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).

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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

Syria: A European Arab Country?

So if Syria is to belong to another group other than the Arab World, would it be Europe, or Asia?

Perhaps this is a more legitimate question to be asked by Turks about their country, especially with their bid to join the European Union.  However, this is a question that is being asked today about Syria, and from foreigners that come to live here.

One of them is Gautam Mukhopadhaya, India’s Ambassador to Damascus. Last night there was a farewell dinner in his honor. In response to an eloquent speech by the hostess Massa Hamwi, Gautam spoke about his stay in Syria and his “attachment” to the country. Syria for him was an undiscovered place. Syrian culture was so unique in every aspect of it, starting from food and not ending with art and literature. He then concluded with something that I wrote about couple of times before but never with the same clarity of expression. For Gautam, Syria represented the best of the Arab/Islamic culture, and the best of European culture. If used well, that can be a winning combination.

In many ways, that is true, and indeed, I for one believe in it. A while ago, I’ve jotted down some thoughts that seem proper to share at this time:

My country is at the heart of the world. I hear from visitors often they in Syria they feel at home. Much of that is due to the fact that every person will find a Syrian that looks like him. Syrians are not the product of today, or of the turbulent 20th century. We are a blend of civilizations that have triumphed over their ethnic or religious identities to form one nation. Our Arab identity is flavored with a rich Islamic culture, a proximity to Europe, and a nucleus location that connects the East to the West. The contributions to humanity since the beginning of time made by people that call Syria home are too many to count. And above all, we boast of an overwhelming youth majority in our population that holds the keys to both crisis and solution. We need to leave no stone unturned in our attempt to enable our youth, to have a present and a future, and to create prosperity for themselves, their families, their nation, their region, and indeed their world. With the current circumstances, it is much easier for our youth to be part of the crisis though. The one question that occupies me: how do help them become part of the solution.

Another question would be: if we are to draw a road map of the way forward, what would it be.

 

Education is the key it seems. Education, whether at school or university, has to be an all-embracing experience that makes them aware and able of the opportunity to put what they have learned to use. When they have come to a point where they are mature and capable of making their own decision, we want them to choose to be positive and assertive in Syria, not be that elsewhere, or 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.

But education alone is not the way to make the young generation part of the solution. We should not allow for our educated youth to get frustrated with an inability to use their qualifications to create prosperity right at home. That would only be a deeper crisis.

Reforms in Syria have to touch all the economic, societal, and participatory intersections to help our people find opportunities, create opportunities, and make them sustainable. The reform effort cannot be restricted to the government’s back office, but to bring into play as equal partners in development both the private sector and the civil society. The three together are creating Syria’s renewed social capital, one that will not only reduce financial poverty, but will 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.

And indeed, Syria cannot continue to be known only as one of the oldest countries in the world;

We are old an old country that have new people shaped by the globalization of knowledge and technology. By virtue of that, these people are citizens of the world, just as much as they are citizens of Syria, the ancient nation. In many ways, Syrians have not thought of their country only as place they call home, but also a meeting place; a refuge; 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 and solidarity as their social capital—an infinite resource that maintains social stability in the tides of crises hitting everywhere in the world.

Yes, Syria has one of the world’s lowest ratios of college graduates per capita, and that is our biggest challenge now. There is a huge gap between the supply and demand side of the job market; low skilled labor is abundant, while human resources with the right skills and qualification are scarce. But to go with education, we probably need a judicial system that gives people a sense of security, which is at the core of any sense of belonging even the sternest patriot would have. Education can flourish on a level playing ground, and prosperity cannot be created or sustained without both.

Until then, both Asia and Europe have moved far ahead, and we are short of living up to the great legacy of the real Arab/Islamic culture.