Thursday, May 31, 2007

A Simple Argument in a Complex Subject

Those of you who are familiar with the Syrian blogoshpere would probably have come across Creative Syria, and may have come across Alex, the creator of that fantastic website.. You may even have crossed swards with him (like I have.. on many occasions..) on the various issues discussed on Syrian blogs.. Whether you agree with his views or not, you cannot but admire his passion, his wit, and his highly intellectual debating abilities..
In a recent discussion about the fortieth anniversary of the 1967 War on my all-time favourite Syrian blog, Mosaics, Alex proposed that he would creat a website (or rather, an annex to his existing website), to be a platform to debate the various issues, including that of the Golan Heights.. and he did.. In line with the high standards that you would expect from Alex, he created a fantastic forum for the Syrian bloggers to launch debates and discussions..
In the first topic for debate, he wanted everyone to write an open letter to an Israeli reader, stating why we believe Israel should return the Golan Heights to Syria.. and the responses were simply fascinating...
Today, I have submitted my letter, and I thought I would share it with you.. (but I would strongly recommend you browse through the rest of the submissions on the Golan Heights, which are infinitely more articulate and a lot more intelligently written than anything I can ever pretend to come up with...)
Anyway, here is my two-pennies' worth:

A letter to an Israeli..
Why should Israel return the Golan Heights back to Syria?..


Alex, a very intelligent, articulate and highly educated cyber-friend, has suggested, on the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of the loss of the Golan Heights to Israel, that we Syrians should try and put our case to you Israelis, on why your Country/Government/People should hand back the Golan Heights to Syria…

This proposal was taken up by several equally intelligent, articulate and highly educated Syrians from all walks of life.. Some of the letters are posted on the very impressive website ‘Creative Syria’, that Alex has masterminded and so professionally executed.

Now, I do not claim any specialist knowledge in international law, politics, economics, history, or sociology.. If you want a glossy, highly polished answer to Alex’s question, then read George Ajjan’s response.. and for a logical, robustly-argued statement, read Camille’s (a.k.a. Alex) own offering..

Some commentators gave historic accounts, while others pointed out potential future benefits.. Some spoke of economics, others of strategic reasons.. I am sure that each offers a perfectly valid reason why Israel should return the Golan Heights to Syria..

Well.. I am a simple-minded fellow, with (I believe) a reasonable measure of decency and commonsense.. I do not possess the intelligence, sophistication, or specialist knowledge demonstrated by my compatriots (of whom I am immensely proud, I hasten to add!..).. For me, there is a simple reason why the Golan Heights should be handed back to Syria.. So how about justice, or good old common decency for a reason?..

The Golan (or the Jolan, as we prefer to call it!..) is, historically, geographically, demographically and every-other-reason-ically, Syrian.. Israel acquired it in a war that was waged purely for this purpose.. the acquisition of land.. You have held on to it for forty years, but it is still ours.. It is, and will always be, Syrian.. The fact that it has been in your hands for forty years does not make it yours.. It does not make the occupation and annexation legitimate, nor morally right..

I am not so naive as to believe that Israel would simply return the Jolan just because it is ‘the right thing to do’.. I am a pragmatist, and a realist.. Nevertheless, I really believe that, from a purely moral point of view, Israel should hand the Jolan back to Syria.. and what’s more, I also believe that although all the reasons elaborated upon by my fellow-responders are legitimate and sound, these reasons would be worthless if they did not have the moral foundation…

If Israel is truly serious about its declared intentions for a peaceful settlement, then it must show a degree of respect towards its northernly neighbour.. and that starts by returning to Syria what is rightfully hers..

Sincerely yours,

The Syrian Brit
(Photo: The Golan Heights. Source:

Sunday, May 13, 2007


Well, my friends.. I made it!!..

Today, I turned 50..

Half a century on the surface of this Earth... Whether this is as significant a landmark as some might want to make it, is matter of contention for me..

For one, I do not feel any different today from what I was yesterday.. nor what I was a year ago.. Nevertheless, I guess it is an opportunity to pause and take stock..

It all started one spring day, fifty years ago, in Damascus.. My parents have been married for just under 9 months (Yes.. I was a Wedding-day baby!..).. My Mum was desperately worried that my arrival will coincide with her final-year exams, and completely ruin her chances of graduating from University that year.. However, being a considerate soul, at a great risk to my personal safety, I decided to come to this World a couple of weeks too soon, much the delight of my mother.. This way, Mum would have the time to get over the trauma of my greatly anticipated arrival, and still have time to get back in shape to pass her finals!.. And so it was..

My childhood was happy and fulfilled.. My parents, both working, have instilled in me the importance of education, and the value of honest, hard work and perseverance.. They taught me, more by example than by instruction, that if anything is worth having, then it is worth working for..

My brother, four years younger than me, and my sister, eleven years my junior, both made my formative years that much richer and that much more enjoyable.. Both continue to be a constant source of inspiration, support and friendship..

I battled my way through schools and University, got married shortly after I qualified, and the long, hard struggle we call 'Life' goes on.. My eldest daughter was born 16 months later, while I was working in Beirut.. Later on, the raging Civil War, and the Israeli invasion of 1982, force us to leave Lebanon.. and life takes us back to Damascus for while, then to Britain, after a brief and unsuccessful attempt to find training in the States.. Our twins, now nearly 21, were born after we moved to the UK...

After numerous ups and downs, and after a few more battles, from which I bear many a scar, I got to where I am today..

So, what have I got to show for my 50 years?.. What have I actually achieved??.. and what have I learnt?.. Do I have any regrets?.. Are there things I wish I hadn't done?.. and perhaps, on a more positive note, what should my targets be for the coming years??...

Professionally, I am pleased to say that I am both content and proud of what I have achieved.. I, even if I say so myself, am a respected and well-regarded practitioner in a complex and challenging field, working in a Department that is widely believed to be the best in the Region, and arguably in the Country.. I teach on various Speciality courses, locally, regionally, and nationally, and I examine on the Royal College exams in our Speciality.. Not bad for someone who, after all, is an outsider!..

On a personal level, I am, undoubtedly, the luckiest man alive... I have a beautiful loving wife, three bright, hard-working, and high-achieving children, and I have my health and my sanity (although many would argue about the latter!..).. I ask you, what more could a man ask for?...

But, surely, there must be some regrets?.. Some things I would like to have done differently?.. Some targets that I wanted to achieve, but failed?.. You're damn right there are!..

I, for example, would have loved to be solvent by the age of fifty!.. I would have loved to have paid up my mortgage!.. but, alas, that was not to be.. With three children in University, I guess I will have to work till I am seventy to keep up with the payments!..

Which brings me to the other unfulfilled target.. I would have loved to have my retirement plans completely in order by the time I reached fifty.. Mind you, I have always known that I am not exactly the most organised man on the Planet.. Leaving things to the last minute has always been my style!..

Regrets?.. Well.. Ever since I was in Third Form, I have regretted calling that bully, Hassan Kalthoum, 'an idiot' to his face!.. I can still feel the painful fat lip, and I can still taste the blood in my mouth!.. Mind you, that experience does not seem to have taught me much!.. I still stand up to bullies, and I still, on occasions, get a bloody nose for my efforts!..

I regret wasting so much time of my life trying to get training in the States.. I was chasing a mirage, and I should have known it at the time.. even if it wasn't that obvious then.. But hindsight is a wonderful thing, isn't it?!..

I regret buying that second-hand Ford Sierra Estate in 1987, from that Fredo Corleone lookalike.. If there ever was a car that can be described as a 'lemon', then it was that one!..

I very much regret not learning German or French, and regret not persevering with my early attempts to learn playing a musical instrument... I still hope that, one day, I will learn to play the saxophone, and I have not quite given up on French or German...

Anyway.. here I am.. Fifty, but not over the hill.. at least, not that I would admit it... I am, in fact, fitter than I was two or three years ago.. I have overcome my lumbar disc prolapse, and my back pain.. I now work out regularly, running up to six miles twice a week.. I have managed to regain my fitness, and return to my ideal weight.. well, almost... My efforts to reach that particular target were comprehensively thwarted by the most amazing feast that my wife had prepared yesterday, when she invited a few of our friends over...

And I tell you something, it was worth going through 50 years of 'life', just to be rewarded with that delightful food!...

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Held at ransom...

What a disappointment...

In the beginning, it was joyful disbelief.. President Assad has signed the long-awaited decree, regulating the Compulsory Military Service for Syrian adult males.. At long last, I might just be able to visit MY Country, unhindered and unrestricted.. According to the old regulations, I was still liable to be drafted for Military Service until the age of 52!.. (What good would an old fart like me be in the Army, I ask you?!..).. Until then, every time I wanted to visit home, I have to apply through the Syrian Embassy for a special permit.. some months in advance.. You have to plan it carefully, and rely on a lot of luck!.. You are never sure how long it takes for the reply to come back.. the permit 'entitles' you to visit the Country for up to one month every year, and is valid for three months.. Request it too early, and you run the risk of the permit expiring before you leave the Country!..

So, I have been waiting impatiently for that day (in just over 2 years.. but more on that soon!..), when I can pay the 50,000 Syrian Pounds (about $1,000), the fee for closing my file.. After that, I would be free to visit MY Country, without any hassle or harassment, and without the long anxious wait for the permission to be issued..

So, you can probably imagine my delight when I heard that the maximum age for drafting has been dropped to 42.. That's it.. I am free.. All I have to do is pay the damn $1,000...

But wait!.. Just read on before you start the celebrations, I thought... What's this?..

Yes, they have dropped the maximum drafting age to 42, but raised the fee to 250,000 SP ($5,000).. which is the same amount that ANY University Graduate who has lived abroad for more than four years would have to pay for exemption!...

So, this long wait has all been in vain... The years I have been waiting for my reprieve are all a waste.. I still have to pay a substantial sum of my hard-earned money for the privilege of visiting MY Country...

Now, you might say $5,000 is not too high a price to pay for the freedom to visit one's Country.. You might even say that us ex-pats are rolling in money that someone like me wouldn't even miss a puny $5,000... Well, you would be wrong on both counts...

The charge of $5,000 (or even the former charge of $1,000) is not simply an administrative fee... It is ransom money.. it is blackmail money... pure and simple.. I accept that, in the great scheme of things, $5,000 would not necessarily break me financially.. but I would not go as far as saying I can simply pull that kind of money out of my back pocket.. (I wish I could say 'Money is no object'. Frankly, money will always be an issue as long as I have to work for it..). And while I could probably afford to pay the charge, it would mean that something else I was planning to pay for would have to wait...

But all that is really not important.. What is important here is a principle..

I don't want to start a discussion about the value (or lack thereof) of conscription as a method to build an army, but my belief is that a professional army, made of well-motivated and well-trained individuals is, by far, the best option..

The idea that one should be made to pay this charge (almost regardless of its amount) is inherently wrong.. It should be within anyone's right to visit one's own Country, and no-one should have the ability to deprive me from that right...

The Compulsory Military Service has become yet another method to blackmail and oppress the population.. yet another issue to keep the young and eager minds preoccupied and diverted away from questioning the status quo.. yet another reason why young Syrians, in their droves, are abandoning the Country..

And what's more, influential players, within the Army and within the Regime inner sanctum, have been charging extortionist bribes from desperate young men to secure them an exemption from conscription, or guarantee a cushy and comfortable Compulsory Military Service..

The Compulsory Military Service is two years wasted in the life of any adult Syrian male.. Two years during the most productive phase in anyone's life.. almost totally wasted... and before you dredge out that old chestnut of 'our duty in defending our Country' and all that, anyone who's done his time as an Army Conscript would tell you that Compulsory Military Service is not designed for that.. It is designed to break the soul and spirit of recruits, young and old, and destroy any self-respect they might still have..

I can rant on about this forever.. At the end of the day, against my better judgement, and against my principles, I will probably end up paying the ransom.. You see, I have two aging parents back home.. I would really like to be able to visit at a very short notice, should I need to..

(Picture: 'Despair' by 'booga'. Source:

Friday, May 04, 2007

In Solidarity with our Prisoners of Conscience

Fares, my cyberfriend and fellow Syrian blogger has asked me to re-post his latest offering. I am delighted to be able to oblige.
Thank you, Fares, for all you are doing.. I wish we had more of a notice about this.. I would have re-arranged previous commitments and gone to London in person... but I am there in spirit..
Fares says:

I got this message from Maureen of Amnesty International. Please repost in your blogs to give it more publicity. Every support no matter how small counts.


In the light of the prison sentence given to Anwar al-Bunni at the end of last month and the probable sentencing of Michel Kilo tomorrow [I think it is may 7] and Kamal al-Labwani on 10th May, Amnesty International are calling for a Day of Action in protest on 9th and/or 10th May. These will take place in various countries. They are also supported by Human Rights Watch and Human Rights First.

In London there will be a peaceful demonstration outside the Syrian Embassy, 8 Belgrave Square, London SW1X 8PH from 2pm to 4pm on Wednesday 9th May. Please put in an appearance if you possibly can during these two hours; just a few minutes of “solidarity” with the Prisoners of Conscience in Syrian jails will mean a lot. Please also encourage as many people as you can to take part.

I should be grateful if you could give me an idea of how many people you anticipate will be able to get there, as this will greatly help the organisers.

Best wishes,
Maureen Thomas