Saturday, April 30, 2005
Many of laborers involved in the process of renovating our building are actually denaturalized Kurds, that is, descendants of Kurdish citizens that have been stripped away of their Syrian citizenship as a result of the 1962 census and the manipulations that took place at that time. In other words, they belong to the very group of people whose basic rights my team and I at the Tharwa Project are supposed to be busy defending, and are actually doing so, to the best of our restricted abilities.
My problem, then, is not with these laborers, who, in addition to being denaturalized, or even on account of being denaturalized have to work under extremely appalling conditions, especially with regard to safety.
No. My problem is not with these poor laborers. They are not the ones who destroyed our flowerbeds, our walls, our doorway, and our doors, and are busy screwing up the renovation job in toto. No. These would be the managers, you see, the Arab Sunni managers, to be specific, just like I am supposed to be (my Kurdish ancestry and atheistic tendencies notwithstanding). This is an internal issue then.
But the whole world is an internal issue these days, isn’t it? So that doesn’t say much really. The whole wide world is here and now. And all possibilities are present.
But renovating Syria, very much like renovating our building, requires competent managers, managers who are also sensitive to the rights and needs of their constituency, that is: their workers, their neighbors and their clients. But none is, unfortunately, available. The few that get brought in, the foolhardy few that accept to come in, are quickly sent packing, having accomplished nothing.
And so, there he is, the former Presidential advisor, Nibras El-Fadel, busy licking his wounds in Paris, where he is in good company.
I can’t blame you, Nibras. No, I can't. The messiah complexes inside all of us, these tyrannical urges to play the hero, the savior, God, are as deep as our unfathomable history. Sooner or later, we are all bound to be victimized by them. And we are all bound to fail. No one can save the dead, you see. No one. Resurrection is a myth. And Judgment Day is for the living, not the dead. And a judgment is indeed coming. And, like all judgments, it is going to be harsh. And violent.
Be glad you are in Paris, then, Nibras. In judgment times, it is better to be an observer than a participant, voluntary or otherwise. But...
...why can’t I have the luxury of becoming an observer? Why does everything inside me and around me always militate against this possibility? What am I destined to be? What kind of a lamb am I supposed to be? And on whose altar am I supposed to be slaughtered? And when? And how? And why? Why?
Why can’t my ink be my blood, so I can shed it profusely, unhesitantly, without a single pang in my soul? Why can’t all these gods around us, false and true, be satisfied by something other than blood?
What is it about blood anyway that makes it the ever indispensable spice of change, price of freedom, mark of fame, and infamy?
Why couldn’t it be semen? At least for this one time in eternity?
Still, no fate has been sealed yet. No fate has been sealed. Ours is but a constant quest for closure, and my quest is not over yet. For when it comes, I won’t know it, I won't even feel it.
Sunday, April 24, 2005
With its pullout from Lebanon nearing completion, the Syrian regime seems to be about to go into one of its usual self-congratulatory phases, a development that cannot but augur ill for the future. For some of the worst mistakes committed by this regime happened during such phases.
In lull times, members of the regime come off at their worst. Not that they are exactly proactive under pressure. But, in these times, they at least freeze, they stop acting, they go into a trance, a blessed hypnotic trance, which restrict their ability to make mistakes. They might even make a few right things, as a result of external suggestion of course, like sealing off borders and pulling out from where they don’t belong and have never been really welcome.
But during lull times, old habits sneak up on them all too quickly, and they start fucking up again, which isn’t very hard to do for them: all they have to do is just be themselves, and fucking up will come all too naturally.
Oh, may heaven protect us from lull times and natural born screw-ups, and may it grant these unchosen, though terribly begotten, leaders of ours a certain je ne sais quoi, because there is absolutely nothing I can personally think of that will make them any better.
Wednesday, April 20, 2005
Why does the President still insist on reforming the Baath Party? A friend of mine asked me not too long ago. He does not seem to be too convinced of the Party ideology, he does seem to be quite aware of the endemic corruption among the rank-and-file on all levels, and he must surely be quite aware of anathematic the very term Baath is to American and international ears at this stage. So, why does he insist on reforming the Baath?
Having giving the matter some thought, for I really didn’t have an answer ready then. I could only think of one thing: the continuing need for a political fig leaf, for a controllable political institution of sorts that can hide underneath it that omnipresent problem whose existence no one wants to openly admit, namely the Sunni-Alawi Divide.
The regime simply needs a political institution behind which it could hide its sectarian face. The Baath Party has played that role for 40 years now, but the members of the regime are not sophisticated enough to conjure up an alternative for it.
Without the Baath, the real nature of the regime will bear its face: a militaristic junta made up of a handful of Alawite generals and their multi-sectarian lackeys, who continue to use their muscle, as they have been doing since 1963, to chip away at the economic control and wealth of the other groups out there, especially, though not exclusively, the Sunnis. Indeed, these generals have been doing that for decades now but without attempting to share the wealth downwards. That is, the majority of the Alawites are excluded from these gains.
This unfair distribution of wealth has created major rift in the Alawite community, a rift that members of the regime are trying to heel at his stage by pointing all fingers at the noticeable growth of Sunni extremism, the ultimate boogeyman for the Alawites in this country.
Giving the state of the collective memory of the groups involved, this strategy could have actually worked and could have temporarily halted the catastrophic fragmentation and implosion of the regime, had it not been for the amazing lack of leadership in the Alawite community. Pretenders are always plentiful, but actual capable credible leaders are not. In the absence of leadership, fear of the Sunni boogeyman, is highly unlikely to prevent the catastrophic collapse of the Baath regime.
The other minority groups who traditionally had plenty to dread the possibility of Sunni rule have grown so tired of Baath corruption and oppression that they are unlikely to support the Baath at this stage, their scare tactics notwithstanding.
Considering the fact that many of these communities are witnessing a revival of their traditional forms of piety, an alliance with conservative Sunnis, even "Islamist" Sunnis, might prove more appealing to them than an alliance with the secular Baath Party, provided they could work out a new millet system of sorts, some formula along the Lebanese model.
If, in time, and for very much the same motivations, enough Alawite religious figures can be lured into an acceptance of such a formula, an alliance of conservative forces will emerge that can pull the rug from underneath the Baath.
Still considering the level of fear and cautiousness that exist in the country, such scenario will not be likely so long as the Baath regime is “in charge.” The regime has to collapse first before such scenarios are enacted. The good news is: the regime will. The bad news: this scenario is not exactly the kind of scenarios a liberal like me would like to see, not to mention live through.
Desires notwithstanding, this seems to be the most likely scenario of all for post-Baath Syria: an implosion, followed by a brief civil war ending up in a rule by an alliance of multi-sectarian conservative and traditional forces. If this sounds very much similar to what is currently taking place in Iraq, well, I have long said that Iraq is in many ways Syria’s Crystal Ball.
Tuesday, April 19, 2005
Last year, we had an opportunity to vote for a new Residents Committee. Since I hardly could recognize any of my neighbors, not to mention sympathize with or care about them, I just voted for the same old Committee to stay in place. For what was the point of replacing one set of inefficient morons with another? What was the point of compounding inefficiencies?
The elections, in other words, did not offer me any real alternatives. The same old way of doing business will prevail no matter who gets elected. Might as well be apathetic about the whole thing then.
If inefficiency was not enough, there was also the issue of a lack of representation. Unless I nominated myself for a position, there is was no way for my tastes, desires and aspirations to be represented in the Committee. Knowing, however, that there was this cultural gap separating me from the rest, and knowing, off-hand, that I had no chance of winning, seeing that no one (other than my wife, that was, and who was not present a the time anyway) would, in fact, vote for me, I had no choice but to vote for the status quo. For once again, what was the point of compounding inefficiencies?
So, a year later, here they are, my tasteless (by my aristocratic standards, of course) inefficient neighbors living up to all my expectations of them and well-nigh destroying the damn building, all in the name of renovation.
The sides of the building are being painted white. Fine. But why is the paint being splashed on the walls without any attempt at fixing the problems of erosion, without attemptint to plug the holes? Why all these pockmarks still visible from outer space? Well, we actually don’t have enough funds to actually fix these things, and it will take a bloody long time for them to be fixed anyway, I was told, but the building will look nice in white, wouldn’t it neighbor? Sure, now they ask.
But even if they had asked me before, what difference would it have made? My taste is simply too different to be taken under account.
This is the essence of my problem. Our taste in art, politics, religious and paint color is simply too different to count around here. But it sticks out, which makes us the center of much suspicion and hostility. Oh the joy of being a wesern-educated liberal in this decrepit country!
And the renovation process is all about covering up the problems under a thick layer of paint that will only erode in the coming days. The problems will remain underneath and will actually fester. The next paint job has to be twice as thick to cover half as much as it does today.
But there is no layer thick enough to hide the internal contradictions of this country. Is there?
In the process of renovation, the Committee members will continue to give themselves the right to dispense of other people’s property, without a second thought, in the name of the greater collective good, as they perceive it of course. The end result will be as ugly and inconsequential as the people who supervised the process, and I and my family will feel more alienated and helpless than ever at the end of it all, our home having been violated under our very eyes without us being able to do anything about it.
Meantime, and for a few brief months, and as pollution slowly works its dark magic on our walls, there is one building along the Mazzeh Autostrad that will glow defiantly all through the night, attracting too much attention to its utter ugliness. But people will know, for people cannot but know, eventually, that underneath that homogenous thick layer of snowy white paint many a tortured soul, no matter how differently tortured, must lie.
Sunday, April 17, 2005
It’s been three weeks now, but the people who are currently renovating our apartment block say that it will take them three more months before finishing their work. This means three more months of dust in our air and lungs, and dirt and paint on our sidewalks. Still, the whole situation is shaping up to be very much like the process of reform said to be taking place in the country. More importantly, the mentalities involved seem to be very much the same.
The place where I live, Mazze Autostrad, is supposed to be one of the plushest neighborhood in Damascus. But it is new neighborhood built almost exclusively under Baath rule, and could not, therefore, but reflect the socialist and rural underpinnings of the Baath regime. As such, and apart from the few foreign embassies and long-standing villas of some well-to-do Sunni families, the neighborhood boasts many plush apartments and villas assigned to various army generals and state officials (including the uncle f the current President, still in exile according to latest reports).
But the great majority of Mazzans are not necessarily “plush” themselves, and have only managed to acquire their places of residence through the various official unions, organizations and institutions with which they are affiliated and in accordance with various state-subsidy schemes. Indeed, I and my family happen to live in the apartment acquired by my father as a result of his affiliation with the Syrian Cinema Foundation. It had taken my father twenty years to pay for the apartment.
My neighbors, however, include an ex-footballer who now drives a tax for a living, a current Baath Member of Parliament, who is apparently not that well-connected, otherwise he could have afforded a more plush setting, an ex-Madam turned entrepreneur (obviously not too successful), and a small assortment of retirees and their families.
There are also a number of apartments that get rented by tourists from the Gulf interested in sampling our local products of wines, nuts and whores. In fact, two such apartments happened to be located on the first floor on either side of our own apartment, so life for the family is about to take the usual nasty turn as the summer approaches and Gulf tourists begin flocking our way.
While, these people tend to carry out their activities pretty discreetly to avoid harassment and blackmail by local authorities, the very idea of having two whore-houses located next to you, is still very unappealing, somehow. I am not that liberal, you see. I have never been that liberal. I doubt I’ll ever be. In fact, I think this whole phenomenon in our society is more a reflection of traditional conservative values and their clash with real life than any liberal trend really.
But I digress.
The important thing that needs to be noted here is that our apartment overlooks the Autostrad and is pretty much the jewel of the building. It might be too small for a family of four, still, and over the last five years, my Mom, Khawla and I have poured our hearts and savings into making it a very special place. Indeed, and just last summer, we added a string of bronze flower pods all around the balcony, something that we have been talking about the years.
But our flowers were the very first casualty of the renovation.
We had asked the “engineer” supervising the project to help us put a plastic cover to help protect the flowers, since we couldn’t do it from inside the house, but, promises notwithstanding, we woke up one morning to find out that work had begun, people were already painting the building, and no one, of course, had bothered to cover our flower pods.
Who cares about those aristocrats and their flowers and needs anyway?
Who indeed? A class war was under way here, and we are clearly bound to lose it.
Friday, April 15, 2005
As I returned from Doha, my immediate expectations were limited to things such as having to deal with a new travel ban or go through a new round of interrogations. But, it seems that our intricately disassociated-from-reality security apparatuses have finally found a more pressing issue to fret about than the writings and activities of this hapless marginalized liberal creature.
Goody. Now I can go back to practicing my mischief in relative peace, although it will prove virtually impossible to be quiet about it. Oh well. This will have to do.
Our President, so says a source that is close to both him and me, is planning to have parliamentary elections soon. But, first, he wants to push for the reform of the Baath Party. That has to come first, I am told, otherwise, the Party will not be able to compete considering its current state of decay and disorganization.
But, why is the President so attached to a party in whose ideology he himself is hardly a believer? The answer to this seems to be related more to the internal balance of power than to the President’s own convictions (which are reportedly more akin the ideology of the Syrian Social National Party).
Indeed, in my erstwhile conversation with General Dashing, a member of the President’s inner group to say the least, he came out as a clear advocate of Baath ideology, albeit he was quite willing to differentiate between what he called a “real Baathist” and a mere member of the Party, who was dismissed as an opportunist. We need to clean the Party out of these rogue elements, he told me, for which I could only wish him bon chance, before I bade him adieu.
The Baath might mean resurrection in Arabic, but I doubt that it could indeed prove resurrectable. Rogues, charlatans, opportunist, thieves, idiots, all in their late 60s and 70s armed with a medievalist mindset, no, you simply can’t teach these old dogs new tricks, no matter how attached to life they might still be. A nice retirement home for the insanely rich should suffice. What more do they want? The oil is gone, there is nothing left to rob. Couldn’t they just leave the few remaining droplets to posterity?
Of course not. If greed and avarice is now part and parcel of the nature of these people, how can they change? Once again we should wag that thing about old dogs and new tricks.
So, unless the Baath Party can play Jesus, or Bashar can play God, the Baath Party is dead, long live whatever. Indeed, the day when we are going to witness a series of short-lived “long live whatever” seems to be nearing. It’s going to be like the 50s hereabouts again, albeit mixed with a greater doze of blood and angst.
The downfall, ladies and gentlemen of the blogosphere, is nigh.
Sunday, April 10, 2005
Taking the plane out of Syria had a new feel about it. No. It's not freedom. After all, I am only going to attend a conference and will be back to Damascus in a few days.
Indeed, it is a different sort of angst that I feel now, hard to decipher or fathom. It will take me a while to figure it out. Still, one thing is certain at this stage. The Lull will not last long. The Lull will be coming to an end all too soon. Like it or not, I'll have to be ready for a new round of interrogations, confrontations and threats. Yes. This time there will be threats.
I am sure of it.
The plot continues to thicken. And I continue to wrestle with myself over issues I thought were long resolved. But no. Nothing get resolved while we live. A lull just imposes itself upon us every now and then.
But this one was just too short. Too short.
Still, it will have to do.
PS. Catherine, believe me, I understand your frustration.
Thursday, April 07, 2005
Indeed, it is about time. Indeed reform is an almost impossible undertaking without their support. Yes indeed, it is about time for Syrian expatriates to come back. And they should come back in droves.
The Syrian government has already pledged publicly that it will grant passports to all regardless of the circumstances surrounding their departure. At this point in time, I don’t think the regime is being devious or Machiavellian in taking this decision. I don’t think it is attempting to lay a trap for anybody. It is simply trying to get out of the quagmire it finds itself in at this stage in great part as a result of its own policies.
Indeed then, the expatriates, at least those who don’t have actual sentences hovering over their heads, should take this opportunity to come back. They should come back in groups of 50-100 people at a time. They should make a show of it and they should begin clamoring for reforms from the inside.
The idea is to get enough international and internal attention to launch an effective reform campaign and challenge the status quo in the country. In this, they can acquire the necessary internal recognizability and legitimacy that they need and they can help lead the country into the future. Their knowledge and expertise will indeed play a crucial role in that.
Still, having lived for an extended period of time abroad, I know, from first-hand observations, that expatriates can be as troubled and troubling as anybody around here. They are often as divided along the same ethnic, religious, sectarian, and ideological lines as all other Syrians, and are often as apathetic and politically unmotivated and seemingly unmotivatable.
Indeed, the Syrian expatriates are so divided and apathetic they have so far failed to take advantage of the freedoms and opportunities make available to them in their western exiles to establish credible opposition parties, and conduct a credible opposition campaign against the current regime, despite all the facilities available to them there. They have even failed to take advantage of the revolution in technology and the spread of satellite dishes everywhere in the country, which, in a variety of ways, can effectively provide them with a way for broadcasting their message, uncensored, directly to the Syrian people. But do they really have a message?
Many of the expatriates who come here with interest in investing in the country behave in a very contradictory manner. They expect red carpet treatment from the very people they know and accuse of being responsible for all the corruption and oppression that is taking place in the country. Then they leave heartbroken and incensed when that doesn’t happen. They don’t try to meet opposition members and dissidents. They don’t try to really probe into the “unofficial” political scene. They simply shun the dangers that come with that. That’s not their job anymore, they say, after all they are expatriates, or should we say ex-patriots?
Some say that they want to invest in the future of the country, but, it seems, that they want the country’s future to be invested in them as well, perhaps even solely in them.
Now, this might sound like a strange, harsh and rash criticism from someone who is planning on becoming, once again, an expatriate (or even ex-patriot) himself. But the key word here is “once again.” For, I was an expatriate once, and I did come back, and some sense of patriotism was indeed involved in my decision to come back (although, admittedly, this was not necessarily the only or even the decisive factor here). It has been eleven years now since my return, and the decision to leave is shaping up to be the hardest decision in my life, so far. Yet, it still may not be final.
For, if enough expatriates came back, armed with the “right” attitude, I may not have to leave, and I will not be so isolated.
Saturday, April 02, 2005
One of the things that we, that is, my self-styled self-imposed Patron and I, talked about during that fateful two hour meeting was the possibility of – drum roll please – holding multi-candidate presidential elections coupled with free parliamentary elections where the Baath Party will compete on the same constitutional footing as any other party.
Had this person, let’s call him here General Dashing for simplicity’s sake, been any other state official, I wouldn’t have given his statements a second thought, and would have easily dismissed him as just another word-peddler, just like me sometimes, if I may wax self-critical.
Being who he is, though, made me take what he said in this regard very seriously. These “people” seem to have finally realized how deep their crisis happens to be, how existential it really is, and this, it seems, has compelled them to finally accept the intimate link between the way out and the necessity of undertaking radical internal political reforms, something they would never have contemplated, I know, just a few short months ago.
Now this must be good, isn’t it? I mean what more can we ask for?
Well, before I go into that, let me first note that, upon hearing General Dashing’s hints in this regard, I simply couldn’t help but share my two heretical bits with him, especially the idea calling for the adoption of a bicameral parliament as a way for ensuring minority rights and minority control over the army and security apparatuses to prevent the possibility of their Islamization. This is indeed a major worry for this regime. It has been, in fact, the major impediment in the way of political reform for the proceeding five years.
For political openness, as many seem to fear, will practically mean a Sunni takeover of the political process, the Sunnis being the predominant majority in the country, at a time when the Sunni community seems to be further and further radicalized with every passing day. Arguments for who is in control of the country notwithstanding, such prospect bodes ill for the future of minorities in this country.
As such, leaders of minority groups will fight to the better end against any kind of scheme that could pave the way for such a development. For the issue involves not only economic interests but, more importantly perhaps, issues of self-preservation as well in a climate of growing suspicion, mistrust, stereotyping and downright hostility. Failing to manage such a process properly could only lead to implosion and communal strife, all the usual gibberish about the “wondrous climate of tolerance” in the country notwithstanding.
Though I did not discuss the matter using such candid terms and references, for General Dashing had made it quite clear to me that his basic disagreement with the Tharwa Project was based upon his conviction that such references will only serve the Israeli-American plans for tearing this region and this country apart, it was not very difficult for General Dashing to understand what references to “communal diversity,” “national integrity,” and “containing the extremists” really meant.
Indeed, General Dashing’s eyes lit up at this point in our talk, and I was asked to put something in writing on these issues and fax it to him ASAP, so that the notes can be eventually delivered to the President himself, if all people. But that would not be very a difficult feat for General Dashing really, seeing that the whole thing will be a family affair of sorts for him.
Now we can discuss the meaning of all this.
The impending openness, its eventual facades notwithstanding, will be, in fact, heavily rigged. But this is only natural really, for it will not come as a result of some “white” or “velvet” revolution, but as a result of political machinations from the top, machinations meant specifically to preserve, if not even further, the interest of those “on top.”
So, the best possible scenario for our immediate future at this stage seems to suggest a mere transition from a traditional and quite brute form of oppression and corruption to a more benign and sophisticated scheme of the same. And I could very well be playing a role in this transformation. Oh what a liberal I am turning up to be!
The picture gets even more bleak, albeit realistic as well, when you add in to the mix the fact that the most “viable” grassroots pressure that we are likely to witness over the next few years, if not decades, will indeed be Islamist in nature. The fears of the regime are pretty much justified in this regard. Sooner or later, political openness will empower the Islamists and will give them much sway (though never complete control) over the political process. Islamists will also wreak havoc upon social dynamics.
Secularists, therefore, be they liberal, leftist or nationalist (both Syrian and Arab nationalists are included here), will have to content with an increasing doze of social oppression and marginalization to add to their increasing political difficulties, which is another natural outcome of “our” failure, so far, to build a strong grassroots support for ourselves, the reasons and roots for this failure notwithstanding.
The liberals in particular will suffer more than most as a result of this situation. For the leftists and nationalists have always had parties and organizations to represent their interests, the liberals never did. They existed only as individuals, and have never managed to establish movements or inspire currents or schools of thoughts. Not yet anyway. Our time might still come one day, but not soon.
Our real task at this stage is all too simply to manage the current crisis and plant seeds for the future.
Meanwhile, if we can, every now and then, do something to serve the “national interest,” for instance, by contributing some hapless idea of ours meant to help make the transition more peaceful and prevent the disintegration of this country, then we will have done the best we can in the circumstances.
But of course, and as a human being with a certain inherited artistic temperament, if not always the talent to go along with it, I cannot always manage, as efficiently as could be expected of me at any rate as a preacher of this intellectual mode, my yearning and longing for something more somehow, something better. Hence my occasional outbursts of cynicism, anger, frustration, depression and foolhardiness, as my blogs over the last few weeks must have amply shown, and for which I make no apologies. After all, I am what I am.
All these considerations are of course, rather theoretical at this stage. The future of the country is still lying in the “palm of a genie,” as we say, a genie whose real intentions towards us and our continued well-being are still far from clear, a matter complicated by the fact that genies, as we all must surely know, tend to have a rather nasty, if not downright sick, sense of humor.
Friday, April 01, 2005
Yes. Freedom. The travel ban I am told will be lifted tomorrow. I will be able to travel freely again. The investigations will be stopped immediately. I am a free man again.
How did this happen? Let me just say that someone way high up the chain still thinks “I am a patriot.” He called me in yesterday and told me so himself. He frowns upon everything I do, he asserted, but he still believes that I am a patriot, and because of that, I will not be bothered again and I can still carry on with my activities, but I should be very careful so as to avoid being used by external forces.
What does this mean? Well, I am free for now, it seems, but I am also being carefully watched. Or, to put it in other words, I am officially, and whether I like it or not (and how can I conceivably not like it - this highest honor that can be bestowed upon a citizen of this country?) under patronage.
So how do I plan to use this “freedom?” To leave the country, of course, albeit, at a less hurried pace.
I can now wait for Mouhannad and Ola to finish their exams, and I can help Khawla in person scout for an apartment in Lebanon, so we can slowly move out by the end of the summer to where we can still manage our projects, without having to constantly worry and fret about our safety.
Indeed, Syria will still have influence in Lebanon, but I doubt they will use it to "get me" there, I am not really that important. I am only a dissident, after all, and not a perceived business partner who refuses to play ball anymore. In fact, the whole point of insisting on leaving at this stage, despite assurances that I will be protected, is to be able to avoid getting classified as such. This is the most dangerous position of them all, you see.
For when you are under patronage, you have to play by the rules. You cannot afford not to play by the rules. And since I cannot play by the rules… And since I cannot afford to pay the price for not playing by the rules... I might as well just leave the place where the rules apply, and go to where I can play by some other more acceptable and affordable rules.
So, for all those who have supported me throughout the last few weeks, I simply say thanks. For when words fail, this is the only word I know that still has some meaning.
And don't worry, there is still enough crazy things around to keep me blogging for a long time to come. So, keep on coming, you hear?