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.”

Grave reflections this Remembrance Day

Many in Syria don’t know this, but in the West, November 11 is the day where we remember wars past in order to prevent them in the future. “Lest We Forget” is a slogan often repeated but seemingly seldom understood, as though we remember past atrocities on this day, it seems we cannot stop ourselves from committing new and fresh ones today, and plan on doing so again tomorrow.

Grave of an unkown soldier. His sacrifice is not forgotten.

Grave of an unkown soldier. His sacrifice is not forgotten.

Still, it is encouraging that, for at least one day, we stand against war and denounce it wherever it may take effect. Remembrance Day, or Veteran’s Day in America, is also the day we honor fallen soldiers, those who put their lives in the hands of generals and presidents, and were sent to their deaths in the belief that those generals and presidents were guiding them to a brighter tomorrow, and that their actions would protect their loved ones back home, wherever home may be. Their bravery is exemplified, as it should be, and the sacrifice that they made is highlighted for these brief moments before we move on with our own daily lives.

Today, a Remembrance Day service was held at the memorial cemetery at the end of Mezzeh, where foreign service men and women from countries around the world are buried here in Damascus. The grounds are beautiful, and the up keep is an example to the rest of the city, truly an area where you can contemplate the enormity of these young people’s sacrifice in the wonder of nature. These brave soldiers gave their lives defending their country, and the world, against those who would threaten their sovereignty and security of their homelands and ours. In World War I, it was the Ottomans that had long oppressed the Arab peoples, and had joined forces with the Germans. World War II saw the arrival and stranglehold of the Vichy, Nazi Germany’s French arm.

All in all, 1165 men and women are buried here, laid side by side regardless of their faiths and nations, in death as they were in life, one strong united front. Also present were diplomat, members of the international community, priests and imams. Especially touching was how Father Elias Fransis and Sheikh Hassan Mohammad al-Jamal took turns honoring the dead soldiers and their sacrifice in the city where, as Colonel Roy Forestell, Canadian Defense Attaché and officiator of the ceremony, said, “by tradition, has fostered understanding and tolerance between faiths for many centuries.

After the ceremony, we were allowed to wander the grounds, and take a solemn look at all those who lay there beneath us. As I was observing the grave of an unknown soldier, or as his epitaph put it, “known unto god,” I recognized and welcomed Ambassador Simon Collis, who appears in this month’s FW. “What’s always shocking when you visit these grave sites is how young they all were,” he told me, as we observed a fallen serviceman, who left us when he was only 23. As I near birthday 27, I realize how much I have to live for, but for this one soldier, 23 was all he was ever going to see.

Many doubt the sincerity of this gesture, but I’m here to tell you that for many this is truly a day of condolence and repenting past transgressions. When I was living in Toronto not too long ago, I used to sing with the Toronto Choral Society. One of the concerts we put on was for Remembrance Day, and as we were singing the Agnus Dei set to Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, I remember looking around and seeing many of the sad and tear stained faces in the audience. When the cynical voice inside my head subsided (“God, do they have absolutely no self control?”), it really affected me that there are people in this world who, though they have no true experience of war, but the mere thought of it saddens them to the point of tears.

It is too bad these people haven’t been in power these past eight years. It seems to me that the folks in Washington have had too many leaders that were gun happy and reason shy. This latest incursion on Syrian sovereignty, especially, seems a criminal attempt by a retreating Republican administration to instate a scorched earth policy as it slinks back to Hades, worsening relations between Syria and America before President Elect Barack Obama even has the chance to reach out to us and change the broken US foreign policy. Vice-President Elect Joseph Biden did say America was going to face a test, and this one seems tailor made by George Bush and his cronies. The Republicans are counting on what they perceive as the planet’s stupidity and lack of memory, and hope that as the situation overwhelms Obama, they can call him a failure before he even reaches office. We are not stupid, however, and we will not forget the face of our true enemies, and one day, justice may prevail, and those who attacked us in Syria will be made to pay dearly for what they dared to do.

Today is a day of forgiveness and reflection however, and on the 90-year anniversary of the end of World War I, the Great War, I remember something I read in the late Kurt Vonnegut’s “Breakfast of Champions.” No one would believe that this funny little book has influenced nearly every aspect of my life, from my belief in God, personal responsibility, desire, and family relationships. The image that most stands out to me, however, is something that was in the prologue of the book, where Vonnegut wrote, “When I was a boy, …, all the people of all the nations which had fought in the First World War were silent during the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of Armistice Day [now Remembrance Day], which was the eleventh day of the eleventh month. It was during that minute in 1918, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God. So, we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind.”