Impressions of Syria, December 2007

I would have no credibility whatsoever if I failed to say that an eight day visit is far too short a time in which to judge a whole country. However, in the context of the civil war, this short account from an ordinary couple-in-the-street shows how impressions of the tourist can be drastically wrong.

Lovely people and good food

First and foremost, the people are delightful. Everywhere we went we found friendly, smiling people and not a hint of hostility to our Anglo-American group. We came across only one grim, surly young man in a pastry shop, but then one finds one of those an hour in London or Washington. Of course, there is a culture of hospitality throughout the Arab countries, but we felt we were welcome, that a surprising number of people spoke some English, most had a good sense of humour and could distinguish between us as ordinary citizens and the policies of our governments. Thank goodness. The food is fresh and tasty, varied and mostly home-grown. Vegetables that have not traveled refrigerated for three thousand miles, are sauteed in local olive oil and spices and supplemented with lamb, chicken and rice.

Children are everywhere

The birthrate is 28.3 per thousand. I had read that 38% of the population is under 14, but wasn’t ready for the masses of kids and youths everywhere you go. What are they going to do with them all? Invade Europe? It seems quite perverse in a country that already spends a fortune on education and health, not to attempt to lower the birthrate. One is looking political upheaval in the face in ten year’s time if jobs are not forthcoming. This is a potential threat to the regime, as it must be to regimes throughout the Arab world. Women are supposed to have smaller families when they are educated and live in cities. But high population growth is happening despite education for women (but how good is the education, and what role does Islam play in discouraging birth control?).

Things are run down

The country needs a Marshall Plan to spruce the nation up. Damascus, for instance, is shabby. Little maintenance is being done on the infra- structure, power and electricity cables are external to buildings and mar the view, streets in the old town are pockmarked and barely paved. Nothing is painted. Balconies look as if they are about to drop into the streets, the corrugated iron that covers the souks is full of rusty holes. Un-serviced cars spew forth clouds of muck into the choking atmosphere. UNESCO is financing the renovation of the Street Called Straight, which may be straight, but the work on it is unguarded, and a potential health and safety disaster to passers-by (it was Eid, to be fair). They have allowed the wonderful old courtyard houses Damascus is famous for either to become derelict or (a minority) to be turned into hotels. It is significant that (arguably) the best-preserved old city center mansion is owned by the Danish Institute, and the only privately owned house we were privileged to see was on the cusp of disrepair. Outside the city the trunk roads are in a good state of repair, but many fields are littered (covered, really) with plastic bags, almost as if they were deliberately sown there. The trash/rubbish everywhere is dreadful. Is this the fruit of a socialist regime or don’t Syrian people, however poor, value an attractive environment? A good cleanup could probably lift the morale. Significantly, the best kept buildings are the mosques. The two most important, the Great Umayyad mosque and the new Sayedah Zeinab mosque, built with Iranian money, are simply spectacular, beautifully maintained and presented. Meanwhile, the wonderful National Museum in Damascus, established by the French, displays great treasures from three millenniums of history or more, but does so without minimal labeling or explanation.

Liberalization of the economy has been stalled

There was no doubt that our guide was a Baath Party member, committed totally to the regime. But even he, amid encomiums for Bashir, said that a number of liberalizing projects had been announced, but nothing much is happening on the ground. For instance, foreigners can now own land in Syria and a new, modern industrial town is planned to draw industry away from Damascus and Homs, where the air quality is bad. They are encouraging foreigners to set up universities, just as in the Gulf, to keep Syrian youth in Syria rather than have them studying in the US or Europe. Palmyra is to be developed into a proper tourist resort, and the regime now realizes that foreign investment is needed. They are proud to be fairly self-sufficient, but have not progressed much beyond the Soviet stress on heavy industry. But as the guide said, “Itís all talk, no action.” There are, understandably, struggles within the regime as to how far to loosen up. A poor country that makes do, thank you. The average wage is a paltry $180 a month, but surprisingly there are well dressed people around. The women are neat and tidily dressed, sometimes wearing form-fitting, fashionable clothes. Young Moslem women wear headscarves but otherwise often dress rather stylishly. Health and education are free and basic foods and energy are heavily subsidized, especially oil. The result is a very large smuggling sector. Villagers along the edge of the Anti-Lebanon hills own tractors and make their living taking containers of petrol to Lebanon, bringing back consumer goods, of which seems to be a no particular lack.

A regime gradually loosening up

As long as you don’t criticize Bashir you can do more or less what you like, or this is what we were told. We felt no sense of grinding oppression or unhappiness. Indeed, people (especially the children) seem healthy, well fed and cheerful. The place recalls Eastern Europe towards the end of Communism. The government controlled media is straight down the line anti- American and anti-Israel. (The availability of Aljazeera, out of London, was a revelation. It is very well done and seemed to me dynamic and more balanced than CNN). Despite government controls, satellite dishes are sprouting from apartment blocks. The president’s picture is on every wall, but his wife’s close connection with the UK is looked upon as a good sign.

The religions are multiple and minorities are safe (!)

There are so many Christian sects in Syria that it boggles the mind, but Syria is a very tolerant country and the 12% who are Christians seem, as far as we could gather in only two visits to Christian villages, prosperous and smiling. We stood and watched a makeshift band on Christmas Eve parade through a village decked out with Christmas trees and reindeers, marching to the tune of “Jingle Bells”. Sunnis are of course in the majority, but there are a lot of Sufis and Shia as well. There must be radical Islamists and maybe covert followers of bin Laden around, but if the security forces have their way they will never take over the country. Or that is our impression! (Don’t talk too soon). Bashir’s father was ruthless in suppressing the Moslem Brotherhood in 1982. The current regime would probably try to repeat the exercise, if necessary. But would the armed forces cooperate?

December 2007