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Friday, October 29, 2010

No Honor in Honor Killing


The 29th of October is International Day of Solidarity with Victims of Crimes of Honor. To all the psychotic men who believe that killing women restores their honor. To all the worhtless men and submissive or manly women who blame the victim and the murderer. To all the cowardly lawmakers looking the other way. To all the timid souls toward the savagery of tribalism, traditions, awkwardness, and yes even religion. You are ALL partners in crime.

There is no honor in Honor Killings.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Syrian Economics 101

Recently on this blog I posted The Syrian Private Sector: A Socioeconomic Farce. It did not impress me then as one of my more controversial pieces of writing. After all, I reckoned, I am merely stating the obvious; what everyone in Syria is already aware of and what the majority of the people believe to be very close to the truth. I had no idea that in doing so I had stomped over every modern economic theory out there. My unassuming yet commonsensical post was stripped naked, analyzed and criticised by the expert hands (and mind) of one of Syria’s leading online economists, Ehsani on Syria Comment and to tell you the truth I was not offended in the least. Although he cleverly stated that he found my amateurish wading in the realm of economics entertaining it must’ve touched a raw nerve.  As a matter of fact, I was flattered that my simple essay had inspired him to compose such a replete article.

My only squabble with Ehsani concerns two points in his critique. First, he discounted the social grievances as somehow frivolous in the grand scheme of economic reform. Second, and despite his very poignant title “The Sin in Syria is Low Wages" he absolved the private sector from this sin in the same manner a priest gives the Sacrament of Penance to a serial rapist.

The primary contention of my post was that the private sector is not only cheap and by cheap I mean greedy, base, mediocre, rotten and meretricious but that it is brutal, heartless, destructive, parasitic and hugely culpable for the rapid deterioration in the standard of living of most Syrians and for the further erosion and eventual disappearance of the middle class. I will not go any further in a game of numbers. I’d rather leave that to the experts since they themselves cannot justify it except by stating that the stakeholders would not pay anyone more than he or she is worth (to them). If there is a consensus among economists about the human validity of the above argument then the field of economics is the only social science that is openly void of any moral values.


Since the debate veered into private banking in Syria, shouldn’t I ask what did these banks contribute to the country and its economy. I could care less about the voraciously bovine shareholders being happy. Emperor Nero was happy too while Rome burned to the ground after he set it on fire. Besides channelling money back and forth between Syria and Lebanon and funnelling untraceable and untaxed cash profits to foreign accounts for the “big” clients what added value (a service that was not and is not already offered by the state owned banks) did these banks bring to the average Syrian?

“Fulfill your dream and buy an LCD screen with 24 easy instalments.”
“Now you too can have a laptop.”

Yes I know I’m punching below the belt but what is the real motivation behind these grand services? Are they provided in good faith to the millions of Syrian consumers with petty dreams of big screen television sets and portable computers or to the VIP clients, the importers of these consumer products? Let’s not kid ourselves, Syrian private banks are segregated institutions with long lines of lowly customers waiting for the next available teller and posh offices for the distingué clientele. The lines and the tellers are a front, a money-making one for sure, but it takes too much valuable real estate. Make the waiting area as small and intimidating as possible, populate the desks with unsmiling and unfriendly faces, hire a security prick with a bullying stare and here you have it ladies and gentlemen, the proverbial Syrian private bank. The LCD screens and laptops, in addition to fattening the bank accounts of the monopolist importers, are useful PR gimmicks too. Oh, give me a break and stop whining, an erudite reader might interject, banks are like this all over the world and not only in Syria. Well they are, but the point is that in Syria the private banks are serving the top 1% (in term of wealth) of the population. For all the rest, for the remnants of a once thriving and formidable middle class and for the poor masses, private banks are nothing but groveling and corrupt business outfits. That being said and out of the way, a few private bank managers are among my good friends. My verbal barrage was never against any person or persons employed in the banking industry but rather against the conceptual framework behind their debauched economic raison d'être in a country like Syria or anywhere else where the “social” price behind the board members’ profits is unacceptably too high.

From private banks to private schools the picture remains as bleak as ever. The mere fact that government owned banks and schools offered inferior services and education is not a license for these private institutions to be mediocre and ineffectual. Since free market economists are trying to convince us that highly-paid bankers are as hard to find as rocket scientists or brain surgeons what about school teachers? There are plenty of those around, aren’t there? From Algeria to Oman Syrian teachers have always been on the forefront of education in the Arab world. There are private schools and universities popping up everywhere in Syria now and charging premium tuitions (let’s not talk numbers). They could, if they wanted to, recruit and hire these highly skilled teachers and professors. They could lure them into leaving high schools in Saudi Arabia and colleges in the United States and bring them back to their own country to teach in style and dignity. Private schools are offering obscenely low wages, lower still than the government, and hiring inexperienced green teachers to save money and increase their profits. Private universities continue to enlist the part-time services of local PhD’s already employed by the state universities because they are required to have them on their faculty roster by the Ministry of Higher Education while throwing the bulk of the actual instruction on Master’s degree holders because they cost even less.

Once we realize that the board members of private banks in Syria, the founders of private schools, the board of trustees of private universities, the importers of consumer products, the sole agents for various brands of automobiles and the filthy rich merchants (new and old) are the same people we begin to understand the Syrian economic reform’s failings in a crystal clear way. The Syrian economy is driven by an avaricious elite, say the top three or four hundreds big names of the private sector. All the government can ever do is attempt to impose a speed limit in order to reduce the number of casualties. I leave it to the experts to evaluate government performance but for one who has been living in Syria for the last 24 years I can only state the obvious. We moved from bad to worse socially and economically. The poor are poorer and more numerous. The rich are richer and fewer. The Syrian private sector is indeed a socioeconomic farce.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Another Brick Off the Wall

I returned to Tartous on a moonless night in early September. Physically I was exhausted from the tiring journey. Immanently my leave of absence was a voyage on the road to self discovery and the fulfilling of an amaranthine dream. The taxi drove through the deserted streets shortly before midnight. Through dopey eyes I fancied that the wrought iron fence around my city park was gone.

In the short spell before sleep prevailed I wondered whether it was just wishful thinking on my part. I hate barriers with a vengeance. Even picturesque picket fences in the countryside leave me with a foreboding feeling of oppression. Children need not grow up in the confines of a repressive home nor rot in the stifling outdoors. Inspirited men are not meant to go through life moving from a jail cell to a larger prison. Ardent women must not be incarcerated behind a thick veil of deistic benightedness. Parks should not be closed in and locked.


Sculpture by Ali Suleiman

The fence was gone, I was happy to see the next morning, and a sculpted hand holding a pencil was mounted on the eastern side of the park. The pencil poised to scribble on a blank slate fascinated me. I must admit that I do not find the art work exceptionally comely yet the sculpture had become a focal point of interest on my daily walk. I knew that something eventually will be engraved on the slate of rock and I hoped against hope that it won't be an adulterated slogan.

Two days ago I read at last, "Tartous: the Sea, the Plain and the Mountain, Free From Illiteracy 2010." I walked on, my swift gait livelier and my steadfast hope stronger. Another brick falling off the wall, I thought, ignorance, censorship and religious tyranny to follow in this part of the world; discrimination, racism, and domination to come to an end everywhere else.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Matar

My hair, too short to be ruffled by the wind and covered with a Barmah hat stood on end. A gust fondled the sleeves of my shirt awakening a maudlin pain inside. It meandered through my joints, traveled in my body then tingled my fingers and my toes. I took a long breath and heaved, slipping a heavy weight off my shoulders. I could feel it in my bones. Matar, precious rain, was near.

Driftwood cracked in a bonfire and wept. Flames tongued upward and ambled with fatal seduction. Sparks exploded and evanesced in the dark. A transient cloud veiled my beautiful Thuraya, the Pleiades, before she twinkled again for my eyes only. The lights of anchored ships beyond the breakwater flickered with the rising surf. A long whistle wailed with anguish then died.

We clinked our glasses and drank a toast, “To Summer. May it rest in peace.” The night was young and the Arak abound in the company of lifelong friends. We drank the time away then drifted apart. Echoes of their laughter chased my crocked steps as I hurried to shelter.

I could hear the abdominal rumble of the sky. It reverberated with murmurs of distant thunder. A branch on a tree nearby creaked. Fallen leaves swirled. Two cats hissed menacingly in the cone of a streetlight. A dog barked from somewhere behind. The first drops of rain fizzled then assailed the empty streets. I ran in the night, leapfrogging standing pools, stopping briefly under the awnings of closed stores to catch my breath then darting again. It rained long and hard till morning and beyond.

It's fall, the season for a fifty year old man to feel at home. As the sun peeked shyly through the overcast sky I fetched my brown jacket with the threadbare elbow patches and my corduroy pants. I still don't need reading glasses, I prided myself, then I held my book under my arm and wandered into the park. It's my time at last.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

They sure don't sing them like that anymore

 Engelbert Humperdinck

How I love you



You hold me in your eyes
In your own special way
I wonder how you know
The things I never say

I can't imagine life
Without you by my side
The power of your love
Is all I need tonight

I know there have been times
That I have caused you pain
I'd turn them all around
If I could start again

There's something I must say
I know it's overdue
The sweetest thing I've known
Forever called my own
Begins and ends with you

How I love you
How I love you

The softness of your lips
The colour of your hair
The memory of your touch
Remains when you're not there

The echoes of your laughter
When I'm feeling blue
The meaning of my life
It all begins with you

So come into my arms
Lay down by my side
The moon is always there

To keep our love alight

I've reached so very high
For everything that's mine
And at the top is you
I want you for all time
A dream forever new

How I love you
How I love you

The softness of your lips
The colour of your hair
The memory of your touch
Remains when you're not there

The echoes of your laughter
When I'm feeling blue
The meaning of my life
It all begins with you

So come into my arms
Lay down by my side
The moon is always there
To keep our love alight

You know me like a book
You've read a thousand times
We know each other's hearts
We read each other's mind
This feeling's always new

How I love you
How I love you

The softness of your lips
The colour of your hair
The memory of your touch
Remains when you're not there

The echoes of your laughter
When I'm feeling blue
The meaning of my life
It all begins with you

Sunday, October 03, 2010

The Syrian Private Sector: A Socioeconomic Farce

According to a recent publication by the Syrian Central Bureau of Statistics the average 2009 monthly salary was SYP11,000 (US$234). The same document listed the average household expenditure during the same year at SYP30,000 (US$638) per month. Equally disturbing is the fact that government jobs paid higher than those in the private sector. One last finding, which might be of interest to some, was that women were fairing slightly better than men as far as average wages are concerned.

Officially disclosed salaries in the Syrian private sector range from the minimum full-time wage of $125 to $42,000 a month. Although I am running the risk of being repetitive and for the sake of clarification, I need to rephrase the last statement. There are private companies and institutions in Syria where one employee is making (in salary) as much as 336 of his co-workers. I emphasized the word employee in order for the reader not to get the matter confused thinking that I meant the owner of the company or the institution.


This is our current state of affairs in a nutshell and 15 years after the government cut the leash and set loose a whimpering private sector in an attempt to help rebuild the dismal economy. What did the rising stars of the Syrian open market and trendy society, the Nouveau Riche and Old Money, the crooks and their offspring, the deserving self-made millionaires and the rarest of them all, the honest entrepreneurs contribute to this country besides sucking it dry of resources, potential and wealth and devastating its environment? If we neglect to mention the pious alms and free dinners (Iftar) they offer to the poor in Ramadan (with an outlandish public exposure); if we turn a blind eye toward the  human rights abuses inflicted on their employees, the miserable working conditions, the one-day only weekend, the total absence of medical coverage, the depressing pensions (still offered by the state and not by the private sector), the rampant corruption they are themselves feeding and institutionalizing; what else did they really do? How would a neutral yet informed observer, from the inside or out, rate the private sector in Syria?

Take a 15 minute ride with me through Damascus in an 8 million Syrian Pounds Beemer ($170,000) or a battered Micro-Bus with 9 other sweaty (and stinking) passengers. We will begin our tour near one of the most depressing monuments of the city, the Four Seasons Hotel, where a waitress in the nondescript cafeteria makes $170 a month, working 8 hours a day, 6 days a week and serves coffee for $15 a cup. This is where the Crème de la Crème of Syrian business meet for a quick $100 buffet lunch (per person) and discuss the unreliability of the Syrian laborer then burp without leaving a tip. Less than a hundred meters away, there is a quaint public park lying in the shadow of the oppressive building where a young engaged couple sit on a wooden bench for hours dreaming of, someday, being able to afford an apartment somewhere, anywhere in or outside the city. They buy two coffees from a peddler for 20 cents a cup and nurse them with care to make them last. Apartments in Damascus vary in price like every other modern city of course. In the Western Malki area a nice apartment can fetch $6 million but it's not for them and they accept that. The cheapest 70 square meter box they can ever imagine buying lies 30 minutes or more out of the city limits and sells for $50,000. If they were both average wage earners and if they can go on living in the streets without a bite to eat (or a cup of coffee to drink) and if they save every penny they make it will take them 9 years to buy their dream home. By then, and with the current rate of runaway inflation they will be disappointed to find out that the price has doubled. They could have registered at a cooperative housing project and paid half their salaries until the project is completed in 20 years, on average. But they were wild and careless. They were not smart enough to live on a budget. No wonder our illustrious businessmen were complaining earlier about our unreliable labor.

We are near Kafar Souseh on our Damascene ride where the new trend of consumerism blatantly hit the city in the face. Malls were erected in record times but don't expect a Walmart-like affordable department store here. Blue jeans sell for as much as $400 a pair and an average apartment near the mall will set you 2 million dollars back. A couple of kilometers down the road is the Yarmouk Camp where refugees have settled, awaiting their return to Palestine, since 1948. Families of five persons or more live in single rooms in the back alleys of the neighborhood, in Damascus, the oldest city in the world, where a hotel charges $450 for a single room, no breakfast included, and where a  janitor with a wife and kids have to live off the $200 his munificent boss is throwing at him every month. 

I know you want me to stop both the depressing tour and post. I just want to provide an answer to a nagging question some of you might have by now. Who in the hell gets paid a salary of $42,000 a month in Syria? While the average accountant's monthly salary is $400 in the private sector, some accountants are making $20,000 and up. They have mastered a highly sought after skill, that of proving to the Ministry of Finance that their employer is breaking even while he's actually making billions in profits; or to a Qatari investor that a company is making billions in profits while it is barely breaking even; or to a Western Principal that a firm is spending millions of dollars on human resources and employees' satisfaction. These hard-to-find and honest accountants along with some private banks' presidents are being paid up to $42,000 a month by legitimate businessmen and businesswomen for their invaluable services, not only to their benevolent masters but to their thankless country as a whole and to all the despicably cantankerous, capricious and unreliable Syrian laborers out there.


"Kess Ekht Hal Zaman Yalli Khalla Al-Manayek Terkab Flayek" Tartoussi Proverb