Friday, November 30, 2007 

The End of Israel - it's apartheid or nothing, says Olmert

Ehud Olmert: "If the two-state [bantustan] solution collapses, and we face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights, then the State of Israel is finished."

Wednesday, November 28, 2007 

Hariri militia in Lebanese gunfight

A group, described by the BBC as "a newly-formed group loyal to parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri" has been fighting an Islamist group in Tripoli.

But, but, but, I thought the fighting was over King Saad.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007 

Especially for Wassim

Yes, I concede, he beat me on this one.

But just for him, here is a wider shot of Damasco Bite that I took a while ago. The Syrian takeaway in east London, which deserves a full post, but I'm still reeling from the fact that he got there first!

London has just a handful of Syrians. Most Arabs in the capital are Palestinian, Iraqi, Lebanese and Egyptian. I know of just two Syrian restaurants here: Abu Zaad in west London, and Damasco Bite in the east. Except that Abu Zaad doesn't really count because although it claims to be Syrian, it is actually run by a motley collection of Lebanese, Moroccans and Egyptians.

Damasco Bite is different.

But while London might be lacking Syrians, Manchester is very different. The UK's second city has a large population of Aleppines. Mostly merchants, they moved to the city after the revolution, taking their money with them in fear their businesses would be confiscated. That's why Syrian Air and BA (until recently) have direct flights from Manchester to Syria - and why BA flew straight into Aleppo.


Not found


Has Amazon been blocked in Syria?

Anas is claiming that is now blocked in Syria (thanks Yazan). As Yazan comments: "Why would any regime block!! Unless people are exchanging secret *how to topple regime* advices through book reviews!"

It seems to be an incredibly random move, if it is confirmed. It comes a week after Facebook access was stopped. It seems someone has got hold of a list of the websites with the most hits, and is blocking them.

As Golaniya says about the Facebook decision, "I think they did not block Facebook–the-site, but the unfamiliar reaction to this site." In other words, it wasn't the content of the site that worries authorities, but the fact that people are becoming active and using something the authorities don't understand.

Could Facebook be the number one site in Syria? Quite possibly. And Amazon is probably pretty high up there too.

But are these bans working. Well, Idaf raises an interesting point. If this really was about stopping civil society, then they've just lost a brilliant opportunity to monitor the activities of all these people who - of course - are using their full real names on Facebook.


The Economist finally loses it

Right, As'ad, explain this*

Wassim first pointed it out, and I had to check the actual magazine cover in the shop. I couldn't believe that the Economist would go this far over the top. It is the most absurd cover I have ever seen. I really believed it was a spoof.

It must be the most blogged Economist cover in history. My favourite analysis is by Ahmed in Jordan - and he rarely even blogs about politics:

"It’s almost unbelievable. Here we are seven years later. Palestine in in shambles. Arafat is gone. Sharon is semi-dead. The Wall. Israel’s fortress mentality. Iraq drowning. Lebanon divided. A whole generation of Palestinians lost to violence and no hope."

(*The Angry Arab says he is a fan of The Economist - but he distances himself from its editorial, so maybe my top line isn't reallllllly fair!).

Sunday, November 25, 2007 

SNAP: Syria accepts US peace conference invitation

Syria accepts US invitation to Annapolis Peace Conference, sending Deputy Foreign Minister.


I'm never home

Sentimentality can be destructive. But I'm slowly learning how to make it work for me.

I'm a half-half - I have Arab blood and English blood. I have lived in London and Damascus, and I could never live without either of them. I consider them both as home.

When I'm in one, I miss the other like mad. But the two cities affect me in very different ways. Doing the LHR-DAM journey fills me with joy in the beginning, before London slowly works its way back into my thoughts.

Travelling in the opposite direction puts me into a trance which lasts weeks. I mourn my distant lover. I look forward to the night. Because in the night I sleep. And in my sleep I dream. And I can be sure that at least every two days Damascus will appear in my dream. It may not always be a good dream, it may even be mundane and dull. But at least it is a dream of Damascus.

After a few weeks, I start to live for London again.

It's just about reached that time where I'm getting excited about being in London. I've got a ton of things I want to do here: a Yemeni film festival, a Yemeni architecture exhibition, watch the Yacoubian Building (yes, yes, I still haven't seen it), see a screening about Algerian Jews, and go to the Arab Freedom Concert, get a pile of books from SOAS, and track down some Syrian DVDs.

You can often tell where I am by the nature of my posts.

When I'm in Damascus there are things I crave about London. SOAS, cinema, shopping, organisation.

In London I miss something more sensually fundamental about Damascus. Smells, sounds, tastes, views.

London is my friend, Damascus is my lover.

Friday, November 23, 2007 

SNAP SNAP SNAP: State of Emergency declared in Lebanon

Outgoing Lebanese President Emile Lahoud has declared a state of emergency, following the failure of the country's politicians to choose a successor.

This means that the army, led by Michel Suleiman, has taken control of ALL security agencies - including those currently run by the Government.

No-one predicted this scenario. What it essentially means is the (supposedly) neutral military is now running the country, because the Government has failed to do so.


The Danish newspaper cartoon controversy - part 2

Ok, not so much of a controversy, although some people might be offended by this.

The amazing Mazen Kerbaj is publishing a series of cartoons - simultaneously - in a Danish and Lebanese newspaper. The Danish paper is called 'The Information', and in Lebanon, it's appearing in Al Akhbar.

Here are a couple of quotes from a couple of his sketches:

"Everything is cheap here, cigarettes, alcohol, kalashikov."

"Censorship? Never? You can say whatever you's won't be censored. Maximum, you get killed."

The whole series can be found on Mazen's excellent blog.


On Facebook

I thought Golaniyah said it best, until I read Levantine Dreamhouse. I don't often find myself in the same position as Abu Kareem, but he sums up the pointlessness, and embarrassment of this whole situation better than I could have.

Thursday, November 22, 2007 

Poking the Arabs - Faisal al Yafai

Interesting piece by the Guardian's Yemeni journalist who used to live in Damascus.

"In Syria, jokes about the brutality of the army have faded since Bashar al-Assad came to power, because he has clamped down on the culture of immunity soldiers used to enjoy. Criticism of such excesses is now permitted, because they are framed in the context of the government not living up to its stated ambitions.

In fact, Assad is said to greatly enjoy jokes about the regime and gains kudos from ordinary Syrians because of it. It is a curious phenomenon: the head of a regime enjoying jokes about his own regime's apparatus. In other places this might be seen as arrogant, as if Assad were laughing at the people. But it isn't seen that way and one of the reasons it isn't is because Assad is not generally perceived as the architect of the regime, only the inheritor of it, and so Syrians can believe that their views of what is ridiculous about the system are shared by the president".

Wednesday, November 21, 2007 

Iraqis go home

Thank you very much to John Wreford for this amazing find.

As if the Syrian racism against Iraqi refugees isn't bad enough, now the Iraqi government is playing at it.

This is a flyer posted all over Sayida Zeinab:

Photo: John Wreford.

It reads:

"The Iraqi Ministry of Transport is operating secured journeys to Iraq - in modern air-conditioned vehicles, accompanied by 'protection' - for the Iraqi refugees to return to their country, free of charge.

The first journey will be on Monday 26 November 2007. To register, contact the Iraqi Trade Attache, in Mezzeh Sharqiyeh."

Not sure what the 'protection' they are offering includes? Armed guards?

Meanwhile, it's also reported Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki is offering Iraqi refugees in Syria $1200 to return home. Who can refuse that kind of money. And more importantly, can they turn that money down when their families need it so badly.

Many are living in a poverty they never knew they would face. Many spent their entire life savings to save up for the journey to Syria. Many risked their lives to make that journey.

But if their children are starving in Syria, how about saying - I'll take the money, travel to Iraq and get the first bus back. I'll be back soon.

Shame on Iraq, and on Syria for allowing this to happen.

Money in return for death. What a great deal.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007 

Breathing life into history

London and Paris are now just about as close as Damascus and Beirut.

The Eurostar train's launched a new service whizzing between the two world cities in just over two hours.

They've restored St Pancras station into one of London's most attractive buildings.

The attention to detail is incredible. Even the metalwork has been painted in exactly the same shade of blue as it was when the station opened 100 years ago.

When it opened, it was the largest enclosed space in the world. Now, it has the claim of being one of the most impressive.

And the romanticism isn't lost on this place. Stations are meeting places, scenes of rekindled love. That's why I love this sculpture. It reaches almost to the ceiling of the building. And it's in exactly the right spot to stare you in the face when you step off the train.

But seeing posters telling you Paris is two hours away doesn't really mean anything.

It's when you see hoards of people pulling suitcases.

It's when you hear French voices mingling with English ones.

It's when you see English staff speaking French.

It's when you realise you can spend Euros in (a tiny corner of) London.

That's when you realise Paris has arrived in London. The past and future working together.

I'm impressed that London has been able to restore this place. A few years ago they were threatening to demolish it. London doesn't respect its history, because it's been so obsessed with the future. I hope Damascus isn't going that way. But when I hear the Amara plans, it makes me worried.

So it's good news when private businesses restore Damascene houses in the Old City - more on that soon. And even better news when we hear that there are finally plans to restore the Hijaz station.

The back part is going to be turned into another shopping mall, with the front restored to its former glory - exactly what happened to St Pancras. It'll be great to give such a fantastic building a better use than just a book fair.


Bully boy

This is hilarious. This is a series of news flashes that have just come up on the news wires. All of the following happened within a seven minute period:





No you can't, no you can't. Ok then, go ahead, it sounds like a good idea.

Monday, November 19, 2007 

Syria and Jordan co-ordinate their strategies

I knew there had to be something more behind this visit than an agreement over prisoners and borders. So thanks to Norman for pointing it out.

Jordan's King Abdullah made a surprise visit to Damascus, his first in four years. And it comes just days before Arab leaders meet in Egypt to talk peace ahead of the Annapolis talks in the US.

This is definitely positive. Either Jordan and Syria are trying to forge a unified view between the two sides in the Arab world (i.e. the Syria-Hizbollah-Hamas axis versus the Saudi-US-Fatah-Israel-Jordan-Egypt axis) ... or Jordan is carrying some kind of message from the US begging them to attend the US peace talks.

Either way, it's good news.

Interesting to note that neither Jordan or Syria mentioned the peace talks following the surprise meeting, it was all about prisoners and border. Apparently.


King Abdullah in Damascus

The Jordanian one, that is.

It's Abdullah's first visit to Damascus for many years. Jordan and Syria have suffered from frosty relations, despite a positive start seven years ago. Both men come from similar backgrounds - a connection with Britain, they are similar ages, they both inherited their jobs.

Syria has agreed to release 250 Jordanian prisoners, and Jordan will investigate the border dispute. Both countries claim the other is currently on part of their land.

They've also been discussing Lebanon, where there's a stalemate over the choice of president.

They've also signed agreements on economic cooperation, water, and security.

Friday, November 16, 2007 

The Outsiders

Arabs make up one of the world's biggest exile groups.

Lebanese, Palestinians, Iraqis and Algerians have fled over the decades - and put down roots in places as diverse as South America, the US, the UK, Germany, Sweden and even Senegal.

And we don't just leave for political reasons, Arabs from countries not affected by war leave the region for economic reasons. Out of 20 million Yemenis, around 2 million live abroad.

But I'm interested in what happens to them when they leave - or when they grow up away from this place they call 'home'.

The easy option is to assimilate - to cut your ties. But most of us are far too stubborn for that. We're a bunch of flag waving, argumentative people. Even those who don't have an opinion seem to find one when presented with someone else's argument.

A large number of Arab exiles fled for political reasons. Many are opponents of ruling regimes. Look at the Iraqis in America. They disproportionately represented the Iraqi pro-war camp: if all these Iraqis want to topple Saddam by military means, who are we to disagree. Ahmed Chalabi led the camp - and did a very good job.

And when you are abroad - away from the situation you fled - it becomes a lot easier to oppose, and to call for catastrophic radical change. Because you won't be nearby when the bombs start falling.

The opposite is also true. Many Arabs who left for economic reasons attach a huge amount of sentimentality to 'home'. And any criticism of the ruling dictatorship is equated to criticism of the country. So what do we do - blindly defend injustice.

The biggest critics and defenders of Arab regimes are the exiles. The ones who won't be directly affected if the government falls, or if it stays. And the irony is, these people live in Washington, and New York and London and Paris. Their voices are heard by those who chose to topple or support our leaders.

Pictures: Politics and Nargileh - London's 'Arab Street', Edgware Road.

Sunday, November 11, 2007 

Jebl Qasiyoun

It was the first time I'd been to Qasiyoun alone. But that's ok. I'm male.
The mountain watches down over us through day and night, summer and winter.
A bright beige in the day, sparkly by night. And at this time of year, the clouds draw patterns on the slopes. Sometimes I stare up at the hill and wonder if the houses over there realise it's sunny on the other side of their neighbourhood.
I couldn't decide whether to walk to the top of Muhajireen, or just pay for a taxi to take me right to the very top, to the row of restaurants and cafes. So i started walking, and in a fit of indecision, jumped in a taxi.
The driver couldn't understand why I was going to Qasiyoun alone. Don't you have a girlfriend, he asked. He told me all about his family. He's from Homs, she's from Tartous. They've got two girls.
100 Lira later I was at the top. I started walking along the ridge. It was the first time I've been there alone, and the first time I've ever had the freedom to walk from end to end.
There weren't many people - and certainly not many in t-shirts. And that's even though it was sunset - Qasiyoun's most beautiful time of day.
I walked past the final restaurant, and past some cars with steamy windows - the mountain has a reputation.
I turned round because it was getting cold, and then, I spotted a couple. But everything wasn't right. He was older, much older. Suddenly she turned around and shouted "why are you walking behind me".
He turned around, sheepishly.
I couldn't stop thinking about it. Why was it alright for me to walk alone, but not for her. Ok, I do get hassled by kids selling chewing gum - but it's not the same.
I wished I'd said something to the man - shouted at him. Or to her. But then I might have added to her sense of threat.
Confused and disgusted, I jumped in a taxi to go back down.
He agreed to 100 Lira, and then started complaining about how cheap people expect the ride down from Qasiyoun to be. Someone wanted to pay 100 Lira to Hamidiyeh. 100 Lira, can you believe it. His grumble was only interrupted by the occasional shout out the window: "taxi?, wayn ryehh?"
Then he saw two girls: "taxi? it's free!"
I asked him what he thought he was doing, offering to give the girls a ride for free. He told me they were Moroccan. And prostitutes.
But they were just walking. They weren't doing anything to make him think they were prostitutes, apart from being women. And alone.
He told me he'd brought them up the hill before.
Yes, because where better to prostitute yourself than the empty Jebl Qasiyoun on a cold autumn night.
His attitude, men's attitudes, are disgusting me.

Do You Yahoo!?
Tired of spam? Yahoo! Mail has the best spam protection around

Saturday, November 10, 2007 

The magic of Sham

I haven't even left yet and I'm already missing this place. So, again, please forgive the sentimental tone of this post.
And the second thing is, while this is a very positive post, I don't mean deny the very many problems that aren't mentioned here.
I was trying to get to Muhajireen but it was 2pm, and everyone elese in the city also wanted to get somewhere.
The serveeces were full, taxis didn't want to go in my direction. It was a seller's market.
Finally, there was an empty taxi. I waved furiously and he pulled over. As I got in he said something excitedly, but I wans't paying attention because I was worried about how late I already was for my appointment.
Then some words caught my attention. He took me and a friend from Soumaria bus station to Saroujah two days ago.
How - in a city of five million - can a driver remember a single passenger. (Ok, so I have funny hair).
But that's Damascus.
I don't worry about being lazy in arranging to meet long lost friends. Because I know in a city like Sham, they won't stay long lost.
In the past week I have bumped into three people. And none of us express too much surprise.
I went into a fruit juice shop which I haven't visited for four years - and the man working there remembered me.
What other magic can the city conjure up.
Our ability to stare.
Where else in the world is it normal - or acceptable - for a crowd to gather in front of two people who are having a very public argument. But it's not just the exciting that gets people's attention. The roadworks in Bab Sharqi/Medhat Pasha are a particular source of interest. Groups of men stop and stare into a hole.
Bab Al Hara (the Entrance of the Alleyway) has taken Damascus by storm. It's not just a television programme, but has found its way into vocabulary.
This might just be my particular obsession with the programme, but people seem to be calling more and more streets 'hara'. I had an argument with a taxi driver who told me a road I'd directed him towards was actually an alleyway, and not a street.
The Alf Lail wa Laila restaurant in the Old City has opportunistically changed its name to Bab Al Hara. Shame it hasn't changed the food.
And the show's terrible music is everywhere.
And exhibit number four - the city's trustworthiness. I left a cafe to go an look for a friend. I had been sitting on my own, and I hadn't paid. But they trusted me to walk out, safe in the knowledge that I would return.
Damascus may not be magic. But it is special.

Do You Yahoo!?
Tired of spam? Yahoo! Mail has the best spam protection around

Thursday, November 08, 2007 

Finding home

I'm becoming ridiculously sentimental.
It happens every time I realise I've got to leave this city. Like the nomad I have become, I know my time is up. And despite the comfort that I know I'll see these people and these streets again soon, I can't help but search for a way to bottle the essence of this place.
Every experience I have introduces me to a new Damascus. And this time I think I've found my Damascus.
And that makes it all the more difficult to leave.

Do You Yahoo!?
Tired of spam? Yahoo! Mail has the best spam protection around

Saturday, November 03, 2007 

The coming storm

It's been calm here for months. So when something happens like it did last night, it's enough to make you fear the worst.
All summer long it's been settled. Blue skies, sunny days. Everyone's talking about the winter. Wondering, waiting. And it still hasn't arrived.
But something's changed.
Last night Damascus was engulfed by a wind storm. It blew dust into the eyes of girls who'd spent hours on their Friday night makeup. It even blew me into the road.
It's that weird time between summer and winter (normal countries have an autumn - we don't).
We never know exactly when winter will wash away the blue skies and sweaty days. But it will happen, and this year it's slightly late. So people seem to be trying their best to make it hurry up and come.
The blankets have been taken out of the cupboards and dusted off. The Summer Time has changed to Winter Time (one hour earlier). And the police have changed into their dark green winter uniforms, getting rid of their short sleeve beige outfits.
The clouds are gathering. We don't know when the first storm of winter will come. But we know it's blowing our way.

Do You Yahoo!?
Tired of spam? Yahoo! Mail has the best spam protection around


Blogger update

I have been told it is only some servers which are not blocking Blogger. Some people still can't access it without going through 'other' methods.

Do You Yahoo!?
Tired of spam? Yahoo! Mail has the best spam protection around

Thursday, November 01, 2007 

Blogger unblocked in Syria

Blogger is NOT blocked. I've been using other ways of getting on to Blogger, but when I saw Annie's comment I decided to have my regular attempt at typing in www . blogger . com boom - Blogger appeared.
On to other many questions.
Thank you so much everyone for your warm welcome. It feels like I've come back. Although in reality I never went away, I just wasn't honest with myself about what I wanted to write about.
Of course, that style's going to change when I'm writing from outside the country - just because I'll be exposed to a different 'Damascus'.
In response to questions about what we can do to support the Iraqis in Syria. I think one of the most important things is to change attitudes. There is still a lot of racism. But I think it comes down to ignorance. When faced with Iraqis no-one is more hospitible than Syrians.
But get a group of Syrians together, and the refugees suddenly become the scapegoats for all of the country's (economic) ills.
Other than that, there are small groups working with the refugees, and of course the UNHCR always needs more help.
As for the banks - yes, it is a real problem that many people don't have an account. Or any money to put in one. Five years ago 25 of the country had an account. Now there are queues of people at cash machines. So something is changing.
Where's that change coming from? Of course it starts at the top. I think the top levels are opening up a window of opportunity for others - Syrian and foreign businesses - and it's those businesses (whatever you think of them) who are the motors of change.
Look at the private radio stations and internet companies and banks. It is true that the top levels still have a lot of control over them. They are on a tight leash. But if someone closes their eyes for just a second, they can run free.
This is the start of something.
Keep the questions coming, I'll try my best to answer.

Do You Yahoo!?
Tired of spam? Yahoo! Mail has the best spam protection around

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.
My profile

Syria News Wire discussion

Syria News Wire - the most comprehensive source of Syrian news on the web

  • The Syria News Wire now provides news for Cafe-Syria. To find out how to get exclusive Syrian news for your site, click here.

Get Syria News Wire EMAIL UPDATES

  • the important stuff: you can cancel any time, your email address wont be used for anything except Syria News Wire updates - this is an ad-free site
  • Enter your email address below to subscribe to The Syria News Wire...