Wednesday, October 29, 2008 

US embassy in Damascus may close

America says it may have to close it's embassy. It follows angry
protests in Damascus following Sunday's invasion.

Extra Syrian police have been guarding the compound since Sunday.

Even during the start of the Iraq war the building stayed open,
although the Syrian army stopped protesters getting near the top end
of Abu Rumani street.

The embassy has been without an ambassador for three and a half years.


Aftermath of the American invasion of Syria

This is a battle of words. True, eight people died, but everyone knows
Syria is not going to attack America - as it has the right to.

Syria has been invaded. America called it "taking matters into our own
hands". But the real debate is over what Syria is calling it.

On the streets, people are calling this an act of war. But officials
are deliberately steering clear of those two explosive words.

Syria does not want a war, no matter how limited, which is what
America appears to be gunning for.

Instead, they're calling it a war crime. That's telling, because it
frames the attack within the context of what's going on in Iraq. Syria
is making it clear it sees the invasion as a misstep in America's war
on Iraq. It is not an outright invasion.

Syria is as stunned as the rest of the world. It has cracked down on
people crossing the border. It's impossible to travel anywhere near
the border without getting stopped, checked or followed.

And America knows it. It has praised Syria for stopping the flow of fighters.

In Damascus, protection has been stepped up at the US Embassy. And on
the night of the attack there was an impromptu demonstration on the
city centre.

Monday, October 27, 2008 

Internet crashes in Syria

The internet is finally back up and running after crashing for much of the afternoon.
None of the servers could connect, from 3pm until 7pm.


America attacks Syria, killing 8 people

America has attacked Syria for the first time. Eight people have died.
It happened in Abu Kamal, on a farm near the Iraqi border. It was five miles inside Syrian territory. Two US helicopters landed in Syria, and around eight troops got out to shoot at a building. The attack apparently lasted around fifteen minutes, with US troops shooting at people trying to escape. This was a comprehensive attack, not a mistake.
It is the first time it has happened since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. A US official told AP that "We are taking matters into our own hands," after blaming Syria for allowing militants to cross the border.
Top US commanders in Iraq have previously said Syria has reduced the number of fighters entering Iraq. Official figures show no more than a handful.

Friday, October 24, 2008 

Syria finally gets the EU deal

It's been on the cards for years. First it was held up because of
political wrangling in Europe but the head of the European Commission
says he expects a deal in a few months.

Javier Solana is in Damascus meeting the president.

The EU Association Agreement effectively puts Syria in the outer ring
of the EU. It is one step away from membership of the EU.

In 2010 all Association signatories will become part of a free trade
zone with Europe providing a massive boost for Syria's economy justas
the oil runs dry.

Most other EU neighbors have signed yw agreement. Syria is one of the last.

It follows Syria signing up to a high profile part of French president
Nicolas Sarkozy's Mediterranean Union earlier this year.


The seatbelt saga continues

It's been getting worse. It started a few months ago. As i explained a
few days ago, taxi drivers would pull their seatbelt across as they
approched the traffic lights.

It's all because of the police crackdown.

But over the past few days every time I get in a taxi I hear the same
line - put your seatbelt on. It comes out in an almost pleading,
apologetic voice.

And this is the reason. Anyone who is stopped by the police because
they or heir front seat passenger aren't wearing a seatbelt gets a
2000 lira fine ($40). It's reduced to 1000 lira if they pay within a

One driver complained to me that many old cars just don't has
seatbelts. That doesn't make them exempt. If they're stopped they have
to take their car to a mehanic, get the belts fitted and then go back
to the police to prove they've had it done.

It's becoming routine for drivers and passengers to wear seatbelts -
and not just when they fear they might be caught.

It's all happened very quickly but it might just make a big difference
to life on Syria's roads.


Replies to comments

Qabbani - thank you very much for your kind offer. I wasn't in Amman
for long, but maybe next time I'll need your help!

Syria Almighty - yes I heard the story about the Bush letter. But what
struck me as odd was that the story came from just one country. And it
wasn't America or Syria!

Amniyah - lots of photos are's worth the wait.

Thursday, October 23, 2008 

Julia Boutrous update

And if you missed your chance last night, there's still time to get your tickets for tonight's final concert.

It starts at 8.30 in the Citadel. Queues build up quickly, and you can't buy tickets at the door.

Tickets have officially sold out (at the Arab Capital of Culture office in Afif), but there are plenty being sold on the streets. You just have to know where to ask. It's not hard. Good luck.


Sound of the Resistance - Julia Boutrous in Damascus

The Damascus Citadel was built to defend the city. Last night, it played host to a woman singing the praises of those who fought to defend Lebanon.

Julia Boutrous was in town for one of the biggest concerts of the year. And she was given the honour of being one of the first people to sing in the Citadel.

The historic building has been closed for years, while foreign archeologists dug away. But this year, it's been opened up to the public for a few precious nights. Julia Boutrous's concerts mark the end of this year's Citadel events.

Getting thousands of people in to such an historic place, installing sound and light systems, a stage and chairs, could all have caused a huge amount of damage. But, thankfully, it was done in a tasteful, delicate way.

Boutrous is known across the Arab World as a nationalistic singer, hitting the headlines in the 1980s when her songs became national anthems for occupied southern Lebanon. So when she came on stage last night, the first thing she did was thank the Syrian nation, and the Syrian resistance.

She was backed by a full orchestra and conductor. Standing in a long black dress, the forty year old rarely moved from behind her microphone stand. At the end of each song, the lights went up, and some fans waved flags at her - the Lebanese flag, and the SSNP flag (one of the Lebanese opposition parties, allied with Hizbollah).

After two hours of non-stop crowd-pleasing, Boutrous ended with a new song - a sweet love song, in stark contrast to the rest of the evening. The crowd went silent for the first time as she sung Khalas, Intihayna (Enough, We're Finished). And with that, she finished.

Except that the crowd were having none of it. To chants of 'Julia, Julia', she made her way back on to the stage. But one encore wasn't enough. She came back an amazing FOUR times to give her fans what they wanted.

The last time, the lights had already gone down and the band was packing up. Boutrous walked to the front of the stage and joked with the crowd, "We're going to be here until the morning at this rate," she said, laughing. The crowd reacted with a cheer - most of them would have had no problem listening to her until dawn.

With no band, Boutrous told the crowd it would be "just you and me". She sang a capella. And what did she choose - the song which made her famous, Shams Al Haqq, released in 1980, during the Israeli Occupation of southern Lebanon.

Sunday, October 19, 2008 

Amman - first impressions

Some more live blogging. This time from Coffee and News -
appropriately! - on Jebl Amman. I'm going to tell you what's caught my
eye. It's all subjective.

A lot has changed. The upmarket shopping area of Sweifiyeh is
unregconisable - its massive pedestrian area is impressive. I seem to
remember it as a building site! And the Abdoun bridge is big, bold and

Shmeisani seems very different too. Two things stuck in my memory of
Amman - one was Frosti the ice cream shop. I struggled to even find it
this time among all the newness surrounding it.

Next, to Jebl Amman, the leafy residential district sitting atop
Downtown. It's as beautiful as I remember. Books@Cafe is still my
favourite spot in town.

People seem angry. Maybe they just don't like me! No one smiles here.
And taxi drivers don't offer cigarettes to their passengers - maybe
that's a Damascene oddity.

There are a lot of public spaces here. Seats on pavements seem to be
well used. But countering that is this place's obsession with the car.

Walking up and down a few of the hills - I can see why.


Live blogging Amman

Live from a streetside cafe in Abdoun, Amman.

I'm jealous that you have so many more Americans - students, workers,
businesses. Not because I particularly like them. Just because it
feels like they are restricting themselves - scared of something they
don't need to be.

Thursday, October 16, 2008 

Seatbelts - Syrian style

Seatbelts have always been a bit of a novelty in Syria.
All new cars are fitted with them, but they go unused. Sitting, untouched, by the door.
But that is slowly changing. For years, it has been illegal to drive - or sit in the front passenger seat - without wearing a seatbelt. But the law has never been enforced. Until now.
Police are cracking down. And not just in the cities. Even in the smallest towns, as you go round the central square, the traffic police are busy looking out for anyone not wearing strapped in.
Syria's high road fatality rate has long been blamed on poorly enforced traffic laws. It's hoped this will be a quick way to cut down on the number of deaths.
But not everyone is taking the new rules seriously. As taxi drivers approach the traffic lights, they tell their passengers to belt up. They do the same. Well, they hold the seatbelt across their chest. As soon as they are safely out of the sight of the police - they let the belt fly back into its usual home.


Deadly bus crash in Damascus

A bus has crashed on the South Bypass Road in Damascus - two people have died.
Another eight are injured - three seriously.
It happened yesterday, during the rain storm. Unusually, the bad weather - and not excessive speed - is being blamed.
The forty seater vehicle careered off a bridge on the Mahlaq Jnoobi - the southern bypass road. The crash happened near to the scene of last month's deadly car bomb.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008 

Here comes the winter

Only in Syria would a heatwave signal the coming of winter.
It has been getting hotter and hotter over the past couple of days. It's now at uncomfortable levels of sweat - we're way into the thirties celcius. It's been accompanied by cloudier skies.
And today it broke. There was a huge rain storm a few minutes ago, taking everyone by surprise.
But this could be another false start. Last month it got very cold, only to return to temperate mid-twenties celcius.
So do we get those winter clothes out or not?


Lebanon and Syria normalise relations

The Lebanese and Syrian Foreign Ministers have finally signed an agreement to recognise and respect each other's sovereignty and independence.
The two men have met in Damascus. It opens the way for the formal demarcation of the border and opening of embassies. They are two of the French and American demands hanging over Syria.


More replies to comments

Yazan - another Mac user! No, I'm too stubborn to give up my MacBook.
I hate PCs. Although I am grudgingly using them. Do you know where the
Mac shop is? I've heard Mezzeh?

Sharks - yes, the yellow does look very good! Not sure about pink
though! Are you in Damascus?

Amniyah - thanks, I know about all those sites/programmes etc. Do they
work on STE lines as well, or just private lines? If so, what's all
the fuss about 'banning' Facebook about, if everyone knows how to get
round it?

Abu Kareem - EXACTLY my thoughts. If only.

Matt - yes, it is impressive.

Norman - there are plenty of pictures, when I get a fast enough connection.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008 

Meeting the President

Eight o'clock. Damascus. The National Orchestra was about to perform at the Opera House.

The audience were taking their seats - and then there was a growing whisper coming from the right hand side. The whisper grew to a chatter.

Down the steps walked a tall man in a grey suit, next to a blonde woman in a purple dress had just entered.

If you didn't know Syria you wouldn't know this was the President. There were no bodyguards and no glass screens. And not even a special seat. He took a place with the rest of the audience - ok, so it was the front row. But these were normal four-dollar seats - just five places in front of me.

At the end, the conductor called the President up on stage - he shook the hands of the performers and walked out - followed right behind by people trying to get his attention.

He spent half an hour talking to members of the public outside. And then left by the front door, and got in a normal car with his wife.


Replies to comments

I'm still having problems getting into my own comments, so this will have to do for now.

Anonymous - what are foreign students telling their families back home, about life in Syria?

My problem is not with foreigners in Damascus - far from it. Damascus has a long history of welcoming immigrants. My problem is with Arabs greeting Arabs in English. It's bizarre, and confined to one square kilometer of the country.

Norman - if you saw how tight their tops were, you wouldn't say they were Hizbollah fans!

Nour - I'm glad that cleared things up. Welcome to the blog.

Matt and Amniyah - I've seen this trend in London too - the yellow fashion - but here it's everywhere!

Sunday, October 12, 2008 

Damascus in Yellow

Does EVERY girl in this city have to be dressed in yellow?

Girls in hijab, with long tight yellow t-shirts. Girls with big hair
in yellow blouses. Girls with blue jeans in - you guessed it - yellow

Some have black writing, some kind of image, or even a tactically
placed butterfly.

But they're all the same shade. Like someone dumped a huge yellow
paint pot on the city.


Colonisation - update

I've just been into a cafe in Kasaa (next to Bab Touma), I said one
word, and I was greeted with 'Hello, welcome'.

(Reply to Matt's comment - no, it's Syrian shopkeepers greeting me
this way! I'm having trouble replying to comments in the normal way at
the moment.)

Saturday, October 11, 2008 

The colonisation of Bab Touma

I guess it's always been like this to an extent. White European Arabic
language students are told they will did life easier living with the

So they arrive in Damaacus, walk around Bab Touma and read one of the
signs - written in English - advertising a room for rent in an 'Arabic

What happens is they end up living in a house full of other European
students. Some rarely leave Bab Touma.

They eat in it's restaurants, go out in its bars, and shop in its

While there's nothing wrong with them being here - in fact it's a very
good thing. There is something wrong with walking up to a shop, as an
Arab and before i open my mouth, I am greeted with 'hello' in English.

Monday, October 06, 2008 

City of Jamine

Jasmine is the flower of Damascus.
No Jasmine in the world smells like the Damascene Jasmine. But as the city jumped head-first into the Soviet-style progress of the 1960s and 70s, that smell was replaced by the odour of petrol fumes, building site work, dust and cigarettes.
By the turn of the century, the idea of Jasmine in Damascus had become just that - an idea, a memory, slowly fading away until it became nothing more than a myth. But people live on myths, and imagined memories. So a massive Jasmine planting programme began a few years ago. 5000 plants sprung up across the capital, surrounding almost every public building.
Walk along the streets at night, especially at this time of year, and the scent of Jasmine becomes overpowering.
I have some Jasmine scent in a bottle that I take with me when I travel. Its job is to remind me what this city smells like. But truth got mixed up with imagination a few nights ago. I was walking through Damascus, and I could smell the Jasmine. I racked my brain trying to think what it reminded me of.
Then it came to me - the flowers brought back the memory of my bottle of scent.

Friday, October 03, 2008 

American in Damascus

This is the best tourist article about Damascus I have seen for a very long time.

It is by London-based NBC journalist F. Brinley Bruton.

She spends a lot of time outside the Old City (yes, there is a Damascus outside the city walls!) and doesn't include the phrase "conversion on the road to Damascus" anywhere in her article.

It is a very thoughtful, original piece. And she clearly has been talking to real Damascenes:

"Someone advised me to not pay too much attention to maps while in Damascus."

"other Westerners tended to look away when we passed. This is the sort of place where tourists appear unwilling to speak to other foreigners, perhaps unwilling to admit that they don’t have the city to themselves."

"Naranj, full of sleek, well-heeled Syrians, has the reputation as the best restaurant in the city."

"The next night we ventured out of the Old City to go to Shameat."

The full piece is here.


John McCain will recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital

McCain's vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin: "building our embassy, also, in Jerusalem, those things that we look forward to being able to accomplish with this peace-seeking nation."

Until now, America's embassy has been in Tel Aviv. Every other country in the world also has their embassy in Tel Aviv (except Micronesia) because they have agreed to wait until the final status of Jerusalem is settled.

Tel Aviv is the de facto capital at the UN. Only Israel - NOT EVEN AMERICA, not even Bush - recognises Jerusalem as the capital.

This is a massive step. There are three main issues in the Palestine-Israel conflict: the refugees, Jerusalem and the settlements.

In 2004, Bush said that some settlements will have to remain - breaking with decades of consistent messages that the settlements will be sorted out in the final status negotiations.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008 

Why The Guardian is wrong on Syria

...this time.

Ian Black has been The Guardian's Middle East editor since the legendary Brian Whitaker moved to a different role at the British newspaper. They were big shoes to fill, but Black has done it admirably.

He knows Syria - ok, not as well as Whitaker did - and he treats it with a degree of intelligence most so-called Syria 'experts' don't.

But in his latest piece he is wrong. Very wrong.

The piece is called Tension grows between Syria and Lebanon after bombings. But the 'Lebanon' position is represented solely by Sa'ad Hariri - a leader on the wane, and certainly not representative of Lebanon - maybe part of the Sunni sect.

Hariri accuses Syria of "infiltrating extremists to north Lebanon to carry out terrorist attacks targeting the Lebanese army and civilians".

Lebanese analyst Nadim Shehadi does back up his view - but it certainly isn't prevalent.

There has never been any claim that terrorists in Lebanon have come from Syria - there have been accusations (by Junblatt - although even he has now retracted these) that FUNDING came from Syria. The opposite is true - there is a widespread belief in Syria that the Damascus car-bombers came from northern Lebanon.

Yes, there is tension between Hariri and Bashar - that's not new. But between Lebanon and Syria? That's a bit more of a stretch of the imagination.

Next point...

"A "Takfiri" group - standard terminology for al-Qaida".

Takfiris simply view the world through very narrow lenses. It is true that al-Qaida does too, but that doesn't make them interchangeable. al-Qaida supporters are takfiri, but not vice-versa. A militant may view Shia as apostates, and want to kill them, but not agree with the al-Qaida world-view. It may sound like nitpicking, but conflating the two is dangerous, because next we'll be combining all Muslim militant groups.

"The apparent target was a Syrian intelligence office near the Shia shrine of Sayyida Zeynab, where many Iraqi refugees live."

We've been over this point so many times. It was nowhere near Sayida Zeinab. It was next to Jaramana, and closer to the Christian shrines of Bab Touma than the Shia shrine of Sayida Zeinab. See this.

"Syrian opposition sources have claimed that one of the victims was an intelligence officer."

Farid Ghadry? Oh, please. His "claims' are more like wet-dreams. Reliability factor zero.

"In Beirut, Hariri denounced the deployment of Syrian troops along Lebanon's northern borders. He urged the international community not to allow Syria to intervene in Lebanese affairs under the guise of fighting extremism."

This was well covered a few days ago. There were legitimate fears that the Syrian army was about to re-enter Lebanon. But that all changed when Syria passed tough new laws to fight smuggling, and the real cost of the problem became clear. Oh, and the "10,000 soldiers" Hariri saw at the border were caught on camera as being more like 500.

I have a better title for the article: "Hariri cries wolf - again".


Syria is favourite for a key position in the UN nuclear agency

Syria is the frontrunner for a seat in the IAEA - the International Atomic Energy Association, which is the UN's nuclear body.

It is a straight fight between Syria and Afghanistan. Initially Syria was the only candidate. But under US pressure, Afghanistan and Kazakhstan also put their names down for the Middle East and South Asia seat. Iran also applied.

The IAEA was investigating Syria after the US and Israel alleged it was building a nuclear weapons factory. The IAEA said there was no evidence, following a months-long investigation.

It would be Syria's highest profile role since it was on the UN Security Council six years ago.

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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