Friday, March 23, 2007

A Correction and... a Glimmer of Hope?

In a post several days ago, I spoke of an older Syrian man, jailed in late January because of a poem he wrote, who reportedly died of a stroke or heart attack in custody. The report of his death, publicized by the Syrian Committee for Human Rights turned out to be false. The man, Mohamed Ali Derbak was released by the authorities soon after rumors of his death became public. Also released were the owner and the clerk of the bookstore where Mr. Derbak was making a photocopy of his poem.

I am, needless to say, happy for Mr. Derbak and his family. I am also happy that the authorities were essentially forced to release him to squelch rumors of his death. The fact that they would react this way rather than risk public indignation is encouraging. More often than not, one gets the impression that the authoritarian ways of the Syrian government are hopelessly immutable. Whether this is an small indication of change or whether this is a calculated act of self-preservation , I don't know. Mr. Derbak's saga, however, highlights the importance of publicizing these cases either by human rights organizations as well as activists of all stripes.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Dismantling of Old Damascus

"I will try not to cry until late at night; to cry for my memories and the memories of my family and all that pulls me to this magnificent place. I cannot cry during the day because I have several families whose livelihood depends on my business. I need to think about how to feed them and to insure a dignified life for them." Soon to be evicted store owner in old Damascus as told to Razan Zeitouna.

Several websites and blogs have have reported on the story of the plan to bulldoze a last vestige of old Damascus outside the city walls (here, here, here). It is a critical issue that is worth repeating to give it the widest exposure as the anonymous comment on my last post stated. An article in the magazine, The Architectural Review, aptly titled "The Damascus Massacre" which appeared in 2005 details the history of this ongoing dismantlement of the very heart of this ancient city. It is a history of colonial destruction (the 1925 French bombardment) followed by imposed urban planning, misguided modernization and most recently a combination of neglect, mismanagement, corruption and greed. The current project for the old city date back to the 1968 plans of Michel Ecochard, a French architect commissioned by the city. His plans, followed the Western urban planning ideas of the time, emphasizing urban functionality; hence the focus on wide arterial roads to the detriment of everything else.

The 1968 plans have been met with a variable resistance from Damascenes since then , but even when parts of the plan was implemented, it was done carelessly. In fact UNESCO, which designated old Damascus as part of the World Heritage has been unhappy with the course of events in the past few years. The recent plans and the haste with which they seem to have been implemented have aroused protests but also some suspicions. Interestingly even government controlled media outlets have published articles critical of these plans. The plan when implemented will result in the loss of livelihood and displacement of thousands of Damascenes without plans for adequate compensation.

No one can dispute that change is needed in a city whose population is mushrooming. However, intelligent change takes into account the social, historical and architectural character of the city and minimizes the impact of any planned change. Unfortunately, no such intelligent planning can be seen in the completely unregulated and chaotic expansion of the outer areas of Damascus. Given the opaque and corrupt nature of most government institutions in Syria, there is little confidence that what is being planned is absolutely necessary and if so, that it is carefully thought out and executed.
Express you opinion on this issue in this poll.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Speak No Evil!

It has not been a good week for freedom of expression in the Middle East. Egyptian courts denied blogger Kareem Amer's appeal against his four-year sentence. Meanwhile, in Damascus, some sixty members of the Damascus declaration were manhandled and some arrested as they tried to unfurl a banner demanding an end to the state of Emergency in front of the palace of Justice. Those arrested included ex-parliamentarian Riad Seif and writer Ali Abdallah among others (see Also Fares' post here). More recently, a 72 year old man, arrested by one branch of the mukhabarat in late January died in custody. His crime was writing a poem containing a verse that was critical of the Shia. The poem was written shortly after reports were aired on al-Jazeera of Syrian refugees being killed by members of the Sadr militia. The poem came to light when the writer was making photocopies of it in a bookstore. The bookstore's owner and clerk were also arrested for good measure.

Why isn't there more public outrage about these blatant violations of the right to peacefully and freely express one's opinions? Certainly a great contributor to this inertia is fear of the long and oppressive arm of the state. But there is more to it. The following is statement by Tarek, left as a comment to one of Fares' post:

وهكذا تغيب المسؤولية تجاه أفراد المجتمع الآخرين، فعلى سبيل المثال إن السجناء السياسيين في البلدان العربية ضحوا بأنفسهم من أجل الشعب ولكن الشعب نفسه يضحي بأولئك الأفراد المناضلين الشجعان، فلم نسمع باحتجاج أو إضراب عام يقوم به عامة الناس في المجتمع من أجل السجناء السياسيين، لأن الناس يتصرفون مع قضية السجين السياسي على أساس أنها قضية فردية. إن ذلك من أخطر مظاهر عدم الشعور بالمسؤولية.

Translation: There is a lack of responsibility towards other members of society. For example, political prisoners in Arab countries sacrifice themselves for the people, but the people, in turn, sacrifice these courageous activists. We rarely hear about public demonstrations or general strikes for political prisoners because people behave with regard to the issue of political prisoners as if it was a isolated, personal matter. This is one of the most dangerous manifestations of this lack of feeling of responsibility.

I think there is certainly some truth to that. In societies where corruption is rampant and the rule of law is applied capriciously, economic survival is a constant struggle usually won by those who are willing to bribe and cheat their way to the top. This survival of the fittest mentality promotes self-preservation above any greater societal needs. Those who profit from oppressive regimes are free-wheeling businessmen with connections in the Presidential palace but also lowly, and well connected, government employees. To people who have "made it" in such societies, a person like a Kamal Labwani or a Michel Kilo must seem like unreasonable trouble makers. For them, the status quo is golden.

(Painting: Speak no evil, Jeffrey Freedner, 1995)

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Mr. Yazbek’s Gift

As I reach new mileposts in life -new school, new job, new country, marriage, children- I often shed the superflous clutter of my previous existence. Not everything, of course. Photographs are preciously preserved as are other sentimental momentos of the past. The oldest such momento, surviving numerous life-changing events, sits in the drawer of my nightstand. It is a little green notebook with frayed and discolored pages, containing in the careful and deliberate handwriting of a thirteen year old, sayings and verses of poems in Arabic.

The thirteen year old was me, long ago. My Arabic teacher at the French Catholic school I attended in Lebanon, was Mr. Yazbek. He had the habit of peppering his lessons with sayings and verses from famous and not so famous poets. There was a little Ibn el-Rumi, a little Jibran, something from al-Buhtary and even a few of Mr. Yazbek's own poems. I would quickly jot down what he said in class and later collected them carefully in my green notebook, neatly divided under catogories like "greed", "courage" or "virtue". None of these sayings or verses were part of the curriculum and so I did not have to memorize them for an exam. I am not sure what compelled me to compile these sayings except the sense the Mr. Yazbek was different than other teachers.

Perhaps it was the way he unexpectedly tossed out his little gems, with a flourish and conviction that was absent when he taught us the standard lessons. For Mr. Yazbek, the Arabic language was not just a tool of the trade, it was a passion that he tried to impart to his students. His literary knowledge of Arabic was broad. Once a week, when most of the boys in the school attended mass, Mr. Yazbek, a Christian, would bring together the handful of Muslim boys in my class and teach us verses from the Quran. That Mr. Yazbek took the time to do that for us warms my heart to this day. To some, what he did may seem incongruous; to me it makes perfect sense. Mr. Yazbek has definitely earned his place in my imaginary Levantine dreamhouse where tolerance and respect reign supreme.

Mr. Yazbek was my last Arabic teacher. We left Lebanon that year prematurely ending my secondary school education in Arabic. I would never be exposed to literary Arabic beyond the tantalizing snippets that Mr. Yazbek introduced me to. It is something I regret and makes me feel somehow lacking especially that my father, a prolific writer, has an excellent command of the language; and who doesn't want to measure up to their father?

And so I continue to hold on tightly to the little green notebook, Mr. Yazbek’s gift. On the one hand the notebook reminds me of Mr. Yazbek's passion but also my inadequacy when it comes to Arabic. On the other hand, armed with this thin tome of sayings, I also feel that I still have my foot (more like my toe) in the door of Arabic literature... After all, I can still quote verses from Ibn el-Rumi:

كم من منزل في الارض يألفه ألفتى ـــ و حنينه أبدا لأؤل منزل

نقل فؤادك حيث شئت في ألهوى ـــ ما ألحب ألأ للحبيب ألأول

أبن ألرومي