Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Heretical Madness!

In her interviews, my Mom often reminds her fans that her childhood dreams were often about being a queen or a butterfly, that is, about being an object of beauty and envy. An object of beauty and envy.

What an interesting thing to be. To be an object that will forever stimulate the instinct for acquisition inside everyone. Or worse, the instinct for revenge and defilement, which could come to play whenever acquisition proves impossible while the desire for it is all too strong and overwhelming.

Indeed, what an interesting thing to be. What an interesting dream to foster, inside one, inside one’s own loved-ones. What an interesting dream to inherit.

Indeed. In my own childhood dreams, I became more than that, more than an object of beauty and envy. I became a redeeming figure of sorts. A redeeming figure. An object of yearning, desperate often, constant, unrelenting. Unrelenting.

To be, or rather, to feel oneself as, the object of yearning, and to yearn to be that object, and here is the tragic-comic nature of it all, has been the major theme of my all-too-slow, and still unfolding (my well-nigh forty years of living notwithstanding), coming of age experience.

I paid the price for that, of course. And I continue to pay. By the time I realized I am no one’s messiah, it was too late – the hallmark patterns of messianic behavior were already set inside of me, deep inside of me, in my ever-so-unreachable depths, it seems. If I should fail for just one day, one lousy little day, to get in touch with my own humanity, I will forever be a lost cause, forever an object of pity, and madness, my own, to be specific.

How is this for an intro into the politics of my soul?

But don’t worry about me though. I am not mad yet, not beyond recovery and redemption anyway. For I know these waters all too well, and I can chart a path clear through. But first, first, I need to get in touch with this old madness. It has been my driving force all along. My constant and faithful companion. How can I neglect it? What sort of a man will I be if I should neglect it?

Monday, March 28, 2005

Anxious Moments!

My Khawla is in Lebanon these days scouting for a new home. Lebanon remains our best bet for a potential refuge at this stage, for all the angst it is going through. Yet, better share in the angst of birth, than in that of death.

Meanwhile, our local friends continue that delicate dance where each graceful move puts that much more distance between them and us, at least emotionally. For in times like these, when doom is in the air, no one really owes anyone enough to stay close, to share the same fate.

Friday, March 25, 2005

The Heretic and the Noose!

“So, you believe in American democracy eh, - the democracy of torture and fucking as we can clearly see from Abu Ghraib and Guatemala [sic]?” exclaimed the interrogator.

“Pardon me, but did you say Guatemala?” The heretic inquired ever so innocently. “I see. Can I be interrogated by someone higher up the fuck chain?” He pleaded.

The heretic got his wish, and he seems to have made the right call indeed. For the higher fuck was a bit more “sophisticated,” for the lack of a better word, and the interrogation went somewhat smoothly from then on.

This was the first round of investigation by this particular apparatus, Branch 235 as it is known, but it will not be the last, that’s for sure. I will have now to submit a report on my “dubious” activities and contacts during my fellowship at the Saban Center for Middle Eastern Study at the Brookings Institution, and then I will be interrogated again.

So be it. So be it.

After all, what did I really expect? This is the country’s first line of defense against people like me – those make a liberal use of their own intellectual faculties and moral judgment to decide on what is right or wrong. How dare we? Indeed, how dare we?

Ten years ago, when I predicted that this regime is about to collapse and take us all down with it, no one wanted to believe me, this was just a poetic exaggeration, I was told. After all, a careful reading of the facts at the time showed that peace is about to happen and that everything was about to be rather peachy. The fact that I relied on my intuition here rather than facts weakened my case even further. Intuition my ass, some exclaimed.

Still, I am not glad I was proven right. I spent the last five years of my life engaged in activities that were primarily designed and meant to prove me wrong. But I was not, was I?

This regime is so cut off from reality that it always ends up making what seems so unlikely well-nigh inevitable. That is the essence of my intuition. The withdrawal from Lebanon is not the end of the ordeal, as some want, but the real beginning of it. The wolves who are interrogating me today will once again be sent loose among the sheep to help ensure our continued patriotism.

And the leadership’s line of defense against its critics at this stage will be, as is usually the case in these circumstances, to plead ignorance, albeit it is taking place will be taking place in their name.

Indeed, they might be right. Indeed they will not know all the details.

For ours is not simply a system where the right hand does not know what the left hand is doing, it is a system where the thumb, or the middle finger if you like, does know what the other fingers of the selfsame hand are doing. And so it goes. In order to assure yourself that you have true deniability, you have to grant too much autonomy to the worst most ignorant and sadistic elements in the system.

Yes. Yes. These days are coming back, just when we thought and hoped they were gone never to come back. Few of us might end up going first to this cross, but all shall soon follow. It does not take a prophet to predict this.

No. This is not a comforting thought. Nothing about this is comforting. Comfort has no place here. But then, when the noose tightens, comfort is not exactly what’s at stake.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Heretical Questions!

American warships are said to be coming our way. What does that mean? Is it really going to happen? Can nothing be done to help prevent the situation from reaching this bloody climax?

The window of opportunity on a peaceful rational settlement is quickly closing. Can they see this here? Can they move that fast? Can they divorce themselves, for once, from wishful thinking? Is it still feasible?

Can we still hope that cooler calmer wiser heads can prevail? Is any really around? Have there ever been such people around?

Did we really have the right to hope that things will be somehow different for us? That we can somehow manage to avoid the same mistakes of our neighbors, our brothers and our fathers? That we can somehow learn from history? That we can actually see history for what it really is, not for what we wish it to be? But can we really see anything for what it really is through the thick veils of fear, apprehension and ignorance that we insist on wearing?

Or has our fate been sealed from the cradle?

American warships are said to be coming our way. But I don’t know what to expect really: catastrophe or salvation?

But then we are all born soaked in blood.

What type of birth defects will we suffer from this time around I wonder, seeing that, once again, our delivery is quite premature?

Sunday, March 20, 2005

The Thin Heretical Line!

American policies are not set in stone. There have been thousands of documents like Clean Break that never amounted to anything but wishful thinking. They were either shelved in favor of other policy options or were simply overtaken by events. Those in the Middle East who fear the “ominous” content of Clean Break should realize that the implementation of it, no matter how influential its authors seem to be at this stage, could, nonetheless, be seriously undermined through the adoption of a more pragmatic and proactive attitude by the regimes and parties concerned.

Dealing with US policy with a sense of fatalism will only justify the basic claims and arguments of the Clean Break advocates, namely that most ME societies, especially traditional Arab societies, along with the ruling regimes they have spewed and regurgitated over the years, are simply irreformable, irredeemable, unsalvageable, and, in short, incapable of working out their own salvation. As such, external interference is a must even if, on the short to intermediate run, it means chaos. For a chaotic dynamism is much better, from their view, than static nihilism.

In all this, America, regardless of where it is located with regard to this at a given moment, is all too simply and earnestly seeking to achieve its own interests. What else?

For politics, frequent recourse to moral justifications notwithstanding, is an amoral science par excellence. Only victims of this science tend to complain about its nature and applications. The beneficiaries, on the other hand, will simply state that this is the way things have been since time immemorial.

For instance, all Arab nationalists are willing to condemn American imperialism but none is willing to condemn the Arab imperialist experiment that took place under the banner of Islam. We can all understand the special circumstance and context of the imperialist ventures of our forefathers, but we are completely unwilling to fathom the logic behind the imperialist ventures perpetrated against us at any given moment, so long as we remain the victims thereof. This is only natural of course. No one likes to be a victim.

The problem here, however, is that victimary mentality leaves no room for creative solutions, where such solutions are most sorely needed. Complaining about the cold is not going to make me any warmer. While fighting off the cold with my bare skin is not the smart thing to do. This region is going to witness a lot of pressures from the US in the days, months and years to come. Complaining about the perceived double standards and the injustice of it all will not help. While butting head with the US is simply an exercise in futility, especially when the regimes involved continue to wallow under the dark shadows of illegitimacy and the people are so alienated and powerless.

So, and while America may not be the solution, it is definitely not the real problem, but a mere symptom or a manifestation thereof. Indeed, America would not have had any reason to come here had we been able to fathom and accept the nature of the world around us and its continuingly changing realities, and had we been able and willing to accommodate ourselves to that.

This region has been in a serious crisis mode ever since it was pulled into the modern world from the medievalistic temporal enclave in which it long buried itself, and yet no one has yet attempted to manage this crisis in view of minimizing losses and maximizing potential advantages.

Rather, the political, economic and intellectual elites have, for the most part, busied themselves simultaneously denying and exploiting this crisis to their immediate advantage. Still, let’s not waste any time blaming them here, for in reality they could not have behaved differently. Elites, after all, are but products of their own societies and often suffer from the selfsame problems and handicaps they tend to diagnose and attempt to treat.

One of these problems is that of our self-image which continues to be shaped by medievalistic realities, realities that are no longer relevant today, realities that could never again be relevant, no matter how long we wait or how hard we pray.

We need to be realistic here so as to avoid reaching the breaking point, for breaking is not inevitable. We need to redefine our understanding of many “basic” concepts, such as sovereignty, national identity, and, more importantly perhaps, national resources. Indeed, and all through recorded history, these things have consistently been nothing more than pipe-dreams.

For the real practical meaning and application of these concepts has always depended on existing power relations between the various states and empires involved. The stronger parties interfered, expropriated, dabbled and imposed, while the weaker relented, complained, rebelled, and surrendered or were destroyed. There were times where resistance was indeed possible and others when it was not.

In this, resistance based on a realistic assessment of one’s own potential and of what is actually at stake was the only resistance that managed, eventually, to succeed. Meanwhile, resistance based on denial has only paved the way for destruction, and though it did serve, at times, as a symbolic testament for something whose real meaning continues to be disputed.

But ours is not the time for such symbolic testaments. And we should know. The last fifty years or so of our “modern” history have been replete with such testaments, but what did they really bring us so far but shame? Nonetheless, we might still be able to give some meaning and dignity to some of these testaments (the Palestinian struggle for statehood, for instance) provided we make the necessary compromises to achieve so today. If not, then all the sacrifices made, all the sacrifices we were compelled to make, were for nothing.

Accepting reality and dealing with it as such, involves walking a thin line between two types of fatalisms: one calling for blind nihilistic resistance, and the other for an equally blind nihilistic surrender. For you simply have to work with what you have, or what you can get at this stage, in order to improve your lot. Else, your choices are narrowed to being either a victim or a perpetrator. For as long as you think like a victim or a perpetrator, you cannot stop being one.

Fatalism is not simply an admission of weakness but is often a reflection of a serious lack of understanding, imagination and gumption, a lack of the desire and willingness to change. Indeed, fatalism is often a stark manifestation of a wishful strand of thought to the effect that a certain crisis could be averted so long as it is, and its deleterious effects upon our social, cultural and spiritual fabric, is ignored.

Some might say that in the age of human rights, things should be better than this, that we deserve better than to have to put up with such dreary amoral understanding and practice of life and politics. Indeed, this should be so. This is indeed part and parcel of the struggle to reach a greater, deeper and downright better sense of humanity. But this is the story of the human adventure itself, isn’t it? This is the essence of our continued being. None of us is likely to ever live to see the day when this dream is fulfilled. We always have to make do with something that is much less.

To what extant less? Different people will always have different answers. Always.

As such, this rambling of mine will probably convince no one of anything really, and might indeed harden people in their erstwhile stances. Still, I needed to make it. Some people write their testaments in the sand or air, I write mine in bytes. Let the misunderstandings come.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Another Evening to Forget!

It’s been a while since I had such an outing with Mom. Indeed, we used to attend many of these functions together – receptions prepared by embassies to commemorate their national days, parties arranged by some production company to celebrate the successful end of a series, and celebrations arranged by Syria’s public TV, Theater, Radio, or the Artists Guild itself (as indeed was the case this time around) meant to commemorate some event or other.

But ever since my father's passing on January 17, which was soon followed by my departure to DC for my fellowship at Brookings, we simply did not have the desire or the occasion to take part in something along these lines.

This was a first in a while for us then. The mother and son finally emerging together again in public. The occasion was a celebration organized by the Damascus Branch of the Syrian Artists’ Guild meant to commemorate Mother’s Day. But the real motive here was: to spend some money and justify your continued presence. Indeed, and in a country like ours, this is the real motive behind most such celebrations organized by official and semi-official institutions. Is anoney really surprised?

But the celebration was too mediocre, it seems, to command much participation: only about 100 people showed up, comprised mostly of technicians, extras and unknown, though quite old, singers.

My mother asked me to come at the last possible moment. She is simply not any good planning such things in advance. Of course, I had to accept, after all, this was a Mother’s Day celebration and I happen to be so consumed with guilt these days vis-à-vis all the people I love, that I simply cannot refuse them anything.

When relatively innocent people are suffused with so much guilt, how do the wrongdoers feel?

It seems that my life these days is increasingly about making up for all those occasions in the past when I simply refused to feel guilty. But was I really guilty? Am I really guilty?

Does it really matter?

We arrived at the Plaza Hotel on 9:00 pm. Despite the fancy name though, this was a rather mediocre hotel these days, albeit still clinging, by tooth and nail (and certain bribes paid to certain officials from the Tourism Ministry no doubt), to a 3-star classification. The celebrations were taking place at the top floor.

The hall, as one would expect in such establishments, was covered with worn out carpeting, tables, dishes, and waiters. The audience itself was rather worn out as well. Other than my Mom, the always illustrious Muna Wassef, the other known guests included: Halah Chawkat, Najah Hafiz, Umaymah al-Taher, her husband Riyad Nahhas, and the long-retired and veiled, Amal Sukkar - Oh time what have you done with our Ophilias, Jocastas and other queens and princesses?). There were few other faces that I recognized as well, but for the most part, the gathering consisted of the usual ragtag participants that such celebrations always seem to attract.

We sit around the assigned table, thoughtfully placed next to the podium so we can “enjoy” that horrible noise belched by an orchestra made up of what passes for “professional” musicians these days. Indeed, by contemporary standards, “professional musicians” are those who play in the country’s nightclubs, a rather "soft" somewhat "romantic" if not downright "artistic" term for whorehouses. Indeed, ever since the liberating days of French occupation, whores in Syria have been commonly referred to as Artistes, since many of them posed as such.

The real "artistes," that is real actresses and singers, like my Mother and her female colleagues, have had a rough time getting the necessary social respect because of this misnomer. Indeed, during those times, military officers were forbidden by law to marry artistes, which meant that, upon marrying my father, my mother had to quit acting for a whole year, after which my father quit his military post in favor of “his art.” He eventually became a movie director.

For a country known for its hors d’ouevre, or as we call them here, mezzeh, what was laid before us on the table came out of the deepest Amazon jungles as far as I was concerned, albeit the main course consisting of cardamom-flavored chicken, was somewhat acceptable.

Within minutes after our arrival, the celebration got underway. Lo and behold the master of ceremony with his head jerking all over the place like the head of a giant rooster, was the same person who mastered the heartbreaking, though still somewhat amateurish, ceremony meant to commemorate my father’s passing last year.

But then, what did I really expect? He was the master of ceremony in all activities organized by the Artists’ Guild – weddings, funerals, and circumcision ceremonies included I wager.

“Cover my bones with grass baptized from the purity of your heels.” He clucked. Fuck yes, it was that kind of a ceremony…

the kind where the master of ceremonies clucks as I reminisce of the good old days when my Mom took me with her to her various auditions and I spent the nights roaming in the backdoors of the National Theater creating my own sort of mischief and having my own sort of fantasies about heroes and idols, fallen and eternal…

the kind where I get questioned on what I studied in the US and what I am doing back here and whether I got married or not. Indeed news of my four-year old marriage to Khawla do not seem to have been circulated widely yet in the circles of our artistic community. Or is it that everyone has long gotten used to everyone else being divorced or about to be so in this forever turbulent circle that everyone continues to be considered as available or about-to-be available.

Be that as it may, and the fewness of the young faces in this ceremony notwithstanding, I got ogled, smiled at, snickered at, side-glanced at, had kisses blown at, far in excess of what my handsome self would have earned, new haircut and all, had I not been Muna Wassef’s, Syria’s superstar, only begotten and made son. Boy am I glad Khawla was too tired to come. She would not have enjoyed this particular evening. It was a bit too much, even by our artistic standards.

The scarcity of the available youthful candidates and catches-of-the-evening, it seems, and the mediocre quality of the event itself, made the few 15-30 year old girls focus on the only available target with all their lust and attention. It is indeed about time for the younger ones to become really playful, and about time for the older ones to get a guy before they reached spinsterhood – still quite the ugly prospect in contemporary ME societies, where more than 50% of 30 old urban women are actually still unmarried and, in many cases even, virginal.

But here, and except for the 15 year-olds, it seems, their flirtatiousness notwithstanding, there were obviously very few virginal women, not to mention men, around. This was after all the artistic community.

Two hours later, the audience having been mercilessly subjugated to the clucking, croaking, braying, screeching, hissing, wailing, moaning, groaning, mooing and neighing of a sad assortment of variably challenged singers (vertically, horizontaly, vocall, facially, etc) talented only in their ability to take themselves quite seriously despite of it all, the mother actresses were honored in alphabetical order – a long time Baathist practice meant to help avoid making anyone, no matter how unjustifiably so, jealous.

For all artists are equal in the eyes of the socialist system. Those who are more equal than others are not the talented ones, but the Baath members.

Indeed, the Baath has killed off all talents in Syria and transformed all artists, and perhaps all Syrians, their professional backgrounds notwithstanding, back into artistes.

Yet, and although any evening that ends up with this kind of realization is not worthy of being remembered, I will remember it anyway. For how can I forget the time when I was made to feel like a whore.

Artistically yours,

PS. Sorry Mama. I never meant to hurt you. I never meant to make you cry. But soon indeed, I’ll be cleaning out my closet.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Responses and Clarifications!

  • To all those who expressed doubts about the possibility of a positive response from the Baath regime: indeed I am not that naïve, and I am quite cynical about the possibility of having the proposed plan adopted by the regime. But I do have to hope, don’t I? After all, the alternative to this seems to be isolation, sanctions and, eventually, invasion.

  • As for the connection between reform and the return of the Golan, it is important for the Americans and the Europeans to make an announcement in this regard because this will give the reformers the needed credibility to focus on internal reforms and not have their distracters accuse them of giving up on the Golan. For part of the reforms will involve change with regard to foreign policy a well, and it is important in this regard for the US, in particular, to the Syrian people that such changes will not reflect negatively on the possibility of getting the Golan back.

  • With regard to talking to ordinary Syrians, Catherine is quite right. It is not possible at this stage to go ahead and talk to people in the streets. We need to do it through institutions, and the existing ones are state-controlled and we will not be allowed to use them, and trying to establish independent ones is almost impossible under present conditions of repression. Still, this is exactly what we are trying to do with DarEmar and the Tharwa Project. But it will take time and a lot of effort to get where we want to go, and, frankly, we are being overtaken by events.

Also ask yourself this, what credibility does a westernized Americanized liberal atheist has with the people in impoverish Syrian towns and districts (and by the way, I am indeed an inhabitant of the plush Mazzeh neighborhood)?

The only credibility I could have is the one that I can earn by involvement in developmental activities meant to cater to these people's need. Even then things will be quite tricky. And of course, I will not be allowed to do any of this until I get my regime to grant me more freedom to do this kind of work, but the regime won’t grant me, or any of us, this freedom, would it?

(The fact that we are allowed to operate such projects as the Tharwa Project from Damascus is intimately related to our ability to get outside endorsement and support of it, yet, we remain hostage to the whims of our leaders and their calculations in this regard. Moreover, we will not be able to be truly effective until we are granted more freedom to operate on the ground and work with the grassroots, we know that. But we won't granted such a freedom. We were told clearly that we are only being tolerated because our activities remain constrained to operating websites and do not extend to organizing any sort of on the grounds activities, not in Syria anyway).

o, to oppose the regime we need the people on our side, to get to the people we need to change the regime. How do we deal with this situation?

To make things more complex, add in the fact that outside powers are already interfering, whether we like it or not. Then again tell me what do we do! What do we do?

Well, I said my two bits to the only audience that I can reach at this stage. Which does, by the way, include people that can influence policy in both this country and outside. And that’s the best I can do, at this stage.

Still, to some, I am always bound to appear as a pretender, a charlatan, an opportunist, or, as Sasa so eloquently put it, a “Damascene rent-a-dissident.” To others, on the other hand, I might even make a hero, albeit a rather foolish one.

But at the heart of it really, and here is where my namesake in the Far East seems to have a point, I am just a disgusted Syrian venting my frustration to the world, at the expense of everything almost, safety, dignity, whatever, and the price for that, and there will probably be a price for that, sooner or later, could be too high.

till, if I should be lucky enough to survive my own steadily growing foolishness, there could be one possible benefit in it for me: I could actually live long enough to see something positive coming out of some of the projects I helped envision.

Now that will suffice for me. There is enough "glory" in it for me, if glory is indeed what is involved here. But then, what else would an opportunist rent-a-dissident be after anyway, eh?

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

My two heretical bits!

I hate violence, but this regime seems incapable of understanding any other language. But, perhaps there is still time for a last ditch effort to avoid sanctions and violence. Perhaps there is still a chance for quiet diplomacy to work.

This regime cannot be trusted to come up with the necessary vision for reform on its own. Frankly, it does not have the necessary know how, awareness and skills to envision and, independently, lead such process. Left to its own devices, the best it can do is to dig in, retrench and hope the crisis will blow over.

To avoid this, the vision for change must be supplied from outside – a clear vision with clearly enunciated steps and a timetable, including: guarantees for basic freedoms, releasing of all political prisoners, return of the exiles, formation of independent political parties and holding general elections on a given date to write a new constitution for the country. In other words: the whole shebang.

In exchange, the reformers within the regime, which need to include the President, if we wish to be realistic, should receive clear promises that peace talks with Israel would resume once the internal situation is stabilized. After all, a return of the Golan Heights is required in order to give the entire process of reform the required internal legitimacy, within the ranks of the regime itself as well as the general population.

Also, the reformers need to know that they will be supported should they encounter any internal difficulty or opposition as a result of implementing the approved plan.

This is how things could work: a high level delegation from the US (and France) could come to Damascus and hold secret talks with key figures in the regime, including the President. The purpose will be to present the said plan and make the necessary promises of support.

If adopted, the plan will be announced by the President himself, and as son as he does that, US and French officials should come out in support of this "wonderful and brave move" and they should promise the Syrian people that should their leadership indeed go ahead with this process in a timely fashion, the international community will offer its support and will seek to revive the Syrian-Israeli peace process allowing for the return of the Golan Heights.

Focus can then be returned to the issue of internal reforms, until they are carried through. Emerging as a hero, the President will most likely be reelected with a comfortable majority. Other figures from the Ancien Régime are also likely to emerge as key figures in the government and parliament.

Even the Baath Party, being the most organized party in the country at this stage, will still reserve a place under the sun for itself.

The major difference here is that everybody will have to worry about working hard to win elections, which means keeping your constituency satisfied.

Of course, free elections will surely bring a Sunni majority to power, one that will be heavily influenced by Islamist thought, an inauspicious development from the perspective of the country's minorities, especially the Alawites.

The fears in this regard could be allayed though through the adoption of national bill of rights and, perhaps, through the adoption of a bicameral parliament. In this parliament, the lower house will be a house of representative dominated by the elected majorities and whatever coalitions that will emerge. It will be responsible for managing the day to day affairs of government.

The upper house, on the other hand, will have a fixed representation on a regional basis. Considering Syria's geography, this will ensure that members of minority groups will have a light majority. The upper house will be responsible for control, of the army and of reviewing legislation passed by the lower house to make sure that it does not violate the rights of the minorities. So, even if Islamists are in control of the lower house, they still could not impose the Sharia on anybody.

So long as everyone is willing to play by these rules, the system could work for everyone's benefit. My assessment is that only the most fanatical Islamist groups will refuse to play by these rules.
As such, and despite the seemingly fanciful and dreamy quality of these proposals, they might just work. Everybody now knows change is inevitable. We just have to give the situation one final shot to make sure that this change is peaceful. We might all still be able to get what we want, or, at least, part of it.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

The Heretic's Son!

My son, Mouhannad (14), is afraid of the 9th Grade exams: he's afraid he won't pass. Yet, his father is too busy courting "death by media," among other means, to give him the attention he deserves.

Mouhannad is, in many ways, a typical product of the Syrian school system, a system based mainly on rote memorization with minimal interest in developing analytical skills. As a result, Mouhannad knows all the rules of Arabic and English grammar and all the rules of math, but, and no matter how many private tutors we assign, he does not know how to apply them. He simply does not know how to analyze.

But Mouhannad is artistically gifted and as well as a great communicator, at least when he meets the "right" set of people. He can spend hours immersed in his drawings, and will be so completely engrossed as to be oblivious to the world around him. Here, he takes after his father.

He also enjoys chatting, especially with his Mom, his father is simply too busy chatting with strangers. But, recently, his Mom too began to get busy. A heretic's curse is that he always manages to export his problems and worries to all around him, beginning with the people dearest to him, with his wife, son, daughter and mother.

It's been a year now since the passing of my father, and I still cannot forget the vacant look in his eyes as he took his last breaths. Death is ugly, but my father remains beautiful in my eyes. How would I look to Mouhannad after I die, I wonder? – I, the forever absent father with the vacant look of otherworldly unfulfillable dreams in my eyes?

My Mouhannad is getting depressed as he enters in the final few weeks leading up to his exams. But last week, I gave more than thirteen interviews to journalists from around the world, and we just opened our new offices and are busy expanding our Tharwa Team. When am I going to have time to be there for him?

When am I going to have time to be there for me?

Mouhannad cried today. And I choked. I am sorry, son, but I am wasting our present so we can have a future, which is why we will most likely have neither.

But I will try to pull on the brakes, son. I will try to pull on the brakes. Can't you see the skid-marks yet? Is there still time for us?

Friday, March 11, 2005

Death By Media

My death-wish seems to be rearing its ugly little head again. I am simply giving too many interviews and statements to journalists who seem to be flocking in droves to my doorstep these days. One told me that the word is out that I am simply committing “death by media.” I asked him what that meant, he said that my outrageous statements on developments in Syria, and my frank opinions with regard to its leaders are simply going to get me in major trouble soon.

He might be right. After all what’s the point behind saying that the Syrian President is not Michael Corleone but his brother Fredo? What am I hoping to accomplish here? Whom am I daring and to do what exactly and to what end?

Or am I simply venting my frustration against the people who are driving me out of my home?

Or am I still that idealist who is still concerned about the future of this country and its people and have had enough with the foolishness and avarice of its leaders?

Damn it, we deserve better than this. We deserve better than this.

But then, yesterday's march against the state of emergency has drawn a meager 200 participants who were immediately dispersed by a crowed of intelligence officers in civilian attire that outnumbered them 10 to 1.

Still, when I hear more and more “average” citizens expressing in very frank terms their growing frustration with the worsening living conditions and with corrupt government officials who seem only interested in enriching themselves at the expense of all and sundry, I can feel the sizzling and the tremors – I know the volcano will be exploding soon.

Yet again I warn: this will not be a revolution, but a payback.

Since only thugs and murders flourish in times of trouble, I wonder, what’s a heretic to do? Commit "death by media?" And what about his family? What about his commitment to them? Where does a dreamer 's commitment to his madness end and his commitment to his loved ones begin? How does this manifest itself? How can he control himself? How/when can he stop being what he is and start being what the people around him want and need him to be? And why can't he be both? Or can he? Or am I blind? Or am I just a fool? Just another hapless fortune's fool?

I am not of this world. I am not of this world.

PS. Those who are wondering about my activities should visit the following websites: www.tharwaproject.com, www.daremar.org, www.amarji.org.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Mediocrity Galore!

There is no measuring the level of disgust I feel right now. Nor the level of angst. Nor the level of sheer terror. 80s flashbacks notwithstanding, it is the mediocrity of it all that is at the heart of it all, at the heart of the way I feel.

2:00 pm. Send in the clowns.

And what clowns they were. The great majority of those gathered to demonstrate their “support of the President” were children and teenagers, all too happy and jubilant to be taken out of their schools to have a bit of fun, walking down the streets waving flags, giggling, pushing, shoving, running around, stopping cars, forcing the helpless drivers to let them hitch a ride so they can wave the flags from the windows – free to create havoc in the name of the President and the homeland. Oh what show of strength that was.

This is the essence of my disgust: our leaders can’t tell the difference between mediocrity and strength.

Still, even a mediocre inquisitor has sufficient power to detain and torture. This is the essence of my fear. And my terror. My would-be torturer will be a mediocre figure, working for a mediocre President, in a mediocre country, going through mediocre crises, that could have been averted through the application of a mediocre amount of wisdom (they had none), still the torture will be no less painful.

The sign posted next to my apartment block says: “We are all with you…”

to the bitter end, of course. For what other end could the likes of him offer for the likes of us?

PS. Even yesterday's mediocrity was somewhat less mediocre.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

A Page Out of the Old Book, Or…

“Suffer the cowards, the helpless and the sycophants to come unto me.”

I stand corrected. The “march in support of the President” will take place tomorrow, Wednesday, at 2:00 pm. It will be mostly made up of state employees who will be bused from their offices to the Stadium in the company of military and security personnel, all dressed in civilian attire. These people will represent all of us, all too enthusiastically and honestly, of course, at the scheduled Freak Show.

Meanwhile, today, our brethren the Lebanese had a freak show of their own. It was the Nasrallah Hizbollah Show, where thousands of adoring appreciative fans sang the praises of the Syrian President and Benefactor, or rather the son of the Benefactor, or, to be even more specific, the second eldest son of the Benefactor, the first having mysteriously and prematurely died in an unfortunate car accident – he was driving his car like a maniac on the way to the airport. Everyone is always in a such rush to leave this country, even the Benefactor’s sons. I wonder why.

The real song and dance though, was about power, as usually is the case around here, in the land of oil and saber-rattling, milk and sour grapes. Nasrallah has it, and he is flaunting it, but a bit too conspicuously, I am afraid. He needs simply to hedge his bets with the Opposition, not get out of the game, an always dangerous game, especially for the Nasrallahs of the world. It is indeed understandable that he should attempt to sweeten his pot, but he should simultaneously avoid setting the Opposition’s teeth on edge. Milk and sour grapes are a particularly sensitive combination, you know.

He is his father’s son! Or so he likes to think

Back in good old Damascus, the President, then, will be attempting another tap-dance performance. He is bound to amaze us all, of course, albeit for slightly to radically different reasons. But that doesn’t matter really. To each toughling a constituency of sheep. A lion cub will not be denied to attempt to walk in his father’s footsteps. And who the hell are we to even think of denying him such a feat?

A page out of the Old Book indeed. “In times of trouble, my son,” his father must have taught him, “dance to the tune of your own fears and lies. The rest will follow.” And indeed they will.

But methinks “the rest” in 2005 has undergone a few slight to radical changes in comparison to the way “the rest” was in the good old 80s. Now, you see, we can watch dozens of channels and listen to scores of analysts dissecting the President’s words and body language, not in search of timeless gems, mind you, as was the case in the good old days, but in search of potentially fatal flaws in logic and conceptualization.

The people, then, will be fooled for the duration of the show mostly, then it will be back to the detoxification centers of al-Jazeerah, al-Arabiyah, Future TV, LBC, and Abu Dhabi. After a few days of these for some, a few hours for others, things will be back to normal again. The toughling’s sheep will return to exploring the wolverine urges inside of them, urges which are no longer dormant, but smoldering.

Theirs will not be a revolution, mind you, but a vendetta. Do you know now why I have to leave?

The Versailles Syndrome

Still, in the good Old Palace, a new plot is being hatched. The people, it seems, will be asked to eat cake and more empty gestures and promises instead of bread and some necessary and glaringly obvious truths, as a sign of support and allegiance to the President. Their stomach being equally empty, the people will attempt to comply, really seriously. Meanwhile they will be spinning guillotines in the air, that is, until such time, they get the chance to forge them out of steel. And then, the Syndrome will be that of the Bastille.

It won’t be long now. It won’t be long. Do you know now why I have to leave?

“I shall not be your lamb but your cross.” Or so I used to think. Now, however, I say: "I shall not be your anything. I am finally free.” And for this, for this, you see, I have to leave. I will leave.

Monday, March 07, 2005

The End of A Ponytail!

“Three thousands people demonstrated in support of their President on March 5.” So went one news report. Actually they were army recruits in civilian attire doing their commanders bidding, following orders.

Tomorrow, and on the eve of the “glorious” event that brought the Baath Party to power in 1963, more such recruits will gather in al-Jalaa Stadium to perform another sycophant song and dance about national honor and pride (a similar demonstration organized by Hizbollah will take place in Beirut). But the truth is, and the people know it, Baath rule brought nothing but shame and humiliation. It destroyed the very moral and civil fabric of our fledgling republic.

And the people know it. And the people know it. That’s exactly the problem. The people know it. This is not the time of ignorance anymore. We know. We are informed. We may not the whole truth about what is happening all around in us, but we really don’t need to. We just know enough not to be fooled by empty promises and gestures. We know enough to distinguish between victory and defeat, between a show of principles and a freak show.

The air of Damascus is getting more polluted with every passing day, but we can handle the smell of kerosene, and we can handle the smell of sweat and urine. But for the life of me how can we ever handle the smell of all these putrid souls around us?

As for me, I will stuff my nose with my own perfumed hair if I have to. And I have plenty of hair to do it. For today, I had my eight year old ponytail cut off. I don’t have to look different anymore. I am different, and that suffices for me. Still, the people know it. The people always know.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

A Mediocre Tap Dance!

Prelude: Fifty minutes of meaningless jabber paved the way for a five minute announcement that will almost likely require a couple of weeks worth of explanations and clarifications. Syrian trios will be “completely” withdrawn to the Bekaa Valley, in accordance with the Taif, and will then be withdraw to the Syrian-Lebanese borders in accordance with 1559.

Questions: When will any of this take place? This will supposedly be decided sometimes this week. On what side of the borders will the Syrian troops be stationed? Unclear. Will this satisfy the Lebanese opposition or the Americans? Unlikely, as the President himself anticipated in his speech. What’s the point of all this then? Buying time. For what? For the internal showdown that is likely to take place in the near future. After all, the President himself promised that the upcoming regional conference of the Baath Party will herald new changes for the country.

Analysis: The scene has been set for an internal showdown. the President seems poised to implement Scenario One of the three scenarios previously highlighted (purge, assassination, coup), that is the purge meant to consolidate his grip on power.

Implications: This is the year of decision for Syria, barring some miraculous recovery by the opposition and devil society dissidents, our fate will be determined by a potentially bloody showdown between the various power centers in the regime. Reform is not the issue here, but promises of reform will be on everybody’s lips. But, barring for the rise of some unforeseen actor on the scene, one of the existing sides is capable of actually delivering on reforms. Still, as a regional player, Syria has been, and for the foreseeable future, completely marginalized. This is indeed the end of an era. It cold also mark the beginning of the end of an unlikely and quite mediocre dynasty.

Anecdote: A brave taxi-driver from Kafar Sousseh, one of Damascus’s poorest suburbs, had anticipated that the President will be declaring his resignation today. He clearly overestimated our leaders’ sense of dignity. Our leaders might indeed be the product of traditional male chauvinism, but this does not mean that they are willing to abide by all the mores of this institution. Male pride has no please among those infected with the hubris of power.

PS. My heartfelt appreciation and thanks go to all those who sent or posted notes of supports, especially you Marc L, wherever you are.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Letter to a Friend!

The sobering words I received as a reply to my message below, I will take to heart. Still, there is no logic as to how one feels. I am ashamed and I am ashamed for feeling ashamed. Yet, I remain alive so, in time, I am bound to get over it somehow. For I cannot stomach the very idea of patronage and despair. There is something inside of me that militates and rebels against that. Being ashamed is one thing, I am still a rebel inside.

What can I say, dear friend? If I could only see the slightest possibility of popular agitation against the regime, I would never leave the country, and would Khawla herself, for all her worries and angst will back me on this. But continued popular apathy combined with the impotence of opposition and dissident groups make such a prospect highly unlikely.

The attitude of our taxi drivers is the measuring stick I usually use in this regard. Several taxi-drivers I encountered in the last few days have already expressed extreme annoyance with the government regarding espousing causes that are "bigger than we are," including our "support" throughout the years for the Palestinians and Lebanese, and now the Iraqis. "Where did all this get us?" The brave drivers wondered. Corruption is rampant, prices of basic goods are soaring, unemployment is widespread, the educational systems are imploding, and we are hated by just about everybody, in the region and abroad. Still, "would you join an anti-government demonstration?" I asked. But "this is not Lebanon,” I was reminded, the assholes over here are willing to destroy every house in every city rather than give up power.

Indeed, the only possible scenarios in Syria today are:

* A purge by the Presidential Family to help them stay in power and avoid any potential sedition related to the impending withdrawal from Lebanon or impending international sanctions as a result of not-withdrawing (hence the recent promotion of the brother-in-law making him in charge of all military intelligence).
** Assassinating the President as the most logical fall-guy, in the hope of stirring the mix a little bit, and create a new sense of dynamics, which, whether violence or not, could eventually pave the way for a faster “recovery” from all set-backs.
*** The emergence of a fifth column which will most assuredly seek US support to overthrow the current leaders, seeing that the gun-power is on their side. Believe it or not, the Fifth Column here will most likely be made up of certain Old Guard figures, Sunnis and ‘Alawis alike, who are rumored to be extremely upset with the President’s handling of the country’s foreign affairs. Indeed, we have to note here that we can no longer live under the old assumption that Old Guard are to blame for the country’s stalemate. Indeed, it now seems that the New Guard, the President included, are more to blame.

Can you see then, my friend, why Khawla and I have decided to leave? This country is about to implode, and we cannot afford to be caught up in this. We will be among the first people to be targeted in the upcoming mayhem: we are secular, liberal, Americanized and have all these "dubious" connections with all these “dubious” figures and organizations. What used to be helpful for us before, will soon turn against us. The magic has turned against the magician, as some had put it.

So, and while some of my fellow dissidents are hopeful on account of the ongoing developments in Lebanon, I cannot see but portents of doom. (Note: these very people were hopeful too when the President came to power. I was mostly skeptical then too, but I was willing to believe nonetheless, or, rather, to work against my own cynicism, to test the waters, to give it a try, but I thought the “we” in “me” was worse the shot).

Still, I challenged my friends to give me one reason to be optimistic on the basis of internal developments. They couldn't. They couldn’t.

We are in rigor mortis here, my friend, and our decaying souls are poisoning the very soil we long held sacred. Nothing good will come out of here for decades. Nothing. Not even a successful regime change will give me hope, unless it were peaceful. For violence will only beget violence and the sectarian black hole will suck us all in. I wouldn’t want that for us.

So, yes, indeed, I am serious about leaving. I have no idea how yet, and I have no idea where. Anywhere but here seems like an acceptable motto. Or should I dare hope for hope itself and say: anywhere where hop can still thrive?

The worst thing in all this, though, is the sense of deep shame that feels like an unrelenting choking sensation that cripples my mind and soul. I was so hopeful for a while, not too long ago, so cocky, so sure of myself. But I was blind then, wasn’t I? For that, I almost run roughshod over all the people I love. But no. I need to get them out of here. I owe them that much. That’s understandable, isn’t it?

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Rumors, Facts and Heresies!

The City’s air is rife with all sorts of untoward rumors, everything is now possible: there is talk of arrests, purges, coup d’états, assassinations, sanctions, invasions, anything and everything, except, of course, freedom. Everything is possible except freedom. Freedom is never mentioned. Freedom never comes to mind. Freedom remains a distant dream.

The world is changing around us, but we, Damascenes, Syrians, Sunnis, ‘Alawis, Muslims, Christians, Arabs, Kurds, Circassians, or however we define ourselves these days, including perhaps heretics, can’t feel any hope in that. Nothing has touched us so far. Nothing seems to loom in the air, except for rumors and hearsays, none of which particularly inspired or inspiring. The face of an ugly and malevolent god still stares down upon any possibility of hope within us.

A reported wave of arrests has already swept a variety of "low-key" dissidents, that is, those whose arrest is not likely to generate much notice abroad, or even here, no matter how terrible this may sound. But then, everything sounds terrible these days. Despairingly terrible. There is hope all around us, but somehow there always needs to be some pit of despair somewhere meant to serve as a continuous reminder of how things were or could again be. But those whose fate is to live in such a pit have themselves to blame as well. If history teaches anything it’s that such punishment is always earned somehow. We earned it with our long and studious silence.

Being a potentially high-profile case, not to mention, of course, a heretic, my punishment is doubled, tripled and quadrupled: I have to watch others arrested while I am spared, I have to live in the anticipation of a potentially worse fate when the “right” time finally comes, I have to face the look of sickly blame on my sullen wife’s face, and I have to come back home at the end of another long day feeling numb and defeated, regardless of any achievements made.

Khawla and I have indeed reconciled ourselves to the fact that things seem to be like a race against time now: our decision is not simply about leaving the country, but about leaving it before it’s too late, that is, before events catch up with us and prevent us from traveling, together, or at all…

All these years I spent abroad without ever trying to obtain if not another citizenship then simply another residency seem increasingly wasted to me now. All this misplaced love for and belonging to the homeland is coming back to haunt me.

But then, idealists never prosper, do they? Do they?

On the positive side though, I feel like I have enough materials for a quite a few bestselling novels. One day this should make us all rich. One day.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Myths Victorious!

The myth-makers are having the final laugh after all. Their isms have failed in every possible respect, and they continue to fail. Still, and for the lack of easier alternatives, people continue to believe in them, and to be willingly deceived by them.

Indeed, if de-mythification is a difficult process in itself, its consequences are even harder to accept. The idols will forever fall, it seems, but people will never accept what their failure implies, and will rather set up new idols, different only in appearance, but not in significance – never in significance – than accept the implications of their idols’ fall.

The people need to believe, it seems, inasmuch as they need to die. Indeed, faith is often a more subtle form of suicide. Though at times, such as these times, it’s hardly subtle at all, but the faithful are simply unwilling to see. It’s often easier to deny reality than to face the truth. This oft-expressed sentiment can never lose its relevance, it seems. Never.

Woe to the faithful. And more woe to the heretics.