Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Lattakia: Ramitha, Laodicea, ألاذقية

The Syrian blogosphere is replete with Damascenes, Halabis, Homsis and even an irrepressible Tartousi extolling the virtues of their respective towns; but what about the third major city, the principal seaport? What about Lattakia? I know there are some Ladkani bloggers out there but where is their civic pride? Here is my, long distance, attempt to rectify matters with the hope that current Ladkanis will add a more up to date view of the city.

Lattakia is the city of my birth but to me it is but fragments of memory like an old grainy film with long stretches completely faded. Despite that, Lattakia has always maintained a powerful pull on my consciousness. Certainly, the early imprinted memories of childhood, sanitized as they are by time and distance, play a powerful role in this attraction. But it has more to with the fact that in my many adoptive homelands, I have either felt or was made to feel not quite fully at home: I looked different, did not speak the language, spoke with an accent, was not a citizen or was not native born. No one can dispute my "belonging" in Lattakia. It is where I was born, delivered by my own father in my grandfather's old house. To any doubter I can walk up to that old house and show them the room where my mother suffered through twenty four hours of labor before I had the decency to come into this world. The house, thankfully, has recently been designated a historical landmark, not because I was born there it goes without saying, but for its period architecture. This means that we no longer have to pushback relatives lobbying to raze it to the ground to replace it with a apartment block devoid of character or history.

I always remember Lattakia as being a pleasant, laid back and quiet place especially when we would come back to visit from the chaos that is Beirut. Lattakia's history, at least for the past millennium, has been equally quiet and nondescript although its more ancient history is more illustrious. It started out as the Canaanite port of Ramitha, part of the kingdom of Ugarit (photo of Ugaritic prince, left), the famous city about 10 Km up the coast in Ras Shamra. As Ugarit declined Ramitha gained prominence because of its deep natural harbor. It was renamed Laodicea, shortly after Alexander the Great's conquest, in honor of the mother of Seleucus I Nicator, a Macedonian officer of Alexander's army and the founder of the Seleucid empire. Laodicea thrived under the Romans and was famous for its wine produced from grapes grown on the slopes east of the city. Herod built an aqueduct and Septimus Severus built colonnaded streets. Its influence declined after the Byzantine period as it was ruled a sucession of empires, a history shared by most of the Levantine coast: Persian, Arab, Crusader, Seljuks, Mamluks and Ottomans. Lattakia was also unfortunately repeatedly devastated by numerous earthquakes in the 5th, 6th, 12th, 13th, 18th and 19th Centuries which explains why so few ancient structures have survived -another reason that my grandfather's house should not be destroyed.

Lattakia's population in most references is listed at about 550,000 although the official Lattakia website lists the population at 900,000. It is famous for its beaches, where I and my brothers had our first taste of the sea. An even more picturesque stretch of the coast is Ras Basit, north of Lattakia where the mountains abutt the seashore. Lattakia was also once famous for its scented tobacco, which is now apparently grown in Cyprus. The city is also within short driving distance from several important medieval castles dotting the Syrian coast and the mountains just to the East. Slunfeh is where the people of Lattakia move in the hot summer months. I still remember the drive up to Slunfeh, the lush green field, Salahedin's castle in the distance and the invigorating cool morning air of the mountains.

A short drive up the coast, is its sister city in antiquity, Ugarit. Discovered by accident by a farmer in 1928, excavations at Ugarit have since shown it to be an important metropolis and a cradle of urban culture. Ugarit also developed its own 30 letter alphabet and there is some dispute as to whether Ugaritian or Phoenician alphabets came first (surely no such controversy exists in the minds of die hard Libano-Pheonicians).

Despite the multiple earthquakes that repeatedly destroyed the city, some remnants of its ancient past can still be seen. Perhaps the most famous is the four sided arch built by Septemus Severus (photo top right). Here and there are also remnants of the colonnaded streets, one such column, al-Amoud, stood at the end of the road where we lived. There are also buildings of more recent vintage with ottoman style buildings and a 17th century khan that has been turned into a museum. As with in many Levantine towns, excavations for new buildings continue to reveal, layers of the city's past.

Of course the attraction of the city for me is more personal and sentimental. It is the memory of the kindness of my grandmother and the comfort of the embrace of the extended family. It is where we came back periodically to shed the sense of being strangers; it was and is home.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Majhool's Excellent Reform Agenda

A certain Majhool left this comment on my last two posts. I swear Majhool was reading my mind. Now this is one agenda I could stand firmly behind.

Hesitant to support or go against the Syrian Regime, I tried to list major deliverables that I (merely a Syrian citizen) would like for the Syrian government to achieve to get my support:

1) The Palestinian Cause:
a. Support (politically and economically) consolidated, legitimate, accountable, and moderate leadership capable of negotiating a peace deal with Israel.
b. Take conservative approach towards Islamists groups by
i. Engaging these groups into the decision making process/
ii. Opposing their unilateral arm actions against Israel or other Palestinian groups.
2) Lebanon:
a. Support a consolidated pro-Syrian, accountable, & strong government in Lebanon
i. Improve relations with Sunni and Maronite communities
ii. Support the independence of the Lebanese government
iii. Replace the corrupt pro-Syria base of support in Lebanon by more accountable and legitimate (representative) base.
iv. Eliminate all Syrian financial corruption in Lebanon
v. Work with the Lebanese government to gradually and systematically eliminate all armed militias including Hizbollah
vi. Support replacing the confessional system with accountable representative system that will strengthen the Lebanese state
3) Israel
a. Negotiate a comprehensive peace deal with Israel good enough that will help Syria’s alignment with the Arab block.
b. The return of the Golan Heights
4) Syria
a. Improve the legitimacy of the Syrian Government
i. Create a new more representative parliamentary law
ii. Come up with a more legitimate platform to replace the “national progressive front”
b. Improve the accountability of the Syrian Government
i. Eliminate emergency laws
ii. Enforce the rule of law and curb corruption
iii. Improve freedom of press.
c. Reconcile with segments of the society associated with the Muslim Brotherhood especially those who did no participate in acts of violence. Ease travel restrictions and put an end to acts of retribution towards their families.
d. Curb extremism by allowing civil community-run and driven secular institutions to operate freely. ( Tala2e3 and Shabibeh are not working)

How far do you guys think the Syrian government is from delivering the above?

It is so far it is not even funny ya Majhool!!!!

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Lee Kaplan Sues a Fellow Blogger

I am reposting this from Yaman's amateur Ramblings:

Kaplan vs Salahi

As a student at UC Berkeley, the center for the Free Speech Movement, I never thought I’d find myself at the receiving end of a politically-motivated libel lawsuit. I am the creator of a blog called “Lee Kaplan Watch” which focuses on analyzing the integrity of Kaplan’s published articles. When he discovered the website, Kaplan began a campaign of intimidation, including e-mail threats of legal action and various online smears alleging that I was a Nazi, a Ba`athist, and a member of al-Qaeda. He threatened to harass me and members of my family, and even went so far as to contact the Dean of Student Life at the university. After asking me to stop writing about his work several times, he finally filed a lawsuit against me in small claims court for “tortious business interference,” libel, and slander.
Lee Kaplan, for those who are unaware, is a journalist for David Horowitz’ right-wing, anti-Muslim, and anti-Arab publication, He is also associated with a number of regressive organizations like the Bruin Alumni Association, the United American Committee, StopTheISM, Dafka, and the Northeastern Intelligence Network. Kaplan chooses easy and weak targets and he chooses them well, focusing on students who mobilize on campuses throughout the country in opposition to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands. He is more relevant in the San Francisco area, where his extreme and annoying behavior has often come under scrutiny. He has widespread financial and organizational backing at his disposal, a privilege that others and myself, as college students, are sorely lacking.So it goes that Kaplan cleverly decided to sue me in small claims court, where standards for evidence are virtually non-existent, procedures occur at the discretion of the judge, and no record of court proceedings are kept. These low standards allowed Kaplan to present misleading and false material as “evidence” that I had defamed him and cost him a job offer writing for, a website which does not even exist and has not for at least the past 2 years. Even more troubling, I had never written the very things he claimed were defamatory. One of the statements was taken from a spoof of my blog on a third-party website that I have no control over. The other simply does not exist. In addition to the lack of evidence, nearly arbitrary procedures meant that three witnesses, including a computer expert who could attest to the fact that my website did not contain those statements, were not able to testify during the 25 minute hearing, and my lawyer was asked not to present legal arguments in my defense.
Despite all of these problems with the evidence, the judge, for reasons I will never know, bought one of Kaplan’s many claims and ordered me to pay him $7,500. I will never know which ones or why because judges in small claims court do not release written opinions explaining their rulings. Furthermore, as far as I know, the decision is not appealable to a higher court. That means I have no recourse against a judgment given without justification despite the fact that it punishes me for exercising my first amendment rights to political speech.
Dave Johnson at SeeingTheForest was right to call this “a freedom of speech and right-to-blog issue.” Ann Althouse, a professor of law at the University of Wisconsin, commented on the lawsuit saying that “thinking small [as in, small claims court] looks like an effective way to squelch speech.” But she poses the more serious question regarding the fact that this suit was brought before a court that doesn’t write opinions: “if the court’s opinion doesn’t explain what you did wrong, how can you keep writing? You have to worry about the next small claims lawsuit.”
What does this mean? It means that this lawsuit is not only about me, and is not only about Lee Kaplan. It is about the real danger that underhanded legal tactics like these pose to all bloggers and those without the resources to protect themselves from abusive litigation that is aimed at silencing them. For now, it looks like small claims court is a convenient and reliable route for anybody who can dish out $75, the cost of filing a claim, to harass and intimidate those they disagree with. Real evidence and a credible story might not even be necessary to make a hefty return on that small investment. At least, that is what I have learned with this experience.
In the meantime I continue to investigate my legal options to see if there is any way to salvage my free speech rights. To that end I have established a fund to collect donations that will go either towards paying legal expenses in case of an appeal or paying off the lawsuit if there are no other options. But I will also continue to blog about this and other contentious issues, despite the enormous pressure that this abusive lawsuit has put my family, friends, and myself under.
For those who might be fearful to speak up due to cases like this, you have every right to be weary. Indeed, this case is very ominous in its implications. But the worst thing we could possibly do is shy away from continuing to publicly take firm, principled, and dedicated political stands. We should remain courageous enough to embrace and confront contentious political issues, especially those regarding the cause of the Palestinian people in particular and American involvement in the Middle East in general, despite what we have faced and, no doubt, what will continue to come our way.
I have written extensively about my reaction to the ruling and my thoughts on Kaplan’s claims on the blog here and here for those who would like more information about the case. You may also browse the court’s record of documents and filings by clicking here. If you would like further comment from me regarding this case, please feel free to contact me at
I would also like to make a small request that those who are in the least bit outraged by this story please do what they can to publicize it by e-mailing it to friends and listservs, writing about it on blogs, or sharing it on websites like Facebook and MySpace. People need to know about this new method of shutting down dissent so that steps can be taken to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Missing in Action: The Syrian Opposition

In his June 4th Syria Comment post Joshua Landis says that with the results of the presidential plebiscite,Bashar has now consolidated his power and established his legitimacy among the Syrian elite. There is more than a little bit of "I told you so" glee in the tone of his post as he appears to figuratively thumb his nose at his many detractors. Landis, to his many critics, was a Syrian regime apologist, a characterization that I found too simple-minded. While I found some of his analysis to be unpalatable relative to my political convictions it did not necessarily mean that he was wrong. I am afraid that this applies to the June 4th post. Although I did not particularly like the conclusions he arrived at, I believe that he was largely correct in his assessment of Bashar's current position and here is why:
  • Bashar has weathered American political pressure which seems to have suddenly eased (but what did he give in return?)
  • Internal Syrian opposition has been silenced -imprisoned- with little real protest from the international community.
  • He continues to to exert influence in Lebanon through his Hizbullah ally (and perhaps through other means) despite the forced withdrawal of the Syrian army.
  • He has played the two sides of the Sunni-Shia divide. He is simultaneously the spearhead of Iranian influence in the Arab world through Hizbullah all the while convincing the Saudis and Gulf Arabs, that, for a price, Syria could act as the gate at which Iranian-Shia influence can be contained.
  • He has burnished his Arab nationalist credentials with his support of Hamas and Hizbullah in their fight against Israel.
  • The American economic boycott has not worked. Instead excess oil revenue cash from the Gulf has made its way to Syria keeping the Damascene merchant class happy.
  • The Syrian external opposition, riding the wave of international indignation after the Hariri assassination have become much less vocal and visible. Early on, we heard repeatedly of imminent changes in Syria but nothing has materialized. It is telling that one of the most vocal critics of Bashar, at least on this side of the Atlantic, Ammar Abdulhamid has left the NSF and opposition politics to concentrate on his work with the Tharwa project.

Could it be that Bashar, this soft spoken, but rather dull-appearing man, is as wily and shrewd a politician as his father or is it just dumb luck? Whichever it is, I have to agree with Landis that Bashar el Assad has come for now come out on top. Now fortunes may turn quickly with events seeming to unfold unpredictably and at a dizzying pace in the current Middle East. The Hariri tribunal stills castes a long shadow on the Syrian regime and the recent thuggish behavior of Hamas militants towards fellow Palestinians may make them a liability rather an asset to the regime.

So how did he pull it off? Externally, the Syrian regime has continued a long tradition of playing the role of the indispensable spoiler that no one likes but whose cooperation everyone seeks. Perhaps more important for the survival of the regime is that the Syrian people though ready for change and reform was not ready for a radical and potentially violent change.The mantra of "security and stability” (al-amn wal-istiqrar) was not just an empty slogan hammered into the heads of the citizenry on every state-controlled media outlet, it was a mantra that most citizens believed in. How could they feel otherwise with the surrounding states seemingly coming apart at the seams and a million Iraqi refugees streaming into the country? The choices were stark: peace versus chaos. So while the expatriate opposition community railed loudly -and rightfully- about the misdeeds of the regime, the average Syrian citizen could not afford to be as sanguine.

It is a depressing prospect that Syria might be in for another generation of an Assad-ruled mukhabartocracy. Early on, supporters of Bashar claimed that he meant what he said about reform but that he was hamstrung by the power yielded by his father's old guard. If his supporters are right and Landis is right about his consolidation of power then are we in for a pleasant surprise in the coming months? He would do well by first releasing the human rights activists from prison. Although I am an eternal optimist, I will not be holding my breath waiting for a hereditary Baathist to change his colors.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Black Wednesday: An Orgy of Violence

Less than three hundred yards from Madinat al-Malahi, across the street from the corniche where MP Eido, his son and eight other people were murdered in a car bomb today, is my brother's apartment. Fortunately, aside from shattered kitchen windows, he and his family are unharmed.

There is nothing like a personal connection to bring such an event into sharp focus in your mind's eye, to make you feel its impact. I will not pretend to understand the reasons behind this act or try to assign blame; there are plenty of pundits who have ready answers and theories.

What sickens, angers and depresses me even more than the immediate impact of this event is the wider context. The whole region seems to be unraveling in a crescendo of violence. Where shall I begin? On this very same day in Iraq, al-Qaida types, trying to inflame sectarian passions even more, saw fit to destroy the minarets of a Samarra Shia mosque that they had previously attacked. In Gaza, thirty Palestinians died at the hands of other Palestinians as Fatah and Hamas go at each other without mercy and without regard for lives of the civilians that they claim to represent and protect from Israel. In Nahr el-Bared, Fateh el-Islam, ensconced among innocent Palestinian civilians, vows to fight to the last man even it means destruction of the whole camp.

What is wrong with us? by us, I mean us Arabs, collectively. Why is it that violence seems to be the only alternative that we can come up with for conflict resolution. It would be half as bad if the violence was directed, purposeful rather than vindictive, senseless, and ultimately self destructive. Is is false pride and a distorted sense of honor that drives this behavior? Is it unthinking fanaticism? Is it all the other -isms (sectarianism, Arabism, nationalism) pushed to the extreme that have us mired in our self-made quicksand? Why haven't we learned to turn our swords into ploughshares? Are Western critics of Arab society right in their glib assessment that we don't do much that is right, that our warts by far outweigh our beauty spots?

All these are rhetorical questions; most don't have simple answers. All the contentions, however, contain a least a grain -some, a truckload- of truth. In this discourse, I am not discounting Western malfeasance, past and present, in molding our region. However, one has to draw the line somewhere and start taking responsibility for ones own failures. Neither colonialism, nor imperialism, nor, for that matter, Zionism, made Fatah and Hamas start behaving like thugs toward each other in an all out grab for power and influence.

If my approach seems on-sided, it is because I am responding with anger at today's events. I fully realize that there are many nuanced expalantions for the different conflicts. However, there are also disturbing similarities of purpose and methods across the region especially among fanatic fundamentalists that promises further senseless conflict.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Nahr El Bared: Helping the Innocent

This is a brief post to recognize the work of the five organizers of the Nahr el Bared Relief Campaign including one of the Syrian blogosphere's own (Razan). What they have done and continue to do is exemplary; it is human compassion that is not sullied by the narrow-minded, paranoid sectarian calculations that seems to color most discourse and action in Lebanon.

I salute them all and hope that real and lasting peace returns to Lebanon soon.

Blessed Unrest: A Call to Global Activism

I picked up Paul Hawken's book, Blessed Unrest, because I was intrigued by the summary on the book jacket. It is ostensibly about environmentalism but it is really much more than that.

Hawken makes the argument that protection of the environment is inseparable from other social movements: "From the beginning, an environmental movement had to be an environmental justice movement and an environmental justice movement was de facto a social justice movement." He argues that "concerns about worker health, living wages, equity, education, and basic human rights are inseparable from concerns about water, climate, soil, and biodiversity". That all these human concerns are intricately linked is glaringly obvious but one that few have articulated as eloquently as Hawken. The poor, the disenfranchised and the oppressed are the ones that bare the brunt of environmental destruction be it at the hands of repressive, unrepresentative governments or unchecked corporate authority unleashed by the push towards globalization. Despite all the bad news though, Hawken is hopeful. He describes the emergence of a "movement", an amorphous collection really, of thousands of local grassroots organizations each fighting for change and winning. These groups are diverse bringing together environmentalists, and social activists of all stripes from groups fighting poverty, to groups working for the rights of indigenous people.

Paul Hawken is no tree-hugging ecofanatic. He is a reasoned, sensible individual who believes that humans and nature are inseparable and that what is good for one is good for the other. That this is so is not only a practical imperative but also a universal moral imperative. He argues his case passionately and with a great deal of erudition making numerous historical and literary references.

Anyone reading my post may be wondering by now how I will weave this into the theme of my blog. It is simple really; many of us seek change in Syria, not change for the sake of change but for the betterment and advancement of our nation, society and people. As many of us obsess about the need to change the political leadership, we forget that that there are many societal and environmental issues that need attention away from politics. The relationship between the environment and societal issues is all the more relevant in a developing country such as Syria and this inextricable relationship is present in both in rural as well as urban areas.