Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Achieving Inner Peace for a Day

For me, inner peace is hard to define. It is not something I consciously seek, but like many things in life, in the most unexpected moments, it happens and then you understand what it is all about.

It is not that I am an unhappy or dissatisfied man but my restless mind is churning continuously. I ponder, analyze and worry. As parent, I am concerned about my children's' future, as a husband about my wife's happiness, as a son, about my aging parents' health and as a brother about my siblings' well being. I worry about my work and the state of the world. I feel like Atlas carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. You couldn't tell that by looking at me but it is all there, clouding the recesses of my mind.

Last Sunday morning, I called my father in Beirut to wish him a happy 80th birthday. We exchanged a few words; he was never very good at connecting emotionally with his sons, but we could talk for hours about politics. As he thanked me for the call and bid me goodbye before putting my mother on, his voice broke a little; he was happy I called. My mother sounded relaxed and satisfied; she did not complain about her health. My youngest brother had visited from Morocco where he lives and returned the day before. She was happy to have spent time with him and satisfied that he was doing well.

When I put down the phone on that warm, late summer day, the clouds in the recesses of my mind cleared. All the people I cared about, those around me and those far away, were content and happy and consequently so was I. All other worries and concerns were irrelevant and temporarily purged from my mind. I felt light, relaxed and at peace for the rest of the day.

Who knew it could be so simple?
(Photo: A.K., Rainbow on a stormy cloud)

Monday, August 27, 2007

Dr. Salem: Minister of Disinformation

I , like many Syrians, despite our belief that the Baathist regime is bankrupt and in dire need of change, accept the necessity for an incremental approach to reform. But how exactly is that to happen in an authoritarian regime, rife with corruption and run like a family fiefdom? One has to assume that the system is capable of change from within, a belief based more on illusion and wishful thinking than reality. It was a belief fostered by Bashar Al-Asad's pronouncements in 2000 and his subsequent appointments of few skillful technocrats to his government instead the same old recycled party bureaucrats. But will such technocrats be able to forge ahead independently and achieve substantive changes or will they be hemmed in and coopted by the system they are attempting to change?

In the case of information minister Amr Salem, it is, unfortunately, the latter. How else could one explain how this former Microsoft executive recruited with much fanfare back to Syria to propel it into the age of modern communication make such an absurd directive? In it, the minister makes it illegal for any website or blog to publish anonymous comments and makes the owners of those site liable for the comments left on their site. Moreover, it requires that all comments left on a site have a verifiable name and email address. In a scathing critique of this directive, Bassam Al Kady, from the نساء سورية (Syrian Women) site argues that not only are the requirements unenforceable, the minister has no legal footing to put out such a directive. Such a directive, if implemented, will have a chilling effect on the use of the Internet as a means of free exchange of ideas and opinions further limiting freedom of expression in Syria. I suspect that it will slow down the number of new Syrian blogs as new users become weary of the liability associated with expressing views online. The quality of site content will also decline as only mundane, non-controversial subjects are discussed.

Now, in truth, we don't really know if this directive was Dr. Salem's idea based on personal conviction or one dictated to him by "higher" authorities. I suspect though that it is his personal conviction as in 1999 he advocated a "cautious" approach to the internet:

"In order for President [Hafez] al-Asad to feel comfortable promoting a particular technology, it must meet the following criteria:
1. It should benefit the majority of the Syrian people. Technology geared toward the elite is not favored because such people have the resources and means to get what they want without government assistance.
2. It should not disrupt the social structure or adversely affect the middle class, and should be within the means of the masses.
3. It should have a direct impact on Syria’s overall social and economic development.
4. It should not jeopardize Syrian independence or security concerns."*

We all recognize what these apparently innocuous and vague statements really mean: The government decides what "adversely affects the middle class" or what constitutes a threat to "Syrian independence". So free access to the internet becomes limited to access to "Baathnet" where no news critical of the government can be seen and all comments are by Syrians performing virtual genuflections to a heroic president (virtual ass-kissing to put it more bluntly).


*Amr Salem, “Syria’s Cautious Embrace,” Middle East Insight, March-April 1999, pp. 49-50.

(Photo: A.K. + photoshop)

Syria and its Expatriates

Here is my take on the expatriate debate on Creative Syria as well as the opinions of others on the topic.
Also see a summary as reproduced on Global Voices.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Freedom of Speech Takes Another Hit

This is reposted from Yazan's blog. I applaud his continued activism and perseverance as many of us (myself included) are lulled into inactivity by a sense that nothing will ever change -for the Better- in the Middle East. In fact despite all the bad news below, when it comes to the free flow of information and ideas, things have changed for the better because of the elusive power of the internet. The continued attempts by the various governments to restrict freedom of expression are eventually bound to fail. In the meantime, we as a blogger community should continue to spread information about abuses of power in the Middle East as widely as possible.

Thank you Yazan.

Freedom of Speech, Massacred and dragged through the streets of the Middle East
What is happening in the Arab World is scary.Reading this, made me go into real melancholy.And the fact that there was absolutely no publicity about it makes it even more painful. Why do we have to be so selective in what we chose to fight for. Why was Kareem on almost every single blog, all through his trial, and sentence. While I struggled to find any mention of Mohamed Rashed al-Shohhi's case. And was it not for Amira slipping me a link to this small roundup from Sami Ben Gharbia on GlobalVoices I would not have even heard about it.While Egyptian bloggerKareem was on trial because of things he chose to write, Mohamed is sentenced to 1 year in prison and $13,600 fine for an anonymous comment on an online forum he happened to run. [You think there might be a connection with the decision to ban comments on Syrian sites earlier this month?! Hmmm...].Mohamed is in prison, and he literaly did not do ANYTHING.It is not a blow at freedom of speech. No, this a serious well-planned decision that can only be described as mental-terrorism. This is not aimed to keep him from practicing his right to express himself (Again, the guy did not do anything), rather this is a warning to anyone who might even think of raising a voice. Whether against totalitarianism, corruption or repression... all of them are a common characteristic of our Arab World.Again, in a very similar case, Kuwaiti blogger Bashar Al-Sayegh was arrested [He was released today] yesterday for an anonymous comment left on his forum.If you read this, please help spread the word. Let's not be selective in what we chose to rally for.The latest chunck of news coming from our Middle East does not look good.Blogspot is still banned in Syria, contrary to earlier reports about the ban being lifted.By decision from the Ministry of Communication, anonymous comments of Syrian sites are now illegal.Wordpress is banned in Turkey.UAE imprisons a webmaster and suspends the website over anonymous comments on his forum.Kuwait detains a blogger over anonymous comments on his forum.And, Egypt, Tunisia... Where to start exactly?!

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

London: First Impressions

When we decided that Lebanon was not the right destination for a family vacation this summer, we had to decide quickly on an alternative. We settled on London. Despite a lifetime of travel and innumerable transits through the city, I had never visited London. Each of us had a reason why they wanted to go to London. My parents first met there; so in a sense, I owe my existence to London. My wife, as a teenager, attended summer camps there and had not been back since. My daughter wanted to see the Monty Python show Spamalot and my son, a Chelsea fan, was promised a visit to Stamford Bridge stadium by friends of ours who are Chelsea fanatics. But the most compelling reason is the need, felt by myself and my wife, to leave the United States at least every twelve months. The source of this feeling is complex but it boils down to the need to periodically clear one's head from the fortress America mentality that seems to permeate many aspects of life in the United States since 9/11. I suspect that most Arab-Americans know exactly what I mean.

From a tourist's point of view, London did not disappoint. What's not to like: a lively city choke full of history, people from everywhere, big pompous old buildings, castles galore and ridiculously attired guards performing anachronistic rituals. We stayed in the Kensington area, a couple of underground stops from the Marble Arch, my parents' rendezvous spot several decades ago. We roamed the city by foot and the Underground and occasionally by bus. Despite its size, London feels cozy with few steel-and-glass skyscrapers and numerous pedestrian friendly and lively neighborhoods. Given the sizes of the crowds we saw everywhere, the Glasgow incident and the rigged London cars did not seem to have dented the city's tourist appeal. In a week's time we crammed as many of London's attractions as we could.

Clearly a week spent gawking at tourist attractions hardly qualifies me as a London or a UK expert. Nonetheless, a few things I saw made me stop and think a little beyond what was in the tourist brochure.

Windsor castle was one such place. I was astounded by the accumulated wealth contained within the walls of the castle, from the paintings to the arms lining the walls and the loot of war including Napoleon's Egyptian-made burnos. But more astounding was the fact that the castle and its contents were the property of the Royal family. I inquired with a friend in London about who pays for the upkeep of the castle. That set off my friend, a British republican, on a tirade about how the Royals live off the sweat of the people.

The British Museum was another place that both impressed me but also troubled me. Much of the content of the Museum was "taken" -to put it politely- from lands without the consent of the people of those lands. My daughter, a thoughtful fourteen year-old, had a similar reaction. She kept on whispering to me "it is not fair!" as we passed statues, parts of temple walls and other massive artifacts from Egypt, Greece and ancient Iraq among other places. When you see the size of some the artifacts and realize that they were dismantled and transported without modern machinery, you cannot but be amazed at the gall of those British colonialists from days past.

One final observation is the shocking contrast I observed between the glitzy center of London and some of the decrepit and neglected residential areas on the outskirts of London that I glimpsed on train rides in and out of the city. On our final day in London, the cab driver taking us to Victoria station to catch a train to Gatwick expressed frustration at the economic situation in the country. He was a Moroccan immigrant in the UK for ten years, but was making plans to resettle in Australia. He says that London has become too expensive for the average wage earner.

Clearly a week is not enough to understand this sprawling metropolis. We enjoyed our time in London and vowed to come back for more. My only regret is not being able to visit with my friend SB.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Gemayel Defeat: Beginning of the End of Lebanese Sectarian Politics?

I never was a fan of Hizbullah’s overall strategy for Lebanon or of FPM’s leader with his Napoleonic complex. However, I think that the defeat of Amin Gemayel to a relatively unknown FPM candidate Camille Khoury signals a seismic shift in Lebanese politics. Just think of the setting: an aggrieved father, the scion of one of the most powerful political dynasties in Lebanon, Amin Gemayel, running for the parliamentary seat of his assassinated son in the Maronite heartland of the Metn. In the hereditary politics of the Middle East, the results should have been a forgone conclusion. What went wrong is succinctly summarized in the words of one of the Metn voters. Referring to the Lebanese Forces, he said that they took us for granted.

As my previous postings show, I was in favor of the broad outlines of Lebanon’s Cedar revolution. I was however disturbed by the hijacking of these ideals by the unholy alliance that came together to form the March 14 group. On local politics, they advocated the status quo; that is preserving the power and economic privilege of the well-heeled and the well-connected and did nothing to curb the influence of traditional feudal families. Most destructive, however, has been their single-minded, obsessive and very public anti-Syrian stance. That is not to say that the Syrian regime in not culpable for some if not many of what they are accused of, but having your whole political platform be consumed by a vendetta against Syria does nothing for the problems your constituents are facing.

As the gap between rich and poor grew in the post civil war years, the Lebanese middle class was eviscerated. The previously privileged Maronite middle class perhaps lost most of all. I was shocked in recent years, on seeing how decrepit some of the inner neighborhoods of the Northern Christian suburbs of Beirut have become. In fact they came to resemble some of the areas of the Dahiyeh. Is it any wonder, that the underprivileged among the Christians came to identify more with the populist politics of FPM and Hizbullah than with the tired rhetoric of the Lebanese Forces. It is very telling that the voters of the Metn were willing to break with a party that had been seen as the traditional defenders of the sect.

Whether the net outcome of this election will be positive or not is impossible for me to say. However, the fact that voters broke with their sectarian impulse to vote for Gemayel just because he was a Gemayel, is an important and positive development.