Buy Shares in the Syrian Dream

By Abdulsalam Haykal, for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews). The original article can be viewed at

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.


* 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).

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

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.

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.”

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.

Voices pealing out in joy, part 1

Music choir in SyriaThe singers have all filed into their place. They’ve seen each other a lot over the last three months, if not longer, yet they still find a lot to talk about. They’re happy to see each other and to be there, and the bubbly chatter is resisting being stopped by the conductor waving her hands calling them to attention. Then it happens; with a snap, they’re suddenly locked on her every move, and with laser-like precision, their undivided focus and youthful exuberance has been set forth towards one goal. Along with the orchestra, who playing music they probably have only been practicing for a week with expert deftness, all four voice-types are dancing around each other, complementing and emphasizing the other, and offering rock solid support to the soloist.

I’m immediately impressed. The conductor, however, is not. “You need to allow the soloist’s voice to rise above yours. Also, take your cues from the orchestra more carefully. Let’s start from bar…” Many would think Rajaa al-Amir, conductor for the university-age section of the al-Farah Choir, is too harsh on these college age students, who have been giving their all to this concert. I, on the other hand, have sung in choir concerts, and know that she can hear something I cannot: a note held too long, perhaps, or an entrance offered a nanosecond too late. Professor Paul Meers, who I interviewed for November’s FW, and who I sang with for four years when I was in AUB, always pushed us that much harder the week before concert time. “We’re never really ready by concert time,” says Amir. “The conductor always has to let go in the end, and the performances are always superb, but not complete.”

Practicing the current program since August 19, the concert is going to be derived from Arab Heritage, from the different regions of the Arab World, such as North Western Africa, Central North Africa, Eastern North Africa, the Levant, and the Arab Gulf. At the end of the concert, there will be a panorama of different national anthems. Everyone is feeling the pressure, and there is a lot of fatigue involved, but everyone is very determined. “The choir is free to join, and all the staff works for free, and therefore it’s hard to be demanding at the level that you need to be in order to put on a professional concert, as you can’t ask for more than they can possibly give,” explains Amir. “Of course, I’m very confident about my singers’ abilities, and we’re going to have a really great concert this Thursday.

The al-Farah Choir was established by Father Elias Zehlaoui in 1977, with only 55 children singing in it. It has now blossomed into a choral association with more than 500 members, divided into 5 choirs set at different ages. The concert mentioned above is going to take place this Thursday November 20 at 8 pm, at the Dar al-Assad Opera House, and FW: will be there to cover the concert, and give you more information on the history of the concert itself.

around the blogosphere…

It is quite heartening to find the mention of our dear FW: mag in different blogs around the blogosphere. Most recently Sasa posted a new entry titled, Forward Magazine launches blog, on (aka, The Syria News Wire – fresh, independent news from the streets of Damascus and beyond). Sasa’s blog is the “third Syrian blog to appear on the internet – back in 2004. It is a Lonely Planet favourite, award nominated, Toot-ified blog, which gets about 10,000 hits a month.” The blog was previously called By all means a recommended read!

In March, FW: Magazine appeared as a must-read recommendation on the blog of one of Britain’s most well-known trademarks, Clerk & Teller.

The gentlemen’s wear premium brand offers a blog and traveler’s guide to the “clued-up, stylish man” on its extremely amusing and inspiring pages. Clerk & Teller is a frequent guest and featured brand on many of the world’s leading magazines, including GQ magazine.

What I recently found out was that one of Clerk & Teller’s blogging journalists has been to Syria in March, catching a glimpse of what life has to offer in Damascus, Maloula and whereabouts. Usually consisting of yummy insights on what foods to eat, drinks to gulp down and publications to read – the blog listed
FW: Magazine as a recommended Syrian-made item along with Chicken Kebabs and Arak, an amusing and mouth-watering read (although the major part of the post deals with other heart-wrenching topics, like Passion of the Christ).

Magazine's 1st ever edition

Last year, one of our early writers posted something about her contribution to FW: Magazine. Ghalia al-Azmeh’s blog, dubbed Cocktail, encompasses a “cocktail of images and thoughts from Damascus, Syria). Her post about us is titled, The Only Way is Forward, our very slogan. As a new commer to FW:, I found the post to be very informative and insightful; Ghalia had posted quotes from a selection of articles from FW: Magazine’s first ever edition, a feast to anyone who’d like to learn more about our early stages.

Writer: Ruba Saqr (Associate editor-in-chief, FW: Magazine, Syria)

Syrians deserve nice things

MagazineMehdi Rifai

One opinion that honestly astounds me when talking to people over here in Syria is “that will never work here.” Every single concept I mention, such as more web publicity, driving reform, office nap rooms, non-smoking days at restaurants and coffee shops, and decaf coffee is met with both resistance and the need to convince me of it’s futility. “These are great ideas, but no one will go for it;” “people are just not used to it;” “it just won’t work here in Syria.”

What’s utterly surprising is that these self-same defeatists will be the first to defend Syria in any other case. Syrians are sophisticated, open-minded, tolerant individuals – except when we’re not. Sitting, talking to some friends at a variety of coffee shops, it seems a constant pass-time to put down our fellow compatriots. That is, of course, for them. I’m still a bit too foreign to go around making criticisms. Everything here is nice, the people are friendly, the atmosphere is exotic. Catch me saying one of the phrases above, and I’ve just called an open invitation for a smack down.

One phrase that completely floors me is “we just don’t deserve nice things.” Listen for that one; you’ll be surprised by how often you hear it. The first time I heard it was around 11 years ago, when the Damascus International School (DIS) closed down. Very few people remember this, but before the explosion of private education in Syria, there really was only the now seemingly-defunct Damascus Community School and the Pakistani School, as well as the semi-private academies such as Lycée Layique and Les Freres as an alternative to public education. When the DIS came along, many viewed it as a revelation. It used modern teaching methods, and was getting ready to be the first to introduce the Montessori method to Syria (about five years before Hadeel al-Asmar and Hasan al-Hasan would establish the now highly successful Montessori School – check the Homecomers’ archives for the month of March 2008), and they were also hailed as heroes for finally bringing special education in any major way to Syria.

Which is why so many people were shocked when it closed down. A combination of government intervention and an internal administrative war saw the school shut down in the middle of it’s third year, leaving many parents with un-refunded tuition fees, the school’s establishers ruined, and a whole bunch of students and teachers on the street. “What a shame, but it was always going to happen: we don’t deserve nice things.”

What? Says who? Considering how popular private education is now, and what a booming business it has become, it’s obvious that most Syrians internally disagree, and have found a way to get some “nice things” back in the country. Failed experiments shouldn’t be viewed as a reason to simply give up on a plan, and phrases like the ones I’ve mentioned, but especially the latter, completely ignore that fact. True, it was a complete disaster for those involved, and true, I’m sure the DIS founders find little comfort that they inspired future educational institutions, providing them with an example of the hazards that they could encounter.

Lessons were learned from the experiment, however, and those who open private educational institutions now have these important facts to consider: education is a long term investment, so even if you are in it for the money, you need to be in it for the long haul as well, as a return on your investment may not come before a good 10 to 15 years into the project. Hiring good and loyal administration is paramount to your success, as they can be the first to stab you in the back if you are unsure of their character. Finally, keeping the government on your good side is just simply smart business.

Most of my friends know that if they want to find me, they can look for me generally at In House Malki; it satisfies all my Starbuck’s urges without costing me way too much, if you know what to order. If you read the fine print on the menu, you will find that they write that decaf is available for 25 SP extra. I always ask if they have the decaf yet, often enough that most of the baristas roll their eyes (they’re all my friends behind the counter, so it’s cool) as they explain that it’s on its way, but decaf is just not here yet. I’m going to keep asking, though, because I deserve nice things.