Arageel don’t take you to prison!

Sami Moubayed

In Mohammad al-Maghout’s famous play, “Dayet Tishreen” a library owner transforms his library into a coffee-shop at a remote village somewhere in the Arab world. One young girl who frequents the library is appalled by the horrific transformation, angrily asking him: “From a library to a café?” He innocently looks back at her and says: “What’s wrong with that? A book is for 1 pound, and an argeeleh (Turkish pipe) is also for 1 pound!” She asks him to explain so he adds, “An argeeleh doesn’t take you to prison dear Zena, but a book certainly does—just look at books that have taken those who read them to the hangman’s noose!” That was Damascus, 1974.

Those words kept ringing in my ears over the past few days as I have noticed an equally horrific observation while strolling the streets of Damascus. The old, cranky library next to the Ministry of Industry, opposite the Cham Palace Hotel, has been closed down—out of business. This library, a favorite for the Syrian intelligentsia for decades, was named after the 1920 battle between Syria and the French, “Maysaloun.” Since the 1960s it served one generation after another of young Syrians, especially revolutionary and secular young people. A few meters down the road, another famous library, “Family,” in Sahet al-Najmeh, has been closed down and transformed into a pharmacy. Even worse, the Sheraton Hotel Library, a pioneer in selling English books, has also been closed, transformed into a shop that sells traditional Arabic dress (abaya). Cafes and restaurants now outnumber libraries in this city by over 100 times and even in five-star hotels that are mushrooming all over Syria, no bookstores can be found.

All of this was naturally expected for—dare I say it—a dying industry…an industry in sharp decline.

Twenty-years ago, major publishing houses in Syria used to publish no less than 3,000 copies for a first edition of any book by any acclaimed author. Over the past 10-years, that number was slashed down to 1,000 books and now stands at approximately 500 books/first edition except in the case of heavyweights like Nizar Qabbani. When I published my first book in Syria, back in 1998, it was priced at 180 SP (back then $3.6 USD)—a mediocre amount no doubt, needed nevertheless in order to encourage readers to buy it.  When my second book was published in the US, where finishing, layout, and distribution are far more superior, it sold at $35 USD. The $35 book is now out-of-print, while the 180 SP book is badly in stock!

Why is it that our books are in decline—both in quantity and quantity—and so is our readership and libraries? Why is it that libraries in Damascus lack the color and brilliance of display? In the West, bookstores literarily look like candy shops—yelling out at customers to walk in, read, and buy books. In Syria they are still dusty, old, with books clustered on wooden shelves in no particular sequence or order, with aging men behind thick rimmed glasses, sluggishly serving customers, visibly angry at the deteriorating taste of readers. In the past they used to read al-Mutanabi and Ahmad Shawki. Nowadays, they are reading horoscope books, like Maggie Farah–a bestseller not only in Syria but throughout the Middle East.

No wonder libraries are shutting down, one after another, in a city that ironically took pride at breathing life into some of the finest bookstores of the entire East, not-too-long ago.

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What Americans think when a fellow American tells them he studies in Damascus…

During a short trip to the United States this past week, I encountered a variety of different responses to my living in Syria. The purpose of my trip was to visit some of the universities to which I am applying for graduate programs this year.

My first stop was Washington D.C. where, due to a snow storm, I ended up having to stay in a hotel overnight before taking a train to New Jersey. The hotel clerk, who I apparently had woken up so that he could check me in around 2 a.m., asked me where I was coming from. “Syria,” I said. The clerk looked at me at smiled saying, “So, you work for the government, then?” This was one of the most common responses to me saying that I live in Syria – particularly in the political capital of the U.S

Even after I got to the first university in New Jersey the following day, I received some interesting responses to living in Syria. The students were all applicants for a Near Eastern Studies and many had spent time in Egypt and Turkey studying. They, too, however, were surprised to find that I live in Syria – albeit less surprised than my cab driver in Boston a few days later.

There is no doubt that there are more American students in Damascus than ever before and my feeling is that number will only increase in the coming years

Habib was an Algerian who moved to the U.S. three years ago, leaving his family at home in Algiers. As we loaded my bags into the trunk of the car at Logan International, I heard him say hello to a fellow cabby across the road and so I knew he was from North Africa. He was very chatty and told me all about his father who had fought in the Algerian Revolution against the French. I told him I would really love to go to Algeria some day but it is still somewhat difficult for Americans. He told me the Arab world is generally like that – to which I responded that I actually live in Syria now. He laughed for a few seconds and was very surprised, “You live in Syria? Well if you live there then why would you not go to Algeria?” He asked me a ton of questions about living there. He was pleased to hear that I had wonderful things to say about being an American in Damascus.

There was a general response of surprise from pretty much everyone I spoke with about living in Syria because most American students studying Arabic right now are still going to Cairo. Things are changing quickly, though. Cairo is fast becoming a less favored location for Arabic study and many study abroad programs and university departments are sending students to Damascus. There is no doubt that there are more American students in Damascus than ever before and my feeling is that number will only increase in the coming years.

Heavyweight Arab investor (ART TV’s Saleh Kamel) backs investment in Syria, asks for more reforms

Heavyweight Arab investor backs investment in Syria

ART TV’s Saleh Kamel asks for more reforms

 

Heavyweight Arab investor Saleh Kamel (owner of ART satellite channels) asks for more reforms in Syria. This is an exclusive photo by Forward Magazine-Syria (captured by Nabil Nijem)

 Exclusive English text  – by Forward Magazine, Syria

 

Speaking at the 13th Arab Businessmen and Investors Conference this week in Damascus, Saudi businessman Saleh Kamel raised eyebrows with what was described as a sharp and courageous speech, dealing with investment, red-tape, and corruption in Syria.

Kamel, owner of the popular ART TV, CEO and founder of Dallah al-Baraka Group, addressed President Bashar al-Assad directly in his speech,  saying: “When you came to power, I was among the optimists regarding what lay in store for Syria – a brighter future in all domains, especially economics.” The reasons for this optimism, he noted, still firmly stand, calling, nevertheless, on President Assad to initiate “an Economic Correction Movement that demolishes bureaucracy and dismantles its complexities!”

While praising Assad’s vision and intellectual acumen, Kamel noted there were several malpractices taking place on a regular basis, obstructing the work of investors coming to do business in Syria – “obstacles to which Syria shies away from, and which your aids do not report, in fear of you and for you.”

Kamel made it clear that a heavyweight investor like himself faces no such obstacles, “since if they close the doors before me, I simply, walk in through open windows. What is required is simplifying procedure for ordinary investors!”

Such systematic change will not happen, he warned, “only by passing strict legislation and firm bylaws.” It needs a strong will from the helm of power in Syria that trickles throughout the political command, all the way down to grassroots Syrians, “employees, executives, observers, and ordinary citizens.” Kamel added, “We need to transfer your beliefs and desires to all of those mentioned above. It is high time that different branches of the state catch up with your grand aspirations!” He pointed out in order to move forward, one must not have a situation in which “one wheel is working, while the rest are rusty.”

Tourism industry in Syria: Lagging behind?

Kamel then spoke of the historic and cultural value of Syria, with all its “God-sent endowments and gifts, abilities and privileges.” Syria was a country, he added, “envied by ill-wishers and coveted by the good-willed.” Why then, he asked, “was it lagging behind neighboring Lebanon when it came to tourism? The two countries, after all, share the same eco-space, yet not the same success story, given Lebanon’s flourishing tourism industry.”

 “What is difficult here is to change the mentality of people, transforming them from bureaucrats into tourism-makers, efficient at smiling before incoming visitors at Damascus Airport.” A tourism culture and industry, he added, were no less important than beautiful landscape and historical sites.

 Saleh Kamel floats the idea of starting a $20m company in Syria

Kamel then said that he has been involved in start-up companies that hunt for opportunities in Saudi Arabia, Mali, Senegal, Uganda, and Sudan, worth $2 billion. From the pulpit of the Businessmen Conference, he sought permission to establish a similar company in Syria, with a capital of $20 million. He personally vowed to contribute 50% of the initial capital, along with partners from other Arab states, granted that “we find serious Syrian investors to cover the other half.” The objective of the new company, which he described as “Syria Opportunities” will be to find new investment opportunities in Syria, jumpstart pending or suffocating ones, and expanding existing successful companies. He wrapped up that he wouldn’t call such a project, “Adventure Capital” but rather, “Initiative Capital,” claiming that God created Man to construct the earth, “and construction only happens when there is initiative.” If there were adventure and risk in construction, he said, “Allah the All Aware would not have ordered us to do so!”

Saleh Kamel’s speech elicited strong applause from the conference audience, which has been estimated at 1,000 businessmen from Syria and the Arab world. The 13th Arab Businessmen and Investors Conference, held in Damascus on March 3-4, 2010 is organized by a variety of players including the Arab League and the Syrian Union of Chambers of Commerce. It is held under auspices of President Bashar al-Assad, who was represented at the event, by Prime Minister Mohammad Naji al-Otari.

* Text of Saleh Kamel’s speech was originally published in Arabic in the daily al-Watan, and translated into English with modification by Forward Magazine.