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.

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.

U.S. names Ford as its ambassador to Syria

This is the full text of a Statement by Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William J. Burns, that Forward Magazine, and other media oulets in Syria, received a few days ago.

February 17, 2010

Good afternoon.  I am pleased to be back in Damascus.  I am here to convey President Obama’s continuing interest in building better relations with Syria based upon mutual interest and mutual respect.  Syria plays an important role in the Middle East and this is a moment in which both Syria and the United States, despite our differences, have a stake in exploring ways in which we might cooperate.

 I had quite productive and extensive discussions with President Assad.  We talked candidly about areas in which we disagree, but also identified areas of common ground on which we can build.  The White House announced yesterday that Robert Ford will be the next American ambassador to Syria if he is confirmed by the U.S. Senate.  That is a clear sign – after five years without an American ambassador in Damascus – of America’s readiness to improve relations and to cooperate in the pursuit of a just, lasting, and comprehensive peace between Arabs and Israelis with progress on all tracks of the peace process, and in the pursuit of regional peace and stability.

To deepen our dialogue as we move forward, Ambassador Dan Benjamin, the State Department’s Coordinator for Counterterrorism, will remain here for another day of meetings.  I have no illusions about the challenges on the road ahead, but my meeting with President Assad leaves me hopeful that we can make progress together in the interest of both of our countries. 

 Thank you very much.

William Burns

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.

Short joke, but good… An Israeli…

A friend of Forward Magazine, Syria, just sent us this joke. Short but good!

An Israeli arrives at London ‘s Heathrow airport.

 As he fills out the entry form, the immigration officer asks him: “Occupation?”

The Israeli promptly replies: “No, no, just visiting!”

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)

Interview with Syrian entreprenuer Abdulsalam Haykal on ‘The Next Web’

Photo of Abdulsalam Haykal at a Transtek pavillion, Syria (posted on The Next Web)The Next Web blog, an international source of  news and views about the web, posted a recent interview with Syrian entrprenuer Abdulsalam Haykal. With sanctions on Syria getting a recent renewal by Obama’s administration, Haykal views sanctions “both as a blessing and a curse.”

He continues, “In entrepreneurship, the barrier to entry is a crucial factor. Sanctions make the barrier low because competition is less fierce. However, it gives you a cushion that might slow down innovation if all that a country or society seeks is self-sufficiency.”

“Sanctions can limit your access to resources, and your belonging to an international community of peers, and this limits the resourcefulness of a company.”

Haykal is CEO of Transtek, founder and CEO of Haykal Media (Forward Magazine’s mother company), and president and co-founder of SYEA (The Syrian Young Entrepreneurs Association).

Forward Magazine is Syria’s 1st magazine to adopt a digital version & an online page flipper

Forward Magazine is Syria’s first-ever magazine to become digital. It has adopted an online page-flipper software that allows our readers to flip  thorugh our pages with the same ease and flow as in flipping through a print version. The difference is that all links in the online edition are clickable (URLs, emails, etc); you can also send the articles you like to interested people through clicking on non-image text.

The interactive flipper also allows readers to see the original layout of the magazine, the ads, and most importantly our cool Forwrad Shabab section.

Flip our first such edition  here.

Merry Christmas and a happy new year…

Forward Magazine leaks the name of the probable US Ambassador to Damascus!

Ambassador Walles or Khury to Damascus?

As the year comes to an end, two new names are floating in the air — leaked to us at Forward Magazine by our sources in Damascus and Washington, on who the new US ambassador to Syria will be.

This comes after the State Department reportedly sent its recommendation to the White House for approval. One is Jacob Walles, the former US consul general in Jerusalem, and Nabil Khury, a veteran of the Foreign Service, of Lebanese origins, who rose to fame in the Arab world for serving as liaison officer between the US and Arab media during the Iraq war in 2003.

Foreign diplomats stationed in Damascus insist that no names are on the table on who the new US ambassador will be, and journalists in Washington DC echo a similar line: “No Names!” What everybody is sure of, however, is that an ambassador will be named—soon—to Syria, given that US President Barack Obama decided to name one last June, to fill a post that has been vacant since 2005. The only reason for delay, sources confirm, is pure bureaucratic hassle of the Department of State.

Previously, two names had surfaced in the media, being Fredric Hof, a State Department veteran, and Daniel Kurtzer, a former US ambassador to Israel in 2001-2005. Forward Magazine contacted Hof earlier in 2009 and he said, “To paraphrase Mark Twain, rumors of my impending appointment are greatly exaggerated. Indeed, they are false. I have maintained a lifelong habit of not accepting jobs I’ve not been offered, and this one will be no exception.”

Will these names prove to be another hoax? Our sources confirm otherwise… although if Nabil Khury is chosen by President Obama, he would be the second Khury ambassador to Syria, after Lebanon named Michel Khury to Syria earlier in 2009. In fact the list of Khurys would now be a long one: Michel Khury, Syrian novelist Colette Khury, and now, US “ambassador” Nabil Khury?

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