Forward Magazine sponsors concert by leading Syrian pianist Ghazwan Zerkli & The National Symphony… on Dec 30, 08!

Ghazwan ZerkliThe Syrian National Symphony Orchestra is joining Syria’s most-acclaimed pianist Ghazwan Zerkli & compatriot conductor Missak Baghboudarian in a unique concert tomorrow, Dec 30 2008, at Dar al-Assad for Culture & Arts (The Opera House).

Starting at 8:30pm, the concert is sponsored by Forward Magazine, and organized by Damascus 2008 Arab Capital of Culture.

Hurry up and get your tickets by calling 011-9350 (recommended), or get them at the door if tickets are available by then (less recommended). For information in Arabic, click here.

Merry Christmas, Syria!

By mere chance I arrived in Bab Touma yesterday when a parade of Santa Clauses of every age, size and height were marching the streets of Assa’ (2assa3) market and Bab Touma’s plaza, in celebration of this year’s very merry Christmas. I felt so lucky when I asked the taxi driver: “what’s going on, is this a demonstration for Gaza?” (I had to drag myself over there after work for a meeting I wasn’t too keen on attending, having been too beat to move). “It’s the Kashafi,” he answered. Of course I didn’t understand what he meant; that was my first time ever around this kind of scene. But of course I understood what was going on from the visual effects that became clearer as we entered Bab Touma plaza. The loud drumming, the red costumes, the obvious vibes of joy enter your heart immediately and you find yourself secretly sending your love to baby Jesus. Al salamu 3alaik ya sayyidna 3eesa al masee7. Merry Christmas, Syria!

The Year Ahead: Syria in 2009

2009_logoSyria started its reform program almost ten years ago when President Bashar al-Assad assumed office. There are several milestones expected in the year ahead that will change the scene in Syria including signing the Association Agreement with Europe, Bush’s departure from the White House and Obama’s inauguration, reaching a peace agreement with Israel, the launch of the Damascus Stock Exchange, creation of Majlis al-Shura (Parliament’s upper house), etc.

Share with Forward Magazine your opinion or wishes on how Syria will look like in 2009? Opinions will be published on this blog and in online and print editions of Forward in January’s Special Edition: Forum for Change.

Bush & the “Good Ol’ Iraqi Shoe!”


The Iraqi reporter who hurled a show at president Bush a couple of days ago reminded me of a political satire released by Hollywood back in 1997 – one of my most favorite movies.

Dubbed “Wag the Dog,” the movie starred Dustin Hoffman (a creative Hollywood director and special effects specialist) and Robert De Niro (playing the role of a shrewd media spin doctor and save-the-day type of PR consultant to the American president).

The movie starts with this fictional president getting himself involved with a Monica Lewinsky kind of scandal. De Niro is summoned in by the media department at the White House-slash-CIA since he’s the only one who can come up with a media and PR plan to cover up the presidential PR disaster.

De Niro & Hoffman decide it was time to fabricate a War in some country God knows where to remove the American citizens’ attention from the Monica the President was sleeping with, and indulge them in the excitement of “freeing” a suppressed nation somewhere Russia-like.

The spin doctors come up with all kinds of news items from the battlefield of the non-existent war, all manufactured and fabricated within the Blue Rooms of Hollywood and its studios. They even bring back 303 empty coffins of non-existent soldiers who have “died in honor of their country” and the President (whose wise leadership is hailed by all American news agencies taking the bate) attends their most heart wrenching funeral.

The empty contents of the coffins were no secret to the public, De Niro worked around this little detail by creating a yet more interesting PR cover up: Media anchors around the country informed the American viewers that the soldiers were torched in “that” country by barbaric so-called freedom fighters. The poor 303 soldiers were attempting to defend the liberty of “that” nation, they all came back in coffins except for that one missing soldier who left his brown shoe behind! (The last time I watched the movie was 3 years ago, my imagination might be playing around with the plot, so take this with a pinch of salt).

Shoes, patriotism and symbolism…

De Niro’s character succeeds in making brown shoes resemble freedom, the American self-righteous quest for saving other nations from themselves, the American dream/individual lost in some barbaric wasteland! To engage the American people with the patriotic sentiments this pseudo war was all about, Di Nero ventures into historical fabrication in order to make things look and feel more believable.

He commissions a singer who lost his glory back in the 70’s to create a song called “Good Ol’ Shoe.” The song is processed by a brilliant sound engineer who makes it sound scratchy and very Vinyl. The song is actually packed into some old, dusty cover, is given a serial number and is planted in the Congress music library. By “mere chance” some reporter finds the song, people start listening to it – and if they were flower children they could vaguely “remember” hearing that glorified ballad in their youth.

According to this link: The team’s appointed songwriter, Johnny Green (Willie Nelson), pens a song for the occasion strongly reminiscent of the Persian Gulf War’s “Voices That Care” or the 1980s anthem “We Are the World.”

And the [spin-doctoring] group’s plan to encourage Americans to throw their shoes into trees in support of a missing soldier nicknamed “The Old Shoe” mirrors the trend of tying on yellow ribbons in support of war efforts.

After a long musical break the singer revives his oldie, this time with a song called “Old Brown Shoe.” (Again, remember I am unearthing most of this from memory).

Bush & the Good Ol’ Iraqi Shoe

A brilliant opportunity awaits Arab political satire songwriters. Yesterday on news in some demonstration in Iraq a guy was holding a shoe on a stick.

Good old brown shoes have in deed become a symbol, but this time they are in favor of “that” nation that Americans have conquered. Brown shoes have become a symbol of buried boiling rage at the American atrocities committed in the name of freedom. Isn’t it all too ironic. Sometimes one suspects Hollywood producers go to fortune tellers and like to shed some satirical light on the future.

P.S. I’m wearing brown shoes today.

* Why does a dog wag its tail? Because the dog is smarter than the tail. If the tail was smarter, it would wag the dog.

Writer: Ruba Saqr (inspired by conversation with Ammar Haykal last evening).

The Night Eid Was Stolen

… and the perpetrators were caught in the act. Then they were left in peace to continue what they had started.

In the world of those that can feel no shame, the night Eid was stolen was just another night. They stood as witness at a perfectly sealed Egypt-Gaza border, and made sure that the Custodian of the Holy Shrines could enjoy a sword-dance with the cowboy that violated the Arab’s dignity in Iraq and elsewhere.

Déjà vu? Yes, but not for the first time, and it won’t be for the last. That is fit only for a nation united in ignorance, submission, and disgrace.

The late Saadallah Wannous would have said to the children of Gaza and Iraq and other parts of the nation: “We are bound by hope, and what is happening in the world today can not be the end of history.”

And hope they can never steal.

Happy Eid to everyone.

Syria: A European Arab Country?

So if Syria is to belong to another group other than the Arab World, would it be Europe, or Asia?

Perhaps this is a more legitimate question to be asked by Turks about their country, especially with their bid to join the European Union.  However, this is a question that is being asked today about Syria, and from foreigners that come to live here.

One of them is Gautam Mukhopadhaya, India’s Ambassador to Damascus. Last night there was a farewell dinner in his honor. In response to an eloquent speech by the hostess Massa Hamwi, Gautam spoke about his stay in Syria and his “attachment” to the country. Syria for him was an undiscovered place. Syrian culture was so unique in every aspect of it, starting from food and not ending with art and literature. He then concluded with something that I wrote about couple of times before but never with the same clarity of expression. For Gautam, Syria represented the best of the Arab/Islamic culture, and the best of European culture. If used well, that can be a winning combination.

In many ways, that is true, and indeed, I for one believe in it. A while ago, I’ve jotted down some thoughts that seem proper to share at this time:

My country is at the heart of the world. I hear from visitors often they in Syria they feel at home. Much of that is due to the fact that every person will find a Syrian that looks like him. Syrians are not the product of today, or of the turbulent 20th century. We are a blend of civilizations that have triumphed over their ethnic or religious identities to form one nation. Our Arab identity is flavored with a rich Islamic culture, a proximity to Europe, and a nucleus location that connects the East to the West. The contributions to humanity since the beginning of time made by people that call Syria home are too many to count. And above all, we boast of an overwhelming youth majority in our population that holds the keys to both crisis and solution. We need to leave no stone unturned in our attempt to enable our youth, to have a present and a future, and to create prosperity for themselves, their families, their nation, their region, and indeed their world. With the current circumstances, it is much easier for our youth to be part of the crisis though. The one question that occupies me: how do help them become part of the solution.

Another question would be: if we are to draw a road map of the way forward, what would it be.


Education is the key it seems. Education, whether at school or university, has to be an all-embracing experience that makes them aware and able of the opportunity to put what they have learned to use. When they have come to a point where they are mature and capable of making their own decision, we want them to choose to be positive and assertive in Syria, not be that elsewhere, or be passive and submissive. We want them to follow in the traditions of their forefathers and become the self-consciences entrepreneurs that are agents of change and progress in all walks of life, from medicine to technology; from music to sports, and from business to philanthropy.

But education alone is not the way to make the young generation part of the solution. We should not allow for our educated youth to get frustrated with an inability to use their qualifications to create prosperity right at home. That would only be a deeper crisis.

Reforms in Syria have to touch all the economic, societal, and participatory intersections to help our people find opportunities, create opportunities, and make them sustainable. The reform effort cannot be restricted to the government’s back office, but to bring into play as equal partners in development both the private sector and the civil society. The three together are creating Syria’s renewed social capital, one that will not only reduce financial poverty, but will also enlighten the soul, and restore a deserved and much need meaning of human values, often lost in the quest of needs and wants satisfied by money.

And indeed, Syria cannot continue to be known only as one of the oldest countries in the world;

We are old an old country that have new people shaped by the globalization of knowledge and technology. By virtue of that, these people are citizens of the world, just as much as they are citizens of Syria, the ancient nation. In many ways, Syrians have not thought of their country only as place they call home, but also a meeting place; a refuge; and a hub where ideas, resources, and goods can be exchanged in a free and just manner. They have believed in partnership as a means for creating added value, sustainability and growth. They have believed in equality and solidarity as their social capital—an infinite resource that maintains social stability in the tides of crises hitting everywhere in the world.

Yes, Syria has one of the world’s lowest ratios of college graduates per capita, and that is our biggest challenge now. There is a huge gap between the supply and demand side of the job market; low skilled labor is abundant, while human resources with the right skills and qualification are scarce. But to go with education, we probably need a judicial system that gives people a sense of security, which is at the core of any sense of belonging even the sternest patriot would have. Education can flourish on a level playing ground, and prosperity cannot be created or sustained without both.

Until then, both Asia and Europe have moved far ahead, and we are short of living up to the great legacy of the real Arab/Islamic culture.

No white hair for Mickey & friends


By Sami Moubayed

Last November, the world celebrated the 80th birthday of Walt Disney’s eternal character, Mickey Mouse. For eight decades, Mickey has managed to enchant millions around the world with his landmark voice (recorded eary on by Disney himself), oversized shoes, big ears, and blue overalls. At 80, he still can dazzle visitors—and have his picture taken with them—at EuroDisney, Disneyland, and Disneyworld. Unlike us, Mickey does not grow old with age. He doesn’t take sides in times of war. The economic crisis of 1929 did not break him—nor did the world financial crisis of 2008. Nothing stuck to Mickey Mouse; neither World War II, Vietnam, 9-11, Afghanistan, or Iraq. He probably never heard of George W. Bush, or Osama Bin Laden, or Saddam Hussein. He is the only person who was not surprised at the election of Barack Obama—anything can happen after all, in Disneyland. This observation, however, does not only apply to Mickey and other Disney characters. It applies to all fictional characters who have transcended time, ripped down political, psychological, and social barriers, and captured the hearts of children and adults, in every city around the world, from Los Angeles to Tokyo. We’re talking Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp, Bugs Bunny, Pink Panther, Tintin, Popeye, Superman and Batman. Today, Tintin and Popeye stand both at 79. Superman is 76. Bugs Bunny is 68. Asterix is only 47. The Pink Panther, even younger, is only 44.

Mickey is the oldest among all the world’s most lovable characters. He first entered Syria in the mid-1930s, through a French investor working with a Damascene businessman from Bab Touma. The black & white cartoon film, Steamboat Willie, was shown at one cinema and billed as bringing “the mouse from America—one of the wonders of the 20th century, to Damascus.” The Damascenes—needless to say—adored Mickey Mouse. Although the film had sound, and the Damascenes spoke French, rather than English, they roared with laughter at the Disney creation; putting up little effort to understand the plot.

We don’t have such characters in the Arab world, certainly no Mickey Mouse. When King Abdul-Aziz of Saudi Arabia was first shown a cinematic production on board a ship headed to the Suez Canal in 1945, he gasped at black & white images of Popeye the Sailorman. The aged king of Arabia giggled as Popeye puffed away on his pipe, roared his famous chuckle, and drank down spinache in battle to capture the heart of his Olive Oil. He remarked that “this Popeye is so fun—so amusing—that it is impossible for me to allow him into the Kingdom! He certainly will distract worshipers and prevent them from praying!” During the Black September events in Jordan in 1970—and again during the seige of Beirut in 1982, Yasser Arafat used to indulge himself with the mischief of Tom & Jerry cartoons. It was his only pastime and stayed with him until his long seige in Ramallah, until 2004. He never missed a single episode, and saw many of them over and over again—probably getting some inspiration for his never-ending war with Ariel Sharon. Abu Ammar always thought that these cartoons were too violent for children, however, shrugging at the thought of a young child imitating what he sees on screen and slamming the piano on somebody’s fingers, placing dynamite underneath his pillow, or slicing him in half with a kitchen knife! He nevertheless adored the scene when Tom was a music conductor, and Jerry insisted on taking a nap during a concert—within the piano. Arafat watched it over and over again.

One of the few things that both Mao Zedong and his predecessor Chiang Kai Shek agreed upon in China—were the adventures of Tintin. Both were avid readers and so were world leaders who memeorized the stories, and knew the characters by heart—including Prime Minister Rajeev Ghandi of India and President Charles de Gaulle, who once confessed that the only person who challenges him really in the French speaking world, was Tintin. De Gaulle famously said, “Tintin is my only international rival. Nodoby notices, because of my height. We are both little fellows who won’t be got at by big fellows.”

In Syria, the closest thing we ever had to a lovable character is that of Ghawwar, a street prankster popularized in the 1960s by Syrian legend Duraid Lahham. Although absent from the screen for over 20-years, Ghawwar—who turns 45 in 2008—remains an all-time favorite not only for Syrians but for Arabs in general. Ghawwar was watched by everbody—beys and pashas of the 1950s, socialists and generals of the 1960s, Islamists, seculars, and communists. In the early 1960s, during they heyday of radical socialism, the Syrian government met to issue important laws on nationalization of banks, land, and industry. The meeting was adjourned, because of a lack of quoron. Why didn’t the ministers show up, the Prime Minister asked? Because a new Ghawwar series—called Hamam al-Hana—was being broadcasted live on Syrian TV. The socialists preferred getting a good laugh out of his pranks, than sitting behind their office desk, nationalizing property. A senior official approached the Hamam al-Hana team and said, “Either you change the time of your broadcast, or we have to change the weekly meeting of the Cabinet of Ministers.” Since shows were broadcasted life, chanting them was very difficult. The Syrian government nodded, and changed its weekly meeting, to accommodate Ghawwar!