A Syrian Message To Rabbi Krinsky: My Heart Goes Out to You

Moshe (2 years) was orphaned by terrorists in India on 26/11

Moshe (2 years) was orphaned by terrorists in India on 26/11

Sara (2 years) is one of 7 siblings and 20 cousins all under 16 that were orphaned by Amrican terror on 26/10

Sara (2 years) with her 7 siblings and 12 cousins were orphaned by terrorists in Syria on 26/10

By Abdulsalam Haykal

Dear Rabbi Krinsky:

I changed my plan and stayed in the hotel room in Chicago to watch your press conference on Friday following the horrific tragedy in Mumbai.  Your commitment to adopt the innocent toddler Moshe, Prophet Moses’ namesake, spoke volumes of the solidarity of your community, and the sense of responsibility you have towards them.

My heart goes out to Moshe in as much strength as it denounces the terrorist attack on the Chabad house and scorn the evil perpetrators. Perhaps what makes a child’s life so precious is the promise of a better tomorrow that lies in it.  What an impression is the daunting idea of having parents killed by terrorist going to have on Moshe? These cold-blooded terrorist have not killed only Rabbi Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg but also Moshe’s future ability to be a peacemaker.

Gavriel (29) was a man of peace who dedicated his life to the serving human beings. So was Faisal (34), father of Sara, also a toddler of 2 years, and her 7 brothers and sisters. Gabi was killed by terrorists in India, and Faisal was killed by American “hellcopters” in a raid on Syria one month ago. The orphaned Sara and Moshe remind us of Moses, a Man of God whose story and heroism has defined justice. You are a servant of God, Rabbi Krinsky, and probably you recite everyday: “Justice, justice, you should pursue.” The essence of that sacred text is that when we are concerned about others’ justice, they will be concerned about ours.

I worry just as much, like you must do too, about the numerous children that are orphaned everyday in Iraq and Palestine- also by terrorists regardless if they are dressed in a uniform and work under the umbrella of an official flag.  It’s not only when terrorists kill a child that they kill a brighter part of the future. It is also when terrorists kill a father or torture him at Guantanamo or Abu Gharib, or widow a mother, or demolish a home, or besiege a people within a wall…

From Damascus today, I do not have strong enough words to condemn the horrendous crime that orphaned Moshe, and the crimes that do that to countless children in the Middle East and around the world. My fears however are not of terrorism per se, but of its consequences that prevent us from giving future generations the foundation to prosper and live safely, right at home in our region rather than in Brooklyn. My heart goes out to leaders like you who carry on their shoulders the cumbersome responsibility of stopping the terror campaings everywhere, trying not to end as a failed Messiah.

Profile of a young photographer from Syria: Mais Shourbaji

Mais Shourbaji, Forward MagazineMais Shourbaji photography

Mais Shourbaji photographyMais Shourbaji photography

It doesn’t take one a long time to realize the young woman, holding her camera and getting busy searching for good angles, is a talented one. Born in 1983, Mais Shourbaji is one of Syria’s self-taught photographers; ready to snap a picture with great ingenuity and passion as long as she is in love with the experience.

Her regular office working hours – as executive assistant in a multi-national company – take up most of her day, but after 5pm every evening she is ready to change into casual dress and join her friends at concerts, Jazz festivals and the theatre. That’s where she fulfills her heart’s passion and spends many evenings taking snapshots of Syria’s buzzing cultural life.

Mais is popular, very active and has a lot to say about women in her country. She advocates freedom and adventure, two aspects that define her photography. Recently, she has taken part in a documentary to be released in the near future about the changing face of the Syrian society, the contradictions young women of today are facing, and the ambitions someone like Mais has.

Photo Passion

mais shourbaji

I met Mais last year, on one of
Music Matbakh‘s stops in the region. She was the photographer assigned to take photos of us while we performed at Qasr el Azem. I had the pleasure of meeting Mais again when I relocated into Damascus and joined Forward Magazine as its associate editor-in-chief.

The young woman with a lot of zest believes “success is to love what you do, to persist and never give up no matter what obstacles you face, and to keep on developing your skills in order to excel.”

That’s indeed an indication of a very driven person. But where did Mais get her inspirations from?

“My father is one of the most influential people in my life; he’s an artist, a cultivated and quiet man. He’s my friend… he hears me out and supports me in everything I do, at the same time he is a harsh critic who wants to see me stand out. My dad has a great role in shaping my personality; he helped me liberate myself from one-track mindedness and taught me to look at life from different angles with open mindedness.”

Mais photos on Flickr can be found here.

Writer: Ruba Saqr (associate editor-in-chief, Forward Magazine. Damascus, Syria)

Syrian & international artists, musicians, media gurus, entrepreneurs and politicians meet up here!

A rocker from Aleppo (son of Syria’s top singer, Sabah Fakhri, Anas Abu Qaws) meets up with a second generation Syrian PR managing director, Karim Mardam Bey, whose life’s dream is to come back to motherland Syria. They both peer over a few pages to find two Syrian inventors who most recently put together “intelligent robots” in Canada, both in close proximity with pages hosting Sarhad Haffar, general manager of Emaar Syria, and AUB’s director of choir, Paul Meers.

Jordan’s leading entrepreneurship scientist & Aramex CEO, Fadi Ghandour, gives us an exclusive interview while consultant to the Syrian Enterprise and Business Center (SEBC), Yusuf Mansour (PhD), speaks about what, he believes, brought about the Credit Crunch in the USA and the world.

All of those people (and more), make up this month’s issue of Forward Magazine (November 2008). Check out our cultural, entrpreneurship, business and political features and opinion articles on www.fw-magazine.com .

Political pages include an exclusive full-text speech by our country’s First Lady, Asma al-Assad, as delivered in Italy at an awards ceremony where she accepted the Gold Medal of the Italian President. Next to it you can find our special file titled, To Our American Readers, with articles by leading writers, historians and political figures… click the images below to take you to more Forward mag articles…

Women beside men

Syrian media activists make a difference on Obama’s website! – a Forward Magazine scoop..

We are glad to have Camille Alexandre Otrakji, a Syrian residing in Canada and the founder of creativesyria.com, as a guest writer on Forward Magazine’s blog. His post, below, discusses a very interesting story about a recent interaction he had along other Syrian activists with Obama’s transition-into-presidency website & team:

Syrian media activists make a difference on Obama’s website - Forward Magazine finds out

One of my American friends, who happens to be a die-hard democrat, sent me a link to President Obama’s slick transition website at www.change.gov.

When I realized that the transition team offered the site’s visitors a “contact us” page, I could not resist the temptation to “say something” to the Obama team. Knowing fully well that they already received thousands of other messages so far, I realized that if my message was to be read by anyone other than the first-level junior assistants who judge the usefulness of these online comments, my message had to standout from the rest.

So I remembered a story I heard from a foreign journalist who visited Damascus last week about Obama T-shirts in Damascus selling equally well compared to the classic best seller Nasrallah T-shirts.

So I started to fill Obama’s online form with the required fields … name, last name, email, address, city, state, country.

Country… They had a drop down list that included almost every country on planet earth. Even Sudan and Iran were there.

But Syria was not on that list!

That was not the end of the world but … then again, why is Iran, a fellow “axis of evil” member in that list, but not Syria?

I decided to write to 25 of my Syrian friends on Facebook – who are eloquent writers in English. After I explained to them the bizarre and unique absence of Syria from Obama’s online list, quite a few of my friends joined me in writing polite and friendly messages to the Obama team to congratulate the new president and wish him luck and … to ask why is Syria not on that list?

I’m happy to report that the Obama people, no doubt busy with a million other tasks these days, responded to our request within few days.

No, they did not add Syria to the list. But they removed all other countries from that list.

So I guess we … did a good thing? : )

Storming back onto the world stage

President Basha Asad meets UK's MilibandBy Sami Moubayed

Former British prime minister Tony Blair showed personal interest in the domestic reform program begun by Syria’s new President Bashar al-Assad in 2000. Blair wrote an article at the time, saying that Syria was “a power in the Middle East, a leader of Arab opinion, central to any comprehensive peace deal with Israel, and a member of the United Nations (UN) Security Council”.

He visited the capital Damascus shortly after September 11, 2001, to recruit Syria into the international “war on terror” that was being launched on Afghanistan. The two men could not agree on a definition of terrorism; with Assad saying, “We should differentiate between combating terrorism and war. We did not say we support an international coalition for war. We are always against war.” The Syrian leader added, “We, and I personally, differentiate between resistance and terrorism. Resistance is a social, religious and legal right that is safeguarded by UN resolutions.”

London’s Guardian newspaper then reported that following this conference, Blair confided to friends, “I was saying to him [Assad], you have to help to renew the Middle East peace process. He was saying to me, if you want moderate Islam to defeat Islamic fundamentalists, I also need your help.” The newspaper added that Blair had been “dressed down” in Damascus.

When Assad went to London in 2002 it was generally believed the reason was to extend a friendly hand to the Western world in a public relations campaign aimed at polishing Syria’s image following 9/11. In London, Assad portrayed a very civilized, classy and well-groomed image. He met with Syrians living in Britain, visited businessmen, politicians and held a meeting with both Queen Elizabeth II and her son Prince Charles, who promised to soon visit Damascus. Assad found time to visit his former classmates and professors who taught him while he underwent his medical residency in Britain in the early 1990s.

The Syrian leader was showing the international community that Syria was a modern nation and that he was with the civilized world and not with the terrorists. To make his point clearly heard, and show that Syria was as far as possible from fundamentalism, he brought along a large business delegation composed of Syrian women entrepreneurs.

According to one observer who is close to both Syria and Great Britain, “They [Assad and his wife] were charming, modest and warm with just the right touch of informality that the British appreciate.” Another Syrian objective was to explain the Arab perspective with regard to the then-impending US war on Iraq. Some in the West, however, speculated that Blair would use the visit as an opportunity to recruit Assad into a war on Iraq.

But Syria worked against the US war on Iraq and relations with Britain remained lukewarm until Blair left office in 2007. Before leaving, however, he watched the US-imposed isolation on Syria crumble when Spanish foreign minister Miguel Angel Moratinos visited Syria in 2006, right after the end of the Lebanon war, followed by Javier Solana, the European Union’s chief foreign policy negotiator, in March 2007.

Solana offered the Syrians a series of economic incentives, including the signing of the EU Partnership Agreement, in exchange to finding a solution to the crisis in Lebanon. London’s perception of Syria began to change, as well as that of Europe. The British – as Foreign Secretary David Miliband clearly said this week from Damascus – now see Syria as a problem-solver, rather than a problem-seeker in the Arab world.

Among other things, it was reasoned that getting rid of Hezbollah in Lebanon through military force was impossible – as Israel found out in 2006. Israel clearly could not do it, and nor could UN Resolution 1701, which distanced the Lebanese group from Lebanon’s border with Israel. The only way was to get the Syrians to cooperate on changing Hezbollah’s behavior, either directly through their considerable weight in Lebanon, or indirectly through Iran.

Syria, for example, helped release the 15 British sailors taken hostage by Iran in 2007, and also helped release BBC reporter Alan Johnston from the hands of an Islamic group that was reportedly close to Hamas in Palestine. Syrian cooperation on Iraq and Palestine paid off, but the real breakthrough came when Syria started indirect peace talks with Israel, and helped solve the crisis in Lebanon last May.

The fact that Syria was willing to enter into indirect talks with Israel – under the auspices of a world-recognized honest broker like Turkey – was proof that the Syrians were not as bad as the world had thought since 2003. Before that, the Syrians had gone to the Annapolis peace conference in the US in 2007, despite objections from allies like Hamas and Iran, aimed at showing the Americans that they were in fact serious about finding solutions to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The turning point came when French President Nicolas Sarkozy began engaging both Damascus and Hezbollah, to find constructive solutions to the presidential crisis in Lebanon, in 2007. When the Doha agreement – which had Syria’s fingerprints all over it – was hammered out in May, Sarkozy invited Assad to Paris in July. In September, he went to Damascus – signaling a clear break from the policies of his predecessor Jacques Chirac – and met with Assad to discuss the indirect talks between Syria and Israel, via Turkish mediation.

Miliband steps in

Based on the above, Miliband arrived in Damascus on November 17 for talks with his Syrian counterpart Walid al-Moualem and Assad. His visit, the first for a senior British official since 2001, signals a new start in Syrian-British relations.

Speaking on his arrival in Damascus on Monday, shortly before visiting the historical Umayyad Mosque in the heart of the Old City, Miliband said that Syria had an “essential role” to play in securing Middle East peace.

The young secretary (43) was clearly pleased by his visit, being taken to the famous Bakdash ice-cream parlor in the Old City, and given a chance to meet with Syrian statesmen and activists in civil society. Miliband, who had hosted Moualem in London in October, hailed Syria’s “new approach” to dealing with Middle East problems, saying, “I think it is important for us to find ways for Syria to play a constructive role in the future of the Middle East. Syria is a secular state in the Middle East. It has the potential to play a stabilizing role in the region.”

The secretary added, “In a significant way, there has been an important change in the approach of the Syrian government, notably the historic decision to exchange ambassadors with Lebanon.” Miliband’s Syria agenda revolves around four topics: cooperation in combating terrorism, Lebanon, Iraq and the Middle East peace process.

He noted, “We have been consistently emphasizing the importance of Syrian cooperation on all four of those dossiers,” and acknowledged Syrian cooperation on border security with Iraq, adding, “The funneling of foreign fighters and arms into Iraq over the last 15 to 16 months has certainly been curtailed.” This is new talk from London, in light of an upcoming change in US policy towards Syria, after the victory of president-elect Barack Obama.

In 2006, Blair sent senior diplomat Sir Nigel Sheinwald to Damascus, where he presented five British concerns to Syria after having met with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Washington. They were: support of the political process in Iraq, backing for Mahmud Abbas in Palestine, combating terrorism, Iran and ending the political tension in Lebanon. Syria immediately responded by sending Walid al-Moualem to Baghdad, where he extended his country’s support for the US-backed Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. He talked Hamas into accepting a Palestinian government and relinquishing the post of prime minister. That declaration was specifically made by Hamas statesman Musa Abu Marzkouk from Damascus, telling the British that the initiative also had Syrian fingerprints on it. Syria’s performance in combating terrorism was already advanced, given its own national interest in doing so.

More recently, it showed that it can provide results as well – such as during the sailor crisis with Iran, and in Lebanon through the Doha Agreement. David W Lesch, a Syria expert who teaches at Trinity College in the US and who authored a biography of Assad, told Asia Times Online, “Foreign Secretary Miliband, who is an ambitious politician jostling for possible leadership of the Labour Party, is striking out in the hope of enhancing his own personal stature as well as paving a path London hopes the new Obama administration will soon follow.”

Lesch, who recently wrapped up a meeting with Assad, added, “From Syria’s perspective, it continues the more than a year-long process of breaking out from US-led isolation, and clearly sends positive signals to the new US administration, and offers an opportunity to, perhaps, assess the possibility of a new US policy direction in the Middle East through the eyes of a trusted US ally.”

It is also reported that the main focus of Miliband’s visit was the reestablishment of high-level intelligence cooperation between Britain and Syria, which apparently began in secret a few months ago, before The Times of London broke the story. The newspaper reported: The newly revived intelligence relationship could be hugely beneficial to Britain. Syria is known to have one of the best intelligence-gathering systems in the Middle East, in particular in tracking the movements of Islamic extremists into Iraq and around the region.

Syria is certainly storming back onto the world stage.

Sami Moubayed is Forward Magazine’s editor-in-chief, Syria.

VOTE NOW: Will Golan Heights return with Obama?

"What? Syria?"

How can you allow people, journalists, opinion writers, and decision makers from other nationalities, better understand Syria, to see the true fabric of this society, the different dimensions that this country has, the different kinds of attitudes, mentalities and opinions Syria harbors? The key is: Media & Communication.

Do you think Barack Obama’s Middle East policies will help restore the occupied Golan Heights to Syria?

To cast your vote, please visit www.fw-magazine.com . Go to the right-side column to visit our online Polling center.

Forward Magazine will be sharing the outcome with readers in our upcoming print edition (as well as on our website and blog). If you have extra comments you’d like to make about the matter, please do so here, and we will be quoting you in our article-in-the-making about The Golan Heights. We are conducting off-line surveys to complement the off line ones through different mediums.

Why vote?

Our magazine reaches crucial decision-making hubs around the country, the region, Europe and the USA. We believe the media machine elsewhere in the world has smeared Syria’s image for long. Many people (bloggers included) have a defeatist attitude towards an English-speaking magazine published in Syria. Some question English publications by saying things like: “Who will read an English Magazine? How many Syrians read English?”

"How charming? Is it Urdu?" "Huh?" http://flapsblog.com/category/politicians/fred-thompson/

Aha, well.. The important thing is to have publications that talk to the World, with the same language, professional standards and commitment that other World publications have. Dubai, Amman, Beirut, Cairo (and most of the Arab capitals) have English publications dedicated for creating bridges with the world, communicating the country’s cultural, political and personal stance. Those countries have started with state-owned newspapers that come out in English, and then opened up the market for privately-owned English publications that helped create many mirrors through which the country is reflected. Many state-owned publications have succeeded in creating false images about their country portraying it as a democratic, economically brilliant states – when in reality it is Marshal-Law-ruled with collapsing economies – all because they have started to master the global media game. We, on the other hand, don’t plan to deceive, but to “communicate” and get Syria’s many voices heard.

Western Media

Syria is not one dimensional, it is not backwards, it’s not the tight-fisted, narrow-visioned country that the West portrays us as – in every single news piece about Syria. On the contrary, Syria has a generation of people with great potential, and very plausible achievements on so many fronts – the least of which are cultural. Syrians are misunderstood all over the world. There are world-adopted stereotypes about Syrians (and Syria) that we want to break, influence and change. You can help us get your views across by being part of the change we aspire to achieve. Yes, there are flaws, like everywhere else – local, personal flaws… Those don’t make us the monster that Western media likes to portray us as.

Syrian Flag UK Flag Here is an example of how one blogger’s website is getting Syrian views heard. Sasa, an active blogger, was recently quoted in the Telegraph (one of the major publications in the UK). Click here for more about “Syria News Wire makes it into the Telegraph.”

Wishing you all a good day.

"Can't hear you, dear!" "Excuse me? I don't understand what you're saying?" "What?"

Ruba Saqr (Associate editor-in-chief, Forward Magazine, Damascus, Syria)

Breakfast at Mora’s



Sami Moubayed


Around this time of year, expatriate Syrians start planning their Christimas holidays in Damascus. For the past 15-years, I have watched some of Syria’s finest young minds pack up and leave, for careers in the Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the US. Some left to pursue their education in the West. Others went for professional reasons—for better salaries, searching for career enhacement. Some went to places like Canada to get foreign passports. Many left to evade forced military service in the Syrian Army. All of them—almost with no exceptions—went through the same cycle. I embraced them all on the night of their departures, wishing them the best of luck with their new lives, promising everybody “to stay in touch.”


Once settled abroad, Step One is to boast of their successful careers, with many claiming that it was wise for them—professionally speaking—to leave Syria. They claim that had they stayed in Syria, they would have never collected the money, or achieved the glory, that they attained in the West or the Arab Gulf. Step Two starts when they become disenchanted with their new lives and long to return to family and friends in Syria. They often become too sentimental, watching Syrian TV, ordering DVDs of Syrian drama classics, or rushing to attend any concert or event that reminds them of home. I have then seen them break down during their lowest moments, weeping at times like little children, because of how homesick they feel. They start envying those who stayed behind in Syria. Step Three is seeing them come back, one after the other, to get married in Syria, to raise their children in Damascus. to work in Syria. This November, I got numerous emails from friends, saying that they were coming home for Christmas and wanted me to help them find jobs, now that Syria was “opening up” and “providing opportunities” for young people with their experience and talent. Those who had left with a vengence were sometimes too embarassed to admit that they were considering a comeback, saying that they wanted to spend some time in Damascus “to explore opportunities.” It was their own way of saying, “I have had it abroad. No more expatriate! I want to return to Syria!”


With all the difficulties of day-to-day life, the bureaucracy of setting up a business, or the cost of purchasing a house, these Syrians are willing to do what it takes to re-live their nostalgia of Syria. It varies from person to person. Breakfast at Mora Restaurant in Bludan, enjoying the breeze of Syria’s famous summer resort, warm tea on a rainy day at Rawda Café on Abid Street, and late night walks in the narrow alleys of Old Damascus. A late night ‘sabbara’ meal, a famed Damascene fruit, at one of the numerous vendors dotted around Rawda Square. A smell of mother’s cooking at 2:30 pm, ‘fool’ at one of the street carriages on Baghdad Street, or watching black & white classics of Duraid Lahham. Listening to Sabah Fakhri live, driving to work with Fayruz playing on every radio channel on the airwaves—while the streets of Damascus are covered with rain—or smoking a Turkish pipe at a Damascene summer night, playing cards with friends, with the strong voice of Um Kalthoum ripping through the evening sky. Nostalgia includes meeting up with friends, and remembering “the good old days” at Laique, Dar al-Salam, Sami Droubi, or al-Fajer (four major high schools in Damascus) and repeating stories that have probably been said more than 100 times since these Syrians graduated from high school. They always manage to bring out a roar of laughter at any gathering, often spiced up with anecdotes that make the story—if anything—more colorful.


Expatriates usually miss the humanitarian feeling of Damascus—or as one person recently put it, “the soul of Damascus” that is reflected in daily interaction between people. Stories travel fast in Damascus. People immediately hear if someone has suffered death, received a newborn, gotten promoted at work, fired, engaged, married, or divorced. They treat eachother accordingly; showing that they have heard the news (sometimes without even saying it). People rush to eachother’s side in times of joy and times of sorrow, abrubtly stopping their work day, for example, to attend a funeral, or leaving work early, to pay their respects if someone has passed away, at an all-male condolence service. People still have time to go out on a nighly basis, to catch up with friends, even on weekdays. They still pay neighbors unexpected visits—to drink strong Arabic coffee and spend a few minutes chatting each morning if they happen to bump into eachother, on the way to work. Only in Damascus would one expect an ellaborate answer to a simply question like: “How have your days been?”


People still joke with complete strangers on the street, or go out of their way to help someone asking for directions to a particular landmark in Damascus. “Follow me” they say, sometimes changing their route to drive by the specific location and make sure that the stranger does not get lost by verbal directions. People still walk into restaurants to be greeted by name from all the waiters on duty, and return the same personalized greeting to all the waiters—by name. Some things never change in Damascus, despite the passing of time. The policeman at the intersection of al-Reef Restaurant (now KFC) who greets everybody driving by; the newspaper salesman on Abid Street, the head waiter at Rawda, the janitor at one’s building, the neighborhood barber, and even, the street beggers at certain intersections.


These expatriate Syrians miss the old stone buildings scattered throughout these elegant residential districts, with their spacious balconies, and high-ceiling apartments. These buildings still ‘smell’ like Damascus. It is the beautiful parliament building on Abid Street, the old municipality in Marjeh Square, the original faculties of Damascus University, the Ain al-Fijja Waterworks Building, and the Hijaz Railway Station. They are real, elegant, proud Damascus.
My Damascus is the noise that comes from the streets at 7:00 am, along with a cold Damascene breeze telling us that winter has arrived, and students are back to school. It’s the sound of mosques at prayer time, and churches on Sunday.
My Damascus is filled with memories—as Elvis Presley says—that are ‘sweetened through the ages, just like wine.’ It is first car drive, first book, first friends, first little mischief, first romances, first kiss, and first exposure to the hardships of the real world.

My Damascus is that of proud men, beautiful and intelligent women. Popular culture says that handsome men are found in Lebanon, while beautiful women are found in Syria. That statement, which is half-true, does Syrian men and Lebanese woman an injustice. I lived for many years in Lebanon and will never forget the gorgeous, Cleopatra-eyed Lebanese. I have seen other kinds of beauty in the Arab World; melancholic in Iraq, brave and striking in Palestine, Oriental in Egypt. I still believe, however, that my countrywomen are the prettiest.

For many years, inspired by Nizar Qabbani, I was a fan of Damascene beauty. The Damascenes I knew were beautiful, elegant, smart, hard-working, three-dimensional, and career-oriented. Either my taste—or the beauty of the Damascenes—has changed. They do not look as natural or tender as they used to, nor do they come across as three-dimensional women like before, inspired probably by the flashiness of Arab satellite TV. The make-up, the hair, competition, and the urge to attract the opposite sex, have all done Damascene women a great disservice. In the past, they did not need an effort to look beautiful. It was a God-given trait. They had eyes that spoke volumes about their lives, personalities, and upbringing. They now have contact-lenses!
I returned to live permanently in Syria in 2004, and still see beautiful things in Damascus. I see them at every corner of town. No, its not the modern cafes sprouting all over the city. Its not the mushrooming malls, banks, and universities. The other day, I walked into a supermarket to purchase some merchandize on a Friday. The owner did not have any change to split my 1,000 SP. “You can pay me later Sir” he politely said. The man had never met me in his entire life. “What if I get a visa for Australia” I joked “and you never see me again?” He just smiled, patted me on the shoulder, and insisted that I walk on with my shopping bag. He was an old kind man from Damascus. Only in this great city would a shop-owner let me walk away without paying—and no guarantee that I would ever return.

Has anybody tried spraining their ankle while walking down a main street in Damascus? Has anyone tried parking, had an accident, suffered from a car break-down in Damascus? Can anybody remember how helpful these ordinary people are? Optimists would say ‘helpful’—pessimists insist ‘nosy.’ Regardless, that also is one of the few ‘things’ that makes this city so wonderful.

Expatriate Syrians are more than welcome to re-live the Syria-experience, and come back home. In as much as they need Syria, Syria needs them as well. Mora Restaurant is closed in Christmas, so there won’t be a breakfast at Mora’s for these expatriates in December, but there are millions of small memories, scattered all over town, that will perhaps, make them return, for good, and wrap up the difficult cycle, of being an expatriate.

Voices pealing out in joy, part 1

Music choir in SyriaThe singers have all filed into their place. They’ve seen each other a lot over the last three months, if not longer, yet they still find a lot to talk about. They’re happy to see each other and to be there, and the bubbly chatter is resisting being stopped by the conductor waving her hands calling them to attention. Then it happens; with a snap, they’re suddenly locked on her every move, and with laser-like precision, their undivided focus and youthful exuberance has been set forth towards one goal. Along with the orchestra, who playing music they probably have only been practicing for a week with expert deftness, all four voice-types are dancing around each other, complementing and emphasizing the other, and offering rock solid support to the soloist.

I’m immediately impressed. The conductor, however, is not. “You need to allow the soloist’s voice to rise above yours. Also, take your cues from the orchestra more carefully. Let’s start from bar…” Many would think Rajaa al-Amir, conductor for the university-age section of the al-Farah Choir, is too harsh on these college age students, who have been giving their all to this concert. I, on the other hand, have sung in choir concerts, and know that she can hear something I cannot: a note held too long, perhaps, or an entrance offered a nanosecond too late. Professor Paul Meers, who I interviewed for November’s FW, and who I sang with for four years when I was in AUB, always pushed us that much harder the week before concert time. “We’re never really ready by concert time,” says Amir. “The conductor always has to let go in the end, and the performances are always superb, but not complete.”

Practicing the current program since August 19, the concert is going to be derived from Arab Heritage, from the different regions of the Arab World, such as North Western Africa, Central North Africa, Eastern North Africa, the Levant, and the Arab Gulf. At the end of the concert, there will be a panorama of different national anthems. Everyone is feeling the pressure, and there is a lot of fatigue involved, but everyone is very determined. “The choir is free to join, and all the staff works for free, and therefore it’s hard to be demanding at the level that you need to be in order to put on a professional concert, as you can’t ask for more than they can possibly give,” explains Amir. “Of course, I’m very confident about my singers’ abilities, and we’re going to have a really great concert this Thursday.

The al-Farah Choir was established by Father Elias Zehlaoui in 1977, with only 55 children singing in it. It has now blossomed into a choral association with more than 500 members, divided into 5 choirs set at different ages. The concert mentioned above is going to take place this Thursday November 20 at 8 pm, at the Dar al-Assad Opera House, and FW: will be there to cover the concert, and give you more information on the history of the concert itself.

around the blogosphere…

It is quite heartening to find the mention of our dear FW: mag in different blogs around the blogosphere. Most recently Sasa posted a new entry titled, Forward Magazine launches blog, on newsfromsyria.com (aka, The Syria News Wire – fresh, independent news from the streets of Damascus and beyond). Sasa’s blog is the “third Syrian blog to appear on the internet – back in 2004. It is a Lonely Planet favourite, award nominated, Toot-ified blog, which gets about 10,000 hits a month.” The blog was previously called saroujah.blogspot.com. By all means a recommended read!

In March, FW: Magazine appeared as a must-read recommendation on the blog of one of Britain’s most well-known trademarks, Clerk & Teller.

The gentlemen’s wear premium brand offers a blog and traveler’s guide to the “clued-up, stylish man” on its extremely amusing and inspiring pages. Clerk & Teller is a frequent guest and featured brand on many of the world’s leading magazines, including GQ magazine.

What I recently found out was that one of Clerk & Teller’s blogging journalists has been to Syria in March, catching a glimpse of what life has to offer in Damascus, Maloula and whereabouts. Usually consisting of yummy insights on what foods to eat, drinks to gulp down and publications to read – the blog listed
FW: Magazine as a recommended Syrian-made item along with Chicken Kebabs and Arak, an amusing and mouth-watering read (although the major part of the post deals with other heart-wrenching topics, like Passion of the Christ).

Magazine's 1st ever edition

Last year, one of our early writers posted something about her contribution to FW: Magazine. Ghalia al-Azmeh’s blog, dubbed Cocktail, encompasses a “cocktail of images and thoughts from Damascus, Syria). Her post about us is titled, The Only Way is Forward, our very slogan. As a new commer to FW:, I found the post to be very informative and insightful; Ghalia had posted quotes from a selection of articles from FW: Magazine’s first ever edition, a feast to anyone who’d like to learn more about our early stages.

Writer: Ruba Saqr (Associate editor-in-chief, FW: Magazine, Syria)

Syrians deserve nice things

MagazineMehdi Rifai

One opinion that honestly astounds me when talking to people over here in Syria is “that will never work here.” Every single concept I mention, such as more web publicity, driving reform, office nap rooms, non-smoking days at restaurants and coffee shops, and decaf coffee is met with both resistance and the need to convince me of it’s futility. “These are great ideas, but no one will go for it;” “people are just not used to it;” “it just won’t work here in Syria.”

What’s utterly surprising is that these self-same defeatists will be the first to defend Syria in any other case. Syrians are sophisticated, open-minded, tolerant individuals – except when we’re not. Sitting, talking to some friends at a variety of coffee shops, it seems a constant pass-time to put down our fellow compatriots. That is, of course, for them. I’m still a bit too foreign to go around making criticisms. Everything here is nice, the people are friendly, the atmosphere is exotic. Catch me saying one of the phrases above, and I’ve just called an open invitation for a smack down.

One phrase that completely floors me is “we just don’t deserve nice things.” Listen for that one; you’ll be surprised by how often you hear it. The first time I heard it was around 11 years ago, when the Damascus International School (DIS) closed down. Very few people remember this, but before the explosion of private education in Syria, there really was only the now seemingly-defunct Damascus Community School and the Pakistani School, as well as the semi-private academies such as Lycée Layique and Les Freres as an alternative to public education. When the DIS came along, many viewed it as a revelation. It used modern teaching methods, and was getting ready to be the first to introduce the Montessori method to Syria (about five years before Hadeel al-Asmar and Hasan al-Hasan would establish the now highly successful Montessori School – check the Homecomers’ archives for the month of March 2008), and they were also hailed as heroes for finally bringing special education in any major way to Syria.

Which is why so many people were shocked when it closed down. A combination of government intervention and an internal administrative war saw the school shut down in the middle of it’s third year, leaving many parents with un-refunded tuition fees, the school’s establishers ruined, and a whole bunch of students and teachers on the street. “What a shame, but it was always going to happen: we don’t deserve nice things.”

What? Says who? Considering how popular private education is now, and what a booming business it has become, it’s obvious that most Syrians internally disagree, and have found a way to get some “nice things” back in the country. Failed experiments shouldn’t be viewed as a reason to simply give up on a plan, and phrases like the ones I’ve mentioned, but especially the latter, completely ignore that fact. True, it was a complete disaster for those involved, and true, I’m sure the DIS founders find little comfort that they inspired future educational institutions, providing them with an example of the hazards that they could encounter.

Lessons were learned from the experiment, however, and those who open private educational institutions now have these important facts to consider: education is a long term investment, so even if you are in it for the money, you need to be in it for the long haul as well, as a return on your investment may not come before a good 10 to 15 years into the project. Hiring good and loyal administration is paramount to your success, as they can be the first to stab you in the back if you are unsure of their character. Finally, keeping the government on your good side is just simply smart business.

Most of my friends know that if they want to find me, they can look for me generally at In House Malki; it satisfies all my Starbuck’s urges without costing me way too much, if you know what to order. If you read the fine print on the menu, you will find that they write that decaf is available for 25 SP extra. I always ask if they have the decaf yet, often enough that most of the baristas roll their eyes (they’re all my friends behind the counter, so it’s cool) as they explain that it’s on its way, but decaf is just not here yet. I’m going to keep asking, though, because I deserve nice things.

Syrian bloggers form book club/blog

Syrian blogger Razan Ghazzawi – whose personal blog goes with the title “Razanisms” – made it possible for us to learn about a new blog on wordpress, an interesting online book club bringing together bloggers from around the country to discuss impressions about a certain set of books – recommended by the blog’s authors.

All of us read

Syrian bloggers initiative titled: "All of us read."

The blog is in Arabic and holds the URL of: arabicbooksclub.wordpress.com.

If you read Arabic, we recommend you take a look and participate.

Writer: Ruba Saqr (FW: Magazine, Associate editor-in-chief, Syria).

The cassette generation

"My friend’s 5-year old daughter chats with her father on MSN. She sends him all kinds of nudges, winks, and smileys, although his office is a short drive from his home. Times have changed indeed. When I used to call my father long distance to Europe (punshing the number over and over—via ‘pulse’ dialing) I used so scream to make myself heard..."

The cassette generation

Sami Moubayed

I have been writing too much politics in FW: lately; now is the time for some light nostalgia.

I walked into a music store with my good friend Karim Tabba the other day, and asked for a cassette. “We don’t sell them anymore” replied the attendant, with a big smile on his face. It suddenly hit me; the generation gap that diffrentiated us from our elders and which we once mocked repeatedly, has quickly crept onto our lives as well. When we were 18, for example, we would glare at a balding 30-year old, with white streaks on his hair and children, as “Ancient!” 30 was so far away. I remember when CDs were invented, followed-up by medium sized Video-CDs, and then the modern version of the DVD came along. Our generation learned to use the Internet during their final years in college, or when they first began their working careers. The new generation—now in college—do not remember the world without DVD or Internet. They never used “Double-Cassette Players” to customize a cassette of songs for their high school sweetheart. I once asked a young girl, now turning 19, whether she had ever written a hand-written letter in her life, “bought stamps for it, licked them onto the envelope, and then mailed it from the post office, either to a friend or beloved?” She smiled and looked back at me, as if I were a Brontosaurus Rex. One of the most intimate and warm methods of communication, I still beileve, which outdoes email by a thousand years, is a hand-written letter—sent or received—or a love-letter from one’s beloved.

My friend’s 5-year old daughter chats with her father on MSN. She sends him all kinds of nudges, winks, and smileys, although his office is a short drive from his home. Times have changed indeed. When I used to call my father long distance to Europe (punshing the number over and over—via ‘pulse’ dialing) I used so scream to make myself heard, because of the bad connection. Our Damascus had no mobile phones or Internet; no “tunnel” in the Umayyad Square, just orange and red lightbulbs for decoration, and a colorful variety of Mazdas and Lancers, driving around in circles. We played football in the streets and got a tremendous kick out of the first fast food joint to open in Damascus—Express Restaurant—at the Meridian Hotel. It offered items that looked like McDonalds; Big Macs, nuggets, and real French Fries.

During our early romances, we used to passionately call up a loved ones home, what we know call a “landline,” and hang up over and over whenever her parents picked up (they often said very bad things to us). Young lovers nowadays don’t do that anymore; they don’t even dial the number. They just press a Fast Dial on their mobile phones, and it calls her cellular number. She picks up directly and immediately, or sends an SMS telling her courter when exactly he should call her back. We used to eagerly wait for dance parties in Damascus (with a astronomical entrance fee of $500 SP) and hope that a young lady would agree to join us for a dance, dreaming that it would be a long one, like Bryan Adams’ track from Robin Hood. They never—ever—let us get “too close.”

Our favorite location was a small, worn-out parlor called Uno—our Syrian version of McDonald’s in the 1980s and early 1990s. We frequented a ice-cream shop called Ramez. There were no ‘nightclubs’ in Damascus (back then they were called discotheques)…no Backdoor or Marmar, certainly no In-House, Segafredo, or Costa. The famous hang-out, Sahara Café, was a classy restaurant we would go to on Thursdays with family, and behave because of the ‘serious’ atmosphere. Our entertainment came from Syrian TV, Syrian TV Channel 2 (in English) and Jordan TV. We had no cable TV until the mid-1990s. We played videogames on an Arabic computer Sakhr (with a huge cartharege diskettes) and were made to believe by our parents, that if we played too long, the adapter would explode! Only those growing up in Damascus in the 1980s would understand the joke, I believe.

Having said that, those who preceeded us—those who grew up in the 1970s—had none of our worries, and also, none of our pleasures as well. They listened to Abba and danced to John Travolta’s Saturday Night Fever. We listened to Ragheb Alameh and Michael Jackson. Our parents generation swayed to Elvis Presley, Um Kalthoum, and Frank Sinatra. Of course there have been cross-generation iconic figures—like Tintine, Um Kalthoum, Abdulhalmim Hafez, and Nizar Qabbani, but many of them have not been passed down to the generation that is now in their early 20s. I remember walking into a class of 40 people, all aged 18-19, the day Syria’s legendary playwright Mohammad Maghout passed away. Not a single one of them knew who he was. I explained that he had written the political masterpeice Ghorba, acted by Duraid Lahham. Surely they would know Ghorba, if not from re-runs on TV, then from their parents. Only a few had “heard of it.”

Black & white classics were still popular when we were in high school and college. Young people don’t watch them anymore. Why would they, with the colorless images, poor sound quality, and bad resolution, when they can get Hollywood mega-productions on DVD, with Dolby Sound and great visual effects, on their LCDs? When I was a child, I believed that the world had been black & white and became “colored” during my lifetime. Naïve and creative—no doubt—but its just a glimpse at how a younger generation views the world we lived in, with no Internet, mobile phones, SMS, or DVDs.

Magazine, Sami Moubayed Magazine, Sami Moubayedipod


Sami Moubayed is the editor-in-chief of FW: Magazine, Syria