Posted by Joshua on Thursday, October 25th, 2007
Ibrahim Hamidi, al-Hayat's bureau chief in Damascus, has just returned from Turkey where he covered the Assad visit. He writes: "Hello, I just came back from Turkey. It was a really good experience." I attach an article published in Sam Moubayed's magazine, Forward. Cheers, Ibrahim
The Beirutization of Damascus
The Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005 accelerated the reform process in Syria. Everything that could be found in Beirut is now readily available in Damascus. This social revolution in the Syrian capital has yet to spread to the rest of Syria. Ibrahim Hamidi
Syria is changing. Not all of Syria, however, is included in this change. The speed of change varies. It is quick for those living inside Syria, although they may not feel it on a daily basis. Things are different for an expatriate, who sees the change process as slow, incapable of coping with the rapid spread of globalization. The expatriate, however, acknowledges how deep and symbolic this change actually is. The one who feels the change most, however, is the Syrian who has been away from his country for many years. He feels the change the minute he walks into Damascus International Airport.
Syria no longer looks like Cuba or North Korea. True, some security personnel still do not greet visitors in a proper manner. Routine is still paramount at border crossings. Advertising billboards, however, are everywhere to be found. There are duty free shops at all border entrances, just like in any other country in the world. No sooner does a visitor finish with all official formalities at passport control and the customs department, than he finds a completely different setting awaiting him. It is the private sector. Private transport companies, private GSM providers, and private banks all ‘welcoming’ visitors to Syria.
Within the city, the situation is different yet similar; full of contradictions. Buildings dating back to the Soviet legacy, copied from the Eastern bloc. Huge buildings, constructed from grey cement, with neither life nor taste. These are mostly government and residential buildings, all constructed by the public sector, aimed at accommodating the largest number of ‘proletariats’ in the smallest amount of space. These buildings are not new.
What’s new is the change that has overcome the architectural philosophy of Damascus. New beautiful buildings are sprouting all over town. The Damascenes were stingy when it came to spending on exteriors, as opposed to the interiors of their homes, unlike the people of Aleppo, who spent lavishly on both. Today, new touches have started to appear on Damascene architecture. Good examples of this architectural renaisance and concern for beauty are the Four Seasons Hotel and the Cham Islamic Bank, which have sprouted up like spring flowers amidst ‘boring’ monuments of the previous era.
In Syria today one can open private schools, universities, and banks. It is possible to spend thousands of US dollars on international brands like Prada, Dior, and Gucci. Even Gap, which is banned in several Arab countries, has found its way to Damascus, which hosts the General Secretariat of Boycotting Israeli Products. KFC—the symbol of Americanization—can now also be found in one of the most elegant streets of Damascus.
Some residents of the Syrian capital live a life that does not resemble that of other Syrians. They wake up at will to drink Nescafe or head to one of the numerous coffeehouses that are scattered all over town. There is an In-House Coffee chain in the Syrian capital, along with a chain for Gemini restaurants. Newly opened is the Costa coffeehouse near the Four Seasons.
The few Syrians who can afford this luxury can now chose from a mixture of coffee blends and flavors. Supermarket shelves are now filled with the finest products. A few years ago, availability of sugar or cooking fat was an event in itself in Damascus. There was a scarcity of products in Syria but not anymore. The opening of a mini-market was a big event. It is now natural to hear that the Cham City Center, a huge mall, has opened in the Kafarsouseh neighborhood. It is no longer surprising to see that it contains international brand names, automobiles, food stuff, and designer clothes.
There is also a newfound interest in healthy products—ironically, in a country that invented greasy Arabic cooking and Oriental sweets. Transportation is simple. Public buses are still available. They are colored in white, and come from Iran. Mini buses are also available, and so are yellow taxi cabs.
What is new is the large number of luxury cars speeding through the Syrian capital. Some of them cannot even be found in the countries of their origin. Maserati. Hummer. Lamborghini. Bentley. And of course, Jaguar, Mercedes Benz, and BMW. All of them can now be found in Damascus.
After drinking blended coffee, and chatting through a wireless connection on one’s laptop, these privileged few Syrians can kill some more time with telephone business deals, made through one’s own mobile. It is no longer needed to go to Lebanon to deposit revenue from these ‘business deals.’ One can make us of the seven private banks that have started operation in Syria, with a total deposit that has reached $3 billion USD.
For lunch—or dinner—there is a wide variety of restaurants to chose from; Turkish, Indian, Japanese, Chinese, Mexican, French, and Italian. All of them are located in the posh neighborhoods of Damascus. Oriental restaurants can still be found in the Old City. It must be noted that a 4-person meal at any of the se restaurants is equivalent to the monthly salary of a senior official in the government service.
Those with correct fitness and age can now also flex their muscles at the numerous health clubs that have sprouted all over town. Those with abundant time can get a massage or healthy herbal prescriptions at the doctor’s clinic. After caring for the body, one can then turn attention to what he or she is wearing. The ‘openness’ of these last few months have created a wide variety to chose from. Taboos of the previous era—foreign label clothes—are now within reach. Almost instantly, international brand names mushroomed all over Damascus. It is no longer surprising to find boutiques in the posh districts of the Syrian capital. The surprise lies in finding them in the old commercial districts of the city.
The finest examples are Villa Moda, a fashion outlet in the Midhat Pasha Street near the ancient Hamidyya Bazaar, and L’Avenue, an old Damascene palace that has been transformed into a modern fashion boutique. It contains expensive items of clothing, where a woman’s jacket can cost up to $2000 USD—after a 50% discount.
Contradictions are ripe over here as well since these boutiques are located amidst a multitude of small shops that have been selling cheese and salty refreshments for centuries. Ever since the Ottoman Era, they have been offering products to average Syrians for no more than a few Syrian piasters. Also located in the vicinity of these new fashion shops are small ones selling school stationary, adorned with photos of Hizbullah chief Hasan Nasrallah and his yellow party flag. Suddenly, in the heart of all of this, one finds a large exquisite wooden door—the entrance of a cave carrying all of Ali Baba’s secrets. Customers need to be ‘armed’ before entering, with a chauffeur driven automobile, a Visa Card, or thousands of US dollars in order to purchase in cash from Ali Baba’s cave.
On the western boulevard of the Four Seasons Hotel, one finds Rotana Café, with its expensive prices and breathtaking waitresses. A few meters from this ‘globalized’ scene is a public station for small warn-out buses. They carry thousands of workers per day to and from their jobs, for a fee of 5 SP per passenger. These are two different worlds indeed. Nothing unites them except geographic proximity. Morning coffee. Online chatting. Cosmopolitan lunch, French perfumes, and foreign clothes with international brand names imprinted on them.
Everything seems set for a wild night out in the city. More options are now available than ever before, from the Marmar Nightclub in the Old City to the Amigos Club on the northern entrance of Damascus. There are many such venues both in the old and new city and one can easily spot them by the valet parking and security guards—bouncers—stationed at their doors, all hired from the private sector. What happens within them is similar to what happens in similar places around the world; drinking, dancing, romanticizing, and rising ecstasy from a particular scent in a particular corner of the club. Those who still enjoy an Oriental final to their evening—after clubbing all night long—wrap up with foul or hummos, obtained from the Midan district of Old Damascus.
Some of the few—or their children—can now also go to university in Syria. Private universities have opened after all, and are teaching in English for a tuition that is payable in US dollars. That also applies to private schools. In addition to the American, French, and Pakistani schools, which have been around for decades, private schools emerged in recent years, based on foreign curriculums and a high annual tuition that reaches up to thousands of US dollars.
All of this means that Beirut is no longer important. The need for Beirut is over. What Beirut used to provide for some Syrians can now generously be found in Damascus. The Syrians were accustomed to spending their weekends in Beirut; coffee at Verdun, lunch at the downtown district of the Lebanese capital, and shopping with thousands of US dollars. Lebanese banks used to perform transactions for their Syrian customers and other services that could not be found in state-run banks in Syria. One well informed source commented saying: “Instead of spending these dollars in Lebanon, they are now being spent in Syria. It is the same segment of society—all that has changed is the market.”
There is no disagreement that the Syrian troop withdrawal from Lebanon in April 2005 accelerated the Lebanonization of Syria, and the Beirutization of Damascus. This was in appearance, scent, food, and spending. One can now see how the ‘few Syrians’ look—and where they socialize—in a variety of Syrian publications that cover social events in Damascus and Aleppo, like Layalina Magazine, Star, and What’s On. Those interested in reading about politics and cultural affairs can browse through Syria Today and FORWARD, two famous English-speaking Syrian magazines.
They were founded by a team of graduates from the American University of Beirut (AUB) and other Western universities. Online, one can find further reading in Syrian websites like Syria News and Cham Press. One can enjoy light readings in the daily newspaper Baladna or through the cultural/political daily, al-Watan. Syrians no longer need to tune onto Lebanese radio channels to follow the latest Arabic and Western music. Commercial, non-political radio stations have also started operating in Damascus.
Official news sources however, in TV, radio, and the printed media, are still there, just like the case with public sector banks, universities, and schools. No sooner than one leaves this limited new and modernized circle than he finds himself back to a bygone era—as if nothing has changed. Thousands still embark to their schools every morning, paying measly tuition. At dawn, millions still go to their factories, crops, and mosques. Change has not reached all parts of Syria. It only affected some districts and neighborhoods.
There is a bigger world out there—very different from the one that is experienced by the wealthy few. According to official statistics, 11% of Syria’s 18 million people live below the poverty line. There is a 9% unemployment rate; approximately 1 million of Syria’s work force. Most of the unemployed are young people. One needs only to talk a walk through rural Syria to confront how different things actually are.
On Thursday and Friday evenings, thousands of families go out on picnics, bundled in their Pick-Up trucks or small three-wheel automobiles. They settle in the numerous public parks and spaces of Damascus for a family gathering that costs them nothing. The situation is different from that of the ‘few’ in Syria’s urban interior. The pace of change is slow. The repercussions of ‘openness’ have not reached these districts. People commute with simple public transportation. When they return they eat at home. The only pleasure is watching Arab satellite TV. Those interested in politics watch debate shows. Those looking for entertainment watch the abundant number of drama series that are broadcasted around the year. Those who are still in their adolescent years wait until late after midnight to watch de-coded Western channels. But life doesn’t change as fast as it does in the virtual world.
Dreams that are beamed into living rooms from satellite TV are must faster than society’s ability to change and cope with them. Some find salvation in depression and isolation. Others find it at religious lessons or the local mosque. They look for the second life. Some still search for victory. That’s why Hasan Nasrallah is so popular in these districts. People raise his photo and the Flag of Hizbullah over trees, village posts, and the rooftops of their humble homes.
The Syrian scene is becoming increasingly complicated and contradictory. One segment increases in wealth. It gains education and ‘globalizes’ rapidly. Gradual economic reform, along with Gulf investment money pouring into real estate and tourism. The appearance of indicators signaling extravagance and luxury. On the other hand, other indictors point to more needs among the general population.
There are is talk of a drawback in oil revenue. People are becoming increasingly unable to meet their basic needs. These are early warnings for great poverty. They are topped with religious and nationalistic radicalization in a region that is becoming increasingly sectarian. It is not easy to envision the future in Syria. This needs analysis, study, observation—and a early warning vision with caution.
Ibrahim Hamidi is bureau chief for the London-based al-Hayat newspaper in Syria.