“Some Remarks on Syria,” by Observer

"Observer," one of Syria Comment's keenest commentators, sent in this note on his recent trip to Syria. He writes:

I just returned from a trip to Europe and Syria with a short stay in Lebanon as well. Here are my observations

1. The Syrian regime never felt any significant pressure from being so called isolated. As long as the foundations of the regime remain stable and strong, they do not care one bit whether tourists come or stay home, investments flow in or out, and so on and so forth.

2. The state which I felt a mere three years ago was going towards a failed situation has recovered well. Infrastructure is being built and more importantly being maintained and repaired. It is by no means similar to what a first world country does, but it is a remarkable improvement.

3. The public is happy with stability and disgruntled with nepotism and corruption. If the last two items are tackled the populace will rally behind the regime even more

4. The ability to absorb and manage the near 2 million refugees from Iraq is a feat to be absolutely commended. Some are doing well having brought money and invested in local business, others are quite poor and destitute but still not hungry and all are sheltered.

5. The price of commodities has people unhappy but I saw much fewer begging than before and certainly a lot less than what I saw in Prague.

6. The alliance with Iran is unbreakable, the two countries have mutual investment and military and economic ties that will be near impossible to break short of a real threat of regime change.

7. The military is transformed into a more efficient force, although still in conventional terms no match for Israel, training is being conducted day and night. I happen to have stayed near an army shooting range and I could hear the firing both days and nights.

8. The KSA invested 1.5 billion dollars and with the Jordanian secret service trained the Hariri militia into a state that was completely destroyed in less than four hours by HA with the full awareness and even help from Syria as they poured 600 highly loyal and very well trained Druze into the Shouf mountains to put Walik Bek in his place while at the same time helping fully with the Alawite community near Tripoli.

9. In Paris, Assad got all he wanted, cooperation, recognition, while not committing to anything substantial and at the same time snubbing Olmert and more importantly Mubarak.

10. The Lebanese may opt for partition of the country if encouraged and helped by France and the US to avoid having the state de Jure that is non present, be controlled by the non-state but active HA. This will be a disaster for the country, especially since the Foreign policy of France is being conducted by impulsive Sarko le premier.

11. The entire south and the Dahyia has been fully rebuilt with Iranian help. The transformation is absolutely remarkable.

12. In Iraq, the US have stabilized the situation somewhat by doing essentially what Saddam did all along. Fear, co-opt some, bribe some, pay some, and divide some. Outside of the Green zone, there is really no true government but warlords, gangs, bandits, factions, and the like. Iran has essentially played a major role in stabilizing Iraq by having its hand in with every faction except the hard line Sunnis. Here Syria has been able to help due to the ties between the two Baath party factions.

13. Europe is tired of competing, and the population is fully frazzled at having to work harder, longer, and in a more frantic way than ever before. The elite have a vision of Europe equal to that of the US in all measures and the population see an incompetent parasitic bureaucracy that is out of touch with reality.

14. Returning to the US, I see that the public here is so oblivious to what the rest of the world is doing that it is truly amazing. In terms of energy efficiency every toilet has a water sparing system and every lighting is motion activated to reduce energy costs in every place I went to even in Syria and here we are still refusing to see the train coming down the track full speed ahead at us. The deer in the headlight is an apt description.

15. Finally the consensus in the ME from the 2006 war is that the Israeli public and the Israeli society have moved into a stage of development that they no longer are willing to fight. 3000 HA fighters fought to a standstill 30 000 Israelis. I wish you could see the pictures of Nasrallah in the region to have an idea of the depth of popularity that he enjoys.

Comments (71)

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51. Qifa Nabki said:

“consistent” indeed … they will criticize no matter what.

Ya Alex,

I agree with you! Imagine my own amazement as I hear the very same people who used to criticize Beirut for all of its superficial nightlife and restaurants and corrupt monopolists (al-Hariri etc) now praise Syria for following the same model!


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July 19th, 2008, 8:43 pm


52. Alex said:


1) Not me.
2) If you are referring to Ausa*** .. then you are a certified trouble maker.

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July 19th, 2008, 9:22 pm


53. EHSANI2 said:


Both QN and myself have concluded that we still love you. Yes, we argued for an hour on our telephone conference call but as we both hang up, the consensus was that you are still the best.

IDAF Habibi,

Will be seeing in Aleppo soon. May be we can write a joint report from there which will be a bit more balanced 😉

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July 19th, 2008, 9:28 pm


54. Alex said:

Teslam ustaz Ehsani el3azeem.

Looking forward to your joint report with IDAF from Aleppo.

Actually … Most expats report about Damascus… what is hapeneing in Qamishli and Hassakeh? .. Hama and Dreikeesh? …

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July 19th, 2008, 9:43 pm


55. ausamaa said:

Yes, there are lines now, and there are cab drivers who remind you to put the seatbelt else you get out of the cab, heavy vehicles and public transport busses are now equiped with a box checked upon arrival to see if they excceded the speed limit and tough action is taken immediately (accidents dropped drastically). And just about every one is adhring to those new rules.My plane was delayed for hours according to the captain because the delay at the airport immigration because of the large number of Iraqi travellers.

And last but not least Karim is finding solace in highlighting the “Syrian” contradiction (I happened to be the example) between living in the Gulf, liking Bashar and Nassrallah, and working on developing Gulf investment in Syria which is coming mainly from Qatar, Kuwait and Emirates ( a political and economic message at the same time!). As to the Gulf people and Assad and Nassrallah, well, a very prominent Sunni millliardair businessman, Mr. al Kharafi who happnes to be the head of Kuwait’s elected parliment had just sent a foot long telegram to Nassrallah congratulating him of the prisoner’s exchange, and the last pools in the Gulf put Nassralah and Bashar at the top of their favourit leaders. Your anger at the regime can cloud things a bit, but dont convince yourself that a tornado watch announcement is bound to turn into a Catrina-size hurricane.

I know I can not change how you feel, and personal experiences can be very painfull -if this is the case-, but life is changing, and holding grudges forever is not a very smart idea. And things are not always either White or Black. Same like when we always thought we saw ghosts when forced to sleep early. Ghosts can be certainly are around, but surely, there are not a large enough numbers of them to attend to all the sleep-resistant children in the world.

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July 19th, 2008, 10:09 pm


56. ausamaa said:


Come on, we are supposed to be building Nuclear reactors around the area you mentioned, right? So a lot should be happening there! And let us look forward to “self-proclaimed” more balanced reports from there too..

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July 19th, 2008, 10:14 pm


57. norman said:

QN ,

It looks like the board of Syria comment had a meeting , What about us the share holders , when are you going to tell us about the result.

Ausamaa ,

With your optimestic view of Syria , I think these IPOs you are talking about might be of interest to me.

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July 19th, 2008, 11:41 pm


58. norman said:


I agree with you and I think that the US is playing nice with Iran to make the attack more of a surprise .

If KSA supply and provide support for the attack on Iran The relation between the Arabs and Iranians will be damaged for a long time , Thinking of it , I think the KSA wants a division between the Shea and the Sunni so the Muslims will be busy killing each other and leave the West alone.

That is their deal with president Bush for leaving them alone after 17 of the 19 attackers on 9/11 were from KSA . Divide the Muslims ,
they are losing their status as defenders of the Arabs and Muslims after the rise of Nasrallah and Assad .

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July 19th, 2008, 11:54 pm


59. Majhoool said:


Exactly. thank you

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July 20th, 2008, 2:05 am


60. Off the Wall said:


First, Welcome back. And thanks for the good news. From what you and others have described, it seems that a positive trend towards civility and customer service is taking place. I have not been back for ages now, and what you describe make me want to go back for the long awaited visit, and to enjoy trendy coffee shops and Aleppine ivory towers.

You mentioned that the country’s leadership is trying to implement the Chinese model (i.e., liberalize economy but not the society or the political life). At this juncture, i happen to believe that such may be a reasonable decision, not for the inability of the yrian people to live in a liberal democracy, but for the fact that re-building the country from the sclerotic state it was in in 2000 into a better state requires strong and centralized decision making institutional structure.

So far, most of my Syrian friends who went for a visit came back with positive impressions. An American colleague of mine, who recently spent a full week in Aleppo in a workshop, came back stunned. His comment was exactly the following ” Infrastructure is there, it is being built every day, and the country is getting ready to become a tourist mecca.”

I asked him to compare what he saw with other Arab countries he has visited including Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt (which we visited together also on a business trip). He said that he liked Syria the most, and he would seriously consider a vacation there.

To me that was both a good news and a source of concern. It is a good news because one of the primary assets of Syria and Lebanon is the cosmopolitan nature of their citizens. And any business person, (IMHO), must recognize that the human capital is the most essential element of any enterprise. It is a source of concern to me because all of the projects I have been hearing about are primarily service project. I do hope that you, or Ehsani can shed a little light on whether industrial projects are being constructed?, is anyone investing in agriculture, has anyone tried to bring in some high tech industries? or is the vision of future syria is primarily a tourist economy?

My concern stems from my fear that a tourist economy relies heavily on external factors. Economic downturn is neighboring countries can lead to a decline in tourism. I have similar concern with the rush of expats in both Syria and Lebanon to buy apartments as investment properties instead of investing in industries that can create jobs and have long term economic impact. This is not to mention that by dosing so, they have been making it harder for their resident compatriots to buy homes to live in. I have asked this question in a previous discussion, and have never heard an answer to it from either Alex or QN.

Since I have been out of the country for very long time now, I would love for anyone to kindly enlighten me regarding Syria’s industrial development. I can see that packaging of exported food items has improved significantly and it is now very competitive with turkish and other items. Yet, I would like to see at some point in time, on a computer chip, an internet card, or some other similar item, the word “Made in Syria”. I hope that we are not following the Indian model, but the Chinese or the Russian model, if nothing else.

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July 20th, 2008, 4:21 am


61. Majhoool said:

It’s time for a reality check instead of “keen” observation”
Where the poor are concerned, Syrian media has nothing to report


More than 2 million Syrians live below the poverty line of two dollars a day. But you would never know it from the Syrian media. Media analyst Ruhada Abdoush explores how Syria’s poor are perceived, and ignored, by the media establishment. By RAHUDA ABDOUSH

One of the ubiquitous shoeshine boys who crowd the streets of Damascus. R.R.

DAMASCUS, July 15, 2008 (MENASSAT) – Arguments can be made about how accurately the state-run and privately-owned media in Syria portray social issues. But there is little dispute about the Syrian media treat its sizable population of poor people – some 11 percent of the population or more than 2 million people – with little or no consideration.

These are the people the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) categorizes as living below the poverty line of two dollars a day, and in Syria these are the people creating jobs with their own hands living on the day’s earnings to survive.

They live everywhere among the population, whether they are shining shoes, cleaning offices or selling liquorice drinks off Thawra Street in the Hamidiyeh neighborhood. They are indispensable to the economy because they do work that many are unwilling to do.

Yet, the Syrian population doesn’t see them in the media.

Only during Ramadan

Examining the local Syrian media provides little insight into the lives of the disenfranchised.

Dailies such as al-Thawra and Tishreen adhere to the “we’ll cover it when it’s the appropriate time of year” school of thought.

During Ramadan, Syrians do find out about liquorice drink seller. Smiling, laughing and focused on quenching the thirst of the faithful, the drinks seller is often thrown into feel-good pieces together with the smiling shoeshine boy.

We find no serious reports looking into these people’s needs or their way of life.

Other newspapers, such as the Communist Party-run al-Nour, covers certain aspects of the lives of the poor, but without depth and certainly without any critical voice directed towards the root causes of the poverty.

And media analysts are quick to point out that privately-owned newspapers such as al-Watan or Baladona also act as if there are no social or economic problems in Syria.

Looking at Syria’s magazine market, the reports are certainly more in depth. Being poor for publications like Abyad w Aswad, Majallat Juheina, al Azmina or al-Iqtisadi is equated with having few social or economic safety nets.

In this sense, there is one area where coverage of the poor exists, but aspects of this analysis rarely cast blame towards the presidential palace, and they distinguish themselves by simply opposing the language of the official media.

Turning to the electronic media, with websites such as Thara, Marsad Nisa’ Souriya and al-Jamal, the qualitative gap with the rest of the media is clear. This is due perhaps to the publishing freedom electronic media enjoys, or maybe because of the gravity with which they address issues of public interest and social awareness experienced by most Syrians.

Still, even in the electronic media the treatment of the poor mainly touches on domestic violence and its relation to poverty and unemployment.

TV drama to the rescue

Examining the TV stations, both local and satellite Syrian broadcasters avoid any programs dealing with the livelihood of the disenfranchised in their news or analysis, relying instead on ornamentation and state slogans about government steps to address their plight.

That is unless Syrian TV dramatic series are considered as credible news sources.

Ironically, Syrian TV drama series do manage to portray characters that are indeed deprived both socially and economically. As an example, writer Fouad Humeira’s popular series, Deer in a Forest of Wolves, which aired on Syria’s second channel two years ago, often cut away to poor people in their homes wrestling with their dreams and their hardship.

It is a trend that has been found in recent Syrian drama series through writers such as Dalah Al-Rahbi and Reem Hanna, both of whom have made the point that the poor deserve as much attention as the more economically well-off in Syrian society.

Syrian media expert Hala Al-Atasy told MENASSAT that the media landscape in Syria is like “an island isolated from its surroundings.”

“Syrian media cannot function individualistically. There is a need for comprehensive governmental planning to deal with issues of poverty,” al-Atasy said.

“Media is one major part of it. The government must have a clear overall vision, and must revise what it allows media to say. Allowing the media to address issues with honesty exposes the size of the problems and their negative impact on society.”

This is obviously something the Syrian government does not welcome with open arms.

Atasy also alluded to the fact that journalists rarely feel empowered to tell the stories of the poor because of the obvious implications for the societal problems that exist.

But by not covering the issues of poverty and the poor – largely because of a fear of painting a negative picture of Syria – the media also have a hand in the marginalization of this class of people.

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July 20th, 2008, 4:32 am


62. Off the Wall said:

Dear Karim

When democracy comes to Syria, would you like it to come to a country in shambles, or to a country with some infrastructure and reasonably strong middle class. What I have been reading here between the lines tells me that the middle class, which is the corner stone of liberal democracy, is being reestablished in Syria. This is good news, because it will make democratic reforms easier and smoother. My wishful thinking is that Bashar, and his advisors, when faced with the resistance to his earlier reforms from the “old guard” (Khaddam included), have decided to maneuver around that and to establish his power while at the same time, making things easier for poeple in Syria by improving the economic situation despite of the tremendous external stress on the regime and the country. If i would take a little aloof position, i have to say Kudos. But afterall, what do I know 🙂

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July 20th, 2008, 4:41 am


63. Majhoool said:

Ok let’s practice simple arithmetic here.

14 million Syrians are poor or low income class, this includes

– 2 million individuals living by less than $2/aday:

– 2 million employees in the public sector. Supported family members will total 6 million.

– Working class in the private sector: let assume its equal in size: 2*3 million.

Upper middle class 6 million

2 million individuals supported by Merchants and business owners and a small number of employees in the private sector

Retirees or unemployed family members relying on gulf money/old money. (4 million)

Super rich (50, 000 max)

The problem I see is that upper middle class is not self-sustaining. I don’t see how you can build a modern state without an active role for this class.

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July 20th, 2008, 5:01 am


64. Off the Wall said:


Good post. Thanks.

I understand that in Aleppo, the poor Khaldeyyeh section, which neighbors the affluent Shahba neighborhood, has established a cottage industry of serving their neighbors by preparing “mooneh”. is that True. It is both sad, and hopeful. Sad because it higlights the class divisions, but hopeful because it demonstrates the inudustrious nature of Syrian People.

Ignoring the issue of poverty is very shameful, the Syrian media is not the only Arab media doing that. My limited sources tell me that poverty is still an issue in Saudia Arabia or even in the UAE, especially among migrant workers in the latter. Personally i never believed that Charity will ever solve the poverty problem. And I happen to fully agree with the article that strong efforts by the government is most essential and needed. It is a shame when a family has to take their daughter or son out of school so that they can shine shoes or sell liquorish to earn these two dollars/day. Any constructive idea about how to do address the issue?

The problem is that if the government tries to establish a new jobs program, critics will argue that the government is building a fat and unhealthy bureaucracy. Here in the state, poverty problem, which is also significant, will never be solved as long as arch conservatives have any power because they do not want the pocket of the most wealthy hit by additional taxes to improve social welfare. In fact, they always want lower and lower taxes, particularly for the most wealthy.

Solving poverty problem is very illusive, it needs money, and money has to come from somewhere. It needs job creating program, and by raising taxes to do so, there is also the valid argument that small businesses, who create most of the jobs that can have significant impact on poverty will be unable to create these new jobs. In many cases it is as they say a catch 22.

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July 20th, 2008, 5:12 am


65. Off the Wall said:


If the number you provided are right, and I am not stipulating that the aren’t, then I agree that upper middle class is not self sustaining. That is why I was asking about the creation of high paying jobs as opposed to service and tourism jobs.

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July 20th, 2008, 5:15 am


66. Majhoool said:


What’s disturbing is that two thirds of the upper middle class is literally idle, inactive, and marginalized.

Merchant although important don’t grow economies. It’s going to be very difficult to convince experienced ex-expatriates and well-to-do educated Syrians to participate and have faith in a broken system they don’t trust. Those end up in the west or the gulf no matter how comfortable their living situation in Syria is. they want to pursuit their dreams of personal achievement and success.

Many of my friends are so frightened when it comes to living in Syria merely because they grew comfortable living in countries that respect rule of law. It’s an insurance many cannot live without anymore.

At a minimum you need to restore rule of law in order to re-engage them.

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July 20th, 2008, 7:22 am


67. pamela said:

I think it would take more than a short visit to get a fuller picture. I presume Observer flew in through Damascus International Airport, I believe a new airport is being constructed ,inshalla.. at the moment the airport is an utter disgrace ,its filthy ,the immigration and custom officers are rude and unhelpful ,I recently had the misery of landing in the older part of the airport ,only one flight was being processed in this terminaland we were kept in line for more than an hour,I was travelling on a non syrian passport ,but have a residence visa ,and was required very rudely to buy a visa for50$ dispite protesting ,and was kept to the end of the queue , the customs officer was sitting holding a long cane that he kept banging on the table ….fal,aa for the passenger carrying contriband???
I,ve lived here for a while ,so I was used to these goings on ,but what about tourists,businessmen etc , I,m sure the reception at the airport would put anyone off for good..
I had flown in from Dubai where the airport experience couldn,t have been more pleasant . Even if the economy does catch up to other countries ,there has to be a change in the way Syria greets its visitors and citizens.
Syria deserves better !!!

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July 20th, 2008, 10:58 am


68. Qifa Nabki said:


Walla I don’t know why As’ad is making that argument. Sheer terror maybe?

He’s basically worried that M14 is going to cut a deal with Hizbullah so as to ensure some kind of maintenance of the status quo. I have no idea. Obviously, the Hariri and Jumblatt patronage machines are still working fine, even if their security muscle proved to be no match for the Hizb. So maybe I’m wrong. But I forecast a win for the opposition, and maybe that’s wishful thinking on my part. (As I said, I’d like the counter culture to become the dominant culture … that is very healthy in any society, within limits.)

Ammo Norman,

Yes, the board had a meeting, and we discussed *ahem* very serious issues… we will be making systematic changes, shake-ups in management, simultaneous downsizing and expansion, research and development, etc. etc.

Don’t worry, your shareholders’ dollars are in good hands.


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July 20th, 2008, 11:24 am


69. idaf said:

Karim, you said:
-Photos of Nasrallah and flags of HA are as popular in the Christian neighborhoods as the Muslim ones.
“IDAF ,this is the classical hypocrisy ,most of the photos are printed by the iranians and the syrian mukhabarat….if some syrians are deluded by the propaganda of the regime and their friends in lebanon ,not all of them move like a sheep crowd.”

So what are you trying to prove Karim? That Hassan Nasrallah and Hizballah are not popular among ordinary Syrians and that all those expressing support to HA are hypocrites and mukhabarat agents?!

Karim… Tell that to the Sunni taxi driver who drove me from Bab Touma and enthusiastically told me about his Christian neighbor who had a baby boy the same day the prisoners exchange and Nasrallah’s speech took place in Lebanon few days ago. Guess what the Christian father named his new born son… “Hassan Nasrallah”. The taxi driver told me how he drove his neighbor from one government department to another to try to get approvals for such a combined first name “esem murakkab” (since a decade now, you’re not allowed anymore to register combined names in Syria).

Will you cut out the conspiracy theories already? HA popularity is as genuine in Syria as it is among Gulf Sunnis and Egyptian Christians.

Karim you also said:
“BTW Idaf ,these houses in our beloved Damascus should be restored by experts with respect of the convention …i’m very sad when i see these houses destroyed then rebuilt in an imaginary oriental style in order to be transformed in modern hotels”

FYI.. I stayed in one of these renovated houses and entered many of the renovation workshops in old Damascus. I had a long discussion with the owner of the charming 16th century renovated boutique hotel I stayed in (a surgeon who spent his life savings in renovating this old house). He said that only centuries-old techniques were used in the renovation. Most of the workshops are using manual old techniques. Some are making expansion using concrete (which is not good for the old buildings). However your baseless claim about “destroying old houses” is nonsense. It is not only illegal (with possibility of jail time for offenders), it is also simply impossible. Do you really think that any of these entangled old houses can be destroyed without destroying 3 more in the process?!

Karim, appreciate if you cut out your hyperbolic negative propaganda and stick to realistic criticism.

QN, Ehsani and Alex,
Too bad I missed the summit! If I knew about it I would’ve extended my stay! I expect a full report 😉

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July 20th, 2008, 1:06 pm


70. Observer said:

The economy cannot be explained solely by internal factors. Outside investments are pouring in. The Emir of Qatar has invested in building resort houses for his family and friends. The Saudis have invested in hotels and in dairy farms, the olive oil business is doing well since the trees require little water and little maintenance.

One has to remember that there are 1 million working Syrians in the KSA alone. If each one sends an average of $ 5000 per year, you can have your calculator ready to see how money is coming through.

Still not all is perfect, just before I left Western Union in Syria accepts incoming transfers and refuses to transfer money out by “royal decree” from someone in the higher ups. No explanation.

A few more notes, the people on the street where I live collected money to clear it of all the left over garbage and did it in two days. This effort of collective thinking is also new as beforehand, agreement on the form and the size of the lighting system in the hallway of the building brought the tenants of our building to major disagreements.

The extreme individualism in combination with a total lack of civic duty is a major source of the dilapidation of many structures, but the revival of the religious feelings in combination with the ever looming threat of decrease in income is finally putting a dent in this vicious cycle. People are becoming activists in groups and in better collaboration. Finally, I agree with the post above that the restaurants are full, especially those that cater to Damascenes.

Hope to hear more impressions and observations from others visiting


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July 20th, 2008, 1:13 pm


71. Karim said:

IDAF ,I know that you are also in the Gulf…in my opinion you must go back to Syria and for a long stay ,one or two years and then your observation would be more accurate …the problem is that you visit Syria as tourist and you are not concerned by the repercussions of the economical and human regime’s crimes.In fact Syria should be richer than the Gulf and this poverty is not normal at all.
As for the massacre of the historic urban fabrics,since 1970 they destroyed 30 % of old Aleppo and probably more in Damascus …as for Hama you all know what happened in the old city .
In the 90’s there was some improvment because of the inscription on the world heritage list by the UNESCO …but recently the tranformation of the old houses in hotels are more a deformity than a restoration …there are exceptions of course.

the french writer Degeorge who wrote several books on damascus and syria wrote this famous article in the 90’s :The Damascus massacre – effect of modernity on old buildings in Syria
he wrote:
In 1983, only a year after the oppression of the Hama Revolution and the methodical destruction of the old town along with its historic monuments by troops of the president’s brother, Rifa’at al-Asad, old Damascus found itself again subject to arbitrary expressions of power. Inflamed by the hatred that all tyranny – from Herod of Syracuse to Ceaucescu – always feels for the old and organic and the tyrant’s instinctive love of the new, rigid, straight and rectilinear, the authorities embarked on the ‘improvement’ works. With unaccustomed speed, without reference to UNESCO or to the Government Committee on the city, demolition contractors were unleashed. The citadel was cleared on three sides following the plan recommended by Ecochard. To best assure the safety of the officials coming to offer their prayers at the Umayyades Mosque, a wide opening was randomly bulldozed in the west rampart at the entrance to the mosque. Other ‘improvements’ were announced but public disapproval and protests from UNESCO were beginning to have an effect. The Department of Antiquities came out of its stupefaction and set out to rebuild and patch up the gaping holes in the damaged facade.

Besides the great sham of good intentions put forward by the State, the ‘restoration’ enterprises were incompetent, cheap and distorted by greed, amateurism and improvisation. None followed the appropriate guidelines. Everywhere there is defective masonry jointing, misuse of plastering, inappropriate materials and equipment, weakness of form, gaudy paintwork and kitsch ornament. Hammams, madrasas, mosques, tombs were spoiled: none of the precious patrimony of the twelfth, thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries was saved.
Most worrying remains the absence of all technical, architectural and archaeological study, even in basic form. The ‘calculations’ put forward for certain sections of masonry which would certainly have caused collapse, are regretfully unavailable. On the other hand, their chief designers openly admitted being inspired by an eighteenth-century drawing, by the Russian traveller Barsky, of a monument with griffons. Why then, stop at this mediocre sketch, and not restore the building to its former state before the fire of 1400 or better still to that of 1069?UNESCO which should have been consulted, and which would have been able to provide technical and financial help, was not even informed. The International Committee reported with great anxiety at the meeting of the Committee of World Heritage in Santa Fe in December 1992 on a simple letter received in November from a tourist ‘intrigued by the strangeness of works in progress’. The director of Syrian Antiquities who participated in the meeting put forward a ‘Committee of Academics and Architects’ who stood guarantee for the necessary works and their conformity to the appropriate regulations regarding design and craftsmanship.

In March 1993, the Minister of Culture, Najjah Attar, in a curt, dismissive letter, claimed with firmness that all the guarantees would be upheld, and Syria had no need of assistance. It prevents, unhappily, any of the restorations being effected to this day.

All proposed improvements should be evaluated by a group of architects specialising in historic monuments, to ascertain their worth. The committee should co-ordinate all initiatives from municipalities or different ministries. Failing which Damascus, this urban jewel, already very much disfigured, will soon become just shapeless blocks of stone without soul.

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July 20th, 2008, 8:22 pm


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