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).

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 ( ), or when a Canadian MP is chastised for laughing at a joke about Native Canadians.  ( ) Even Scientology gets the time of day when they complain about the South Park episode that mocks their religion ( ). 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?