Posts Tagged ‘Damascus’
A message from the father of the murdered nine-year-old Ibrahim Shayban to Russia, China and Bashaar al-Asad.
The Russian and Chinese vetoes to protect the Syrian regime from UN Security Council condemnation are reminiscent of all those American vetoes to protect Israel. Both countries have their reasons for shielding the Syrian regime: Russia’s naval base at Tartus, discomfort over the way the Libya No Fly Zone slipped into more overt intervention, the fear that UN condemnation may one day focus on Russian abuses in Chechnya and Chinese abuses in Tibet and Xinjiang. But both countries should consider their own interests more creatively. Ultimately, their influence in Syria and the wider region will depend on their image in Syrian and Arab eyes. The Syrian regime will not be there for ever. The Syrian people will.
Iran is another state which has repeatedly shot itself in the foot since the Arab revolutions began, first by mischaracterising as Islamic uprisings the deposings of Mubarak, Bin Ali and Qaddafi, then by opposing the revolution which seems most similar to Iran’s in 79 – the Syrian revolution. Iran used to be popular in Syria even amongst many sectarian-minded Sunni Muslims. It used to be popular in the wider Arab region. This popularity was Iran’s best guarantee against marginalisation and even military attack from the region’s pro-Western forces. But its popularity has evaporated this year.
Back to Ibrahim. He was martyred while leaving a mosque in the Qaboon suburb of Damascus. His funeral was held today in Meydan, in the heart of the city. Here’s some footage. Apparently insecurity forces killed two of the mourners when they came out of the mosque into the street.
Commentators have been telling us that central Damascus remains quiet. It’s true that many areas have been quiet, either because the upper middle class inhabitants still support the regime or are sitting on the fence, or because of the overbearing police and mukhabarat presence on the streets. Damascus has certainly not slipped out of regime control, as Homs, Hama, Deir ez-Zor and Idlib sometimes have. Yet Damascus has been bubbling for a long time. Pro-regime commentators will say that Kafar Souseh (which has demonstrated frequently since Shaikh Rifa’i of the Rifa’i mosque was shot) is a suburb, not the city itself – which is true, if Camden Town isn’t part of London. Suburbs further out – like Harasta, Douma, Muadamiya – have been veritable war zones for months. Imagine if Streatham, Hackney, Tottenham and Ealing were in a state of war and commentators told us ‘London remains quiet.’ And Meydan and Rukn ad-Deen have witnessed frequent, large demonstrations, and savage repression. These places are as central as Chelsea and Kensington. Smaller, briefer demonstrations have occurred in high-class Malki, in Sha‘alaan, Shaikh Muhiyudeen, Baghdad Street, Muhajireen. You can’t get more central. The last place is within earshot of Bashaar al-Asad’s house. If the quietness of Damascus reassures the regime, I think they’d better start panicking.
Damascus has been designated the UNESCO Arab cultural capital for 2008. This means different things to different people.
President Bashaar al-Assad, pointing to Syria’s role as the last remaining bastion of Arabism and its unashamed solidarity with Palestinian resistance, says “Damascus is the capital of resistance culture.” This interpretation, while unpopular with neighbouring regimes and the powers that dominate the region, is popular with the Syrian people – even if other aspects of the regime aren’t. And some international visitors this year will come primarily for a little resistance chic. This is the capital which welcomes Hugo Chavez and Hassan Nasrallah with equally widespread arms. Noam Chomsky will be giving a talk. Lebanese and pan-Arab diva Fairouz has already been, to the chagrin of some of her compatriots, to croon patriotic and revolutionary songs.
There will also be lectures and poetry recitals, architectural tours of the old city, theatre and ballet performances, art exhibitions, a film festival, and orchestral, jazz and traditional Arabic music concerts.
Damascus certainly deserves cultural capital status more than some cities that have held the title in previous years. After Beirut and Cairo, Damascus has the best bookshops in the Arab world. Syria has always boasted an impressive range of poets and musicians, and produces TV dramas which are of much higher quality than the Egyptian competition. Its taxi drivers can recite classical and contemporary poetry. Its pop singers sing Nizar Qabbani, the most influential and best loved modern Arab poet. Damascus is a city in which your host is likely to serenade you with his lute after dinner. And it is, as the tourism ministry likes to repeat, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world.
I’ve just given up smoking, again, after a relapse in Syria and Egypt. I mean, what can an ex-smoker do, returning to Sham? In Oman very few people smoke. Abu Dhabi airport, where I spent an hour in transit, is of course smoke-free. But in Damascus airport the passport officials were smoking, and the police, and the baggage handlers, and the passengers. So it continued in the taxi, and in the house, and almost everywhere else. I’m not complaining.
I spent a too-brief ten days in Syria, mainly shivering. It was minus seven one night. Coming out of the hot mineral-water baths (men stepping into the pools clutching their cigarettes) at Jbab and waiting ten minutes for a micro to the city, I froze. My hatless brother-in-law said it’s because I haven’t done military service. He started his in the winter time, standing at attention in his underwear on subzero mountainsides, assaulted by insults and buckets of cold water. “Great days!” he mused. “Happy memories!” So it was cold, but the Syrians grumbled that it hasn’t rained enough this year. There was a big snowfall just after I left, and there’s been another one today.