Syrian Business Visionary Strives to Boost Entrepreneurship: Abdulsalam Haykal

The World Economic Forum named Abdulsalam Haykal (right) a Young Global Leader. (Photo source: America.gov)

An article was posted recently on America.gov website about Abdulsalam Haykal, CEO and Publisher of Haykal Media (and its subsidiary, Forward Magazine).

Titled, Syrian Business Visionary Strives to Boost Entrepreneurship, here is an excerpt of the article:

20 April 2010

Syrian Business Visionary Strives to Boost Entrepreneurship

Technology, publishing, business growth in Abdulsalam Haykal’s repertoire

This article is part of a series on delegates to the April 26–27 Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship.

By M. Scott Bortot
Staff Writer

Washington — If Abdulsalam Haykal has his way, Syria someday will be known as a regional technology hub led by a dynamic work force.

The young Syrian entrepreneur is no ordinary businessman. Haykal works actively to improve Syria’s small-business growth while running Damascus-based software firm Transtek and Haykal Media publishing house.

Haykal is president of the Syrian Young Entrepreneurs Association and a founding trustee of the BIDAYA Foundation, two organizations dedicated to empowering aspiring business people in Syria. In recognition of his business development activities, the Obama administration has invited Haykal to attend the Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship April 26-27 in Washington.

For the full text, click here.

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Hands-up! You’ve been smoking!

By Sami Moubayed
Photography by Carole al-Farah, Photo-editing by Ibrahim Aladdin
Forward Magazine, Syria

Yesterday at the popular Rawda Cafe next to the Syrian Parliament, an elderly man walked in to sit at a corner he has reserved for himself, for nearly 40-years. Back then in 1970 he was 30, while the cafe itself was approximately 30-years old. He took out a cigarette as he has customarily done for the last four decades, lite it to inhale strong tobacco, then to his complete amazement was approached by one of the waiters who politely said; “This section is now smoke-free Sir. You have to extinguish your cigarette. If you want to smoke you have to sit in the courtyard!” Grumbling the man walked out with tail between his legs, speaking to himself and saying: “What is left of this life if one cannot smoke a cigarette anymore at any place he desires or has been used to for so long!”

It has been very amusing I must say, watching society prepare itself for the smoking ban that went into effect yesterday, on April 21, 2010. Hours before the ban was implimented, while seated at one of the coffee shops in Damascus, I said to a friend, “Say farewell to an era; the argeelah craze that took over Syria since the mid-1990s, is finally coming to an end!” Back in 1996, only a handful of cafes tolerated Turkish pipe smoking in Syria. Ten years down the road, it was difficult to find a venue in Syria that does not provide Turkish pipes—not to forget the door-to-door service, known as “arageel delivery!”

The new law, passed six months ago by President Bashar al-Assad, says that any indoor café or restaurant with no open ceiling will not be able to serve Turkish pipes, or tolerate the smoking of cigarettes, pipes, and cigars. That applies to all pubs, lounges, and the hundreds of cafes that have mushroomed all over the Syrian capital in recent years. No more cigar chomping at the Piano Bar in Old Damascus or at the lounges of the Sheraton Hotel and Four Seasons. No more argeeleh & tea over a good game of cards at the Orient Club. No more smoking in the crowded corridors of state-buildings, or in any government-related territory.

Venues with a concrete ceiling that nevertheless has openings throughout it; can permit smoking provided that the percentage of the smoking zone is relative to the percentage of the openings in the ceiling. Those penalized will pay up to 5,000 SP ($108 USD) per smoking violation, while venues owners breaking the law will pay up to 40,000 SP (870 USD) per penalty. A special police will be charged with roaming the streets of Syrian cities to track down anybody breaking the law while a 4-digit “hotline” has been created, linking citizens to authorities so they can ‘report’ any law violator. An official receipt for those who are caught smoking has already been published in official periodicals, and is posted on this blog. Repeated violations can lead to prison for ordinary Syrians and complete discharge from government service, for state employees.

It must be noted that several companies in the private sector have already started paving ground for the law, granting a salary increase or hefty bonus, to those who stop smoking at will. In addition to government buildings, smoking has been banned in cars, buses, trains, aiports, schools, universities, prisons, cinemas, and all sports facilities.

Will the law really go into effect, and how serious will the “smoke police” be in implementing it? Those who have seen the experience succeed in Europe are optimistic that the experience can easily be copied in Syria. Although there is a lot of resentment from smokers—who claim that the new law infringes on their basic rights as citizens—many predict that this resistance will fade away in no more than 2-3 months.

Will the Syrians manage to give up their long-held and cherished smoking habits, where for as long as anybody can remember, they have gone to cafes for a strong cigarette—Hamra tawila (Syrian made cigarettes), imported Marlboros, or a good apple-flavored Turkish pipe, topped with a challenging game for backgammon?

A question, waiting for answers…

The three codes of Troy

Sami Moubayed

I might be old-fashioned, but I am someone who is still very much impressed by good manners. I still smile when a young boy addresses me as Sir, or “hadirtak” as they say in Arabic, or looks me in the eye when talking, connecting his sentences with useful phrases like, “thank you,” “please,” and “may I?” I personally still do all of the above when addressing someone my senior, in addition to other creative terminology pulled right out of a bygone dictionary.

I still let them walk out a room or into one before me, and stand up to give them a seat at any particular gathering. A long time ago when I was a child, my father walked into the room from a hard day at work, while I was watching television, slumped on the living room couch. I smiled and innocently waved hello, and while red-in-the face, he ordered me to stand up and greet him properly. We had to repeat the entire scene; he walked out of the room then back into it, and I had to stand up and greet him with respect. I then watched him over the years stand to greet anyone who walked up to him, regardless of their age or social status, and have since, copied that behavior in my professional and personal life. As customarily done in Arab tradition, I used to kiss his right hand when walking into a particular gathering. As old-fashioned as this may sound to a Western audience, this is customarily practiced throughout the Arab world, by men of all ages, to this day.

My father loved to tell us the story of Badr al-Din al-Shallah, the veteran president of the Damascus Chamber of Commerce (DCC) who always addressed his Oxford-trained son and successor Dr Rateb as “child” and ordered him, although the man was a grandfather in his own right, to carry out household chores, like fetching him his slippers or bringing him a glass of water. I grew up hearing these stories, over-and-over again, and so did many who were told of the fascinating relationship between Bader al-Din Shallah and his son, Rateb al-Shallah. Today, father-to-son relations are no longer like that, although a few cases still stand out in Damascene society.

To show just how different this world is becoming; a 40-year old cousin of mine still refuses to smoke a Turkish pipe – let alone a cigarette – before his octogenarian father. Good manners are taught at home and at school, and should be celebrated and nourished in society and public life. It applies to how we drive, where we park our cars, how (and where) we answer our cellular phone, and how we behave at restaurants. It includes how we conduct any particular conversation, the tone of our voice in public, how we speak of our ministers, elected officials, and community leaders – and in turn, how they speak of us, ordinary citizens.

50-years ago, private Syrian individuals and NGOs launched a series of campaigns aimed at raising public awareness in Syria. One was to combat the copying of ideas and trends from the West: Al-hamla al-wataniya li mukafahet al-takleed. One was to eradicate cheating at schools and university, and another aimed at eliminating apple-polishing (or tamalouk & nifak in Arabic) from all sectors of Syrian public life. These were creative initiatives, coming at the heels of more direct and traditional campaigns, like ones to combat violence against women, illiteracy, and child labor.

It wouldn’t be such a bad idea then, to start a campaign to promote good manners and good citizenship in Syria. When toying with the idea of such a campaign, I couldn’t but recall the words of Hector, the brave Trojan warrior in Homer’s epic: “All my life I’ve lived by a code and the code is simple: honor the gods, love your woman and defend your country!” We need to promote similar codes in Syria – which if applied while building on Syrian traditions and customs would make this country a better place for all of us.

Never in a million years!

Sami Moubayed

I was always amazed at Western journalists enchanted by Walid Jumblatt in 2005-2008, describing him as a ‘hero of Lebanese independence’ who had been ‘anti-Syrian for years.’ Anybody who said or believed that clearly knew very little about Syrian-Lebanese relations, and nothing about Walid Jumblatt. During the civil war and the 1990s, Jumblatt was one of the pillars of the pro-Syrian camp in Lebanon, which included then-Finance Minister Fouad al-Siniora and Prime Minister Rafiq al-Harriri. He served as cabinet minister and MP during the heyday of Syria’s presence in Lebanon and was a very frequent visitor to Damascus. He owned a house and office in the Syrian capital and was married to Nora, a Damascene lady who is the daughter of Syria’s former Defense Minister Ahmad al-Sharabati.

By apologizing to Syria, government and people alike, and landing in Damascus yesterday, Walid Jumblatt stirred up media attention once again, about where the man—a skilled political chameleon brilliant at political acrobats—really stands on Syrian-Lebanese relations. I personally don’t have an answer, and nobody really does except for Walid Jumblatt.

I met Jumblatt twice in 2002 for an interview for the pro-Palestinian American magazine, The Washington Report. Back then he was still loudly pro-Syrian. I drove up to his castle in al-Mukhtara on one cold Sunday morning, where “Walid Bey” was scheduled to meet me, at 9 am. What I recall best is the very lax security surrounding his residence as I walked through the stone corridors of the mansion, adorned with photos of his father and the Syrian resistance leader Sultan Pasha al-Atrash. Walid Jumblatt was in a large hall surrounded by hundreds of citizens coming to seek his favor, casually laid back in jeans and white shirt. I presented him with copies of the magazine and a copy of my book which mentioned his father-in-law during the Palestine War of 1948.

We had strong Arabic coffee and chatted about the interview for 15 minutes, and then I headed back to Beirut. He preferred to conduct the interview at his residence in the Lebanese capital, next to the American University of Beirut.

The next day, I walked over to Jumblatt’s house, which was minutes from where I lived in Beirut, and found him all alone at his living room, reading the mass circulation daily An-Nahhar, with a copy of my book by his side. He had clearly gone through it earlier that morning and we talked about his father-in-law Ahmad Sharabati, whose reputation was tarnished for leading the Syrian Army into defeat in 1948. We then switched to contemporary affairs, and the record of what Walid Jumblatt said to me speaks volumes about how the Druze leader really thought prior to the ‘cold war’ between Damascus and the Bush White House, which in turn led to a cold war between Syria and Jumblatt.

First, he seemed completely convinced that George W. Bush had one-way or another, staged 9-11 to justify a crusade against the Arabs and Muslims, similar to how Adolph Hitler had presumably torched the Reichstag in 1933 to justify a war against Jews—and everybody else who was opposed to the Nazis.

He then said, “They (the Americans) want us to stand against Syria and we tell them: Never in a million years! By asking us to work against Syria they are telling us to work against ourselves, against our history and our nation! We tell them: We are with Syria until the last drop of blood!” He then added, “I personally am with Syria regardless of who is ruling it; whether it is Adib al-Shishakli (who waged a war against the Druze in 1953), Shukri al-Quwatli, or Bashar al-Assad. I will never work against Syria no matter what happens, nor will I turn my back on the Palestinians!” He then spoke about his relationship with Yasser Arafat, who was besieged at his compound in Ramallah by Ariel Sharon, reminding how he had escorted Abu Ammar out of Beirut in the summer of 1982, weeping at the exodus of the Palestinians from Lebanon, 20-years ago.

All of these images kept coming to mind as I heard Walid Jumblatt fire very derogatory remarks against Syria in 2005, accusing it of assassinating Rafiq al-Harriri. It was unbelievable that only three years later, this very man had uttered such strong words in favor of Syria. Jumblatt had been used and abused by the Bush White House and his allies in March 14—very willingly—and single handedly took blame for the slump in Syrian-Lebanese relations during the difficult 5-years that have passed.

The isolation Bush tried to impose on Syria is now history. Bush has sunk into obscurity; Jumblatt has admitted his mistakes, while Syria’s relationship with its allies, Hizbullah, Hamas, and Iran, remains as strong as ever. Jumblatt’s visit to Syria, three months after Prime Minister Saad Harriri came to Damascus, is testimony that Syria was right all along! Jumblatt will have to work hard from here on to sustain his relationship with Hizbullah, since that is the channel through which his road to Damascus will run. What is assuring today is that these difficult days are seemingly gone, never to return—never that is—in a million years