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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

A Tartoussi in Aleppo

I went through the olden swivel door and left the dusty cobblestones behind. My eyes didn't adjust to the dimmed lighting before the short dark corridor gave way to a foyer open to the sky above. I stepped back in time and into the small lobby of the Hotel "Martini Dar Zamaria". I was greeted by a friendly smile from behind the reception desk which simply washed the weariness of the 3-hour drive away. Since I had to go back on the streets again for a full day of work, I couldn't take in the whole ambiance. However, a sense of an overwhelming peace made me reluctant to leave. Later on in the afternoon, as the heat finally dragged my stamina and spirit down, I incessantly glanced at my watch. I was longing to head back to the hotel, to shower, take a short rest then night-walk the alleys of the Jdaideh district of Aleppo.



Zamaria is an old Arabic house, converted into a small 22 room four-star hotel. From the outside, its faceless facade fails to register any impression on the eye. This is a general characteristic of old houses in Damascus and Aleppo. Once inside, it's a totally different story. The senses are collectively assaulted by a myriad of exquisite and pleasant details. Zamaria is named after a famous Allepine family who lived in the (Dar = House) since the early 18th century. The splendid interior architecture follows the Ottoman style with its attention to small symmetrical visual details and patterns engraved in stone. The original courtyard had been converted into the present lobby and one of two restaurants, called Al-Housh. The skylight above had been cleverly covered by clear plastic to air condition the space and to stay faithful to the unique outdoor feeling, albeit within the constraints of the four high walls around.


My room was small yet very comfortable and clean. The makeover authentically preserved the original conditions of the Dar. The grand effect of keeping the unusual little imperfections is simply great. As I laid back in the king-size copper bed, memories of my grandparents Dar in the old Damascene district of Qanawat danced in my head. I felt sleepy and safe. I was home in Aleppo. For roughly US$30.00 per night, breakfast included, I daresay that Zamaria is on the very top of my favorite anywhere hotels list.

When Dubai Jazz knew that I am heading to Aleppo he asked me to do him a favor. He wanted me to have a plate of Fava Beans (Sahen Fool) at Abu Abdo Al-Fawwal. He claimed, so did many Aleppines I later met, that this little joint in Jdaideh offers the best Fool in the world. I couldn't turn my friend down and I had to oblige. At the front desk, I asked the girl with the nice smile about Abu Abdo's. Her eyes sparkled when she told me that all I had to do was to walk out of the hotel door and to step right in Abu Abdo's. The restaurant with the 3 small tables was located in the same building at the corner of the alley. Remember Dubai Jazz, I've done you a favor! I ate the best Sahen Fool in my life, bien sure with a large stud of onion (Fahel Bassal) and a loaf of bread (Rgheef Khebez).

Jdaideh is a fascinating place. I was mostly impressed by the cultural, ethnic and religious fabric of the neighborhood. An Armenian orphanage stood shoulder to shoulder with an Islamic home for the elderly. The nameplates on the small front doors of adjacent houses indicated that Haj Mohamad lived here, Khawaja Hagob next door and Mr. George across the three-meter alley. I have never witnessed this matrix of habitat anywhere else, not even in the rest of Syria. A few of the houses were converted into hotels, restaurants and pubs and randomly dispersed in the district. With my two companions, I instinctively followed the serpentine pathways and debated our choice for a dining place. We stood in the middle of a large open square where old men and veiled women rested on benches. There were kids playing under the street lights. There was also a random sample of Aleppine youth, modern and traditional in their choice of clothing roaming the old quarters with fun and excitement emanating from every move and gesture they made. Another converted Arabic Dar, House Sissi, a five-star hotel and restaurant, stood at a corner next to a liquor store and a beautiful mosque. The jovial group of French tourists sitting on the open patio in front of the hotel, their hair and table napkins flying away with the fresh and light easterly breeze and the sweet voice of the Muezzin calling for the Isha prayer from the minaret above made the whole scene unbelievably surrealistic.

We decided, out of loyalty to our one-night home, to eat at La Terrace, the restaurant on the roof of the Zamaria. We were greeted by a magnificent view of the citadel and the Aleppine night. Most importantly, we were served with a delicious assortment of Middle Eastern Mezza, which we tremendously enjoyed while listening to the enchanting tunes of a solitary Oud. It is no secret that Aleppo offers great food and music. How on earth could it get any better than this, I thought, as I was hedonistically sipping my glass of Batta Arak.

Until today, I have miserably failed to closely know Aleppo and many other magnificent Syrian cities and towns. We all tend to think that it is always greener on the other side. I felt so small in my hypocrite sense of having traveled way and beyond in search for beauty while neglecting what has always been here under my nose. I vow never to make that mistake again. Aleppo, I want to fly back on a magical carpet from A Thousand and One Night to the playground of Al-Mutanabbi, the greatest poet of all times, to your defiant citadel and narrow alleys with an eternal sense of deep-rooted Tarab that rebels against any attempt to describe, let alone translate.

We need to know each other better, Aleppo and me, we need to get more intimate next time.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

She Did It!

The morning started off anxiously. The Bakaloria exam results in Syria were due later on in the afternoon. I was away when, as my wife puts it, I should be home sharing and going through the anticipation, the agony and suspense before the final grades are published over the Internet. Well in self-defense, I was in Aleppo for a 48-hour business trip. Yet, I had such a good time, Om Fares almost succeeded in making me feel guilty. The official announcement in the papers stated that the results will be posted at 4:00 PM, Monday 16/07/07. Over 140,000 Syrian families collectively held their breath. Overnight the Internet became the most popular source of information in the country. Since the early morning hours, kids, mothers, fathers, uncles, aunts, friends and neighbors simultaneously and continuously directed their browsers to www.bakaloria.com . With an already anecdotal service, the net was brought down to its knees. At 4:03 PM, as I was driving back to Tartous and a few kilometers to the north of Hama, I received that most important call on my mobile. Om Fares was crying, and it was very difficult indeed to understand the words, more importantly, the numbers. 242, she kept repeating, 242 in between “happy” sobs.
After one long year of hard work, after over 12 slow months of commitment and sacrifice, after endless sleepless nights of studying and of almost total isolation, Diana came out a real winner and scored amongst the top 5% in Syria – 242 out of 260 on her National Bakaloria Exam.
My two colleagues in the car were as eager as I was to hear the good news. Like the Syrian Brit, I had to work hard to suppress that lump in my throat in front of them. I proudly conveyed the information and fought the tears from slipping at the corners of my eyes. We stopped at Cesar near Hama for a late lunch. I was elated and out of the blue ordered a cheeseburger with fries and Coke. In Hama… a cheeseburger! I think I broke the record as far as the longest time it took a human to consume a cheeseburger. In between bites, with messy hands and ketchuped fingers, I had to answer the onslaught of phone calls. Family, friends, colleagues and acquaintances I have neither seen nor heard from in years called me and made me even a prouder father.
Diana wants to be a pharmacist, a vocation which never succeeded in impressing me. However, it’s her dream, her choice and her future and I’m so happy for her.
When I made it home a little bit over 2 hours later, the first spontaneous party was almost over. After hugs and kisses I was told that the whole neighborhood must’ve dropped by to congratulate Diana and the rest of us. Om Fares was bursting with joy and pride. Nadia (11) was moving around as if she were the mother of the bride. Even Fares (6) was ecstatic and, I learned, took a SP1,000 bill from his piggy bank and handed it to his eldest sister as his personal gift.
I want to congratulate all the kids out there who made it. For the less fortunate, better luck in the future.
The ordeal is over, for another 6 years that is.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Behind the Closed Doors of the Syrian Open Market

As Syria ploughs forward in its own version of an open market economy, certain positive and negative consequences are inevitable. My highly subjective article is not concerned at all with the role of the government. Whether Syria, on the political and administrative levels, is doing the right thing is not my field of specialty. Instead I want to handle a few particular facets in this transformation. I want to shed my own light, knowing full well the biases inherent when one follows his instincts and private observations rather than empirical research, to answer some seemingly innocuous questions. Have the average hard working bread winner's conditions improved today from what they were a few years back, when Syria was still shackled by the obsolete restraints of an archaic ill-implemented socialist economy? Is the Syrian Middle Class better off economically, assuming of course that it still exist? Are Syrians, in general, happier, healthier and wealthier? Finally, it is my intention to briefly evaluate the relationship between the Haves and the Have-Nots.

As an advanced warning, I need to make it clear that I am not totally impressed by the effects of the opening market economy in Syria. I also need to assert that my own "bitterness", although purely subjective, is not a result of a personal struggle. I am not a victim of circumstances, and the economic, but more importantly, social morphing of society has not and probably will never make me suffer as a consequence. Over my entire life, I have considered myself a man of the middle. But with the advent of these sweeping changes, I become more at odds with the right, even when it tries to remain close to moderation. I am a diehard Middle Class man and will not give up my status without a fight.

The conditions of the average Syrian working person are as bad as they were ten or twenty years ago. This average person has in fact lost his or her real identity and their outlook on the future. Currently, the average job hardly pays enough to maintain a subsistence level for a family of four. If both wife and husband hold average jobs they are not able to go on a one-week vacation once a year in Syria. They cannot take their two kids to a decent restaurant even once a month. By the way, the average Syrian family numbers 6.3 according to the World Health Organization*. Although this is not a recent study per say, I believe it to be still accurate today. It might be easier to digress on the prospects of this family rather than on its aspirations. The children will continue to rotate pieces of clothing bought once or twice a year on religious occasions. They will continue to consume more carbohydrates than they should and less protein and fruits than they ought to. They will dream of someday buying their own mobile phones and sleeping in their own private rooms. When they reach the point of enrolling at a university, and if they are lucky indeed, they will pursue an affordable education (free) with very limited options. It will be extremely hard to break free out of this endless loop. So it was, so it will continue to be.

The Syrian Middle Class is all but gone. With the polarization of our society at both ends of the economic spectrum, the Middle Class is becoming more and more a mythical group. There seems to be a space/time warp from which some "lucky" individuals are stepping out of their misery and into the haven of the rich. This warp, also known as a worm, is as twisty and dirty as it could get. Therefore, when these individuals emerge on the other side they often become "filthy" rich. Should I always write that I am making generalizations and that there are some people who get there through hard work and perseverance. I don't believe it is necessary. These honest, self-made persons are the exception rather than the rule. As the intellectual elite stratum, historically the upper middle class of Syria, was being slowly eroded and replaced by a business class, the impact on the Syrian social identity has been tremendous. If we compare the cultural scene in the country in the 50’s, 60’s and even 70’s of the last century with what has become of us now, we cannot help but feel desperate and hopeless. From the 80’s onward the Syrian upper middle class has changed from a group comprised mainly of professionals to one that is a mélange of army officers and public "servants". Old Money circumnavigated the devastating effects of a deficient and corrupt socialist system by moving their capital to foreign lands. They acted, generally speaking, like social parasites and led their own strange lives and held their own extravagant wedding receptions while their country around them was falling apart economically. Then the upper middle class of Syria changed again. The officers either retired or died but they were never replaced from the army or from the ranks of government again. A new group was on the rise, their children, a second generation of shrewd calculating money hungry monsters took control. They acted very swiftly and efficiently and established a new economic and social network. They jumpstarted the process and within a few years and immediately within the short span since the beginning of the new millennium they partnered almost completely with the traditional Old Money of Syria. Somehow similar in shape to a sand clock, today’s Syrian social composition is based on a wide base of underprivileged, poor and disillusioned majority, topped by a very small “squeezed” middle class then overwhelmed by an increasing number of scoundrels and ex-convicts nouveau riche, blessed and manipulated by the Old Money who had never relinquished their economic prowess through it all.

Are Syrians happier, healthier and wealthier today? I daresay NO. We have turned into a consumer market playground. Sure, our shops and stores sell almost everything under the sun and we do not have to smuggle “luxury” commodities from across the border anymore. But, who can afford to be a consumer of items beyond basic food and clothing. Who, for instance, can enter a prestigious shop in Damascus and buy the US$800.00 pair of jeans shamelessly displayed in the shop front. I, for one, feel appalled that such offensive display of wealth is allowed while the masses await their paychecks to juggle with the possibility of buying a $15 pair of pants or pay their outstanding electricity bill. The average Syrian cannot afford private hospitalization. She has to surrender her body and soul to the public health system with often tragic results. We are, as a nation, in deep economic shit and it seems to be getting worse.

I indicated in the beginning of this article that I do not intend to go into what the government should and should not do. I want to place all the blame on the ruling Economic Class of Syria. Those in business, who are paying less taxes than a poor laborer is, have caused more economic and social damages to this country than any stupid government action can ever inflict. The morality of the super-rich in Syria is immoral to say the least. When “the rich goes cheap to stay rich” the consequences are destructive. I have attended a meeting recently where Syrian businessmen explained to their European counterparts that the Syrian worker is lazy and does not work unless coerced. They were contemplating bringing in foreign experienced labor (Indian factory workers) because they are more committed to work. They did not even consider the possibility that the Syrian worker is lazy because the (SP15,000 = US$300.00) they were paying him per month do not even cover the basic necessities in an ever more expensive country. What do you expect for $300 per month you damn sonsofbitches? The hotel where the meeting was held charges $200 per single room, per fucking night, breakfast not included.

Now, you the reader, might have developed a better idea why I do not care (on the surface) so much about democracy or its absence in Syria. Even if we were a truly democratic country the results of the parliamentary elections would not have been that much different. The scoundrels and ex-cons ran for chairs in the parliament and paid for votes with vegetable oil, sugar, rice and cash money. The poor elected them and were glad that they got something out of the whole commotion. The Middle Class did not give a damn, by not voting, but who are they anyway but a "filthy" minority. The economic ruling class of Syria supported and celebrated the occasion with banners and banquets and everyone clapped their hands and danced while the voice of Ali Al-Deek echoed grotesquely between the walls, the usually silent walls.

* International Family Planning Perspectives and Digest, Vol. 4, No. 2 (Summer, 1978), pp. 58-59doi:10.2307/2947510