A tribute to Nizar

Sami Moubayed

Last Thursday, April 29, 2010, marked the 12th anniversary of the passing of Syria’s legendary poet, Nizar Qabbani. It seems like almost yesterday. I recall that I was at the campus of the American University of Beirut (AUB) when I got the news. It ripped like forest fire among young people in Beirut and Damascus, especially revolutionary college students in love either with a sweetheart or a national cause, be it Palestinian, Syrian, or Lebanese. I recall immediately traveling to Damascus, hoping that I can take part in his funeral, which was attended by thousands of Syrians bidding farewell to “Abu Tawfiq,” who draped in the Syrian Flag, was returned to his beloved city Damascus after decades of self-imposed exile in Beirut, Cairo, and London. It was the first time that Damascene women take part in a funeral, including his daughter, grandchildren, and friends—notably, the Syrian novelist Colette Khury.

At the Syrian Cultural Club at AUB, we organized a memorial on the 40th day of his passing. Nizar after all had spoken at West Hall in the heart of the Beirut College back in the 1950s, where he had met Colette for the first time. He eulogized Beirut often; before, during, and after the horrendous Civil War, describing her as “Lady of the World.” He came to AUB in 1994 to perform an unforgettable recital at College Hall, and months before his death, had sent us a letter to the Syrian Club, promising to visit AUB again, “when his health permits.”

Nizar Qabbani was an exceptional man, who led an exceptional life, and has left behind an exceptional legacy. There is no difference between loving one’s nation, he would say, and loving one’s woman. Nations rise, he added, when the love for woman and nation become so closely interwoven that they are inseparable. On the contrary, the more one is able to show affection for his woman, the more likely he will adore his nation as well, and fight for her—either with the pen, the ballot, or the gun—until curtain fall. All of this can be seen in his unforgettable works, which over 10-years since his passing, still sell well throughout the Arab world. They are books like Tufulat Nahd (Childhood of a Breast), Al-Rasm Bil Kalimat (Drawing with Words), and Qalat Liya al-Samra (The Brunette Said to Me).

Nizar was a man tormented with grinding hardships, the early death of his sister, the untimely death of his eldest son Tawfiq (while studying to be a medical doctor in Cairo), and ultimately, the murder of his Iraqi wife Balqis al-Rawi at the Iraqi Embassy in Beirut. “Death” he wrote in his eulogy of her, “lurks in the keys of our apartment, deep within our coffee cups, and in the flowers of our balcony!”

Politically the bombing of his capital Damascus in 1945 devastated Nizar and so did the war of 1967. When authorities banned him from entering Egypt, Nizar was heartbroken, appealing directly to President Gamal Abdul Nasser whom he had harshly criticized in a poem written right after the war asking: “When will you leave us? The theatre has collapsed over your heads and people in the audience are spitting at you and cussing! When will you go away?” Nasser’s death in 1970, nevertheless, was equally harsh on Nizar, where he eulogized him as “the Fourth Pyramid” and so was the Lebanese Civil War, the 1982 occupation of Beirut, and Yasser Arafat’s peace with the Israelis in 1993.

Nizar’s death was sad, but the fact that 12-years down the road, the Arab world has failed to produce a similar legend, is tragic. We have watched, over the last 10-15 years, the passing of great figures like Muhammad al-Maghout, Najib Mahfouz, and Mahmud Darwish. Sadly, there is nobody in Syria, Egypt, or Palestine who lives up to the caliber of these gigantic figures—or even comes close to walking in their footsteps. That is very true for Syrian giants like Saadallah Wannus, Maghout, and Nizar. Nowadays, we find that his poems are being used, left-and-right, by singers wanting to score a quick victory. Poets from all ages cannot escape his style and vocabulary—it is almost as if a poem influenced by Nizar jumps out at the reader and declares its loyalty to the poet.

Nizar Qabbani once said, “Death is afraid of one thing: creative people! When death creeps up to take any one of us, and finds him/her seated behind their desk, busy writing, he gets embarrassed—shy that he to interrupt what we are doing, certain that even if he takes us, we will never die because we live through our works!”

How right he was…

The staff and editorial team at Forward Magazine, wishes to take this opportunity to pay homage to Syria’s legend, Nizar Qabbani.

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Syrian Cultures: An American Student Perspective

When I touched down at the Damascus airport in June of last year, it was my first time in Syria. Although it was not going to be my first time living in an Arabic-speaking country, I had been told by my friends that this time would be different -and they were right.

After graduating from college a few years ago, I spent time in Yemen, Egypt and Oman studying Arabic and conducting research. My goal in Syria has been to continue to develop my Arabic skills and to learn something about Syrian culture. My coursework at the University of Damascus has been with the Center for Arabic Study Abroad (CASA) which operates under the auspices of the University of Texas-Austin in the United States. Courses are aimed not only at teaching students Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) and Colloquial Damascene Arabic but also at helping students understand more about Syrian society and culture. After having lived in Damascus for eight months, however, I have become more aware of Syrian cultures than anything else. Our coursework has required us to be in constant interaction with the Syrian population through conducting interviews, attending lectures, cultural events, watching Syrian television series and interning at a local Syrian company (in my own case, working with the Forward Magazine crew). As a result of this regular interaction with Damascenes and other Syrians that live in the Sham, I have been struck by the way people talk about Syrian ‘culture.’ Damascenes are more than happy to help a foreign student like me learn more about Syria and, thanks to them, I have been presented with a massive range of perspectives and opinions as to what defines Syria and its people.

Obviously, I have no intention of listing those various definitions. Instead, I would like to point out an interesting underlying theme present in virtually all of the answers I received to my questions. People almost always divided their answers into sections, explaining that the answer to any given question depends on a variety of different factors, including but not limited to: hometown, religion, socio-economic level, age and gender. In my opinion, this points to a keen awareness among Damascenes of the various levels of their identity. While most Damascenes I talked to envisioned something called “Syrian culture,” they were quick to point out the pluralist elements of Syrian society. Indeed, they seemed proud of how diverse the Syrian population is and saw the cultures of Syria as part of what defines it as a society.

Avatar: A commentary on the Palestinian saga (Reading between the lines)

Avatar movie (2009) tells the story of Palestine, according to Syrian sales professional, Soud Atassi (Photo doctored by R. Saqr)

Reading between the lines of AVATAR

By Soud Atassi

AVATAR, for many, is just an American movie about war between the humans and some strange creatures that own a strange living forest that is full of life power. The movie shows us that the American army does not care about humanity, shedding light on how the bad decisions of the highest management of the world can ruin the innocents’ homes and history (American effrontery) and how deceived are the American people!

Why pay to watch such a movie when they can see it in front of their eyes, not in imagination, but for real:

Just look at the map,

Mark on Palestine.

Enjoy the movie!

Please go and watch AVATAR and consider that you are looking at a movie about the Palestinian people, whose tree and home have been uprooted –  just like the tree and homeland of the aliens in AVATAR!

Soud Atassi is the Group Sales Manager at Forward Magazine and Haykal Media

How commercial is celebrating Valentine’s Day in Damascus?

Celebrating Valentine’s Day in Damascus:

For Syrians, who like other nations aren’t safe from the hands of commercialism, the rituals of valentine start a month before Feb the 14th

 By Hamzeh Abu-Fakher

Staff Writer, Forward Magazine

It’s February and stores, restaurants and cafes are tearing down what’s left of their Christmas decorations and adorning their spaces in this month’s highlight festivity, symbols that suggest displays of love and affection for Valentine’s Day. Red ribbons, red hearts, cupids and flashing red lights alarm lovers Valentine’s Day is drawing nigh.

 In Damascus, those embarrassing soft toy hearts with smiley faces, arms and legs, ceramic hearts on springs and even steaks wrapped in ribbon and festooned in hearts are excused. Thinking about all this, people may wonder: What is Valentine?

Everybody knows it’s “Lover’s Day” named after the martyr Saint Valentine; but what significance does it hold? It can’t be actually categorized as a holiday, you still go to work on that day, yet people and businesses prepare weeks in advance for it, just forgetting it the next day.

Valentine’s Day means different things for different couples. For some it means candlelit dinners, long-stemmed roses and flower-scented bubble baths in heart-shaped Jacuzzis in countryside bed and breakfast hotels. For others it’s an excuse to drop thousands of liras at a restaurant you’ve both been dying to try all year but haven’t found the room for in your budget. Fanciful or practical, whether you subscribe to the ”Valentine’s Day is an invented holiday” school of thought or not, this special day is a chance to celebrate your relationship – old or young, long term or just getting started.

The 14th day of the second month marks a day in which lovers forget their disputes and shower each other with gifts; flowers, valentine cards, teddy bears, and sweets. Not preparing in advance for this occasion is blasphemous, especially if you are a guy! Many women consider Valentines a test of their partners love and commitment.

Valentines is the only day of the year when all couples are required to be happy in love. For singles however, the day and night can be rather depressing, but nothing a soppy DVD and tub of ice cream and crisps can’t fix. Although, statistics show that teen suicide rates hike around Valentine’s Day!

Commercially, after Christmas and New Year, Valentine is the next most profitable holiday globally. Handwritten love notes have been replaced with mass produced greeting cards, and in the USA, the Greeting Card Association estimates that approximately one billion Valentine greeting cards are sent each year worldwide. Not forgetting credit cards bills, which are the new means of expressing love. The fatter the bill, the hotter the night’s reward.

For Syrians, who also aren’t safe from the hands of commercialism, the rituals of valentine start a month before Feb the 14th. Guys start calling their friends to ask for money; No “man” wants to be caught penniless in front of their girl friends on Valentine’s. Restaurants start preparations with decorations and special offers “For Families Only,” “No single men allowed.” 50 liras red roses magically gain an extra zero, turning to 500 liras. And finally, cell phone companies start spamming their customers with bulk messages, such as: “Send a message to #### with your partner’s name to join the ‘Lover’s Day competition’ or to ‘test your compatibility.’”

Perhaps being in love does improve the economy! Some say that “Love makes the World go around,” while others say “Money makes the World go around,” using simple mathematical logic, love = money!

Like with all special occasions, I think Valentine’s Day has lost some of its enchantment because it has been abused by those considering it a commercial opportunity. However, this day, if handled correctly and planned well, could prove to be an incredibly romantic day allowing you a chance to treat your significant other, and demonstrate how much you love her/him.

A home cooked dinner lit by candles, scents of aromatics and a massage could prove to be the sweetest and most romantic gift a lover could offer. No need to go buy all the red scrap that replaced the New Year’s and X-mass’ junk. Valentine is a special day for a couple to celebrate their love, alone, not with the whole world in restaurants like some love concentration camp.

It all depends on how you view it, you can either think that a rose is a dead flower, or a symbol of undying love. The same way this day could either be another commercialized occasion, or a romantic opportunity for lovebirds to get together and exchange words and actions about how they feel for one another. And in the end, if couples are happy together, everyday can be Valentine’s Day, while Valentine could be an even more extraordinary day.

Fun fact: In Saudi Arabia, in 2002 and 2008, religious police banned the sale of all Valentine’s Day items, telling shop workers to remove any red items, as the day is considered a non-Islamic holiday. In 2008, this ban created a black market of roses and wrapping paper.

Meet Bassel Ojjeh, the Syrian web wizard who just left Yahoo! – by flipping the magazine digitally

Are you proud to be Syrian? Well, you should be!

Flip through Forward Magazine’s January 2010 digital pages, using the latest in page-flipping technology…
http://anax8a.pressmart.com/forwardsyria/index.aspx

Meet 4 Syrian expatriates who are …

– Influencing the online world (Yahoo!’s Bassel Ojjeh new ArabCrunch.net sponsorship deal for entrepreneurs)

– Lobbying to change perceptions about Syrians and Arabs in the US (Helen Samhan – Arab American Institute Foundation)

– Leading the paper industry from his Vienna-base (Nabil Kuzbari)

– Proposing premium health care insurance for Syrian from her US experience (Rola Kaakeh)

Buy Shares in the Syrian Dream

By Abdulsalam Haykal, for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews). The original article can be viewed at http://www.commongroundnews.org/article.php?id=26077&lan=en&sid=1&sp=0&isNew=1#.

I spent summers as a young boy in Damascus, while my fellow Syrians were flocking to my coastal hometown of Tartous to savor the waters of the Mediterranean Sea. Despite the heat of Damascus, my summers there were always special.

The Damascene diversity was riveting. Every Friday morning, my grandfather let me tag along during his weekend ritual of shopping for antiques. We would stroll along Medhat Pasha, better known as the biblical Straight Street, moving slowly from one shop to another, eyeing the colored-glass vases, rubbing smooth brass plates and ogling intricate pearl-inlay chests.

Grandpa and I laughed a lot as we shopped for antiques. Some of our biggest belly laughs were with Jamil, an elderly Syrian Jew whose shop was near the Al-Efranj Synagogue, an active place of worship even today. We would stop by the monumental Umayyad Mosque, where the faithful gathered for Friday noon prayers. Inside the mosque, Grandpa once lifted me up to peer through the bars of a shrine said to contain the head of John the Baptist, known to Muslims as the Prophet Yahya.

My grandfather, Faisal Sabbagh, loved Damascus’s history. But he was not stuck in the past. When he was not out searching for antiques, Grandpa was a neurosurgeon who had trained at Columbia University and later established Damascus University’s neurosurgery department in 1949. The generations of medical doctors he taught still remember him as their role model.

My other grandfather is still vibrant at 93. A celebrated entrepreneur and a long-time community leader, I’m proud to be his namesake. He articulates his wisdom through witty poetry and fascinating stories, looking down at the prevailing patronizing attitudes. He teases my father about his passion for high-tech photography. Grandpa bought his first camera in France in the late 1920s, long before the era of digital cameras, and took photos of the National Boy Scouts, which he led in Tartous. He rejoices in his memories of the Scouts demonstrating against the French occupation more than 75 years ago, reminding me that all adversity comes to an end sooner or later.

Talk to young Syrians today and you will find that they often have similar family tales of history, tradition, resistance and innovation. Many have roots in far-flung corners of the world. Similarly, people around the globe can trace their roots to Syria, which was considered by some to be the geographic centre of the world, as well as the heart of the historic Silk Road connecting the Asian continent to Europe.

Many visitors confess that they feel “at home” in Damascus. That sense of belonging is due to an amusing anomaly: any visitor can find a Syrian who looks like them! We are a blend of cultures that triumphed over our ethnic and religious identities to form one nation. Yes, we have a distinct Arab identity and a rich Islamic culture. But we also have a powerful Christian heritage, a Mediterranean character, and a proximity to Europe.

Syria and its capital, Damascus, are sometimes themselves thought of as antiquities, remnants of an illustrious civilization that never quite made it to the present. But for the thousands of us born in the 1960s and 1970s, Syria is a very different nation than even a decade ago. We often feel we have an unprecedented opportunity to flourish.  We are committed to the rebirth of the “Syrian Dream”, empowered by a distinct sense of belonging and sense of duty.

Syria is an ancient nation propelled by a new, technology-savvy generation of young entrepreneurs. We have a vision of what we can be and have set the course to implement it. Countless people in government, civil society, business and the quiet heroes among ordinary citizens work hard against all odds, as we seek to be makers—and not only seekers—of peace. In a world as unstable as ours today, it makes sense to buy shares in this Syrian Dream!

At a recent World Economic Forum at the Dead Sea in Jordan, I, along with 200 young adults from around the world named as Young Global Leaders, shared our stories and plans for a better world. I had an opportunity to tell government officials, entrepreneurs and activists about the contemporary global perspective that now thrives in Syria, nurtured by a heritage that gives Syrians the confidence to advance into the 21st century.

At the Dead Sea, I also realized I was not just a proud citizen of Syria, but also a proud citizen of an ever-changing world–just as my grandfathers intended me to be.

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* Abdulsalam Haykal is a Damascus-based media and technology entrepreneur and a social activist. In 2009, he was selected to be one of 200 Young Global Leaders by the World Economic Forum. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Forward Shabab’s cool Syrian student Ouasi al-Sharif on Version FM today at 5p.m

On Version Magazine with presenter Reham Rifai

Ouais al-Sharif, Forward Shabab's cool student at Forward Magazine, is the guy in green, standing in the back... :)

Ouais al-Sharif, Forward Shabab's cool student at Forward Magazine, is the guy in green, standing in the back... 🙂

, today’s main topic is “Blood Donor Day” that happens to be this Sunday 14th of June. World Health Organization chose this day as a day to recognize the millions of people who save lives and improve the health of others by donating blood. Version Magazine radio program will be talking to a representative of the SRC “Syrian Red Crescent” about SRC Blood Donating Program.

Also at 5p.m and as part of giving Syrian Youth a chance to express themselves, Version Magazine radio program will have a special guest, Ouais al-Sharif a second year computer science student at Damascus University who is currently ranked the third on the faculty, Ouais was featured in Forward Magazine June issue, in Forward Shabab section as “Crazy haired genius…”. Ouais nurtures his curiosity to learn about new philosophies and methods with research and internet surfing, but he’s most interested in business and scientific matters.

  • Program name: Version Magazine
  • Time: every Sunday at 5 pm
  • Frequency: 94.4 MHz
  • Radio station: Version FM Radio Station
  • For live comments SMS number: 1944