Posted by Joshua on Friday, June 1st, 2007
I have finally gotten settled – more or less – in Damascus. Forgive me if I don't start in on politics, the international tribunal, and Bashar's elections. I will turn to these pressing topics soon enough. First a few personal observations.
A long flight on Emirate Airlines brought us in at 4 p.m. Wednesday afternoon. We started our trip at 4:00 a.m. on Tuesday morning. We knew we were in the Damascus airport when the smokers began to light up in the baggage reclamation area. But a year and a half makes a difference. This time the smokers collected self-consciously around the big holes in the wall where the baggage conveyor belts come through from the outside so that their smoke would blow outside! Progress of sorts. Another small change was that my father-in-law was unable to talk his way past the security personnel and sneak into the baggage reclamation area to greet us. Last time he did. A security upgrade for Damascus airport.
The meeting was joyous. My son, Kendall Shaaban, who is 3 and a half, hid behind me when his grandparents tried to hug him and smother him with kisses, causing some consternation. He pretended not to know them after a year and a half. As soon as we were in the car, however, he began to say "sitti" and "jiddi," much to his grandparents’ delight, which earned him many kisses and cheek pinches. After one night in Damascus, Manar and Shaboula departed with Manar's parents, Abu and Um Firas, up to the village, Bayt al-Murj near Qadmus, which is high in the Coastal Mountains – (We don't say Alawite Mountains any more – at least not if one is Syrian), where it is green and cool. I will follow them Tuesday next.
We are carrying out a language experiment. Shaboula has forgotten how to speak the rudimentary Arabic that he learnt when living in Damascus in 2005 at the age of 1 to 2 years old, although he understands it quite well. Manar only speaks to him in Arabic at home in the States. In the village, which is a collection of 12 houses, all occupied by Qash`urs and nestled in a small valley with a stream running through it, Shaboula will not hear a word of English. There is only one street running through the village. His many cousins run up and down it during the day playing ball, quarelling, and catching lizzards. From time to time, they disappear into the various houses, where aunts feed and fuss over them. There is a donkey and plenty of roosters in the ajoining olive and apple groves. Sunrise brings a cacaphony of rural sounds. There is a small swimming hole dug into the stream below my father-in-law's house. We will see how much Arabic Shaboula can learn in two months. I will let you know the results of our language experiment, when the summer comes to an end.
I am very fortunate to have found a lovely apartment over the internet, which has allowed me to settle in very quickly. It is rented by Alison Brooks, who has been here for nine months to study Arabic. She is an old friend, who I first met in Beirut in 1979, where she was helping to edit the Arabic version of Reader's Digest. I was a new teacher at International College. For the last twenty years Alison has lived in London, running a small business, which she recently sold in order to return to the Middle East to rejuvinate her Arabic and take a sabbatical. before relocating to Washington DC. She is now traveling in the North with friends, so I have not seen her yet.
The apartment costs a little less than $1,400 including the little things like electricity, etc. I split the costs. It is expensive – probably 3 or 400 dollars more than it would have been two years ago, but it is within 100 meters of the French Institute on one side and 100 meters of the Meridian Hotel on the other, which means it is quiet and within walking distance to many parks, restaurants and Shaalan, the happening place for cafes and those who want to see and be seen. In other words, it is ideal for the summer, being smack dab in the middle of things. I will have to take few taxis, which is a good thing considering how crowded the streets have become. My flat is on the forth floor. The balcony looks over a small park with a big Jacaranda tree in full purple bloom, plenty of rose bushes and "diffle," also in bloom. Being high up, one avoids the worst of the pollution from the streets and benefits from the cool evening breeze that descends from Mt. Casioun. For my many Atassi readers, the apartment is just above the Atassi Saydalaniyya on Shakib Arslan St.!
Day one was all about getting my wife and child packed and off to the village, getting a phone, and then plugging into the internet, which took calling a local computer guy and much fussing with passwords, the wireless LAN service which Alison has set up, and numerous phone calls. al-humdulillah! I am connected at 100 megabits, which is twice as fast as the 55 that the regular phone connection provided in 2005. It still takes time to switch pages and call up websites, but is considerably faster than the hair-pullingly slow service I used in 2005. I am told that there has been little real development of the internet because of a scandal at the Communications Ministry. An insider contract for the upgrading of the internet services was exposed, forcing the ministry to rescind the contract and open the bidding to competition. No new contract has yet been assigned and the government has wasted a year diddling around, while internet services have languished. My computer guy explained that I could get DSL service installed at home, but friends have assured me this is quite impossible and would take months to accomplish. Advertisements in the newspapers claim it can be done in an instant through private companies. Confusion rules. Some things have not changed. I feel lucky to have the services that I do.
Damascus, center city, has changed little from 2005. Of course there are many new store fronts and banks. The old Rifaat al-Assad Center for Ph.Ds that was a total eye sore in the middle of Shaalan for 20 years, with its brown tiles half fallen off exposing the raw cement underneath and with dust piled up on the window sills has finally been redone into Bank Byblos and looks swell with a proud new marble facing. Bank Audi and others are near by on Abu Roumani – all sparkling. Cafe Down Town has opened opposite Pit Stop. One can see many apartments being refurbished, but not big cranes or new buildings. Strict urban development laws inhibit downtown construction. Apartment buildings can only be five stories high, so there is no incentive to tear down existing structures to make way for sky scrapers. I guess that is a good thing.
From my balcony, I can count several construction jobs. The apartment to my left is being completely gutted. Workers are busy in it every day. Across the street, a four story building is having a new exterior of Aleppine cut-stone installed over the old stucco concrete. It shines white with its new skin and makes neighboring buildings look even drabber and grayer than usual. The balconies have beautiful new ironwork and stone toppings. The doors and windows have been trimmed and redone with a dark oiled wood. It is quite spiffy and sets a new fashion trend on the street. We will be seeing more of such refurbishments.
Friends tell me that one must go out to the suburbs to see construction gone crazy. I had lunch with a friend who lives out beyond Duma. He said that the building frenzy was only too apparent out where he lives. Tons of new buildings going up to attenuate the overcrowding and steep rent hikes over the last few years. The elimination of old socialist real-estate laws combined with the waves of Iraqi immigrants has spurred on the boom.
Last night I had dinner with one of Syria's leading economists, Jihad Yaziji, who puts out the Syria Report, the country's best English language economic digest. His wife Sana cooked up the most delicious roasted eggplant smothered in burnt onions and garlic, cooked wheat, salad, and humus. Not only is Sana a fine cook but she is also an excellent graphic designer who until recently has raced between Damascus and Beirut to do the layout and help publish the Arabic version of Le Monde Diplomatique. They moved from Paris two years ago as part of the growing number of young entrepreneurs who have been bringing their skills and businesses back home and testing the waters of Syria's economic opening. They are happy, even if frustrated by the slow change and managerial chaos of Syrian economic life.
Jihad is convinced that there is a real consumer boom going on in the country. I teased him about his positive attitude because when I left in 2005, he was quite gloomy about Syria's economic prospects. He confessed that perhaps he shouldn't be too upbeat, but then went on to tick off a list of consumer statistics, beginning with the fact that the number of cars registered in Syria has doubled in two years. Cars are still about twice as expensive in Syria as they are in the States, nevertheless, the big drop in prices in 2005 has led people to pull out savings from God knows where. It is not only cars. Most large consumer items have seen big increases in sales. The lowering of tariff barriers among Arab States and Turkey has made many new items affordable and they are pouring into the stores. Jihad insists that Syrians are learning to be competitive, especially in low end production, processed foods, clothing and textiles.
The growing consumerism is translating into new industry, Jihad said. Big new cement and steel factories are being built to feed the construction boom. Food processing plants of all kinds are finding a hungry market in Iraq, where factories don't work but people remain hungry and still need to eat and cloth themselves. Of course, there is stiff competition from Jordanian and Gulf trading zones, but Syria is building large new industrial cities outside of Damascus, Aleppo, and Homs. Jihad has visited the city 50 kilometers outside of Damascus and east off of the Aleppo road. He says there is impressive building going on. The ports of Tartus and Latakia are planning expensive enlargements to accommodate the overflow of imports. New car and oil refining plants are also being constructed. Even though many of the new construction and development projects one reads about languish in government red tape or remain largely on paper, others are putting brick to cement.
What is the result of this boom on employment? One only has anecdotal evidence. Jihad and Sana got into an argument on the subject. Jihad believes unemployment has been falling. His wife frowned at this. She is presently unemployed, having just resigned from the Le Monde job. Jihad explained that the building boom has been soaking up much unskilled labor. This is something I was told by my friend living in the suburbs as well. Skilled labor in construction is also stretched beyond capacity. One has to search far and wide, people say, to find contractors free to redo a kitchen or renovate. Jihad asked his wife, “do you know anyone who is out of work? In France we knew many people without jobs, but here I cannot think of anyone.” Sana scoffed at this and replied, “but many people are underemployed or not working in their specialty.” Jihad said, “OK, but name one person you know without a job.” Sana couldn’t.
Perhaps Jihad was upbeat because he had just gotten out of a meeting with the head of the Bureau of Statistics. It is well known that few people place much faith in Syrian economic statistics, nevertheless, Jihad said the government claims that unemployment stands at 9% and journalists quote a number of 20 or even 25%. “Where does this figure of 20% come from,” he asked? Someone wrote 20% several years ago and everyone has been blindly repeating it ever since. The Bureau of Statistics monitors some 20,000 families, it was explained to Jihad. Unemployment in the East along the Euphrates is high, as it is in the farming districts around Tartus in the West, where much of the work is seasonal. Statistical results depend on when one takes the sample. In Damascus and the large cities, unemployment levels are much lower, Jihad insisted. This is why so many rural people flood into the cities. The cities are where the money is and where globalization and foreign investment are having the biggest impact. Of course many of the new jobs in construction or manufactures are low paying, insecure, and dangerous, but they are jobs.
Syria is undergoing a classic third-world development cycle. Friends suggest to me that Bashar plans to pull many of the essential subsidies on fuel and other basic goods in the near future to stop the hemorrhaging of state funds. The poor will get poorer and the rich will get much richer.
It is quite clear from the election campaigns that power is now firmly in the hands of those with money and capital. For some time we have been watching influence and power shift from the Baath Party to the small group of super rich who have attached themselves to the regime. In this, Syria is following in the well worn path of Egypt, Morocco, Jordan and other developing states too numerous to count. Syria is still at the beginning of this process, the circle of capitalists who have joined hands with the ruling family still remains small. The growing gap between rich and poor is everywhere visible, but its real dislocations have yet to be fully felt. For the time being, traditional family bonds and class relations retain their power and time-honored arrangements.
It is exciting to be back in Syria and to see old friends. This evening I went to dinner with another group of friends in the Malki district, high up on the road to Casioun. Each has a story and new reactions. Today was the big – and perhaps final – “muhibak,” or “we love you” carnival in celebration of the President’s election. Hopefully I will have a chance to write about the nature of the celebrations and election parties soon. Tomorrow I travel out to Jaramana, one of the suburbs where the Iraqis have concentrated.