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.

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2 Responses

  1. Nice post Mehdi.

    What I hate most is people using the word “sha3bak” شعبك (your people) to address “other” Syrians while expressing the same defeatist ideas, occasionally along with degrading and humiliating expressions. An example would be “يا أخي شعبك ما بيلبقلو سيارات” or “شعبك ما بيفهم غير بالصرماية”. Sha3bee? And where are you coming from? Planet Zog?

  2. LOL, that’s so true! My father does that with my mother when he’s mad at us, and translates it into English! “Why is it your kids never come to visit us?” and the like!

    I really believe that repeating something enough times convinces people that its true. So, if you say you don’t deserve something, or that you are somehow separate from everyone else, you’ll eventually truly believe it. I think these negative mantras, more than anything else, are what damages this country and holds it back. Want to know why the Americans got to where they are? Because they truly believed they were the best, because the consistently told themselves they were the best. Of course, that led to arrogance and rude awakenings, but the truth is, if you repeat positives while keeping a grasp on reality, we can return the shine to this country.

    Well, that’s what I think.

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