Posted by Joshua on Monday, October 26th, 2009
National Geographic and the Syrian Embassy in Washington have fallen out over what reality really is in Syria. Read the following N.G. article and letter from Ambassador Moustapha. Then vote in the opinion poll on the left.
National Geographic published a controversial article on Syria, entitled: Shadowland by Don Belt. Ambassador Imad Moustapha wrote an eight page critique of the article, which he argues “is laden with inaccuracies and disinformation.” He explains why it is a “misrepresentation of the Syria.” (I asked permission from the Embassy to publish the letter.)
Poised to play a pivotal new role in the Middle East, Syria struggles to escape its dark past.
By Don Belt
Photograph by Ed Kashi
October 22, 2009
Chris Johns, Editor-in-Chief
National Geographic Magazine
1145 17th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20036
Dear Chris Johns:
It is with a heavy heart and a great deal of indignation that I write this letter to you. I read with deep disappointment on the pages of your November publication the story on Syria by your editor, Don Belt. This piece, laden with inaccuracies and disinformation, was a misrepresentation of the Syria that I belong to, and the National Geographic that I have read for decades.
The article draws an unfairly bleak and intentionally inaccurate picture of Syria, reminiscent of the neoconservative literature that was prevalent during President Bush’s era, and in stark contradiction to all current, objective reporting covering Syria. It is skewed to highlight solely negative aspects of an otherwise vibrant country undergoing tremendous transformations on the social, cultural, economic, and political levels. Moreover, as an avid reader of this magazine since my teenage years, this article seems an outlier in the legacy and spirit of the National Geographic that has made a name for itself by exposing the hidden beauty of cultures and geographies of different parts of the world. This is a political article par excellence inspired by the most radical neoconservative paradigm, and it saddens me to see this great name of your magazine reduced to a propaganda horn. I can refer you to the Syrian Studies Association, a neutral and authoritative expert body on Syria that includes over 170 American academics, all of who would unequivocally refute and reject this article.
The author clearly did not approach this project with objectivity; rather, he came with a preset thesis and searched for people and settings to prove his point. It is equivalent to a third-rate foreign journalist who visits the US, talks to neo-Nazi groups, such as the one who recently killed the guard at the Holocaust Museum; talks to the LaRouche group that declares there is no democracy in this country; talks to inmates in Guantanamo; talks to people living in the ghettos with high illiteracy and low life expectancy rates; talks to crime and drug lords; talks to ignorant folks that think all Arabs are terrorist and must be expelled or executed; and then based on that information, he publishes an article on the ‘truth’ about this great country. It obviously will be a specious, skewed article. A ‘Borat-style’, if you may –in reference to the Hollywood movie character played by Sacha Baron Cohen.
The bottom line is that Syria is admittedly far from a perfect place. Although the author unfairly focuses on the mukhabarat legacy of Hafez Assad while ignoring how much he helped transform Syria, he makes a point in depicting that President Bashar Assad had much reform to undertake. However, to show that Syria is still a tenebrous place where people live in fear, where education is lagging, bookstores are dated, factories are defunct, progress is stagnant, run by ‘Beverly Hillbillies’ and mobsters, and lacks entrepreneurship and opportunity is an egregious fallacy.
It also seems that while the First Family of Syria opened their doors and lives to the author in full transparency and candor, he reciprocated with spleen and a supercilious attitude.
Sir, I have included a point-by-point critique of this article. I hope you take the time to read them carefully. Unfortunately, the disinformation, lack of objectivity, and unprofessionalism exhibited in this piece assure me that the relationship between your foundation and my country has been permanently damaged. Indeed, I believe that many other countries in our region will reconsider their working relationship with your organization when they are made aware of this incident.
Ambassador of Syria to the United States of America
Cc: Terry Adamson, NGS Executive Vice President; Don Belt, Senior Editor
Detailed critique of the article:
“Shadowland.” This is the first word in the article on the opening photograph. This is not what the author saw, but what he perceived Syria as before setting foot there on his last trip. It sets the stage for how he approaches this article, by pithily and hastily listing the drastic positive developments in Syrian society, while digging meticulously and painstakingly to find people and images that would fit his ‘shadowland’ theme.
The opening passage of the article is indicative, truly setting the tone for the article. This comparison with the Corleone’s is an analogy that neocon, Israeli, and other writers wore-out during the previous eight years in an attempt to veil all of Syria’s reform and development behind a specious veil of a ‘mob-like’ ruling family. People like Jonathan Schanzer, Trudy Rubin, Eyal Zisser, and even the somewhat unbiased Flynt Leverett and David Lesch have used this analogy on several occasions, especially when Bashar Assad first came to power, rendering it an unimaginative, boring tautology. More importantly, the University of Maryland, along with the Zogby International Polling, conducted an opinion poll in six Arab countries earlier this year (all US allies), Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Lebanon, and the UAE, which showed that President Assad was the most popular figure amongst Arab leader. These results consolidate those of last year’s, where President Assad also came in first place as the most popular Arab leader. While you might disagree with many of President Bashar Assad’s policies, these numbers year in, year out, indicate that he is actually standing for the demands of his people in particular, and the Arab street as a whole. To turn the reality around and make him into a mere ‘mafia don’ is unjust. A mafia don would not capture the imagination and hearts of the Arab street in such a fashion. Moreover, my understanding is that the author spent several hours with President Assad and his wife, discussing all issues, and even took a trip with the First Lady. This makes me wonder how can such a ‘mobster’ family, or a ‘Soviet-like’ family as he also likes to describe them, provide him with so much access. One thinks of mobsters and soviet-era leaders to be secretive, not to allow such access for an unknown journalist.
“Iran pilgrims at the Omayyad”: This is an example of the image the author tries to draw. The Omayyad mosque that is always bustling with visitors from around the world and from all different backgrounds, is confined to ‘Iranian pilgrims.’ Anyone who visits it, knows that it is a tourist and religious attraction for Christians as much as Muslims, foreigners as much as locals. Obviously, singling out Iranian pilgrims aims to make specific hints, and adds a certain touch to his pre-conceived story.
“Bab Touma Police Station”: This is the first of many very disturbing distortions and actual lies in the article. As a Syrian who grew up constantly visiting the Bab Touma area, I can assure you that not only have I never heard the so-called ‘screams’ from the police station, but I have never even heard of such procedures taking place in such a station. Anyone with basic knowledge of Syria knows that a police station is not involved in any political procedures, interrogations or not. Moreover, Bab Touma is the second most touristic place in Damascus (after the Omayyad mosque) and it is ludicrous to think that there would be such horrible interrogations taking place among the tourists and visitors of that area. In fact, this area has underwent the most transformation in the city as the public and private sectors focused on reviving the old city, promoting it into a premier tourist destination by turning its old houses into boutique restaurants and hotels. Thus, as one reads this awful depiction of screams, seemingly out of a thriller novel, we have to question whether there is any proof for such theatrical stories. I challenge you to find any Syrian who would confirm this woven tale.
The novel continues with Syrians casting “each other knowing glances, but no one says a word. Someone might be listening.” Again, a thriller movie taking place in the most awful of places would not contain such descriptions. Instead of wasting time weaving fables of interrogations and states of fear in Bab Touma, the author could have talked about the beautiful maze of streets and houses that is Bab Touma, dating back centuries, and adorned with beautiful Damascene jasmine overflowing from behind every wall, and shyly bending into the streets as if inviting passers into these beautiful antique homes. He should have discussed the mosques and churches that stand side-by-side. He should have described the over 120 boutique restaurants and hotels, which although seem numerous, you still have to make reservations months in advance in order to find room. That is the heart of the oldest continually inhabited city in the world, which alas, the author renders it a fable of an imaginary torture cell. In reality, the sounds you hear there are not those of “blood-chilling screams”; rather the sounds of giddy locals and tourists sharing a drink and a bite under a Damascene moon, and to the sounds of church bells and Muslim call to prayer. This is the Bab Touma I grew up knowing, and it is the one I visit every year.
“The Assad regime…by a combination of guile and cozying up to more powerful countries, first the Soviet Union and now Iran.” A brief overview of Syrian political history shows that Syria always maintained an independent foreign policy from either the Soviet Union or Iran. During the so-called ‘cozying’ to the USSR, Syria engaged with the US on the Peace Process, while disagreeing with the USSR on many issues, including Lebanon. Also, during that time and later, Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, Bush, and Clinton all either visited Damascus or met President Assad in a third country. Of course, Syria was known to be closer to the Soviet Union, but it was the Cold War, and all developing countries had to take a side. The Americans took the Israeli side, Syria was forced to turn to the Soviets, all while maintaining good relations with the US. As for Iran, it is US policy in the region, and its previous attempts to isolate Syria –something which is eerily brought to mind through this article –that brought Syria and Iran even closer. If the author was honest, or maybe just knowledgeable, he would note that Syria is actually ‘cozying up’ to Turkey, which has become Syria’s closest ally in the region, politically and economically. We just removed border barriers between Syria and Turkey and our trade amounts to $2.4 billion, as opposed to the mere $0.5 billion of Syrian-Iranian trade.
Relations with US “never good”: on this topic, all I have to remind the author of is: a) Syria and the US were allies during the Gulf War, fighting side by side against Saddam’s troops, and b) the cooperation on Al-Qaeda which then-Secretary of State Collin Powell described as “saving American lives” in a formal letter to Congress.
The author then sets the premise of the article, stating that as there is a new administration “hungry for success in the ME,” and that we need to know if anything has changed in Syria –implicitly asking if there is change that constitutes this engagement. Obviously, the author is indirectly arguing in this article that there is not much change, or it is still ‘struggling to escape its dark past’; thus, implying that maybe Syria is not ready for engagement. Now if this was an op-ed in the Washington Times or the Weekly Standard I would understand, because first, they always discourage US-Syrian rapprochement, and second, because they focus on such matters of policy. Never, though, did I imagine that the National Geographic Society would advocate such a malicious policy of disengagement within its covers. After all, one of the founding principles of the magazine was to build bridges with the rest of the world, was it not??
“Tending to its crippling internal disrepair”: I find it hard to believe that President Assad “acknowledges” such a description. I have heard him say on several occasions that there is much room for reform and improvement, even humbly admitting that reforms are not where he hoped them to be. Still, Syria has registered an economic growth of over 6.2%, according to World Bank figures, and I find it hard to believe that it could do so with “crippling internal disrepair,” just as I doubt the President would describe it as such. Still, if he did “acknowledge” such short-comings, it does not strike me as something a ‘mobster’ does. Does it?
The author then gets lost in describing the town of Qurdaha –which any observer of Syrian politics would easily tell you that it is not quite a center of power as it might have once been or as the author shows it to be. The author returns to his Soprano-esque style, describing “regime officials…flaunting their unfettered power by padding around town in the pajamas.” Again, it is either ignorance, or the author’s fascination with the mafia theme that makes him write such fallacies. If one visits any coastal city in Syria, it is a common sight to see people walking around in pajamas, women more than men. It is a very rural theme in Syria, and you can even see it amongst farmers in most Syrian villages. The notion that only gangsters do that is a purely American/Hollywood one, and can be viewed as very patronizing to Syrian citizens.
The author then describes Syria as “ethnically volatile.” This is also a very egregious statement that would offend most Syrians. Lebanon is known to be ethnically volatile, not Syria. Syria has always been an example of co-existence (something attested to by Popes John and Benedict). The most vivid proof is our long history of coexistence, where violent incidents between ethnicities and sects are almost nonexistent. Historically, different religious and ethnic groups have fought side-by-side for independence, formed governments and coalitions together, and traded amongst each other. When the Armenians fled the massacre in the beginning of the 20th C., they chose Syria as their destination where they found a safe haven and managed to prosper and flourish. That would not have been the case if Syria was “ethnically volatile.” The author then erroneously claims that Hafez Assad protected other minorities “to counterweight the Sunnis.” Shamefully, the author ignores all of Syria’s history. The ethnic and religious coexistence in Syria far dates Hafez Assad. In fact, the main figures of Syria’s independence were the likes of Ibrahim Hanano (Kurdish), Saleh al-Ali (Allawite), Sultan Basha al-Atrash (Druze), Fares al-Khouri (Christian). These forces all then untied under the National Front and coalesced to fight foreign invaders together. If there is one fact ordinary Syrians take immense pride in, it is their harmonious coexistence for millennia.
The author then uses the “Beverly Hillbillies” analogy. What a condescending way to describe such a proud ethnic group with centuries-old culture and traditions, and who were so pivotal in the independence of Syria. Any journalist can get “one diplomat” to describe the US, or any other country, in the most disrespectful way, but does that mean it is something to be promoted?
Hama: once again the author regurgitates Israeli and neocon rhetoric in depicting the events of Hama. If he had underwent any investigative work, he would have discovered that actually the Muslim brotherhood did not just “launch a series of bombing”, but were rather massacring and beheading government officials, along with women who were ‘too liberal’ or did not confine to Muslim attire. And that the government response never included the air force, but rather, it sent troops and tanks and surrounded these extremist, and in turn a vicious battle ensued similar to the US’s encounter in Fallujah. Undoubtedly, innocent civilians lost their lives, as unfortunately is always the case, but Syria was facing what many North African countries, such as Algeria, would then face with these fanatics declaring an ‘Islamic state’ in Hama, and trying to spread it to the rest of the country. Also, the numbers of casualties put forth by the author are grossly exaggerated and again, mainly taken from Israeli and neocon authors. In fact, there is not one neutral source that can substantiate these allegations.
The author then turns to a young man who tells him about Vitamin Wow. I cannot claim that just like most developing countries, there is not a certain level of corruption –something that the government has committed to fighting. However, to show only that side raises suspicion. The author never interviews the thousands of other young men who are involved in the private sector –a sector employing so many of Syria’s youth. He does not interview someone from, say the Syrian Young Entrepreneurs Association that holds job fairs and conferences, and promotes entrepreneurship and opportunity among young adults (one of its own was just named by the Davos-based World Economic Forum among 200 of the most distinguished young leaders in 2009). But again, such a detail does not fit the black-and-black portrait this author paints of Syria.
Then, the author surprisingly dedicates one section describing in brevity the actual change and improvement in Syria, which is mindboggling. After all, the ostensible premise of this article was to “ask what, if anything, has changed?” Yet, he briefly and hastily counts the tremendous improvements, such as privatizing banks and industries, opening of a stock exchange, introducing the internet, recruiting highly qualified minds to the government, developing programs for literacy and economic empowerment, etc. This all apparently does not constitute ‘change’ for the author, and thus, is unworthy of elaboration. Instead, he is interested in guys walking around in pajamas, 27-year old colognes, and self-woven fables of dons and mafias.
The author then describes Aleppo as “a medieval mosh pit of shopkeepers, food vendors, gold merchants, donkey carts, craftsmen, trinket peddlers, beggars, and hustlers of all stripes, moving in a great colorful clanking parade of goat bells and sandaled feet.” This could very well be a scene out of Aladdin, which although many in the West find amusing and enchanting, the Arab world finds offensive and emblematic of colonial and Orientalist rhetoric. The late Edward Said would undoubtedly been outraged by it and considered it further flagrant proof to his treatise on “Orientalism”.
The author then claims that in the 70’s, Syrian officials wanted to bulldoze the Old City (which is already somewhat difficult to believe), until the residents prevented it from happening. Yet, the author claims that this was a time of “Mao and Stalin” style of dictatorship -“when dictators were dictators.” The author though fails to explain how such a ‘dictatorship’ would heed to the complaints of the people on such a colossal project?!?!
The author then discusses his trip to a state-run factory where he talks to workers with lost fingers and crushed feet. I will not refute this escapade that he presents, but I am left to wonder why he refuses to take such a trip to some of Syria numerous private factories that he inaccurately describes later as driving prices up and forcing people out of their jobs. Syria has one of the most productive private industrial sectors in the region, exporting everything from pharmaceuticals to olive oil (Syria is the world’s 4th largest exporter of olive oil) and with international recognition. These industries and their suppliers provide jobs to millions of Syrians, as well as help catapult Syria on to the international and regional markets.
The section on education is also just as skewed and inaccurate as that of the industrial sector. To say that “it’s hard to find a bookstore that isn’t full of communist-era tracts,” is either a sign of lack of knowledge or an attempt for deception. Almost any bookstore in Syria contains a wide range of books from Hemmingway to ‘how to have a healthy sexual relationship’ to theories on capitalism and economic integration. Education wise, private schools and universities in Syria are mushrooming everywhere with internationally recognized curricula. Even public universities have undergone a tremendous overhaul of their curricula and pedagogical philosophies that is transforming the education process in Syria. The author also ignores the vibrant cultural scene in Syria widely regarded as the best in the region, with Damascus being elected the Arab cultural capital –Aleppo was the Muslim cultural capital the prior year. During the year, Damascus put on such a fascinating program of artistic, theatrical and musical performances from around the world, that it received immense international acclaim (more on the cultural scene in the conclusion).
The author then turns to the events of 9/11 and the Iraq war, and their resonance in Syria, where he further demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of the events on the ground and their nature. When the US invaded Iraq, the Syrian street, like all the Arab streets, was vehemently against such a foreign invasion of a fellow Arab country. However, among all Arab leaders, President Assad was one of the very few that opposed the war, knowing that it would be detrimental to Syria, the region, and more importantly, Iraq (something that ironically the current US president shares with President Assad). He demonstrated once again that he represented the Arab street more than any other Arab leader. I am, therefore, confused regarding why the author said that President Assad “diverted the widespread rage in Syria away from his vulnerable regime toward the Americans…” It is common knowledge that the Syrian, and indeed the Arab, street was against the invasion before the Syrian government can take any position, leaving one wondering about the ‘diversion.’ Furthermore, when we take into consideration that the author actually acknowledges the real threat that Syria faced from Al-Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, the “saber rattling” from the US, and the 1.5 million Iraqi refugees –all which the ‘regime’ had nothing to do –we see further signs of self-contradiction regarding ‘diversion’.
The author then addresses the Hariri assassination with worrisome ambiguity. He states that it “led to Assad’s doorstep.” This is a misleading statement that leaves much room for dangerous speculation. If he means that the assassination affected Syria, then it is true, as it eventually led to Syria’s full withdrawal from Lebanon; however, this does not seem to be his intent as he does not mention such withdrawal. If by “leading” to his doorstep, he means that President Assad is behind it, then this is another blatant neoconservative/Israeli slogan. There is a UN investigation currently underway to determine the perpetrator and all the reports by the current and previous lead investigators (Bellamare and Brammertz) have commended Syria for its cooperation in the investigation. Moreover, all objective reporting on this issue has shown that Syria suffered the most from this incident, which would have made it impossible for it to be behind the assassination. Regardless, the statement is again, dangerously ambiguous and can be seen to have sinister implications.
Finally, the author again talks about a “cloud of fear” in Syria, depicting it as a dark, sepulchral, state. Yet, when one walks the streets, sits in coffee shops, and reads the paper, people are freely criticizing most anything. To claim that it is full freedom of speech is an exaggeration; to describe it as a state where no one dares “say a word” is unjust.
To sum up, as a Syrian and as a reader of the National Geographic, I expect a piece on Syria in this magazine to give justice for both. It saddens me that this article gives none to either.
With a preconceived theme for his article, a “shadowland,” the author (and his photographer) sets off on a journey taking pictures and talking to anyone who would help him paint this theme. He is clearly obsessed with what Syria ‘was’, or how some neocons view it currently, instead of focusing on what it really ‘is’. The author completely ignores, or barely brushes on, the recent developments evolving in Syria. Instead, he spends pages weaving a novel-like description of President Hafez Assad’s rise to power and how President Bashar then came to power, while ignoring the ‘real’ issues of change. It inaccurately depicts Syria as a remnant of an ‘80’s style communist Eastern European’ state that is drowned in corruption and intelligence, rather than presenting a more accurate picture of Syria, which is one with a vibrant social, cultural, and economic scene.
In the past few years, Syria has witnessed tremendous transformations. Economically, it has registered one of the highest growth rates in the region. Financial institutions and banks have mushroomed, stock exchange opened, previously government-run sectors privatized, foreign investment flowing and sparking a wide range of new projects and construction, the only law dedicated to microfinance in the region, among many others –some which this author mentions but does not attribute any value to. Culturally, Syria boasts some of the most sophisticated art and art houses in the region; one of two opera houses in the region; internationally-renowned novelists and poets; and vibrant film, TV, and theater productions. Politically, Syria weathered a ferocious attempt of isolation, and even regime change by regional and international powers, all while maintaining an astounding economic growth rate (6.2%) and promoting cultural dynamism.
The author asks “what, if anything, has changed” in the past decade. These are the true answers to his question. This is what I would expect to find in the National Geographic. Not a tale of old cologne, mafia guys in pajamas, and a worn-out saga of a brother ‘forced’ into leadership. I would leave that to Hollywood.
[end of Amb. Moustapha letter]
The following story is the kind that the authorities in Damascus like — and from Fox News no less.
Monday, October 26, 2009
By Amy Kellogg
DAMASCUS, Syria — The Syrian Ministry of Tourism invited journalists from Tehran to Tunis to check out its top attractions during a trip to the normally reclusive country. Fox News hopped a caravan and went along for the ride.
Weaving through the narrow streets of old Damascus you can see women in modest black Islamic dress, or women in little black dresses. Syria is as diverse in public dresscode as Saudi Arabia is not…..
Dawn in Damascus
by Oliver August
Conde Nast Traveler, November 2009
This article by Oliver August who has lived in Syria off and on for years makes a nice contrast to the National Geographic article and captures aspects of Syria that Ambassador Moustapha speaks about in his letter. Read the first page for an excellent hook.
Once the center of the Islamic world, the Syrian capital is celebrating a cultural and economic rebirth—despite authoritarian rule. Amid the avant-garde galleries, hip restaurants, noisy souks, and Roman, Christian, and Ottoman architecture, Oliver August finds a city enthralled with its new freedoms
We have been waiting in our theater seats for half an hour when someone starts clapping. I join in, thinking, Hell, maybe this will persuade the actors to come onstage. We hope to see an adaptation of Richard III, subtitled An Arab Tragedy. Shakespeare has been rewritten to critique dictatorship in the Middle East—not something you see every day in Damascus. I worry that government censors have intervened at the last minute. But quite the opposite.
The clapping was initiated, it turns out, by what in the movie business they call a studio plant. When more and more hands join in, a side door opens, and in walks President Bashar Assad—the real one, not an actor—whose family has ruled Syria for longer than I have been alive. He waves awkwardly, his long neck tilted to one side, and sits down a few feet away from me. So this was the holdup. Tonight there are two kings, only one of them onstage. Most of the audience seems unsure which one to watch when the curtain goes up.
In the play, the homicidal Gloucester decides to have himself elected to the throne. This being the Middle East, the election is rigged. Puff-chested minions tell Gloucester that he has won ninety-nine percent of the vote. “What about the other one percent?” he cries. “Why did they not vote for me?” The audience guffaws. They can’t help but look over at Assad. In 2007, he won 97.6 percent of the vote in a presidential “election.” Nobody believed the result. Now he is throwing back his head in laughter and slapping his knee….. (Read the interesting discussion about the Assad’s presence at the play by that took place after?)
…. Restaurants are old hat already. The new craze is small hotels in historic buildings. Most Syrians I know seem connected to one or another project that aims to install water beds in old courtyard houses with mother-of-pearl-inlaid furniture and gardens of bougainvillea. May Mamarbachi was the first with Beit al Mamlouka, an eight-room gem. She now has competition from the Talisman Hotel, which has a pool, forty-inch TVs, and twice as many rooms (though half were built illegally, it is whispered). Estimates range from ten to fifty small, chic hotels under construction. Can they all make money? Ask not to reason with those caught in rapture. Even the Aga Khan is in on it: He wants to combine three large palaces to form what must be the Macy’s of small hotels.
Credit for this new spirit goes to people like Evelyne Salloum, the twenty-nine-year-old daughter of a local hotelier. In 2007, she opened a rooftop nightclub called Z Bar (think, if you will, of a French lothario saying, “Let’s go to zee bar”). She charges a presumptuous ten dollars for a bottle of beer, and yet up to six hundred guests come on weekend nights. They lounge in seats covered in fuchsia velvet, lit by crystal chandeliers in the spirit of Dolce & Gabbana, and lean against walls covered with black mock-croc fabric. “People dance here like they have been frustrated for years,” Salloum tells me. I ask her, why now? She says that she used to drive the two hours from Damascus to Beirut most weekends to party. But after Hariri’s assassination, when the Syrian military ended its occupation of Lebanon, she suddenly felt no longer welcome there. Unwilling to quit dancing, she decided to replicate Beirut at home. Z Bar is the result…. Read More