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.

Syrian students banned from using supercomputer at KAUST University in Saudi Arabia

Syrian Students banned in KSA, Abdulsalam Haykal, Forward MagazineSyrian students denied academic access to IBM supercomputer at KAUST due to US sanctions

  • Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) honors US political restrictions over internationally-set academic freedoms and integrity

Damascus (October, 2009) –  The King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), the new world-class research university in Saudi Arabia, has denied 15 students access to cutting-edge technology inside its premises due to sanctions against Syria.

Accordingly, KAUST’s breakthrough IBM supercomputer, called Shaheen (Arabic for falcon), will be allowed for all students from all nationalities except for Syrians. The Shaheen, one of 14-systems around the world and the largest in Asia by far, will be off-limits to Syrian students and researchers in what can be seen as a breach of academic freedom.

In a scoop editorial by Abdulsalam Haykal, CEO and publisher of Forward Magazine in Syria, the writer revealed: “It’s a shame that the 15 Syrian KAUST students are not allowed to use the Shaheen. Why? American sanctions had to be observed in the agreement between KAUST and IBM. Syrian students were told that it was not a KAUST decision, rather one that related to the state of affairs between the US and Syria.”

Haykal continued to say, “KAUST is then forced to bend to politics, and act against academic freedom.”

KAUST breach of academic integrity comes from the fact the Supreme Court of the United States has ruled on several occasions that, “[A university] can determine for itself on academic grounds, who may teach, what may be taught, how it should be taught, and who may be admitted to study.”

Forward Magazine, Syria’s leading English monthly and an offshoot of Haykal Media, announced early October it will be lobbying in US and Saudi circles arguing against such “unacceptable academic discrimination.”

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).

When Damascus is too hot and the day refuses to end

Damascus Weather 2009

In the cab an hour ago, we couldn’t help but recall the famous Syrian saying: “The doors of hell are wide open” (Bwab jhannam mfatta7a el youm shi?).

We had an interview with a young man for an article in July, and so we hopped into a yellow cab, which had all its windows wide open. As the cab drove off, it felt like sitting under a hair drier. The streets were obviously a layer of cheese melting over a cooking pot. You could see faint steam camouflaging vision as you looked out of the window.

Damascus was suntanning, maybe she’ still is… I can’t tell, since I’m sitting under my AC.

Compared to Dubai, here is a piece of Heaven. No matter how hard-staring the sun is in Damascus, it still is a breeze of fresh air compared to the Gulf. I still can afford wearing long-sleeved shirts without feeling that lingering sensation of suffocation.

But what’s interesting to observe is that… when it’s hot, time moves slowly, it seems. In the business of magazines and publishing, it is well known that the first few days of the month – after a hectic production period – feel very relaxed, in comparison to concentrated days of magazine creation. But today is particularly slow. Everyone in the office is working hard to finalize things here and there related to our media group (Haykal Media), but after hours of meetings, writing, going out to meet people, writing briefs, contacting people over the phone, organizing editorial matters…. Time is still swooning under the scotching Damascene sun. It’s not six yet!

That’s why I decided to commit the legitemate act of blogging… in hopes of letting a few more very heavy minutes pass without me further feeling the weight of Time. Writing this post took me less than 10 minutes, which is quite quite disappointing in light of the day’s circumstances 🙂

Setting the example to boycott boycotting

45758-resized-un-racism-conferenceLast year, on March 14, The Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Isesco) called on all 50 of its member states to boycott the Paris book fair. Why? Because the French had dared to choose Israel as its guest of honor. In the ultimate act of shooting itself in the foot, the organization not only denied authors and publishers the chance at international review and recognition, it also failed to provide a counterpoint to the Israeli perspective highlighted at the fair. Whatever your stand on Israel is, the fact that no Muslim country was there offered them a free pass to promote their own ideas unchallenged.

Similarly, the international community was outraged when Israeli tennis star Shahar Peer was denied a visa to Dubai this past February. The UAE’s reasoning was that denying this player passage to the Dubai Championship would be an effective method to protest the Israeli agression against Gaza at the turn of the new year. Instead, the country was fined, faced incredible censure, and was forced to take in Andy Ram if it wished to continue holding their international competition.

Boycotts and denial of access are simply ineffective ways of protest. They limit communication, and therefore understanding and agreement. While they occasionally have some short-term success, the resentment it creates in the side that was bullied into submission lasts for so long, it will pounce on whatever chance it can take later on to gain retribution, often in the most destructive manner possible.

Why should Muslim countries act any different, however, when the US, Israel, Canada, and the EU, supposedly the paragons of “liberal” and “democratic” countries in the world, don’t provide a better example? Today, April 19, 2009, the US has confirmed that it will not be attending the UN forum on racism in Geneva next week, because of disagreements on how the guiding document views Zionism. This follows similar confirmations from Canada and Israel, as well as serious discussions on behalf of the EU to do the same.

The US decision should hardly come as a surprise to most Muslims, many of whom had their hopes somewhat dampened when President Barack Obama practically promised Jerusalem to Israel, a decision that was not his to make. However, we are still shocked that an administration that is taking pride in its willingness to engage with both those the country agrees and disagrees with, would do something so self-destructive.

What have the past few weeks of international good will visits by the US President and his staff amounted to, then? Why has President Obama ruined all the good faith he has worked so hard to create, over one article within the document, one the forum intends to discuss, and is nowhere near final?

Also, since the president and his government are supposed to be so forward-looking, why is it that they can’t see that not attending is a disadvantage for activism against racism in America as well? The US may be proud to have elected its first African American president, but that is not the end of racism in the United States. There are so many issues it could help resolve concerning those disadvantaged because of prejudice in the US, which can only come by attending these conferences. It can help flesh out African American, Arab and Muslim American, Asian American, Latino American, and other American minority group issues, as well as maybe voicing their extreme disapproval on the “Zionism is racism” segment of the document in person. Camping out in the White House just makes it look like he’s hiding, something President Obama cannot afford to do at this point.

To Barack Obama from a Syrian citizen

Damascus, 13 December 2008

Mr. Barack Obama
President-elect of the United States of America
c/o President Jimmy Carter

Dear Barack, 

You certainly want to know more about Syria, and I will volunteer —even uninvited— to share some information that can be useful until you manage to see for yourself.

This is a time of festivity in Syria. The end of Eid Aladha is marked by the joyous return of pilgrims from Mecca, each of them celebrating the completion of a journey of a lifetime to live peace with God, with themselves and with one another. It’s also Christmas, when bells of some the world’s oldest churches ring in unison with the carols’ sweet repeat of “peace on earth, goodwill to men.” And it is the end of a year, an opportunity to reflect on the time bygone and to embark on new beginnings. Beginnings have in them the promise of a miracle that still happens in abundance every day: a new birth.

My letter comes to you from Damascus, an ancient city where many civilizations have seen their beginnings. I hear from visitors often that in Damascus they feel at home. Much of that is due to a fact that I find amusing: any visitor will find a Syrian that looks like them!  I will show you when you are here. This is because our people are not the product of today, or of the turbulent 20th century.  We are a blend of cultures that have triumphed over their ethnic or religious identities to form one nation. Our Arab identity is flavored with a rich Islamic culture, a Mediterranean character, a proximity to Europe, and a nucleus location that connects the East to the West. The contributions to humanity by people that called Syria home through the ages are too many to count. And above all, we have a double-edged blessing; the overwhelming majority of youth in our population holds the keys to both, the crisis and the solution.

Those young men and women will arrive at a crossroad as they enter the ‘real life.’ What they decide to do today determine how our tomorrow is going to look like.  The two easier choices are to accept the status quo and fuel it, or to quit in pursuit of ready-made opportunities elsewhere. The more difficult choice is to challenge the status quo and become an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs are inspired by their emancipation, and driven by their ability to take charge and stop relying on “the other” whether this “other” is a government, a parent, or a friend. It makes them stronger and more determined to achieve great results, all the while maintaining even a stronger attachment to their nation.

Our country today has a vision of what it can be, and has set on course to implement it. Thousands of Syrians, in government, civil society, and the business sector, and “quiet heroes” of ordinary citizens have worked hard to maintain that course despite the immense and unjust pressures that we have endured. Our military is perhaps not as strong as the ‘army’ that is working make available to our worthy young generation a vision of what they need to have as able citizen of Syria and of the world; a vision of how they can be makers of peace —inner peace before anything else— not seekers of peace. When they are at this crossroad, we want them to choose to be positive and assertive in Syria, not be that somewhere else, nor 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.

The dynamism and energy of the reforms in Syria today has a global perspective too. The long heritage and cultural accumulation gives confidence that transcends from one generation to the next.  We are an old country that now has new people shaped by the globalization of knowledge and technology. By virtue of that, our people are citizen of the world, just as much as they are citizen of Syria, the ancient nation.  In many ways, Syrians have not thought of their country only as home, but also a meeting place; a refuge for the persecuted and the displaced; 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, justice, and solidarity as their social capital—an infinite resource that maintains our social stability in the tides of crises hitting everywhere in the world, and one that will not only reduce financial poverty, but 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.

More severe probably than the crisis of prosperity today is a “crisis of heroes.” A few of them still exist however. Last night, at Marquand House in the American University of Beirut, I sat at the dinner table with one of them, President Jimmy Carter. Thirty years ago he was where you are today. His hopes had their share of fulfillment and disappointment. But at eighty-four, he seemed as driven and unrelenting in his quest to “wage peace” around the world. Many young people are looking to you, Barack, as they arrive at the crossroad. You have inspired them, but can you be their hero? They think you can, as Abraham Lincoln’s promise of a “new birth of freedom” has been renewed by your election, America’s new –and much needed– triumph.

Peace through justice and equality, and friendship through peace and common human values, are the pillars upon which you can build the foundations not only for a new America, but for a new world. It’s going to be a hideously tricky mission should you decide to take it. But you are an entrepreneur, and entrepreneurs are not derailed by obstacles along the way but believe instead that it is only the results that are measured at the end —when the curtain falls— that matter. Your kind of people firmly believes that the smallest of deeds are greater than the biggest of words, and they lead by example to chart new horizons. “Yes, we can”. This is what they have faith in as they strive to leave the world better than they had it.

Congratulations and good luck with the transition and inauguration. I will be watching it, and praying that you succeed where most others have not had enough courage or attitude to try or persist. As you are taking the oath to give the United States of America “the change we need ,” do remember that millions of proud and peace-loving people in Palestine, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria —and indeed the world— are extending a firm and warm hand of friendship to you.

I hope you can do the same, Barack. I hope you will.

Haykal's signature

 

 

Abdulsalam Haykal

Copy to President Jimmy Carter

Suggestion Box of Doomed Ideas: Cinema in Syria

 

How are we going to save the decrepit Syrian cinema industry?

How are we going to save the decrepit Syrian cinema industry?

I had intended this for a later post, but I got to thinking about it since so many coffee shops were being overrun by viewers of soccer matches. First, though, some background of the situation as I understand it. In the good old days we only hear about in magazines (like our March 2009 issue of Forward – go check it out!) and old people, movie theaters in Syria were pristine and attended by the echelons of our society, while our artists used the cinematic medium to excellence, expressing issues both deep and entertaining.

 

Somewhere along the line that all disappeared. Theaters became run down as the owners refused to spend the money on renovation, demanding only a pure profit from their continually worsening, decrepit show halls. Attendance was discouraged by the misguided, overzealous rants of the extremist elements within our religious communities, and those who would brave societal disapproval to watch a film were put off by the unsavory elements that came to frequent these run-down halls.

Meanwhile, as theater attendance dwindled, fewer and fewer directors were willing to brave the lack of an audience as well as the restrictive regulations set forth by the Syrian Cinema Organization. Turning more and more to television as an outlet for dramatic release, cinema all but disappeared from the Syrian horizon. Many lament this, but few have any ideas how to change this.

The problem, as I see it, is as follows: first, no one sees the theater as a legitimate arena to hold social functions in; two, because of this, none of the current or potential owners see cinemas as a lucrative investment, discouraging renovation or building projects for these theaters; finally, since directors can see they will have no money and no audience to do any of their projects, they simply won’t waste their time, and whatever cinemas are out there are showing films from abroad.

This is where all those soccer viewers come in. What might not be common knowledge is that, especially in North America, cinemas have a long history of broadcasting sports events (mostly wrestling, but some areas go to live broadcasts of American football games and other sports events). Therefore, broadcasting soccer matches, Olympic events, other sports, and even Bab al-Harra and similar TV programs on a large screen, with good picture and excellent surround sound, in an area with a concession stand only makes sense. Cafés and restaurants have benefitted from it; why shouldn’t cinemas?

As people become more familiar with the theater once again, and start scheduling their social schedule around these showings, owners may be enticed to compete in creating the best viewing space. Some tips from North America, once again; many making new theaters or renovating old ones are daunted by the traditional view of the cinema space as a huge hall with closely spaced seating. This does not need to be so. Many theaters abroad are no larger than a big café with a ceiling two stories high, and some have even created VIP viewing spaces, with comfortable chairs with side tables to hold treats bought at the snack bar.

Those saying that will increase cost of the ticket, in some areas this may be a positive. Remember those unsavory characters? Once cinemas are high brow again, they might shove off. That is also not to say that all theaters need to follow this model, but you must be able to cater to every taste, and these smaller viewing areas might be perfect for another idea from the world of theater abroad: Using the hall as a conference space. Business meetings requiring the best equipment for their power point presentations, private screenings of films on sensitive topics, conferences requiring audio visual finesse, and many other events can be held in theaters. It’s simply a matter of marketing and readjusting the image of the theater.

Now it is the turn of Syrian cinematic endeavors, and in this case, this will either require government aid or private philanthropy. As local directors are all TV-bound, and expatriate directors are simply not thinking along these lines, we need to create a draw to bring creative energies to the fore. What better way, then, than an annual international film contest, rewarding the winning project with a budget and a contract to make a film concerning Syria? I would stipulate that the film be a fiction piece, since we already excel in that regard, and since most documentaries stagnate a film contest as well as bring in low draws. Another rule should be that 70% of all production and acting staff be Syrian as well, allowing for an exchange of skills but further ensuring that it is a SYRIAN production.

The projects from the contest could be an excuse for huge red-carpet type premieres that would draw further attention to Syrian Cinema, and promote investment in other Syrian projects not involved with the contest.

Well, that is it for this installment. Remember, please contact us with your comments and thoughts about this doomed idea, and offer suggestions for future doomed ideas that we could look into and write about. Till next time!