruction is no longer on the cards?

Documents released by the Old City modernisation authorities show that they are going to make a decision on the future of Saroujah by the end of this year.

They are already looking into the legality of the 'evictions', which are still officially 'on hold'. Hopefully they will say that there is no legal basis to the idea.

It is the Old City authorities - not the Muhafaza (Damascus City Council) - which is responsible for Saroujah now. They have a very different set of priorities - renovation and protection - not destruction and modernisation.

So hopefully, the news at the end of the year will be good. For Saroujah's sake.

Sunday, April 13, 2008 

The destruction of the Old City - part two

So Amara was saved. But in the south of the Old City something nasty is happening.

The busiest road within the city walls has been closed for the past year, as it is ripped to pieces. Walk along Medhat Pasha - called Straight Street in the Bible - and bulldozers are tearing up the ground, and look to your left and right to see the shops being gutted.

Essentially, a new Medhat Pasha is being built.

Whenever I walk along there, I am staring at the ground - trying not to trip over the rubble. Looking up at the roof is not an option. But maybe you should.

The tin roofs over Medhat Pasha and Souq Al-Hamidiyeh date from the Ottoman refurbishment of the main Souqs. During the insurgency against the French occupation, they were punctured by gunfire. And they've remained that way for almost one hundred years. The shafts of sunlight which pierce into the dark souqs are blindingly beautiful, and a daily reminder of Syria's struggle for independence.

But the centuries-old black Medhat Pasha roof, which was decorated by history, has been replaced by a new white one.

Here it is six months ago, with the old roof.

Of course, the Old City can't survive on memories. It needs to be renovated to keep living. But the Old City is heaving under the weight of the bulldozers which have been brought in.

Early on in the work, the digging destroyed a much-loved bar at the eastern end, Abu George. Metal rods now hold up the neighbouring buildings to stop more walls collapsing.

The cobbled stones on the ground have been laid along parts of the road - only to be ripped up for a second time. Shoppers and shop-owners compete for space with the workmen. The shops are still open - life can't be put on hold.

It's not just the exteriors that are being brought into the 21st century - all of the shops are being refitted. The authorities are paying for them to be gutted and refurbished. A similar scheme improved the tourist souq alongside the Omayed Mosque a few years ago.

Damascus is a living city, not a museum piece. So as much as work like this is disruptive, it is vital. When the dust settles - and there is a lot of it - a new Medhat Pasha will emerge. One in keeping with its glorious history, but fit for life in the twenty-first century.

Next week, in part three - official documents hint that a thirty-year-old plan to force residents out of one of the oldest parts of Damascus - and build tower-blocks - could be put into action within months.

Saturday, April 12, 2008 

Syria tries to make it into the World Cup

Wonderful article on Syria's footballing dream - from reaching the Asian Champions League final two years ago (that was Al Karama) to making it into the World Cup.

How the money men ended Syria's military approach to football
The Guardian, UK
James Montague
April 10, 2008 12:54 PM

" But five years ago the army's power was challenged by an unlikely source. The Syrian FA decided that enough was enough. Syrian football was going pro and if Al Jaish wanted to take any clubs' players then they'd have to pay for them. It was a brave, and rare, move in a country where dissent isn't often tolerated. ...

"More than 80% of Damascus used to support the army club," Toufik Sarhan, the FA's general secretary, told me. "But now many of the clubs are as good as Al Jaish, if not better, because we made the league professional. Rich men started to support their clubs. Football is much better now." ...

The next day's game involving Damascus' new No1 team Al Wehda and basement club Al Horriya showed just how unpopular Al Jaish have become, as 20,000 fans screamed throughout an end-to-end encounter, Al Wehda eventually winning 3-2 after being 2-1 down. The fans sung and taunted the opposition with cries of "kis akh tek Horriya" (Horriya, go fuck your sister) as they took the lead at the last. "Al Jaish are hated," 20-year-old Ali, a Wehda fan, told me. "When you're 20 they come and, bzzzz, shave your head. But if you sign for Al Jaish, they don't shave your head, you don't have to serve. And there's wasta. They have all this money and the referee always gives them the decisions, for sure." "

Full article here.

Thursday, April 10, 2008 

Signs of change in Damascus

It caused controversy when it first went up. A massive billboard was installed a few years ago at the entrance to Souq Al-Hamidiyeh, one of the city's key tourist sites.

It was a shot of the Syrian flag. But it seems like it had been copied and pasted directly from a Syrian blogger's work.

Last October, I watched as the flag was finally taken down, to be replaced by a picture of the President, and the words 'Syria believes in you'.

And now, as Arab Summit got into full swing in Damascus, I get another shock. A huge poster celebrating the event went up.

Saturday, April 05, 2008 

The destruction of the Old City - part one

Who said civil society can't have an impact in Damascus.

Plans to destroy decades old shops in Amara caused outrage last year. It was all in the name of progress - knock-down the shops, and widen the road. That would mean less traffic in the Old City. But critics said it would damage the city walls.

(Bab Al-Faradis, Amara, Damascus)

It was part of a grand scheme to eventually ban traffic from the whole of the Old City. But that can't be done until there is an alternative - at the moment, the roads outside the northern city walls are chaotic.

Shopkeepers were furious at the plans, a Facebook and Blogger campaign was launched. That led to a petition. And eventually journalists got wind of the proposals and it made the international news. Then the bombshell - just months before Damascus began its year as Arab Capital of Culture, UNESCO threatened to withdraw Damascus's World Heritage Site status unless more is done to protect the Old City.

Quietly, the plans were dropped - thirty years after they first surfaced. Victory for the Old City. Although the net has stayed very quiet about the change of plan.

It seems the price to pay is that traffic isn't going to be banned from the Old City - and that could end up being far more damaging than the Amara proposals.

On the other side of the Old City, something equally destructive has been happening for the past year - more on that soon.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008 

Residents rebel in Gemmayze

Residents in the newly hip eastern Beirut district of Gemmayze have taken the law into their own hands.

A group of up to one hundred people blocked the street on Saturday in protest at the constant partying. The army was called into the area to disperse the crowd.

Many of the elderly residents are angry that their quiet residential area has become the hottest nightspot in town over the past couple of years.

I thought it was just a little kerfuffle over a broken window. Many of the people gathered in the street looked like nosey passers-by to me (yes, yes, I am included in that group!).

Mustapha reports that Lebanon's Tourism Minister Joe Sarkis wants to close down at least twenty pubs. But is it just an idle threat? Would a Lebanese Forces minister really dare to rile so many young people in the LF heartland? Or will he leave the situation alone, and anger many older LF supporters?

About me

  • 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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