I flew back from Damascus on Tuesday, August 7th, but this is the first time I get a real opportunity to sit down and write about my two-week trip.
I went back to work on Thursday to find 172 e-mails, and a pile of letters half-way up to the ceiling.. all waiting for me to read and respond to.
The weekend came and went like a flash.. On Sunday, I had a 15-hour journey to the Capital.. four-hour drive to London, five-hour meeting, then a six-hour drive back up to Lancashire. I am sure you can forgive me for not being able to write anything yet.
But that's all behind me. I am now sitting trying to get my thoughts together even if it is half past midnight..
Let me start by saying that we had the most awesome time. My brother and sister came over from the US, and my parents were simply overjoyed to see us all. We celebrated my twins' 21st Birthday while we were there, and we decided to celebrate Mum's seventieth Birthday since we were all gathered together.. even though it was a couple of months too soon!.. We went to countless dinners and lunches and feasts and gatherings.. and each left us with such delightful memories.. We so wished that we had the time to see more people.. more friends, old and new.. In fact, one thing I truly regret was that we could not accept Abu Fares's invitation to visit him in Tartous.. but, alas, time was very limited..
Nevertheless, my children managed to squeeze in a two-day trip to Petra with my sister and her family, and they absolutely loved it... (I couldn’t go.. I am only allowed a single entry to Syria every year)..
The girls had a wonderful time (as they always do) exploring the Old City, with its bazaars, souks, and delightful little shops..
They went to the Grand Umayyad Mosque, admiring its grandeur and beauty..
Like an annual pilgrimage, they walked through the alleys and narrow streets of the Old City.. getting lost, but quickly finding their way when they see a familiar shop or some other landmark..
I could easily bore you with a blow-by-blow account of my two weeks in Damascus.. However, I thought it would probably be better to talk about a few things that caught my attention..
As I said in my earlier post, Damascus never fails to amaze me with how much things can change.. I should say, however, that no matter how much things change, they still seem to remain the same!..
Undoubtedly, some of the changes are simply a natural progression of what things were two years ago. However, there are some obvious developments that I have noticed for the first time..
Our flight to Damascus was uneventful.. We travelled by SyrianAir. We knew in advance that the service is not exactly Five-Star!.. Nevertheless, it certainly has a very distinct advantage: it is the only airline that operates direct flights from Manchester to Damascus.. It will get us home in four-and-a-half hours, and no-one can beat that!..
Within 45 minutes from arrival, we were on our way towards the City. Soon afterwards, we were snaking our way through the legendary Damascus traffic. That is always the first thing you notice.. It has gone significantly worse since I have been there last time. My brother-in-law blamed the increase in car imports, and the lack of any new projects to ease the congestion in the Capital.. Clearly, this is a universal problem.. Driving through London two days ago, even though it was a Sunday, was certainly no picnic!.. Nevertheless, driving in Damascus is not for the faint-hearted.. It is a death-wish.. It's everybody to himself in that jungle!.. Mind you, walking in Damascus is almost just as fraught!.. One afternoon, my wife, my daughter, and I thought we'd go for a walk into town!.. What a silly idea!.. All the sidewalks and footpaths are occupied by parked cars, and you end up being forced to walk in the middle of the street, risking life and limb in the process!.. However, apart from the shear volume of traffic, and the way people drive, one thing that really amazed me in Damascus was how drivers totally ignore the poor traffic policemen!..
I was struck by how many people smoke in Damascus.. It is a filthy habit that seems to traverse social divides and seems to afflict every level of Society.. I found it difficult to understand how people, especially the young and the affluent, still equate smoking with being suave and sophisticated... People smoke anytime and anywhere.. in cars, in offices, in restaurants.. before food, with food, after food.. with coffee, with tea, or with a glass of arak or whiskey.. They smoke when angry, and they smoke when happy.. when anxious, or when relaxed.. I particularly found the proliferation of the trend to smoke argheeleh in restaurants quite disturbing, especially with the number of young people getting hooked..
On one of our excursions around the City, a friend of mine pointed out the open-air market known as 'Souk el-7haramieh' , where 'second-hand' goods are bought and sold openly.. (for 'second-hand', read 'stolen').. Now I ask you, how many cities around the World can boast having a whole market known as The Thieves' Market?!...
There are clear signs of 'new money' in Town.. The abundance of smart shops selling designer goods.. the flashy new cars.. the imposing hotels and towering plush office buildings.. the large bright new Shopping Malls.. the countless vast restaurants that are ALWAYS full to the rim!.. (Isn't it amazing how all activities, social, commercial, and even political, in Damascus revolve around eating?..). However, one cannot help but wonder whether this apparent 'affluence' is true, or is it just a thin veneer, camouflaging a very ugly truth of masked unemployment, abject poverty, and an insatiable need to show off..
Speaking of large shiny Shopping Malls, we went for a snack in a café at the new Sham Centre.. How impressive!.. Spotlessly clean, with uniformed staff constantly going round ensuring cleanliness.. Beautiful shops, with many selling very expensive designer goods.. Palm trees, and smart cafés.. It is noteworthy, however, that while the walkways and passages of the Mall were very busy, the shops were not!.. In some shops, shop assistants vastly outnumbered the shoppers!.. Nevertheless, I found it very interesting that this was the only place I came across that has a 'No Smoking' policy.. Now, I think this is very encouraging.. Mind you, with some disappointment, I note that amongst all those smart and elegant shops, there was not a single bookshop.. I wonder what does that say about us as a community?..
There was one particular change that truly shocked me.. I simply could not get over the re‑emergence of the personality worship.. and it was so 'in-your-face'.. The omnipresence of the President.. everywhere you look. Larger-than-life images of his smiling face, the shepherd overlooking his flock, reassuring them that he is there to stay, and they'd better get used to it!.. I must say, I found it quite nauseating how some slogans were written in, allegedly, colloquial terms, seeming to suggest spontaneity and truthfulness!...
Another aspect that really saddened me was the sense of resignation amongst the intellectual elite.. Those who once were the focus of our hopes and ambitions have turned into a bunch demoralised, disenfranchised, and disaffected individuals.. The spark has gone off from their eyes.. the flames of their passion and enthusiasm has been cruelly snuffed out…
You will not be surprised to know that corruption is alive and well.. and thriving!.. It has now reached areas that were previously thought to be protected.. A well-connected friend of mine recounted a story about some controversial, highly-experimental treatments for a rare and uncommon condition, being approved for trials by the Ministry of Health in the name of encouraging ‘international research activities’, in return for substantial backhanders from drug companies for Ministry officials.. and when my friend requested funding to purchase some essential, well-proven, but expensive, life-saving treatment (for Hepatitis B, which is rampant in the Country) for a Government hospital he works for, he was shrugged off, and his request rejected for lack of funds… Mmmm.. Quite a worrying development, don’t you think?..
I went to the National Museum in Damascus with my three children.. I have not been there since I was a schoolboy in shorts!.. On the one hand, I was delighted and very impressed by the richness of the displays and the immense historical value of the treasures contained in it.. On the other hand, I was distressed and deeply upset by the state of neglect some of these treasures were in.. Some displays have been removed by members of Staff, and a small, hand‑written ‘Post-it’ note left behind to state the whereabouts of some invaluable, irreplaceable piece of history!.. Notes like ‘On loan to the Curator’s Display’.. or ‘Loaned to such-and-such Museum’.. I wonder how many of these ‘on loan’ artefacts find their way back to their display cabinets!… My daughter noted that various items were described wrongly, while others had no description whatsoever.. She was incensed by the fact that information written in Arabic contradicted what was written in English, and, rightly, felt that this showed complete disrespect to the artefacts, as well as to the visitors’ intelligence!..
Amongst those I met in Damascus, there was an overwhelming sense of ‘something big is about to happen’… People were apprehensively anticipating some cataclysmic event that will change the shape of the Region.. Some people were absolutely adamant that war with Israel was both imminent and inevitable. They cite the alleged increasing intransigence and isolation of the emboldened Regime, as well as rumoured purchases of arms (including possible nuclear warheads) from some relics of the former USSR, bought in the aftermath of the break-up of the Soviet Union.. Proponent of this theory assure you that you should not be deceived by the apparent state of disarray in the Syrian Army.. they talk of elite troops, trained to highest standards, and equipped with the most up-to-date arsenal.. To my simple mind, signs of the Regime being emboldened are abundant, but signs of its isolation were, on the surface at least, notably lacking.. but nuclear weapons in the hands of the Syrian military?.. Now, that’s a sobering thought!..
Others seem to bet on the ‘Peace Option’.. Some people feel that, as Bush starts his ride into the political sunset, he, and his Republican Party, are eager to do something substantial, to distract from the unholy mess they have created in the Region and around the World.. Bush, as this theory goes, must try and make some significant achievement before he leaves the Oval Office. Otherwise, the Republican Party will be consigned to political wilderness for a generation… He must, at least, be seen to be trying to leave a legacy of some significance.. and there is no bigger prize than a lasting peace in the Middle East.. Now, to my simple mind again, better and wiser people have tried and failed!.. And what’s more, the most basic elements required for the success of such a notion are not in place.. things like fairness and equal respect to all parties involved.. things like credibility and trustworthiness…
But rest assured.. Whatever it is people are fearing, you will be delighted to know that the lingerie industry in Syria is alive and well…
My two weeks in Damascus flew past like two minutes.. However, the beautiful memories I accumulated are worth a lifetime.. every little detail of every moment is alive in my mind.. just like the love of the Old City is forever alive in my heart...