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.

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

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.