Arriving in Damascus 2007 – First Impressions

Dear  readers,

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.

Comments (55)

George Ajjan said:


I am sure I am not the only SC devotee feeling a warm nostalgia right about now.

Keep us entertained this summer, my friend!


June 1st, 2007, 11:01 pm


Enlightened said:


As they say in Arabic: Hamdillah ha Salameh

I as many others will look forward to your Summer posts, first hand experience and reporting! You just cant beat it. Garlic and onions on roasted eggplants Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm.

Enjoy your trip.

June 2nd, 2007, 12:01 am


ugarit said:

Dear Dr. Landis:

How were you able to buy your tickets to Syria? I can’t find any flights to Damascus when I use orbitz, travelocity or expedia.

Can’t wait for your next posting.

Can you cover the controversy over the alleged plan to demolish parts of Old Damascus?

June 2nd, 2007, 12:21 am


Ford Prefect said:

Alf hamdella al salameh. I was excited to read about your arrival and was equally thrilled that you have landed close to an Atassi anything – even in Damascus and even if they happen to be below you 😉

Looking forward to your forthcoming stories from the inside.

Enjoy and leave some food for us.

June 2nd, 2007, 3:01 am


Nur al-Cubicle said:

Dear Joshua:

Our man in Damascus! The denizens of this blog are lucky! Can’t wait to hear what you find about about the Iraqis who have settled there! Thank you for sharing your observations. This is great.


June 2nd, 2007, 3:12 am


Ford Prefect said:

Here is a nice article about the boom in Syria. The author is also quoting Jihad Yaziji mentioned above by Joshua:

June 2nd, 2007, 3:19 am


bilal said:

Alhamdallah 3assalama and I wish you a nice stay. Looking forward to your future writings from back home. It is a hot time to be now in Damascus and there will be a lot to write about.

June 2nd, 2007, 3:36 am


norman said:

It looks like Syria is moving in the right direction eventhough too slow for some , we should all remember that Syria is moving toward economic recovery while at peace and safty for it’s people and that is worth somthing and Bashar Asad gets the credit.

June 2nd, 2007, 3:37 am


someone said:

Wonderful blog.
Keep up the good work by posting what is happening with you.

June 2nd, 2007, 3:43 am


Fares said:

Josh may be you can pay the Adra prison a visit and see how miserable some free “patriotic” people are doing???

June 2nd, 2007, 4:21 am


Dinshwai said:

Keep posting Prof. Landis! As I will be following you to Damascus soon – also after a long time away – I will be checking your blog every day until I leave. Have a good summer.

June 2nd, 2007, 4:32 am


majedkhaldoun said:

Josh ;
I am glad you made it well.
as you know , people like to walk in Damascus, yet taxis are every where,I am sure it is still avoid people take advantage of you , you need to grow mustache,and put the white cap, and repeat saying allahu akbar.
It looks that you have many friends,there, and you do not need a car.
I am really confused, what was that food,roasted eggplant smothered with burnt onion, YAK! I never heared of it,eggplant is eaten with Garlic,or cooked(not burned) onion,or fresh onion,not both,may be she is giving you a message,women do that.
what would you do if war erupted? I suppose you will go to that village,people are still living there like they did thousand of years ago.
did your english suddenly get worse , or is it the internet problem?, I guess that is why my english is still bad.
for those who want to go to Syria,and can not find ticket on british airline,should consider taking turkish airline, to adanah , in Turkey, then they go to allepo,by bus,then Damascus,they will waste a day but they will enjoy Istanbule, and you really will experience the real syrian way of living, you will see smugglers,get in the bus where people sing, dance, talk freely in those turkish buses,but do not carry with you big bag,you have to walk from turkish border to Bab al hawa,it is one mile,there you will see spies,and other people you will wounder what the hec are they there for?.at the border you will meet people who refuse to retire,they are used to bribes.
please, do not do it.

June 2nd, 2007, 5:46 am


adiamondinsunlight said:

Yikes, Josh – I can’t believe how expensive flats have become. but lucky you – your summer home is right near Siwar al-Sham and “Spicy” (a bit more user-friendly than the Arabic, which means “Tasty Morsel”), the Shamiyat cousin resto.

As for the internet, count your blessings :-). People here in Beirut get apoplectic when I tell them that the internet is better in Syria – but it is.

June 2nd, 2007, 9:02 am


3antar said:

great to know that your enjoying your stay so far.
like the report. Do you see much Sham cars yet? I heard there aren’t being used much yet.

June 2nd, 2007, 9:59 am


Alex said:


I loved this summer mood you set here. What a difference between reading about your in laws’ village compared to reading what Michael Young wrote today about Syria.

Let’s forget politics for a while. Do you take requests?

And please tell me you have a digital camera with you : )

I bet you don’t.

June 2nd, 2007, 10:43 am


Joshua said:

Ya hababiin. Thank you all for your kind words – and even the unkind ones. I will take Damascus over Tijuana any day. I won’t say that the Syrian Internet is better than the Lebanese. I wouldn’t want to spark brotherly competition! Damascus has its secret charm. People everywhere are kind and have wonderful sense of humor about the little frustrations. The key is he sense of humor.

June 2nd, 2007, 11:27 am


EHSANI2 said:

Dear Josh,

Your last brief comment was most telling. Non-Syrians have a vision of a militaristic and hard country. The truth is that the country’s external image does not match the facts on the ground. Immediately upon arrival, you cannot but help admire the kindness of its people and their wonderful sense of humor (your words). I cannot think of many similar countries where the external image of a country is so at odds with its core.

June 2nd, 2007, 11:54 am


idaf said:

Your post was so entertaining that I now plan to visit all these places you mentioned in your post in my next trip to Syria next month (starting from Bayt al-Murj!). You’re doing a great job promoting tourism in this village! I can’t claim to know where it is, but I’m sure many western journalists reading your blog will soon pop up in Bayt al-Murj interviewing your in-laws and their neighbors 🙂

Ehsani said:
“I cannot think of many similar countries where the external image of a country is so at odds with its core”
I suggest that Josh put this quote of yours permanently in the Syria Comment banner under “Syrian Politics, History and Religion”. It is so true.

June 2nd, 2007, 1:27 pm


trustquest said:

Dear Josh, I hope for you pleasant stay in Syria.
While you are there could you please find out the effect of a dominant authoritarian dictator on the thinking and behavior of the society and how much in quantities means attribute to backwardness and economic weakness of Syria. Ms. Lisa Wedeen has written extensively on the horrible consequences of this regime in her book Ambiguities of Domination. Especially what happen in the last referendum, which on the surface the regime managed to make it looks like genuine democratic election which for sure took quite an effort from them. But how much they could fool the society there, I would love to know.

June 2nd, 2007, 4:06 pm


Dameem said:

I agree very much with “Nur al-Cubicle”(such an artistic name, I love it) Me2 am very interested to what professor Jos have to say about the Iraqis there.

maybe we can invite you to where we live, in “Qura al Assad.” Yes, the DANGER ZONE. I know my father might not like what you say, but his best friend will:)

June 2nd, 2007, 5:11 pm


Ziad said:

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

I think that rami has already his hand on it.

June 2nd, 2007, 5:14 pm


t_desco said:

Dear Joshua,

very nice post and a welcome contrast to the tragic events happening elsewhere. I am also very much looking forward to your follow-up reports.

For the record:

CNN’s Paula Newton on “Al Qaeda’s ‘project’ in Lebanon”:

“And it was inside here, the militants base camp, where Lebanese government sources tell CNN they found evidence of what this was really all about. It’s called “the project” they say, a detailed al-Qaeda inspired plot to declare an Islamic state in northern Lebanon, The militant group Fatah al-Islam was to be the agent of an Islamic revolution, seizing Lebanese land and rebranding it in al-Qaeda’s image.”

The link to the video can be found here (“Watch Al Qaeda’s ‘project’ in Lebanon”).

As-Safir has some more details.

The case of “Ahmed M.”

Further reporting by Al-Akhbar (see also this earlier report which I had missed) suggests that “Ahmed M.” arrested in a hotel in Ashrafiyeh on Tuesday and Naharnet/DPA’s “Ahmed Merie” arrested in a hotel in Ashrafiyeh on Tuesday are one and the same person. According to Al-Akhbar he is a young Lebanese citizen and had a fake Saudi passport (which may explain the confusion).

June 2nd, 2007, 8:38 pm


EHSANI2 said:


Thanks for the compliment!

June 2nd, 2007, 9:40 pm


ugarit said:

Government for Hire: Lebanon, Bush and the Three Stooges

Fouad Siniora, Saad Hariri and Walid Jumblatt, in this most ugly game, have indeed proven the Lebanese government to be one for hire.

June 2nd, 2007, 10:16 pm


majedkhaldoun said:

As everyone heared, turkey forced a cargo plane,from Iran to Syria,to land ,inspect it, and later sent inquiry to both,Syria and Iran for explanation.
then mutaki paid a SURPRISE visit to Damascus.
the other news is lebanese military boats fired at some who tried to escape, or as some said, to prevent someone from escaping,the army, who is good in artillery weapons use,and very accurate(the best in the arab world), is scoring gains in fighting Fatah Islam.US has sent more than nine cargo planes,full of the best weapons to fight Fath Al Islam,american spy planes are providing the lebanese army with photo,and intelligence.
The army seems to behave independent from Lahoud,he is following orders from defense minister,who takes orders from Seniora, N.Berri has no more any power.
the tribunal victory,then killing Fath Al Islam members, later on Lahoud will be gone in November, and Nasrallah crowds in the streets of beirut,failed, it is one defeat after the other,for Syria.

June 2nd, 2007, 11:17 pm


Atassi said:

Dear Josh,
Alhan Wasahlan and El hamdella al salaameh in your home Souria.
I have a feeling the next few months will be very critical in shaping the future and behavior of the regime. I am confidant of your unbiased and untainted mind, and ability to help!! I hope to read your feedback about the true mode of the local Syrians form other cities and life style.

June 3rd, 2007, 12:30 am


3antar said:

Samir Ja3ja3, fed up with the persistence of the opposition in
Lebanon, started praying daily at church for the elimination of
Hizbollah, hoping that Jesus Christ would answer his prayers.

After a whole week of intensive praying, his prayers are not


So, he continued praying hoping that this time Mar Maroun would
answer his prayers.

After a whole week of praying, his prayers are not answered either.

The Patriarch happened to be in church so Ja3ja3 runs to him madly
shaking his head and asks him:

“I prayed and prayed and prayed… Please tell me why Jesus Christ and Mar Maroun are NOT answering my prayers?!”

The Patriarch says: “Of course; neither will answer your prayers
because one is Palestinian and the other is Syrian”.

June 3rd, 2007, 12:50 am


Enlightened said:

LOL 3Antar;

Is someone finally conceding that Saint Maroun hailed from Syria?

June 3rd, 2007, 1:28 am


Jamal said:

Ah what a difference a month makes! That’s how long since I was there in Damascus like Dr Landis is now.

Although I enjoyed his personal account of how he experienced Damascus, his description of it surprises me. Like him I got a big happy buzz to be back and soaking up the warm magic of the people and place.

But I didn’t quite see what he saw. Surely things could not have miraculously bloomed and boomed so much in the few weeks since I was there?

Apparently all those 1 million-plus Iraqi refugees and their tense effect have yet to cross his radar screen. The first thing I and others I notice upon re-entry into Damascus after a year or so away is how much more crowded, polluted and tattered it is at street level.

Damascans took me to witness the expanding and densely packed Shi’ite and Iraqi neighbourhoods that are now regarded as no-go areas for many Syrians. Many people spoke with despair of how the Iraqis are pushing even lower-end housing prices out of reach. They were also anxious about Iraqis now taking jobs at half the wage of Syrians. I saw unsold textiles and other goods stacked up and moribund businesses because of the loss of the Iraqi market. It’s a deepening wound with no current hope of healing.

I was repeatedly told by Syrians that everyone is getting pushed too far by the situation and losing tolerance for the Iraqi influx. They are afraid it could soon turn ugly.

That’s one issue. The other is construction gone crazy with no clear economic and employment boom to match – in every town in Syria. I’ve raised it before on thus forum and nobody offered a realistic explanation. Dr Landis hasn’t either in his comments above. I hope he hits the road, take a look at what’s happening around the country and asks some insistent questions.

It’s a shock to see what a third-world caricature Damascus is becoming. Absurd little planets of privilege and extravagance springing up with no wider benefit. Go for a stroll, Dr Landis, down the astonishing over-the-top 1 km esplanade of luxury designer shops and elegant cafes snaking out of the side of the Four Seasons hotel, but take care with the key footbridge linking it to the rest of Damascus, the steps now crumbling so badly it is dangerous to walk on.

As someone once wrote about some other place, Syria doesn’t just have a bad image, it has an increasingly bad reality. I am sincerely delighted Dr Landis is now back there to observe and discuss it, as he did with such excellence in 2005.

June 3rd, 2007, 3:51 am


Akbar Palace said:

Professor Josh,

Thank you for your interesting description of the Syrian landscape.

Although I have never been to Syria, it paints a very similar atmosphere, one that I experienced just to the South;) The eggplant dish does sound delicious.

Meanwhile, I spend 40 hours/week locked inside a cubicle farm. It’s not fair!

June 3rd, 2007, 5:35 am


Brian H said:

2 items for your attention:
Your apartment is quiet, not “quite”.

And there is NO WAY you are getting 100 megabit service. That would be 2.5x the rate of VDSL in Korea, the fastest national service around. DSL is usually 1.5 Mbps.
So, what you are getting is 100 Kbps, or 100 kilobit service. That would correspond to seeing pages fill reasonably quickly. At 100 Mbps they would flash into place, graphics, photos, and all. New pages would appear instantly. Someday soon the highest-tech areas of the world will go to Gigabit service, but there are very few areas getting even 1% of that now. And Syria is certainly not one of them.

June 3rd, 2007, 7:06 am


Joshua said:

Dear Brian, I will rely on your expertise. My little blinking modem monitor reads 100 mbps, but that may mean kbps. Syria is certainly not Korea. Thanks for the spelling correction.

Hussam, I am not sure what you have against Syrian women, but I suggest you come to Damascus and take a look. Lebanese women are indeed a delight and renowned for their charm, beauty and evolutionary precocity. They are the Ferraris of the Middle East.

The car of choice in downtown Damascus is the KIA or small Reneau- dependable and sensible, even if modest by Lebanese standards. There is, of course, much poverty in Syria. Anyway, you should come to Damascus and take a look around. You might be pleasantly surprised by the variety. Syrian women have much to recommend them even if not all the flash of their Lebanese cousins.

June 3rd, 2007, 8:11 am


Brian Ulrich said:

Dude, Damascus has apartments for $1400 a month?

Btw, shoot me some warning if you see a large military convoy headed for the Golan Heights.

June 3rd, 2007, 8:30 am


t_desco said:

Militants planned 9/11-style Lebanon attack

A BEIRUT newspaper has reported that Fatah al-Islam, whose fighters are under siege at a refugee camp in the north of the country, had planned a September 11-style attack on Lebanon.

“This information was obtained by questioning arrested Fatah al-Islam members,” An-Nahar said, without identifying its sources.

The paper also said that explosives seized in the country’s second largest city Tripoli, south of the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp where militants were being besieged by the army for the 15th day, came from Syria.

“Fatah al-Islam planned to attack a large hotel in the capital using four suicide truck bombs at the same time as launching suicide attacks on embassies in east and west Beirut,” the paper said.

An-Nahar also said the Al-Qaeda-inspired Islamist group “planned to launch attacks on the Shekka tunnel linking Beirut to Tripoli with the aim of cutting off the north and proclaiming an Islamic state there.”

(my emphasis)

Senior Fatah Islam official killed in fighting in northern Lebanon, officials say

A top Fatah Islam militant who was known to send fighters to Iraq has been killed in fighting with Lebanese troops in a Palestinian refugee camp, officials said Sunday.

The Fatah Islam official, Naim Deeb Ghali, who is also known as Abu Riad, was the third-in-command of the group, said Lebanese security officials on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Palestinian officials in refugee camps near this southern city also confirmed Ghali was killed.

They said Ghali was known in the Ein el-Hilweh and Mieh Mieh refugee camps near Sidon as a militant who recruited fighters to go to Iraq and fight U.S. troops. After complaints in the camps against him, Ghali moved to Nahr el-Bared refugee camp near the northern city of Tripoli and joined Fatah Islam and stayed there until his death, said the Palestinian officials, who also spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

June 3rd, 2007, 10:36 am


MSK said:

Dear Josh,

ya hala fish-shaam!

Looking forward to your travelogues.



June 3rd, 2007, 12:34 pm


Chuck said:

Economic boom you say? Thriving industry? Time for a bit of bombing.

June 3rd, 2007, 1:55 pm


Zenobia said:

Dear Joshua,
welcome to Damascus….
i really enjoyed your post immensely. I am currently sojourning in Beirut, but your post makes me eager to get back. I did go just for the previous weekend to witness the referendum pandamonium. It was fascinating. Got some expertise going back and forth, but now i am about ready to return.

I agree there is a lot to investigate in Syria today. And i am glad you are here…


June 3rd, 2007, 2:29 pm


Joshua said:

Zenobia, Give a ring when yuo get to town. My Syr number is listed above. Best, J

June 3rd, 2007, 3:42 pm


majedkhaldoun said:

Syrian women are beautiful, in Lebanon they use more make up, and they may be slimmer, but syrian woman is loyal,look at Sabbah,she forget how many men she married.

June 3rd, 2007, 6:03 pm


rolf said:

“Dear Brian, I will rely on your expertise. My little blinking modem monitor reads 100 mbps, but that may mean kbps. Syria is certainly not Korea. Thanks for the spelling correction.”
I know what you’re talking about. This icon only indicates the speed of the connection between your computer and whatever hardware your internet provider installed. It does not indicate the speed of your connection to the Internet.

June 3rd, 2007, 8:25 pm


ugarit said:

I have always believed that Syria will fight dirty if forced to withdraw from Lebanon. But I don’t believe that Fath-Al-Islam is an organization that is under the control of the Syrian government: do you think that those fighters in Nahr-Al-Barid are fighting to death in order to keep Bashshar Al-Asad in power? How dumb is that? But Al-Khayyat also added that once in Lebanon, Fath-Al-Islam was sponsored by Hariri Inc and Saudi intelligence: until they got out of control.

June 4th, 2007, 12:03 am


K said:


All you do is quote Angry Arab’s rants as if he is some kind of authority, which is a boring habit. But you also quote dishonestly. Here are the first 2 lines of the above post, which you edited out:

“Karma Al-Khayyat of New TV reported on Fath-Al-Islam. She has it right. She said that the Syrian government is responsible for turning the other way, as Salafi fanatics were slipping into Lebanon.”

June 4th, 2007, 2:15 am


majedkhaldoun said:

I think that the events that will occur in Turkey in the next few months, are as important as what is happening in Lebanon,or Iraq.

June 4th, 2007, 5:02 am


milli schmidt said:

Dear All,

I could not agree more with Jamal’s comments above. After spending two weeks of intensive research on the Iraqi refugees and Syrians’ views on them in Damascus in April and May I found a very similar situation. The Iraqis are a remarkably resilient and entrepreneurial refugee population and the economic impact they are having is uneven and still unclear. Consumer and rent prices are going up, but someone in Syria (landlords) are also reaping big benefits from the new situation. My first thought when I read about the refurbishments in Josh’s post was: here are the beneficiaries, people living in Rauda and Malki, who own a couple of more flats down the road. To mistake this development for an overall improvement in Syrian living conditions is a big mistake. Josh, you’ll see Jaramana and you will undoubtedly be impressed by it’s busy “downtown” feel and by how well many Iraqis are doing. I urge you to also travel to Saida Zainab (keep you’re eyes open along the road to see the slums on both sides), Kutseya (in the north) and pay a visit to the new UNHCR regstration centre for Iraqi refugees, a warehouse in Dumar.

PS: Look out for a forthcoming Brookings INstitution Report on the Iraqi refugees in Syria.

June 4th, 2007, 8:47 am


trustquest said:

Dr. Landis, Milli Schmidt, is right; you are living in the area of the most expensive real estate in the world. There is nothing there to deserve this value; it is almost like slum comparing with first class properties in any capital in the world. And this value is not based on the property return value; no it is based on the potential of these properties and on the inventory of this kind of properties. I was there and looked for property to buy and I found some properties with prices that do not make sense at all. Then one guy told me this. He said, imagine you are in an area built 60 years ago, and during this 60 years with all the expansion of the city in area and population from ¼ a million to 5 millions, the government could not build more areas like this. So, you are facing a priceless piece of property. It is a telling story of urban planning failure. After you will visit the slums areas around the city, you will realize that this governing system is not successful in tackling or solving Syrian illness but he is good in creating it and the problems still mounding due to administrative failure, nepotism and out dated governing structure. They need the civil society help and they need to admit that. Hope you will talk to civil society people to get a good feed about this from them. And please notice that all these ills, has nothing to do with Israel or the west.

June 4th, 2007, 10:04 am


t_desco said:

More details on the “Islamic emirate” plot by Al-Akhbar and Al-Hayat.

When An-Nahar and Al-Akhbar agree on a story, there has to be at least some truth to it… Of course, Saudi and pro-government media are stressing possible connections to Syria whereas pro-opposition media are highlighting the Saudi role.

One can’t help but notice certain similarities to the Hariri case, notably the plan (if true) to use four suicide truck bombs.

A very similar plot (though on a smaller scale) by the “Ahmed Miqati and Ismaíl Al-Khatib network” (Mehlis I) was discovered in late September 2004.

In early 2005, a group directly linked to al-Zarqawi held a training camp in the Tripoli area, according to French anti-terrorism police.

Coincidentally, this is the very area where the cell phones used in the Hariri murder were bought and activated (in the immediate vicinity of Nahr al-Bared).

June 4th, 2007, 10:27 am


ugarit said:


Dishonesty is not my intention.

This quote “I have always believed that Syria will fight dirty if forced to withdraw from Lebanon.” [Asaad Abu Khalil] clearly implicates somethings on Syria. Everyone knows that Syria borders Lebanon. Where else would the Salafis be coming from?

If my postings are boring don’t read them.

June 4th, 2007, 10:46 am


t_desco said:

It seems that I was overlooking something obvious when I stated (in my analysis of the latest Brammertz report): “It is unclear to me why such an extremist group should have been particularly concerned about Hariri winning the 2005 elections.”

The likely implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1559 (calling for the complete disarmament of all militias in Lebanon, including the extremist groups in the refugee camps) could be construed as such a motive, as I realized while reading (and mostly disagreeing with) the new chapter (“Conclusion”) in Bernard Rougier’s “Everyday Jihad” (Harvard University Press 2007).

June 4th, 2007, 1:11 pm


norman said:

Former Israeli DM calls for secret talks with Syria
An Israeli delegation will hold talks in Washington this week focusing on Iran and Syria, including talks with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, an Israeli official said on Monday.

The delegation will be led by Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz, a former defense minister and army chief, his spokeswoman told AFP. He is set to meet Rice ahead of “strategic discussions on Thursday with the Americans notably focusing on the Iranian problem,” she said.

Mofaz will also seek to “verify what Syria’s objectives would be in eventual peace talks with Israel.”

According to Israel’s mass-selling Yediot Aharonot newspaper, Mofaz believes that “the time has come to launch a secret channel with Syria” in order to defuse growing tensions in the region.

According to the newspaper, Mofaz, along with other senior Israeli officials, has been alarmed at Syrian military reinforcements along the border with Israel and the expected purchase of advanced missiles from Iran.

June 4th, 2007, 3:08 pm


Brian H said:

Yes, that’s the capacity of the NIC = the card in the machine that permits hookup to the provider’s feed. What you get from that feed cannot exceed the capacity of the card, but can be any lower number.

Something like 100-256 kbps is marketed hereabouts as “Hi-speed Lite”, as it’s enough to handle most surfing, and is noticeably better than the best that dial-up can provide.

As to the Syrian women: is it true that culture demands that by age 40, they must weigh at least 80 kg.?

June 4th, 2007, 5:02 pm


K said:

I find this conversation among men on the relative ‘quality’ of women of various nationalities to be distasteful.

June 4th, 2007, 5:53 pm


Bridget said:

Welcome back! Jeremy and I had a chance to visit Damascus again last month, also after an almost-2-year hiatus.

I’m very interested in your linguistic experiment. Our Miriam Damascus is almost 2 and is absorbing Arabic like a sponge. The question is, how much will she retain when we go back to America??

Best of luck to you.

June 10th, 2007, 7:36 pm


Thomas said:

I trust that you will serve more than just an apologist for the Syrian dictatorship relative to the recent events in Lebanon throughout the summer months. I sure it is difficult being resident in Damascus and affiliated with the ruling class by marriage.

June 14th, 2007, 10:42 pm


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