Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Syria today and other rants and raves of mine...

Will Sami Moubayed ever stop writing about the Middle East like an American? I once e-mailed him with that criticism and to my surprise, got a very prompt reply explaining what his position and background were, ostensibly to prove his "Syrianicity". I like some of his articles and check up on his site frequently, still, he seemed a little too eager to respond to me - which makes me think I'm not the first person to notice this. Anyhow, one of his endeavors is "Forward" magazine, for Syrians who believe the only way is, well, forward. I remember complimenting one of the writers on her article which was probably good if I could have been bothered to finish it (she was quite pretty). The way she idolised Moubayed reminded me of the International Relations "groupies" I met whilst studying at University. On my course, a vast majority of the students were female, and personally I think many of them chose it because they thought it made them look intelligent and sophisticated rather than for the content (this is not because they were female). Like this girl, they just seemed to bask in that intellectual aura that some academics exuded (on purpose or not). At the time, I realised that something wasn't quite right about how somebody could look bored, disinterested and not contribute for the entire semester until we have that one lecture and seminar on feminism where she suddenly finds her voice and the entire debate goes down the track that all men are bastards (which is probably true but besides the point). On those days, it didn't quite matter so much what contributions I made to the discussion regarding different interpretations on feminism as much as that I had a penis. Anyhow, like many people studying that course, I may have at first thought that I might get a job using that degree, which is ridiculous since it is a non-vocational degree. That means that if you do it, you do it to enrich yourself and come out of it a well rounded and educated individual (very middle-class I know) but not to go off and, say, work for the United Nations. Someone rich enough or with enough time on their hands (the latter for me) would do something like this out of interest but they would already have a career going for them. In fact by the time I had graduated I had gone full circle from wanting to make a difference, working with blind kids or retards in Africa, to wanting to destroy the UN. In all fairness though, International Relations wasn't a bad subject and I got a lot of good out of it, but you really had to work to separate the wheat from the chaff and believe you me, there was a lot of chaff.

Now the amusing thing is that many students thought the chaff was what they should be studying, with the result that many of them are still working for free in some crummy office in the hope that someone somewhere will realise how brilliant they are and pay them money to talk more rubbish. Where I admire Sami is that he has managed to make money and a bit of a reputation for himself in Syria as a kind of analyst - letting others do the sucking up. I also look forward to reading his Silk and Steel book and I believe he's done a great job of bringing light on Syria's recent history. My only criticism is that he writes like an American and probably, deep down, wishes to bring back monarchism to the region. He waxes lyrical about King Farouq of Egypt and says a lot of unkind things about Nasser and his version of politics. The first time I meet him will be a very interesting experience.

Actually, I have another criticism, and that is that his magazine "Forward" written for Syrians who think the way is "forward" as you can tell, is written only in English. Now this can say a lot, namely that it's not for all Syrians, only those Syrians who can think in someone elses language. When I meet Syrians who tell me Syria has developed so much recently, they usually subscribe to this school of thought and actually think paying 600 liras for a cup of coffee in the Four Seasons is quite reasonable. Socialism is out, unbridled capitalism is in. It's sexy to have lots of money in Syria today (as it is anywhere) and it's all about attracting that elusive foreign investment. Syria today is for the highest bidder, Prince Walid bin Talal? Sure, where do we bend over? Coca Cola and KFC? One second, let us get the knee pads and KY-jelly out. In short, we want your money and we're not like that horrible Baathist regime which was just soo ideological. It's not even about politics anymore, which is why someone like Sami can say what he says from within Damascus today. It's about money, let's face it. When people talk nostalgically about their Damascene nights and the beautiful jasmine scents, sure, it was all there, but really it's a nostalgia for the days when the middle and upper classes could enjoy their lovely cities and the poor were kept nicely out of sight in the rural areas. When people say the Baath "ruined the balad (country)", really they are lamenting on how so many ugly, smelly and poor people have invaded and bespoiled their beautiful Damascene wonderland from the rural wastes. Sure the city has been mismanaged and there is corruption, but isn't this what we really mean when we lament what's happened?

The Baath took power in the sixties and we harp on about the levels of poverty we see around us, yet if you dig deep enough, we start to realise that this kind of poverty was always there in Syria. It's just our comfortable urban and modernised parents never got to see them, and so tell us about it. The Syria of the "bashawat" and the beyk, of the merchant trader and landowner, survived and adapted quite well under the French mandate, and lasted for a long time after they left. When people today talk of Syria "improving", they mean that those penniless scumbags are being priced out of Damascus. Out of sight, out of mind. Yet where is this newfound wealth that Syrians are enjoying going? Sure we are getting fancy hotels, lovely restaurants and loads of coffee shops and many other amenities. We have the ever present mobile phone fashion, in fact we have every kind of fashion - for a price. What we don't have, it seems, is common sense.

There is a lot of Gulf money pouring into Damascus, a lot of investment and much being said about new "malls", apartments and what not. You get the eyesore which is the Four Seasons hotel charging prices most Syrians would never see in a lifetime of work, I mentioned already the 600 lira cup of coffee. There are the $900 pairs of jeans on sale, the latest mobile phones and cars, the trendy night clubs and restaurants and bars. But if we are disappointed that this isn't really developing the country we miss the point. It's not about ordinary Syrians, it's not even about development. It's about siphoning off the money in Syria and prostituting her 'real' wealth gradually. The wealthy elites who made their money through corruption or smuggling might not have had anywhere to spend it but Beirut and abroad in the old days, but today, they can spend their money on anything they fancy right at home in Syria. That's right folks, globalisation is now in Damascus, an International Relation-"ists?!?!" wet dream. But don't think that poor people will be left out. "Luxuries" are now made available by paying in installments, which means that not only can you be poor with style (just like on Rotana man!!), you can now increase the level of debt you have to live under. So everybody gets what they want and we are all happy right? Apparently not, it appears that there are some people who aren't happy with this, but wait, something is happening there too.

If you don't like what's happening in Syria, globalisation offers you a resistance alternative as well, you can be an activist a-la American campus-style. Yes, the gift that keeps on giving even offers you the cure for overconsumption and excess, political solutions made for another country and another people can also be imported wholesale and dished out. We have wakalat (franchises) not only for "luxury" goods but also for intellectual thought. The la vache kiri of politics gives us discourse on the individual, on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness mixed with discourse on emancipation, sexual politics and a struggle against a heartless and oppressive society. Nevermind what any of this means or if it's relevant, it sounds great. As a result, we get a tasteless, diet version of the same cream cheese but in politics. A continuation of teenage rebellion against our parents, but now with society or the government as the target of our anger. Unfortunately, as some of us start to find out (me!), we eventually end up like our parents whether we like it or not.

Where does this all leave us then? Well ever since Robert Fisk's wrote his damn book with that title, even thinking about Gibran Khalil Gibran makes me shudder to use such a cliched phrase, but I'll use it nonetheless "Pity the Nation"?

I think I'll add my own version

Pity the nation
Whose people see it's strength as weakness
Pity the nation
Where every Tom, Dick and Harry
Cares more about which treatment is fashionable
Than whether the patient is actually sick
Now if I can dig up that pretty girl's (from Forward magazine, for Syrians who think the way is Forward) email address, maybe I'll take her for a 600 lira cup of coffee next time I'm in Damascus. What the hell, I'll even order one for each of us.


Lirun said...

interesting thoughts.. wish you would attach illustrative photos..

i have heard alot about syria from friends who travelled there but for obvious reasons photos is all i can enjoy for now..

Rabi Tawil (AKA Abu Kareem) said...


Didn't know where your rambling was going in the first couple of paragraphs. Looks like you were digging yourself into a whole but extracted yourself just in time ("not because they were female").

I very much liked and agree with your last couple of paragraphs. I had some of these same thoughts about Syria when I read Alex's piece about the new extravagant development projects for Damascus. The irony is that the new all out capitalists are the multimullionare monopolists who made their money under the corrupt "socialist" party. It is a little bit like what is happening in Russia. All the new instant billionares were old party aparachiks who became rich by fleecing their own country in the transition from communism to capitalism.

You spare no one from your criticism which is fine, but you offer no alternatives and consequently you sound way too pessimistic.

I agree that wholesale importation of social/political solutions doesn't work. But that doesn't mean that we cannot use basic concepts, successfully applied elsewhere, and adpat it to the social-religious-historical context of our country.

Maysaloon said...

Thanks Abu Kareem,
To be honest I usually tag these posts as ramblings because that's just what they are. I tend to go off on one and see where it lands me. With regards to the lack of solutions, I guess finding a way of articulating what's happening is sometimes the best way to work out what needs to be done. I dunno. Besides what do you expect from someone whose icon is a big bold NO in Arabic?

I shot an arrow into the air and where it lands, I do not care


G.Gar said...

That is a very sad post. Arabism is dead!