Friday, November 23, 2007

Pity The Nation ...

"... Pity the nation that acclaims the bully as hero, and that deems the glittering conqueror bountiful.
Pity the nation that despises a passion in its dream, yet submits in its awakening.
Pity the nation that raises not its voice save when it walks in a funeral, boasts not except when its neck is laid between the sword and the block.
Pity the nation whose statesman is a fox, whose philosopher is a juggle, and whose art is the art of patching and mimicking.
Pity the nation that welcomes its new ruler with trumpetings, and farewells him with hootings, only to welcome another with trumpetings again.
Pity the nation whose sages are dumb with years and whose strong men are yet in the cradle.
Pity the nation divided into fragments, each fragment deeming itself a nation."

From: The Garden of the Prophet, Gibran Khalil Gibran

This quote from Gibran was the preface to Robert Fisk's 1990 book about Lebanon (Pity The Nation). It is sad to see that seventeen years later, Gibran's words still ring true. Lebanon's ruling class, across the board and without exception, has failed the people. Today's editorial in the
Daily Star, echos well what I feel about those who have brought Lebanon to the brink of disaster. I am optimistic however that civil strife will be avoided. My hope lies in the belief that unlike their politicians, the Lebanese people have learned the lessons of their recent history and will not, like the proverbial lemmings, follow their leaders over the cliff.

Lebanon and its people deserve better than this.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Syria: Another Round of Internet Censorship

Yet another round of random internet censorship. I don't get it! What is it that Bashar Al Assad, the self-described computer geek, and his government afraid of? He is securely in power, having, by pure luck or shrewd design, outmaneuvered both external and internal challenges to his authority. Moreover, this intermittent assault on the internet is useless in stemming the flow of information. With satellite TV, cellphones and proxy servers Syrians will continue to get plenty of information that that is not sanitized and whitewashed by their government.

So it is time for the government to stop this needless and futile censorship bullshit and move on. Everyone will be better off for it.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Morocco: A First Impression of the Maghreb

Taking advantage of a work trip across the Atlantic to Europe, I took a detour on my way back and spent a few days in Morocco. I always wanted to visit Morocco, but my added incentive was that my youngest brother has been working in Rabat for a couple of years and I hadn't seen him in a while.

The tone for my visit was set by the welcoming smile of the immigration officer once he learned I was Syrian. Moroccans have a particular affinity for Syrians given the ties with Andalusian history but also more recently in the sixties and seventies when many Syrians worked in Moroccan schools as Arabic teachers.

One of the first things that a Levantine Arab realizes is how different the Moroccan dialect is from Eastern meditarenean dialects. Past Asalaamu Alaikum, I was almost clueless as to what my brother was saying when talking to Moroccans. They tend to eat their vowels when speaking whereas Syrians tend to stretch them. Moroccan also use many different words than we do and their language is heavily influenced by Spanish and Berber.

In the short days I was there, we visited Rabat, took the train to Marrakesh and then drove up to visit the spectacular Atlas mountains. I saw only a small fraction of this country but I was fascinated. It is at the same time familiar and very different. Rabat’s physical appearance reminded me a little of Beirut and Damascus with its French-style art deco buildings from the 30s and 40s. But any such resemblance disappears when you get to the mud and stone wall of the old medina. Some of the faces on the streets were also familiar but also very different as the ethnic spectrum here includes Berber and African features and every permutation in between. You get the superficial impression that this is a conservative Muslim country but soon realize that the clothes that Moroccans wear tend to reflect more their adherence to their tradition rather than strict religious conservatism. The country’s history and traditions reflect its unique geography at the intersection of Europe, the Arab world and Africa. Nowhere
is Morocco's uniqueness better displayed than in the public square in front of al-Fna mosque in Marrakesh.

Approaching al-Fna at night is a surreal experience. You can feel the energy of the place from a distance teaming as it is with thousands of people and lit up with a multitude of bare bulbs illuminating the food stalls and the veil of steam and smoke rising from the stalls. You also hear and feel the throb of the drums beating both recognizably Middle Eastern rhythms to powerful African ones. The place is packed with musicians, performers, dancers, story tellers, African and Moroccan traditional herbalists selling their ware. This place is not artificially conjured up for the pleasure of Western tourists. Sure, there are plenty of them but they are there for the exotic atmosphere and seem to care littler about what they see or here. On the other hand every night you see thousands of Moroccans descending on this place to enjoy to the music, get entranced by the story tellers or listen intently as a healer, using semi-scientific terms tells them how they can improve there sexual prowess.

I clearly got the sense, during my short visit, of a country on the move. You can see innumerable infrastructure construction projects under way. There are also large housing and hotel developments underway to accommodate the increasing popularity of Morocco as a destination for both Europeans and Arabs. In contrast, you also see a lot of poverty and wonder if the people are benefiting economically from the tourism boom. In the town of Asni, high up in the Atlas mountains we came across a small luxury hotel built by Sir Richard Branson (of Virgin fame). It is beautifully, if somewhat excessively, appointed with opulent oriental art, with incense wafting everywhere and a hammam. It is meant to be every Westerner’s Orientalist fantasy –minus the harem. Yet, sitting on their lovely veranda overlooking a valley, I could not help but wonder what the people across the valley, living in a village of mud huts with no paved road access thought of this over the top luxury in the midst.

Morocco’s political situation has parallels to Syria. King Mohammed VI, just like Bashar Al Assad, came to power following the death of his father in 1999. Just like Bashar, he was also touted as a young reformer. Unlike Bashar, however, Mohammed VI has fulfilled many of his promised reforms. Don’t get me wrong, this is still an autocratic regime and his pictures adorn, discretely, the walls of every store. On assuming the throne, the king set in motion a reconciliation with the people of the Rif in the North and pushed through reforms to significantly enhance the rights of women. He also set up a commission to look into the repression and abuses of human rights during the reign of his father, a time known in Morocco as Les annees de plomb (the years of lead). Morocco now enjoys the benefits of a lively and active civil society and a fairly open press with publications such as Telquel in French and its Arabic sister magazine Nishan, that regularly lambaste the royalty and tackle issues such as governmental corruption as well as take on taboo social issues. In fact, next to Lebanon, it is probably the freest press in the Arab world. I am, of course, speaking of relative freedom of expression. There remains clear red lines that the press cannot cross; they cannot, for example, attack the king personally. Where Mohammed VI has failed is in significantly improving the overall economic situation of the country. My brief (superficial) observations suggests that much of the visible investment is going into infrastructure and housing projects to benefit wealthy tourists, an approach that I don't particularly care for. Meanwhile, in Rabat, in front of the parliament, there are daily protests by unemployed university graduates.
Morocco deserves further exploration and a return visit will definitely be scheduled. It is also a country that deserves watching and learning from its success as it, like many other Arab countries, bring about needed reform and changes in the midst of rigid and autocratic system.

Photos: AK, top: Marrakesh medina, middle: Saadi dynasty tombs, bottom: Atlas mountains