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!

The Suggestion Box of Doomed Ideas: Parking in Damascus

Parking in SyriaIn what might become a regular feature of the blog, I start today with a suggestion that truly can only be described as doomed. Not because it’s a bad idea, mind you, I don’t think it is, and I’ve had some support. Simply put, it is doomed because no one will ever, ever take the initiative to put it into action, for a variety of reasons I’m sure you’ll be able to surmise yourselves, once I tell you what it is.

Some background: No one can be unaware of the parking dilemma in Syria. With the lowering of taxes and tariffs on imported cars, as well as the banking sector offering car loans to finance car purchases, the market and streets both flooded with automotive vehicles. Despite the high price of gas, everyone and their cousin got one, two, three cars in appreciation for the prices dropping so dramatically.

The one problem no one seemed to have anticipated was the fact that all these cars would need to go somewhere when no one was driving them. Since underground parking garages were outlawed until relatively recently as they posed a security risk, only a percentage of buildings offer their tenants indoor parking, leaving the streets the only available parking spaces.

As the previously famed wide streets of the new areas in Damascus got tighter and tighter due to all the parked cars, it was clear that regulation was in order. The government stepped up, making certain areas into paid parking only areas, and instructing police officers to ticket people who parked their cars on the sidewalks in some areas, and who even stopped their cars while they were still in it in others. This was all well and good, except for one extreme flaw: The government has offered us no alternative.

A definite air of outrage is in the city: if the sidewalks are off limits, streets are only going to get tighter, since we will all have to parallel park on the street itself. This may look more civilized (definitely so: I used to be mortified when I was in Canada and I would see newly arrived immigrants from the developing world try to park right on the green sod side walks of certain suburbs), but it is less space efficient, and does not take into account that now people need to park further and further away just to park at all.

As for ticketing people simply stopping in certain areas, the police have taken this to extremes, I believe. I have had to apologize to friends who dropped me off on the few occasions I go to the Forward distribution offices in Marjeh Square, as simply stopping to let me get out of the vehicle is all the provocation certain police officers need to swagger over and start registering the vehicle’s information.

So, this is my doomed suggestion, which I came up with while sitting in Costa Abu Rumaneh one day. There are certain government owned buildings that either serve no purpose, or are redundant within the same area. To me, I feel that since the Dar as-Salam and Adelah Bayham girl’s highschools are so close to the Sati’ al-Hassari school, that Sati’ can effectively be vacated and transformed into multi-level parking for the entire area. The government would make money off the project, selling hourly, daily, and monthly subscriptions. Resident’s of the area would finally have a place to put their car overnight, and since Abu Rumaneh is a bit of a restaurant district, people looking for a place to park their car will suddenly not have to walk millions and millions of miles to find a spot (I exaggerate only slightly: It really has become more efficient to simply walk or take a taxi to these restaurants).

The few objections I have been able to come up with for this scheme are: schools are already overcrowded, and the government may not have the funding for these kinds of projects. For the first, I only suggested Sati’ in this one case because it seems redundant in the area. It can be any old government building that is not being used to capacity or full efficiency. I also think that, if a lot of schools get torn down for this purpose, public schooling could be part of the decentralization happening in Damascus anyway. Perhaps the money gained from these parking garages could supplement the building of schools away from the downtown area, and children could be bussed there. The new building projects could be designed as schools to begin with, rather than converted residential buildings as they are now, and those about to complain that the bussing is inefficient probably don’t realize, or conveniently forget, that the students are already being bussed in to these schools. They’re already riding the bus, let them ride it away from the center of town.

As for the second, since the government already owns the buildings, and since they are already making money off the other Syria Park projects already in effect, I don’t see how that’s a valid argument. For the sake of not dismissing it completely, though, here is my solution: Bring in the private sector. The government can license these private companies for the projects, therefore maintaining control, and it could be a new avenue for investment for private businessmen, one that would serve an already established need.

Well that is it for the first installment of the Suggestion Box of Doomed Ideas. Let us know what you think of this one, and perhaps email your other doomed suggestions to the blog, and we’ll write up another installment.

Religious Double Standard: Big Surprise

islam chrisianity in Damascus

By Mehdi Rifai,

Part of me wants to leave this particular can of worms alone, but I’m not going to. It’s been a few years since the Danish cartoons, since the Dutch Submission, and since the Pope’s somewhat insensitive comments about Muslims. Personally – and I do mean personally: These are not Forward Magazines views, not Syrians’ views, not anybody’s views but my own – I thought the reaction was overblown, and a case of things that could have disappeared into obscurity had it not been to all the Muslim anger bringing attention to it.

That said, it has been a constant let down by the West the way they do not practice what they preach at all. They always tell us that we should respect others right to voice their opinions even if we do not agree with them ourselves, poo-poohing Muslim indignation at the above as a sign of our obvious lack of appreciation for such treasured concepts such as the freedom of speech. Its a different story when the Catholic church protests an Israeli program mocking Jesus or the Virgin Mary ( http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/7905884.stm ), or when a Canadian MP is chastised for laughing at a joke about Native Canadians.  ( http://www.thestar.com/News/article/175169 ) Even Scientology gets the time of day when they complain about the South Park episode that mocks their religion ( http://www.usatoday.com/life/television/news/2006-03-17-south-park-scientology_x.htm ). When it comes to these groups, mocking them is an act of intolerance: When it comes to Muslims, it is free speech.

Again, do not get me wrong: I believe there should be room for humor and even voicing opinions. You should be able to make jokes about religion (in my opinion, and only my opinion), especially if the goal is furthering understanding. Many believe that humor is the way some people process and familiarize the new and unfamiliar, and if this is truly the aim, then more power to them. I also don’t want this to be a “Woe is me, Muslims get the short end of the stick all the time.” Self-pity is for the weak. But why is it that not only is there this obvious double standard, but no one is standing up to these groups and saying, “you’re allowed to react in anger, but we reserve the right to have these opinions”? Why is it that everyone is bending over backwards to apologize when all they’ve done wrong is tell or listen to a joke?

Where is the line drawn? What is blasphemy, and what is good taste? When do you say, “hehe, oh, that’s just silly,” and when is it alright to exclaim, “Dear GOD!!! HOW DARE THEY?”

What do you think?

Carter v.s Forward Magazine: 1st Syrian media outlet to conduct an interview with a U.S President

Forward Magazine is the first Syrian media outlet to ever carry out an interview with an American president. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter is the first American leader to speak to Syrian media – he spoke to Forward last month and broke many important news, including:

  • The appointment of a US ambassador to Syria is expected soon.

Jimmy Carter speaks to Syrian media outlet, Forwrad Magazine (1)

The 1st American president to give an interview to a Syrian media outlet…

Carter to Syria’s Forward Magazine: I’m carrying Assad’s good greetings to Obama

DAMASCUS (January, 2009) – Former American President Jimmy Carter said that Syria and the United States can expect there are “better times ahead” for their bilateral relations. In the first-ever interview for an American president with a Syrian media outlet, Carter told Forward Magazine, Syria’s first independent English monthly, Carter implied that the near future will see the return of the US ambassador to Damascus, filling a post that has been vacant since relations plummeted in 2005. Such a move will coincide with re-opening of the American school in Damascus, Carter said, in addition to reopening the American Language Center – both of which were closed by the Syrian government after US warplanes raided the Syrian town of Abu Kamal last October killing 8 civilians.

Speaking to Sami Moubayed, Forward’s editor in chief and Syria’s top political commentator, Carter confirmed that he “will be carrying some good greetings to the leaders of the new administration, through my meeting with President Assad.” During his visit to Syria, the fifth since 1983, Carter met with President Bashar al-Assad, whom he described as “popular among his people.” They discussed Syrian-American relations, in addition to regional developments in the Middle East, including the peace talks between Syria and Israel. Speaking of the involvement of the upcoming administration in Washington, Carter asserted that Obama cannot “put enough pressure on either Syria or Israel to yield on their basic principles.” He added, “My hope and my belief are that there are enough compatibilities between the two parties to reach a final agreement.”

The full text of this exclusive interview appears in the January 2009 issue of Forward Magazine (Syria).

Al-Farah Choir: North American Tour

Music in SyriaMehdi Rifai

During these sad times in Arab history, nothing is more important to emphasize than Arab unity and internal acceptance of our own diversity. No one works harder at this than Father Elias Zahlaoui and the al-Farah Choir (Choir of Joy), promoting tolerance and shared community between Arabs of all faiths and beliefs. As mentioned in the December 2008 issue of Forward Magazine, the choir is preparing for a North American tour involving its adolescent level singers. Those in North America are encouraged to come to the concert, and those elsewhere are encouraged to help them get there. Below are the links to their website and to the Facebook event concerning the choir.

http://www.choirofjoy.org/

http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=43493153380#/event.php?eid=43493153380

For those wondering the effect of going to a music concert in the middle of all the turmoil in the region, consider Father Zahlaoui’s words: “For this tour, we will carry Syria and the whole Arab world, so we can say to those who know us or don’t know us, those who love us or don’t love us, who we are, Christians and Muslims, Arabs in a desperate time, when all the hate of the West seems to pour over the Arab world, especially Palestine.”

I would write only for Gaza’s sake…

For Gaza’s Sake

Palestinian Flag
By Dima Abdulhaq*

8.1.2009


If my words could make a difference,
then I would write only for Gaza’s sake.

And if my voice could tear the distance,
then I would shout to make the dead awake.

 

If I could write and the poem becomes an armor
to shield the space above the children’s heads,

I would have written a thousand times more
preventing missiles from touching their peaceful beds.

If I could win the public ears,
I would then speak unveiling the truth
which has been covered over the years
I would then tell who are the Jews,

and who is the innocent murderer
who hides his face behind a lie;
he is the villain slanderer
who turns the facts to mystify

And I would tell whose land it is;
who are the owners and the passers by,
who dug the earth to find evidences,
yet the holy soil refused to lie

The coyotes came to rape our land
chasing every human trace
if they escaped the defending hand,
can they escape God’s Face???


* Dima has newly graduated from the University of Damascus; she obtained a B.A in English Literature. Forward Magazine is proud to have her as one of our newest interns.

Reacting in moderation: How not to let the death of those in Gaza be in vain

Smoke, SyriaBy Mehdi Rifai

First off, an easy confession for me to make is that what is happening in Gaza appalls me, and makes me rethink a lot of my former “moderate” opinions concerning Israel. It has been my opinion for some time that Arab grief over Palestine has been stuck too long in the “anger” and “denial” phases, and that perhaps it is time to move on to some strong bargaining and get what we realistically can out of the whole situation. The recent events, however, while only proving once again the disdain Israel has for the international community and their conventions regarding the rules of war and proportionality, does make me wonder how much we can achieve negotiating with a people that have become so incredibly fascist and over-reactionary. The age of leaders in Israel who, while we might hate them, we can respect is over. Israel has become as tactless and inefficient as the Americans in their recent war efforts, and therefore deserve nothing but contempt.

That said, how we phrase our contempt should be a matter of extreme study. Right now, all eyes are on us, and the international community seems to finally agree that the Israel situation is completely out of hand. It’s therefore a little disturbing for me when I receive, as I had this morning, a mass email falsely claiming to feature quotes from Hollywood stars talking about the situation, fabricating quotes like “Arabs are dirty creatures that must be annihilated.” One of those quoted, Keanu Reeves, was born in the American University Hospital in Beirut and has always been proud of it. Another, Harrison Ford, an Irish Catholic, is quoted as saying that “We the Jewish people are the chosen ones, and therefore need to destroy the Arab stain on Jerusalem.”

These blatant lies only serve to make us look ridiculous in the eyes of the people who can help us overcome this situation with a gain, and who can finally make the Israeli government revise these murderous tactics. You don’t think that these emails are noticed, or they have no effect? I’ll tell you about another forwarded email I got when I was in Canada. These were of a real protest in London, one I had actually seen on the news a few days earlier, and was embarrassed to see what some people had decided to write on the signs. “Behead all the enemies of Islam,” said one, while another claimed that soon, an Islamic wave would wash over Europe, wiping it clean. The caption under all these pictures was “Do you still think the war on terror is not necessary?”

“I wish people would keep Islam out of it,” says one friend of mine, who prefers to remain anonymous. “There are plenty of reasons to be angry with Israel, but when people propagate stories like all Muslims will one day march on Israel and wipe them away, except for those who hide behind sycamore trees, since those were always Jewish trees, people stop taking us seriously. I don’t hate Israel because I’m Muslim. I hate them because they kill indiscriminately, and don’t use the technology and weaponry that they’re so proud of, and claim is so precise, to minimize casualties. I hate them because they cut off aid, and don’t recognize the conventions that allow personnel like UN and Red Cross and Crescent workers safe passage to heal and help the injured and the helpless on both sides. I hate them because they block every agreement that would ban certain weapons, such as WMDs or, on a much smaller but practically deadlier scale, land-mines. I hate them because as a supposedly democratic country, they allow the people that represent them to commit atrocities like this unhindered. It is not my religion that makes me angry with them; it’s my human decency.”

What we say and how we react to these situations is most definitely noticed, which is why our reactions must be studied and educated, not emotional and unbridled. Many I have told this too say, “Well, it’s impossible to control all your reactions, and we need to “Fish Khilq” (blow off steam) somehow.” To this, I say, no, you don’t need to blow off steam; you need to take that steam and use it to power some kind of motion forward. Use your emotions to finally make some headway in a situation that has kept us down as a people for so long. Israel has finally lifted its mask to reveal its true, and ugly, face; now is the time to make progress.