Buy Shares in the Syrian Dream

By Abdulsalam Haykal, for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews). The original article can be viewed at http://www.commongroundnews.org/article.php?id=26077&lan=en&sid=1&sp=0&isNew=1#.

I spent summers as a young boy in Damascus, while my fellow Syrians were flocking to my coastal hometown of Tartous to savor the waters of the Mediterranean Sea. Despite the heat of Damascus, my summers there were always special.

The Damascene diversity was riveting. Every Friday morning, my grandfather let me tag along during his weekend ritual of shopping for antiques. We would stroll along Medhat Pasha, better known as the biblical Straight Street, moving slowly from one shop to another, eyeing the colored-glass vases, rubbing smooth brass plates and ogling intricate pearl-inlay chests.

Grandpa and I laughed a lot as we shopped for antiques. Some of our biggest belly laughs were with Jamil, an elderly Syrian Jew whose shop was near the Al-Efranj Synagogue, an active place of worship even today. We would stop by the monumental Umayyad Mosque, where the faithful gathered for Friday noon prayers. Inside the mosque, Grandpa once lifted me up to peer through the bars of a shrine said to contain the head of John the Baptist, known to Muslims as the Prophet Yahya.

My grandfather, Faisal Sabbagh, loved Damascus’s history. But he was not stuck in the past. When he was not out searching for antiques, Grandpa was a neurosurgeon who had trained at Columbia University and later established Damascus University’s neurosurgery department in 1949. The generations of medical doctors he taught still remember him as their role model.

My other grandfather is still vibrant at 93. A celebrated entrepreneur and a long-time community leader, I’m proud to be his namesake. He articulates his wisdom through witty poetry and fascinating stories, looking down at the prevailing patronizing attitudes. He teases my father about his passion for high-tech photography. Grandpa bought his first camera in France in the late 1920s, long before the era of digital cameras, and took photos of the National Boy Scouts, which he led in Tartous. He rejoices in his memories of the Scouts demonstrating against the French occupation more than 75 years ago, reminding me that all adversity comes to an end sooner or later.

Talk to young Syrians today and you will find that they often have similar family tales of history, tradition, resistance and innovation. Many have roots in far-flung corners of the world. Similarly, people around the globe can trace their roots to Syria, which was considered by some to be the geographic centre of the world, as well as the heart of the historic Silk Road connecting the Asian continent to Europe.

Many visitors confess that they feel “at home” in Damascus. That sense of belonging is due to an amusing anomaly: any visitor can find a Syrian who looks like them! We are a blend of cultures that triumphed over our ethnic and religious identities to form one nation. Yes, we have a distinct Arab identity and a rich Islamic culture. But we also have a powerful Christian heritage, a Mediterranean character, and a proximity to Europe.

Syria and its capital, Damascus, are sometimes themselves thought of as antiquities, remnants of an illustrious civilization that never quite made it to the present. But for the thousands of us born in the 1960s and 1970s, Syria is a very different nation than even a decade ago. We often feel we have an unprecedented opportunity to flourish.  We are committed to the rebirth of the “Syrian Dream”, empowered by a distinct sense of belonging and sense of duty.

Syria is an ancient nation propelled by a new, technology-savvy generation of young entrepreneurs. We have a vision of what we can be and have set the course to implement it. Countless people in government, civil society, business and the quiet heroes among ordinary citizens work hard against all odds, as we seek to be makers—and not only seekers—of peace. In a world as unstable as ours today, it makes sense to buy shares in this Syrian Dream!

At a recent World Economic Forum at the Dead Sea in Jordan, I, along with 200 young adults from around the world named as Young Global Leaders, shared our stories and plans for a better world. I had an opportunity to tell government officials, entrepreneurs and activists about the contemporary global perspective that now thrives in Syria, nurtured by a heritage that gives Syrians the confidence to advance into the 21st century.

At the Dead Sea, I also realized I was not just a proud citizen of Syria, but also a proud citizen of an ever-changing world–just as my grandfathers intended me to be.

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* Abdulsalam Haykal is a Damascus-based media and technology entrepreneur and a social activist. In 2009, he was selected to be one of 200 Young Global Leaders by the World Economic Forum. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

List 5 things Obama should do for peace in the Middle East, and 5 challenges he’ll face there.

Obama, SyriaThe popular Barack Obama seemed and sounded very confident as he told the world during the American festival of democracy that the US is “ready to lead once more.” In his inauguration address on 20 January, the new American president said to “all other peoples and governments who are watching” that “America is a friend of each nation … who seeks a future of peace and dignity.”
Obama, whose middle name is Hussain, took oath with his hand on a Bible used by Abraham Lincoln. He addressed the “Muslim world” as such, promising to “seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.” At the same time, Obama emphasized his message “to those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society’s ills on the West – know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy.”

While many saw in Obama’s speech a departure from Bush’s policy, some observers insist that it was not much different from the previous administration’s rhetoric before 9/11. Obama did not address the Middle East crisis, that has added a new bloody chapter to its 60-year-long history after the atrocities in Gaza. He obviously avoided the subject, probably wanting to not commit to a stand before he learns more from his envoy Senator Mitchell. In his first day in office, he phoned four Middle Eastern leaders. The Palestinian president was the first foreign statesman Obama called as president, a step that is highly symbolic as to realising a long ignored fact: the Palestinian-Israeli is the region’s core problem, and that the US has to be an “honest broker.”

On 20 January, the Israelis listened to Obama tell the world that “that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.” In a region that is plagued by America’s complete bias for Israel, an occupier and an aggressor, people listened to Barack Obama forthcoming assertion that the US should “reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals… to assure the rule of law and the rights of man… [as the] ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake.” Can Israel continue with its policies when its biggest supporter, the world’s only super power, is on the other side of the spectrum?

Time will tell. But at this time, and with that background, I ask: what are the top five things Obama should do to bring peace to the Middle East? What are the top five challenges he is going to face there?

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