Some Syrians view the Alawites as fierce defenders of Al-Assad. However, many are not aware of the ongoing disputes between Alawite clans that led several of them to antagonize the Syrian president and avoid supporting him, even in undeclared ways.
A split within the sect!
The Alawite sect is divided into two groups, namely the Haidari (or Al-Mawakshah) sect, which is based north of Latakia countryside, and Kalazi sect, the sect to which head of the Syrian regime Bashar Al-Assad belongs, and it is also split into several clans.
Masoud, a Syrian citizen in his fifties who belongs to the Haidari sect, smuggled his three sons out of Syria for fear that they would be forced to serve in the military. He says: “I do not have to lose my sons in a war that does not concern me. We have always considered the regime and the rest of the Alawites as outsiders in the sect.” 
Feelings of hostility towards the ruling regime were not limited to members of the Haidari sect only, as many Alawites of the Kalazi sect also opposed the regime of Al-Assad the father and then the son. However, ideological differences that accumulated since the time of the French occupation have led to a deep rift between the two religious groups, who rarely engage in mutual social ties (like marriages) or share interests.
In the same context, Masoud indicated that “this war is Al-Assad’s war alone. He is the one who started it and who pushed the Alawites into it, and as long as the majority of the Kalazi sect insist on supporting the president, I will not participate in the upcoming elections and many of the Haidari Alawites will do the same.”
Repudiating Al-Assad’s support is not limited to the Haidari sect. Thus, there are many clans among the Kalazi sect who refuse to support the president in the upcoming elections, even though they had to cheer for him publicly reluctantly and without an actual desire to do so, such as the clan of Ali Douba. This clan includes a large number of Alawites, who hold important leadership positions in the state, and many sheikhs of the sect.
The reason behind this grudge against Al-Assad and his political system is the fact that the president had ordered the removal of former leaders, including Douba and others who belong to the same clan.
Fida is a 40-year-old man who took advantage of his closeness to Douba and moved between several insignificant state positions. He sees that the deterioration of the Syrian regime’s status was caused by removing men like Douba and his fellows; and despite the fact that Fida does not know whether he will vote for Al-Assad or not, the situation that is clear so far, because this state of indecisiveness will not led in any way to confronting Al-Assad and standing up against him.
“We start drinking by insulting him and finish drinking by insulting him,” said Luay, a young man from Demsarkho district who joined one of the Shabiha groups in the past.
Luay stated that “after ten years of war and losses, and the indifference of the government and the regime about the sacrifices we have made”, Al-Assad does not deserve to be supported again in the next elections, and “insulting him day and night is the least we can do to appease our anger.”
It is worth noting that the regions of Demsarkho and Al-Da`tour suffer periodically from the deterioration of basic services, and amid the state’s carelessness the locals find themselves forced to take the matter into their hands through harassment, robbing travellers on the roads, intimidation, etc.
“It is your turn doctor”
Ten years later, it did not occur to the Syrian regime to find slogans like “It is your turn doctor” painted on the walls of several villages in the Jableh countryside, in addition to other anti-regime expressions that the authorities started hear or see since beginning of the year, which made them worry over the possibility of losing the regime’s popular incubator, especially in the run-up to the presidential elections.
Majid, a young man from Jableh, who does not identify with any political trend, wants the current crisis to end, so that the situation can ameliorate if Al-Assad leaves office. Majid noted that the appearance of slogans from time to time insulting or inciting against Al-Assad in the villages of Jableh is nothing but an indication of the dreadful condition of the area and people’s desire for change and to be able to choose a new option other than Al-Assad.
Majid and other young men are no longer happy with this situation or with Al-Assad’s reign over the Syrian state, which terrifies the regime, given the high probability that those people will either participate in the elections nor vote for the president.
“They give us a grant of 50,000 pounds a month every while,” said Abu Ali, a 60-year-old pensioner who depends on his pension to live.
Abu Ali stated: “Giving us monthly grants is both provocative and shameful. This will not guarantee the people’s loyalty to Al-Assad.” In his opinion, if the regime authorities want to bribe the people, they should feed them properly or give them a decent amount of money, not this grant which is not enough to cover the living expenses of half a week!” 
Abu Ali did not hide his desire to boycott the elections, but he is afraid to express that overtly. At the same time, he confirmed that many of his friends and peers are showing support to the regime because “they are terrified to express any kind of hostility towards the elections! Everyone is afraid of everyone.”
The Syrian pound is continuously collapsing, and the prices of fuel are constantly rising at a time when the regime’s government is gradually removing fuel subsidies, while the Syrians suffer from rocketing prices and transportation crises. However, the regime tried hard to control the depreciation of national currency against the dollar, and recently restored part of the fuel subsidy.
Rami, a young man in his thirties, have always expressed his appreciation of the Syrian state and the president, especially after the measures taken by the authorities to control the exchange rate and the fuel prices.
On the other hand, Rami believed in a conspiracy being plotted against the current regime and the tremendous efforts that Al-Assad is making to protect his people and country from the conspirators.
Unlike Rami, Raba, who is a university student, underestimated the aforementioned mode of thinking which is centred on the belief in an ongoing conspiracy against the state adopted by many syrians. Raba, being a student in economics, knows how countries manage economic crises, and how economic empasses are created and solved. She explained that “there are many economic solutions through which the state can ease the citizens’ burden. However, the regime wants to persistently humiliate and demean them. A state like this does not deserve our participation in its elections.”
“Menhebak”, “Sawa”, “Amal bil Amal”(Mkamlin Ma’ak)!
Since Bashar Al-Assad assumed power he launched three election campaigns, the last of which was “Sawa” (together) campaign. The word “sawa” has become a source of provocation to the masses in Syrian, after the regime used it to label the 2014 election campaign, but worked at the same time on excluding many Syrians from the scene and marginalized every opposition voice that stood against Al-Assad.
The regime loyalists launched the slogan “Mkamlin Ma’ak” (with you until the end) for the election campaign, before the authorities chose to label the new campaign “Amal bil Amal,” (hope flourishes with work).
Duraid, a forty-year-old man who lived through the era of Al-Assad the father and the son, and like many other Syrians, he voted in past due to the nature of his work and the security restrictions that were previously imposed on everyone, insists now on boycotting “the unreasonable and unacceptable elections after all the destruction that the country witnessed,” as he put it.
“Who will they use now to continue the path?! Or it seems that they mean to kill the rest of us, because whoever supports him does not mind dying for the sake of his shoes, as for those who refuse, they will finish them.” 
Banners and posters for the presidential race scheduled to take place on 26 May are everywhere in Lattakia, Jableh, and all the Syrian regions, inviting citizens to participate in the presidential elections, with a sense of detachment from reality, as if their participation in the elections will restore the past glory of Syria or repair the ruins and cultivate the burned lands.
A Syriatel employee told Rozana that the company gave its employees flags to participate in the marches that will take place on election day with a hint of the necessity to vote for Al-Assad, and of course the security forces have started by now to monitor state employees with the aim of exploring their intention regarding the elections and their willingness to participate in the elections and support the head of the regime.
As for Ali, a member of the Alawite sect who works in one of the Latakia state hospitals, explained to Rozana that the hospital management informed the staff verbally that leaves will be prohibited during the election period.
Hospital directors also forced resident doctors and on-duty nurses to participate in a rally to support Al-Assad on Wednesday evening, 19 May, and gave them an excuse of absence. Thus, no one was able to evade it.
According to Ali, “if the regime forces the Alawites to support and vote in its favour, then it is not unlikely to force the rest of the Syrians to do the same.”
Filed under: Blog – annie at 2:38 pm on Saturday, November 30, 2002
The hammam is still Capua. The room is reminiscent of an orientalist painting.
My neighbor says that he goes there with friends around 10 o’clock in the evening and that they spend the night eating, drinking tea and telling jokes. They leave at about 4 o’clock in the morning.
To switch to smoking, I have a real crusade with my friends and acquaintances who smoke like chimneys. We don’t see many old people, but I don’t know the figures on life expectancy.
And to immediately prove the saying « do as I say, do not do as I do » I acquired a beautiful hookah which I send you the picture.
There is first the pot in which there is water that we change at each pipe. On the pot, we put the column; we plug the stove containing the tobacco. A long pipe lined with pompoms starts from the column and ends with a spout (mine is shaped like a cobra’s head). A sheet of aluminum foil is placed on the stove and holes are drilled in it. Charcoal is heated until we get embers that we put on the aluminum sheet.
Let’s talk about Ramadan
On Tuesday, we watched for the hilal (new moon) all evening, but it remained hidden by clouds. So Ramadan will start one day later.
On Wednesday, around 3 am, a man walks through the streets of the neighborhood banging twice on a box to wake everyone up.
I’m going to try to fast for the whole of Ramadan and it’s not hard after two days. Just eat breakfast at 4am and dinner at 4:45pm. I want to know what this fasting is like physically; Muslims also go to the mosque.
My hopes of seeing the Friend stop smoking, thanks to Ramadan, have come true. It is during the day that he will stop smoking, but he can start again in the evening. I quit hookah.
A friend of mine tells me that fasting is also an opportunity to know what it is like to be hungry, to be aware of what the poor are going through.
I think of the American senator who lived for a few weeks on the budget of a family on public assistance (welfare).
Frankly, from here, Islam is not scary. Christians live their religion in peace; they have their churches. The Jews had their synagogues.
The Taliban and other fundamentalists are to Islam what Torquemada was to Christianity.
Anywhere it takes time to make your mark, but in Brussels everything had to be redone, or almost, and I hardly feel more alone here than there.
I met a Catholic family and I plan to go to mass with them one Sunday.
I also met my Lebanese neighbors. They invite me to have tea; there is a young man and a young girl. I naively ask them if they live together. That no! They are engaged, but he shares his apartment with a boyfriend and she lives with a girlfriend.
According to my Lebanese neighbor, who is a doctor, his consultation is not typical of those here. This is probably why he is not on the list of doctors recommended by the embassies. But he did make me feel better. With my new eyes, I can study a lot longer; fortunately, because at school it’s hard.
Being able to go out with a nice bag, which I used to carry in Brussels only in my room for visits, is a new luxury. Hiding my money in my panties is no longer necessary here.
I had become accustomed to insecurity (I had « done » Washington D.C. for 17 years); back home in Brussels, I took the metro at night without undue fear. However, I was thrown to the ground when my bag was snatched and two weeks later I was doing it again, but standing up (my bag was snatched as I clutched it under my armpit).
What a pleasure to say that we are Belgian! Everyone knows Belgium and our position in favor of the Palestinians. Qwayès means « well ». The noise of boots coming from Washington and the Sharonesque impasse in the South plunge me into a certain sadness despite my happiness to live here. It is the entire Arab and Muslim world that is threatened.
When one undertakes a feat like siam (the fasting of Ramadan), one waits at least until one is halfway through to trumpet it. By the way, if I had achieved this feat, I would have shared it with the 935 million Muslims in the world, which takes some of the shine off this achievement. You can tell by my tone that I have no reason to be very proud of myself.
The first and second day, no problem; the third day, ouch, it hurts. There is not only hunger, headache; there is also tiredness because when you get up at four o’clock in the morning to swallow a sandwich, you can’t always fall asleep again. And no question of making a nap; there is an energetic worker, recruited by the new owners of the floor above to renovate their dwelling, which undertook to pull down almost all the walls. I can hear the debris from upstairs falling into my bathroom’s false ceiling; I wait until it’s finished before asking to have it cleared away.
So I make a compromise with my wounded ambition and I don’t eat all day, but I drink a kawha at 7am and a tea at 12:30pm. This allows me to attack with a good appetite, in the company of real fasters, the foutour (meal of the break of fasting called iftar). We wait for the muezzin to arrive at « Allah hou Akbar » to start, who the cigarette, who the soup with which we open the meal.
The first day, I share in my new small restaurant – my local restaurant is in renovation – a table with a couple and a young man; the gentleman of the couple tells me what I must order: lemon for the soup (and do not eat your bread at the same time, it is not good for the stomach). What do you mean, you order all this? You have quite an appetite! I had ordered meat, rice and vegetables, but he was right. It would have been too much.
It’s also on « Allah hou Akbar » that you swallow your last bite in the morning around 4 o’clock when you wake up in time. No need for an alarm clock, a rustling sound, made of all these people getting up, flies over the city; one must add the prayer that filters through the walls of the nearby mosque.
I still hope to manage to do without the midday tea, but it’s really hard.
And it is certainly not to know what hunger is that I am fasting, because in this area I have given amply and long in my youth. Nor is it to lose weight, because without a scale and with loose clothes, I have no problem with my weight. (update 2021: I was fatsee photo below).
Ramadan is the time when we give more to the poor and to good works. There must be some poor people, but not in my relatively rich neighborhood. However, on Friday, I came across two very poorly dressed kids, one of whom had a black eye, and whose presence was quite incongruous. I could have given them something spontaneously, but how can you give to someone who doesn’t ask for anything?
If after the iftar the city is deserted, taking a cab around 2pm is a real challenge. All means of transport are taken by storm by people who are released earlier. We get packed and I am ready to pay the scalpel price in order to get back in time for my teacher with whom I work almost every day.
Today I’m going home with a driver who’s all happy because tonight he’s leaving for the pilgrimage to Mecca. By plane? No, by Pulman. The bus will take 24 hours and he will stay two weeks.
At school, they let us go 20 minutes earlier.
Delicious. My laundry dries slower; now it takes two hours.
Whatever Sadam does, it will be war. The only solution I see is for him to resign to save his people. One can dream. And would he save them from an American occupation?
Come on, I know The Jeck; he needs some, otherwise he doesn’t even click. I have to wait for my release day, Friday. You’ll soon have mountains of sweets. The most spectacular stores are in Merdjé. On the street these days, they sell a kind of cotton candy, spun sugar and flavored snail-shaped and huge chips with caramel on them and other sweets of the occasion.
Upstairs, the worker is working overtime. I’m going to review tomorrow’s lesson with hopeless words to memorize (like aïadatoun for doctor’s office); I surprised myself today by asking for needles with a word I had learned last year at the very beginning of my apprenticeship and what’s more, I was understood.
I put poetry on the back burner because when you don’t know the words for more, less, up, down, etc., you have to be modest.
In class, thanks to Arabic, we are beginning to overcome the language barrier with the Turks.
Tuesday 26 November 2002
I don’t know when I last posted, but Ramadan is long gone for me. I sincerely admire all those around me who endure it stoically, even joyfully, without the grandstanding of the undersigned. I haven’t heard a single complaint; when asked, people say, no, it’s not hard.
In fact, one friend eats something before going to sleep and gets up at the usual time. That still gives him a 17-hour fast every day, but with a normal night.
The other day, I find a man on my doorstep kneeling and calling out to heaven. I give him a generous alms, but he wants more. I pretend to take it back and he is satisfied.
On the way down, I meet a neighbor who asks me if I have seen a beggar and I tell him that it was a meskîne, a faquir (an unfortunate, a poor). He answered indignantly that he had rung his son’s doorbell and asked him for a glass of water, and this in the middle of his fast! The glass of water seems to shock him more than the begging. He wants to call the police.
And here is another one who paterfamilias me by telling me never to open my door to anyone, that as I live alone, I must be particularly careful. All these paternal men are younger than me!
I’m back from a weekend in Palmyra. What a wonder! I talked a student from the institute into coming with me because we had to play hooky since our weekend is interspersed with a school day. I really needed this, because my life, very austere, between home and the institute, is only enhanced by an occasional visit to the Friend with whom I can talk about everything. There is also the family that I visit from time to time, but with whom exchanges are limited by the language problem.
In short, I needed a change of scenery. I was close to returning to Belgium.
Palmyra (Tadmor in Arabic) surrounded by the desert, an oasis three hours from Damascus, is a wonder. I didn’t know my girlfriend at all. She too was a discovery. We got along right away. On the first day, we visited the site; on the second, after a climb to the citadel to watch the sunrise, we lazed on the terrace of the Zenobia Hotel, in front of the columns, flowers that have emerged from the sand and have the same color as the sand. It was the first time I spoke since my arrival. It was about time. It is true that you my readers keep me company and that, thanks to you, I do not feel too lonely.
It’s the height of the date season. We were offered dates everywhere. Invitations to drink tea followed one another all day long. We tasted the mensaf, a Bedouin dish made of rice with vegetables, meat and almonds, which is not at all like paella.
A date merchant invites us to his place for tea; we say yes, but we don’t intend to go. He comes to pick us up in the restaurant where we are finishing our meal and tells us that he has a car. Imprudently, we get in the car and we leave for the palm groves. Soon, the car drops us in front of a huge door, but what worries me very quickly is that the driver follows us to the hut which looked like a bachelor pad: soft carpets on the ground, low couches, candles and a wood fire.
Our two companions tell us that they are single. Another bad omen is that our host has locked not only the heavy garden door, but also the cabin door, putting the key high on a ledge.
I tell my girlfriend in Dutch that we are in trouble. I’m ready for battle battle but she makes a flawless maneuver and asks our host to go out to the non-existent toilet. She comes back after five minutes and leaning on the doorframe she says in a dying voice that she feels very bad, that it’s probably something we ate and could our host drive us back to the hotel?
The two accomplices’ plan failed. They mumbled in Arabic, too bad it didn’t work out, but they drove us home without a fuss.
It must be said that some foreign women are seeking that kind of adventure
Queen Zenobia, inseparable from Palmyra
] « After the assassination of her husband, in which she is believed to have been involved, Zenobia exercised power as regent on behalf of her young son. Within three years, she had extended her sovereignty over the whole of Syria, Egypt and most of Asia Minor, thanks to a declared alliance with Rome. In 271, however, Zenobia’s ambitions in the east forced the emperor Aurelian to take up arms against her. After seizing almost all her possessions, Aurelian laid siege to Palmyra. It fell, and Zenobia was taken captive to Rome. She was later given an estate in Tibur (today Tivoli, in Italy) where she retired for the rest of her life. A woman of great beauty and brilliance, Zenobia is remembered for her relentless ambition. « (Piqué at Encarta)
Next week is the end of Ramadan and we have four days of freedom, followed immediately by shibi exams. I’ll go to discover Hama, north of Homs, with its huge norias and in the surroundings, houses shaped like beehives.
We Jewish people internationally appeal to Jews and Jewish organizations around the world to remove Israel flags from communal spaces, whether at Jewish schools, Jewish Federation offices or synagogues. It is clear to us – and much of the world – as the reports of B’Tselem and Human Rights Watch have demonstrated – that the Israeli State is an Apartheid regime and therefore, as international law correctly confirms, it is an ongoing crime against humanity.
The government of Israel, since its start, has been determined to totally subjugate or remove the indigenous Palestinians from the land they’ve lived in for centuries. The Jewish supremacist state of Israel is deeply discriminatory and necessarily violent towards Palestinians who naturally resist oppression and expulsion. Israel logically allies itself with Far Right and Anti-Semitic forces even though this endangers Jews worldwide. That may seem astounding, but these noxious alliances have long been the practice of the Zionist organizations that worked to create Israel.
It is increasingly important for Jews to distinguish between Judaism and the State of Israel and its policies. By featuring an Israeli flag prominently in our communal institutions we permit anti-Semites to believe that our interests are inextricably linked to those of a state whose policies we abhor.
The Israeli flag has the status of the Confederate flag.
We are appalled at the idea that it represents us.
The composition of the class has changed; some students have gone to a higher class and others have gone in the opposite direction. Among the new arrivals, there are suddenly five or six Turkish men and women who are practicing Muslims (recognizable by their hijab) and others who are not; as for the boys, I couldn’t tell if they are practicing or not.
What are all these (mostly) young people doing here?
They are preparing to study at the university or to work in companies where they will be asked to speak Arabic; there are Syrians from abroad who want their children to learn their mother tongue or to do some of their studies here. I told you about the wives. I must be one of the few (no, there is Greta) who studies “for nothing”, for the pleasure of reading Arabic literature, and there is also Boul (Pavel becomes Paul becomes Boul – there is no “au” in Arabic and there is no P, hence Baris for the city of light) who studies to study.
You tell me about an earthquake, but I don’t have access to the news. A building did collapse because its basement was tapped by caves, C. tells me; Bush would have announced his intention to put us on his list. The news is received with a certain indifference; this project has been announced more than once.
Isolation is a bit painful: mail is slow – but not much more so than at home: a letter takes a good week – random e-mails, very expensive telephone, only for international calls whose rate has nevertheless dropped by 20%, but besides that there are so many advantages to living here. Since I’m going to study Arabic for a few years, I’m thinking of coming to Damascus for eight months a year (I’m avoiding the summer).
I’m already less tired in class and in the fog of Arabic broadcast by our teacher, I’m starting to make out some vocabulary silhouettes. I think I am making progress.
Tuesday 8 October 2002 (evening)
Bosra, a two-hour bus ride from Damascus, is more than its grandiose theater that hosts a festival in September; there is also the old city, with a huge reservoir, a basilica, a huge and well-preserved Roman hammam, mosques, one of which is said to have seen the Prophet pass by, etc.
I made the trip on Sunday with a luscious Brazilian girl from my class; on the way out, we were side by side, but on the way back, sitting at the very back of the bus, we took a seat at the windows. We wanted to speak Arabic. Three gentlemen came to sit between us; the one on my right sat at the front of his seat and remained very uncooperative during the whole trip. More or less the same for the man sitting to the left of M., but with the one in the middle it was a different matter. He made us do a serious mouradja (revision), all this in laughter and teasing, not very correct dress for a woman told me the look of a woman traveler.
There is a record store (NAI) in the Shalan neighborhood where I found something to quench my thirst for classical and good Arabic music. I was about to go to Brussels because I missed my CDs so much. You should never imagine that you can totally immerse yourself in another culture and manage to cut yourself off from your own.
It depends on the day; sometimes I go out on all fours, sometimes fresh as a rose. Today, I could feel my dark circles deepening under my jowls; the beautiful Siberian woman, whose beauty I never tire of admiring, has returned to my great relief.
Wednesday, October 9, 2002
Again the classes
I was quite jealous of the ease with which the Turks read the texts. Today, it was a revolution. I learn that the Turks have four years of Arabic behind them and that they are bored to death with us beginners. They want to leave.
Opening to the world
Suddenly, it’s like Christmas: my friend has installed a new box to receive satellite TV and radio stations and I will finally know what is happening in the world. I can receive vrt but not rtbf, France musique, culture etc. At least 200 channels in total.
These are costs that my landlady could have made, but whether it is by avarice or poverty, she leaves everything up to me.
October weather; at night, the coolness forces me to cover myself with a sheet. During the day, it is still very hot, with occasional bursts of relative coolness.
I always have my morning coffee on the balcony; a turtle-dove, perched on the neighbor’s clothesline, sends a feather onto my plate.
I still don’t know the kids next door; through the hammered glass I saw one this morning putting on his pants. The cats continue to come and go.
It seems that I am beginning to be accepted because the consumption of grapes, crunchy with freshness, washed in tap water, has been done with impunity.
Thursday, October 10, 2002
The counter at the window
When you go to get your visa to come and visit me, you will probably be surprised that you have to do the transaction through the window. I thought it was for security reasons, but I see that it is done here too, for example at the Saudi Arabian consulate, which is very close to my institute.
End of my second week of classes. The Turks have been relocated to a place more worthy of them and our class has shrunk accordingly.
I got conjunctivitis from having the fan in my eyes and it can hurt! I will try to get some eye drops.
I’m flattened; the whole week without going out the door, spent studying.
Tonight, old town and hookah; picture of Papa Joseph and his treasure den.
The eye drops, damn. The dodgy pharmacist in the old town that I had already inaugurated during my previous stay, refuses to give me anything and gives me the name of a doctor and a street, telling me that I need it. I go to Zak’s and ask him if he has camomile; he agrees with the pharmacist and tells me to see a doctor. I go up to Joseph’s (photos) and he tells me the same thing.
Two kilometers away, I finally find my ophthalmologist; I sit down in a very clean waiting room. I fraternize with two young women (mouradja, professor). A fashionable man goes before everyone else with his son. A shady man with a shady son enters when it is their turn and leaves.
We end up in the doctor’s office with three patients and their companions. The examination of the son of the fashionable man (the cup of coffee that he receives proves it to me abundantly; there is a whole code in the cup of coffee that one receives or not according to your relations with your host), I thus said that the examination of the son of that man finishes when suddenly we are all in pitch darkness: a short circuit is the cause; the small girl of one of the young women is examined with the electric torch and me too. I confess to the shampoos with Aleppo soap and the dose of pepper that I administered to myself by rubbing my eyes after spicing a dish, as well as the long hours spent bent over my books. He tells me that studying is good for the brain and less for the eyes. I will see him again on Monday because he wants to examine my glasses. Ah! and he speaks English.
The two young women take me to the pharmacy and there I receive such a warm welcome that I am quite moved; the pharmacists speak French, and well, it is “if you need anything, don’t hesitate to come”. It’s something else than the old grumpy guy from the old town who nevertheless did me a great service.
I’m too tired to go to the hookah and I’ll moderate my reading until Monday.
On my way back, I go for a pizza; in front of the counter a man unfolds his carpet and makes his prayer; he washed his feet because he wore sandals.
They tell me: the pizza is not good, we will make it again. I opt for a tabbouleh.
Illa lika; I’ll try to post this with my bad eyes too.
friday october 11, 2002
The white tornado just left; it disturbed the only cockroach in the house, which came out of its hiding place where the chlorox must have bothered it.
I take it and put it at the door on the balcony.
Ali (the Tornado) has been helping me with my homework for tomorrow; don’t think our day off is really off. I’m taking advantage of the brief respite the eye drops are giving me to write to you.
So, this gentleman who, at the ophthalmologist’s, passed by without even stopping in front of the receptionist and opened the door of the office without knocking, what’s the deal? The question has been on my mind since last night.
Probably the doctor told him: you can come by whenever you want; no need to queue in the waiting room.
Here, no one would think of protesting as I do at home: hey, I’m before you; to each his turn.
Last Sunday in Bosra, M. and I were emptied from a carriage whose price we had just negotiated (unsuccessfully); we were already settled when the coachman made us get off and to our great indignation, which we expressed loudly, he left with another customer. That’s how it is.
I’m stopping because the drops are starting to lose their effect and I still have to work a bit; we have a dictation tomorrow. At least, since the departure of the nice Turks, I won’t hear anymore: me, I made zero mistakes, me too, while me, it’s four minimum.
The system of four days of classes, followed by a day “without”, then a Saturday of classes and a Sunday “without” is finally good. I can’t see myself holding out for five days in a row. And in two “no” days we would be in danger of slacking off.
The other night (it was 8:30 p.m.) in the ophthalmologist’s office, the atmosphere was so pleasant. The chic man and his son, the two young women and the little girl, me getting my eyes watered while lying on the table and explaining to the chic man that I was studying the language because I wanted to read poetry in Arabic (I only reveal my own literary ambitions to a few). And when the blackout came, I didn’t hear a “shit”; the lamps and candles were brought out. And as I told you last time, the little girl and I (who were dreading being fired) went through the flashlight exam. The drops seem to be helping, but I’m going back tomorrow.
I have never felt such peace; I am bathed in compatibility. In the evening, the square in front of the Umayyad Mosque is practically deserted. The air is so soft that I can’t feel my body. Do you think, db, that I have found what I was not looking for?
The region has its terrible tragedies, but I live totally in the here and now.
Caveat emptor. It is not only the merchants who are thieves in this souk, the cabs that we find at the door of the souk, too.
I get into a cab, then another, and I get out each time I am told the price: double the maximum I pay and in which a tip is included. I get into a third car; I give the address and the maximum I pay; the driver gives me desperate looks, but I insist: it’s 50 pounds (one Euro), not a cent more. In the end, he manages to make me understand that he is not a cab driver. I apologize.
I end up finding a legit taximan. Complain to the police? Out of the question. A fellow student of mine did it for 10 pounds (40 cents), as a matter of principle.
I went to read my mail: today impossible on hotmail. I will be here on June 28; I will only come back here, if Dios quiere, in September to do a second year. Spending the summer in Syria is unimaginable for me.
The other day I timed my connection: 40 minutes to read two posts, reply to them, upload my post and four photos to my mailbox and try to reply (in vain) to db’s kind message.
Thursday, October 17, 2002
This will be my last posting for a while.
In the month I’ve been here, I’ve made a lot of progress in Arabic, especially since I started taking classes.
I have a lot of work to do and I don’t have the energy to fight against recalcitrant connections anymore.
I’ll be picking up my hotmail and compuserve email once a week.
Sunday October 20, 2002-10-20
No matter how much we run away, our sorrows catch up with us; the approach of a fateful date, of a painful anniversary is as difficult as the dreaded day.
Two years ago, in a gloomy staircase of the subway, a dragonfly- butterfly, as he liked to describe himself, crashed; has one ever seen a dragonfly or a butterfly crash? Charles, my ex-husband.
It is commonly said: life goes on; it is by limping that one continues the road.
Enough melancholy, let’s come back to the here and now, to Damascus.
It is still hot, but the noses do not bleed any more. At night, we cover ourselves because it is cool. The laundry always dries in a flash.
The first real rain (five minutes), I welcomed it like the sweetest music. You get jaded quickly: by the second one, I was already not jumping for joy, but I said it, I will never curse it as long as I am here. It’s like my magic fountain; sometimes when I go to Nafura, I just forget to say hello to it. You should never take things for granted although fountains are more constant than human beings.
A small scene from everyday life
If I travel by microphone, it is for the pleasure of being with people. The other evening, the door is blocked, retained by its padding; we finally succeed in opening it, but the problem is repeated each time the door is opened. Without a word, the driver hands a screwdriver and a screw to a traveller and this one makes the repair.
In all, four visits to the ophthalmologist; his waiting room is most interesting. Many people from the village, in particular a woman with a scarf tied behind her head. She has a brick complexion, prominent cheekbones and willing lips. Not the kind of personon whose feet I’d like to step on.
A man in a keffiyeh drinks from the jug like a gargoyle, without touching.
In the office it’s always a mess; I love it, but I lose my zen when the secretary keeps getting my appointments wrong, does not know at what time the doctor will arrive, when I’ll get my spare glasses, etc.
No, I don’t have a brain tumor,” he says after a very painful fundus; I just need new glasses. This week I should be able to see normally again. The optician was educated in Canada and speaks very good French.
My … do you really want to know? My hair
My hair is now pissy from being oiled and stripped. I bought a turban with a little pearl, but I don’t dare to wear it except when the cotton candy goes all over the place. And re-rinse is not going to help. The fish are rotting out of my head; I am an Aries though.
You ask me if we study history etc. Please! Don’t you think we have enough with grammar? I occasionally take a careless look at the books and think I’ll never get through it. Why not learn knitting instead?
Sometimes, when the teacher tells us something, our interpretations make us laugh: kèskidi? I think he’s talking about the signs of the zodiac (with the bull and the ram), no, he’s talking about horns, no, we don’t know. Nevertheless, and I don’t mind repeating myself, I recognize some grammatical terms now, but the notions they represent sometimes escape me.
So, if you come here, don’t forget to bring a grammar book with the Arabic terminology.
And my poems?
I read them to Zak, who liked them, but since I’m also a good customer…
Friday, October 25, 2002
Sorry Pascal for not meeting your expectations of exoticism. Damascus is a modern city with old neighborhoods, but people don’t live in tents, not even in the Yarmouk refugee camp.
Last night, I took a trip to the city and took some pictures of Damascus by night.
I took you into the big room of the hammam where you can
reception, rest and waxing.
Next Monday, I’ll take you into the large marble room where you lie down, get washed and massaged. I went back last Monday to get scrubbed and it was worth it. This time, instead of putting me on the plate, the washer made me sit on the floor and it is in this uncomfortable position that she did my washing.
Without waxing or shampooing, the afternoon was uneventful. Everybody was happy to be photographed for the internet except two French girls, mother and daughter, who refused to show their breasts for my friends back home.
Afterwards, Palestinian evening on a square of the city; an orchestra plays and sings patriotic songs and others very beautiful. At 6 pm, we wait for a group of young Europeans who have come to Palestine, Syria and Iraq to testify for peace. As the group does not count Belgians I leave towards 19H30 because it is cold. It must be said that we are in autumn and that we have only 28° during the day; in the evening, it is chilly. The stalls of the merchants tell the change of season because I see wool appearing.
Wednesday I went to my optician to get my new glasses. And here I ask for your attention, because you will see that the world is microscopic.
He said: I’m going to Paris for a congress (BTW, the ophthalmologist is in America, also for a congress). And where are you staying? In Versailles (it’s near the author’s sister), and then I’m going to my aunt’s in V. (that’s at my sister’s); and where does your aunt live? In the street E. (the street of my sister!), and to which number? No, not at my sister’s, but close by.
Some information about Syria
You feel patriotic here; people love their country and are proud of it.
I got the following figures from Encarta.
In 2001, the literacy rate was 87.8%.. Primary education is free and compulsory.
The main agricultural products are barley, wheat, tobacco and vegetables. Grapes, olives, and citrus fruits are produced in the oases. Intensively cultivated cotton is almost the only crop for export.
Livestock is very important (sheep, goats, cows and chickens). No fishing or forestry.
There is oil and gas; as for industry, it is specialized in food processing and textiles. The country also produces cement, tobacco and leather. Syrian handicrafts: brocades, carpets, marquetry and metal work.
I am told that brocades are produced by Muslims, metals were produced by Jews and marquetry by Christians. As there are only 50 Jews left, I assume that their activity has been taken over by the Muslims or Christians.
Well, I wasn’t very proud of my Europeans; I was smoking my weekly hookah when a bunch of drunken Spaniards came down the stairs to my terrace. They make a big fuss at the merchant’s whose store is next to my chair; he tells them that he has a sister in Bilbao, and to me, he tells me that he has a brother in Ghent, to Maria that his fiancée is Brazilian like her, etc.
The descendants of the Duke of Alba bang on a brass tray and hold it above their heads. Everyone (us Muslims and the like) opens their eyes; it is true that to share this euphoria one would have to have drunk as much as they have, which is obviously not the case for me since I have been living a life of abstinence. This kind of scene must be extremely rare here. The merchant tells me with a smile that they didn’t buy anything and that they covered him with scandal.
The Syrians I see have a quiet and warm dignity, without stiffness. Drunkenness is really nothing to write home about.
This post wouldn’t be complete without…
my hair. I took it to the hairdresser of a big hotel who greeted me with a clear Bonjour Mèdème while wiggling his butt as no homosexual in our country does anymore. Unfortunately, his French stopped there because he immediately passed me on to an English-speaking colleague who said, twisting the corner of his mouth: where did they do that to you?
Anyway, they are now brassy and I’m not fooling anyone anymore: it was never their color. It’s obvious I had a rinse.
Now I’m not talking about it anymore. I promise, I swear.
And my Arabic?
When I speak my crude literary Arabic (with all the endings) people understand me, but they are amused because nobody speaks like that.
Big difference with Morocco where, apart from people who have done high school, nobody understands you in the street.
The life of a student is uneventful, even in Damascus. It’s hard work, it’s anxious about exams (in two months), it sometimes makes you want to quit and go home. And except for the Turks (there are some left and they are talented) (see photo of incomplete class), we are all in the same situation at different times.
By the way, I didn’t see any red-light district. I have seen girls who were no longer virgins in a big hotel, but on the street, certainly not.
There might be homosexuals who are more or less whoring around; I read that in a book.
When at the Shams café I see the waiter making a terrible grimace , I look and I find: there is a homosexual couple sitting on the terrace, Europeans, of course.
Alcohol is not forbidden, but it is discreet, I hear that there are places where they sell it. Yes, there are Muslims who drink. That’s not surprising, but not in public.
Drug dealers are executed. And I, who am against the death penalty, agree.
Bin Laden is not popular here. He is not a good Muslim. Moreover, for 9/11, he was in cahoots with the Americans. And this hypothesis does not seem to me to be so far-fetched ….
When Patricia (a French convert) has time, we’ll put together an Islam for Dummies, but since she’s even busier than I am, I can’t promise you that it will be soon. In preview: the veil is a custom. Religion simply states that a woman should only show her face and hands, hence the hijab (headscarf) and the frock coat buttoned at the collar.
There are women who hide half their face, either by biting off a piece of their veil or by tying it behind. Some cover themselves completely; it is true that they probably rarely go out.
At the hammam, I was too tired to bring my camera. The hammam is still Capua. The room is reminiscent of an orientalist painting. We smoked hookah in every corner.
My neighbor tells me that he goes there with his friends around 10 o’clock in the evening and that they spend the night eating, drinking tea and telling jokes. They come out around 4 a.m.
Speaking of smoking, I’m on a real crusade with my friends and acquaintances who smoke like chimneys. We don’t see many old people, but I don’t know the life expectancy figures.
Next week, on November 5th, Ramadan begins. It is a period of purification. Those who smoke, smoke less or stop. Those who drink alcohol, stop drinking. One restrains oneself from having bad thoughts and one is more charitable.
As you know, we do not eat or drink between sunrise and sunset. At the institute, we will not even be given the half-hour respite that civil servants get. The schedule remains the same.
On Sunday, we go with the institute on an excursion to Homs, Tartous and an island. I think we will also see the krak of the crusaders. I will tell you about it and you will have your pictures.
I wrote a long thread on #Syria one year ago for the 20th anniversary of its official metamorphosis into a hereditary republic – will RT it after this. Since then, none of the basic issues or root problems have changed, but recent developments would make you think otherwise. /1
Bashar Assad claims he’s been “re-elected” – though he was never elected in the first place. If you’re even remotely familiar with Syria, you know there’s been no such thing as elections since the Baath’s military coup in 1963. The farce just got more blatant with the Assads. /2
Meanwhile, normalization with the 21st century’s most murderous regime now seems to be all the rage. Several countries are openly flirting with the genocidal maniac, teasing him with the prospect of reopening their Damascus embassies at the chargé d’affaires level … for now. /3
Some Europeans now pretend all is well in Syria, so they can send Syrians back there. Adopting a post-war narrative that is music to Assad, Putin and Khameini’s ears, they find Damascus safe enough for terrified Syrians who had fled, but not safe enough for Danish diplomats. /4
Gulf countries, which never welcomed Syrian refugees in the first place, are openly playing footsie with Bashar Assad. Bring him back to the Arab League, they say. Enough with this revolutionary liberty nonsense, they pray. Amen to that, nod other authoritarians near and far. /5
Putin’s allies are all having a grand time doing what they do best, because why not? Forcing civilian airliners to land & arresting passengers – who then “confess” great conspiracies on Belarusian television – is now a thing. New precedents. What could possibly go wrong? /6
Still, the Biden administration couldn’t be less interested in Syria or in the havoc the regime created in the region and beyond. No one in DC got the memo that what happened in Syria did not, and will not stay in Syria; on this, apart from Iran issue, Biden = Trump = Obama. /7
The Iranian regime is biding its time, waiting for the new nuclear deal & its fringe benefits: every risk it has taken, every investment it has made paid off. Hezbollah reigns supreme, demographic engineering changed Syria forever, and IRGC leverage over Iraq is unparalleled. /8
The “international community” claims helplessness and laments Syrian suffering, but the butcher of Syria – proven perpetrator of chemical massacres, carpet bombing, sieges, torture, and annihilator of hospitals – has joined the executive board of the World Health Organization. /9
7 years of bad luck? Syrians have endured 21 under Bashar Assad, yet are told to swallow more of the same as the genocidal maniac’s malignant narcissism reaches new dizzying heights. Thing is, those darn Syrians still believe they deserve a life of dignity. Imagine that. /10
20 years ago today, I was at a Damascus hair salon when an assistant rushed to tell us Hafez Assad had died. What I saw and lived in the next days and years is set in stone in my memory. This thread is but a glimpse of life in #Syria then and the slow descent into implosion. /1
Hafez started preparing the ground for 2nd son Bashar in 1994 when original heir Bassel was killed in a car crash. While Bashar’s meteoric rise in army ranks and early public appearances in late 90s prepared people, Hafez was busy clearing regime ranks of potential contenders. /2
Big names Syrians had grown up fearing, from Hekmat Shehabi to dreaded head of intelligence Ali Douba, were officially retired to ensure only the most loyal and least ambitious men stayed. Bashar never had to fight an “old guard” in later years as some clueless media claimed. /3
Within an hour of Hafez’s death, parliament held a special televised session to amend the constitution. In 5 minutes, the required age for the presidency was lowered from 40 to 34, Bashar’s age. We all watched in stunned silence: we expected it, but it was still humiliating. /4
When Bassel died, Hafez Assad forced the entire country to shut down & mourn for 40 days. So when Hafez died, Syrians went into self-preservation mode: within a couple of hours, streets emptied & shops closed, with people at home glued to TVs, trying to interpret developments. /5
Turns out Bashar couldn’t care less if people grieved “the eternal leader” as long as they cheered “the hope” – the cute moniker his folks spread for us to repeat. Bashar was devoid of emotion, even flippant at the funeral, a bit ungrateful considering his hefty inheritance. /6
The formalities of Bashar’s “election” took place the following month, and many would have wanted the story to end with “and we all lived happily ever after” … but we didn’t. To begin with, the personality cult imposed under Hafez paled in comparison to what Bashar demanded. /7
Hafez liked being feared but Bashar was desperate to be admired. Over the years, he sidelined any Syrian personality who came even close to being popular or, God forbid, to outshine the king. Old wooden Baathist dinosaurs are still his core ministers & advisors for a reason. /8
To be admired, Bashar strived to be cool. The rumors about work ethics, love of technology and humble demeanor, the wife, the living quarters, the interviews, the cafes, the modernity, the posters magically appearing “against his will” – all meant to drip with coolness. /9
Before Hafez died, I was one of the first few thousand Syrians to buy a mobile phone. For that privilege, in addition to the cost of the phone (illegal to bring one from abroad) + various fees, I paid $1,200 to Syriatel just to have a number. That’s how Rami became cool too. /10
As portfolio manager of the Assad and Makhlouf clans, Rami was the most visible and most powerful “businessman.” But all the children of the Hafez buddies became the new business people of the Bashar era – not that it’s a feat of entrepreneurship with no competition allowed. /11
The so-called economic opening was merely an erratic crony capitalist economy so a few could live it up. As they watched mounting obscene wealth around them, Syrians were beginning to face rising prices, diminishing means, a dismal housing situation and a transport nightmare. /12
From the start, Bashar claimed the economy would be reformed; if this was reform, imagine the rest. There were a couple of private banks, some media, a few private schools – none of which had an effect on the lives of ordinary Syrians. On the political front, empty words. /13
Some dared to call Bashar’s bluff. In September 2000, 99 brave Syrian intellectuals signed a statement asking him to lift the state of emergency (in place since 1963), free political prisoners, allow freedom of speech … if you know Syria, you know where this is going. /14
Syrians waited for these basic freedoms and rights for an entire decade, and paid dearly for it. While Rami scooped up every possible penny made in or coming into Syria, Bashar was scooping up Syrians who dared to speak out and populating jails with prisoners of conscience. /15
The Damascus Spring, as we call it, turned rapidly into a Damascus Winter. Many old opposition figures who the world discovered in 2011 had been prisoners of conscience for years – under father and then son – for “weakening national sentiment.” Defying Bashar was verboten. /16
Abroad, Bashar played statesman with disastrous effect, giving absurd interviews pontificating on world affairs. A mansplainer of the first order, he tediously denied claims about any action by saying “it’s not logical.” He riled up the US by sending fighters to Iraq … /17
… even though he voted for Resolution 1441 on his Security Council stint, giving the US the unanimity it had sought and the justification it needed to invade Iraq a few months later (Bashar always wants to be wanted, and if that doesn’t work he makes trouble to be noticed). /18
And then there was Lebanon, which he had been messing up since the day he inherited his realm. In 2004, he forced the Lebanese parliament to extend then-president Emile Lahoud for 3 years (unconstitutionally), and in February 2005, with his ever stronger ally Hezbollah, … /19
… he killed Rafic Hariri, setting in motion a sequence of further assassinations and upheaval, and the forced retreat of Syrian soldiers who had been there since the 1970s. When brave Syrians dared to stand with their Lebanese counterparts, he threw them in jail, again. /20
Syrians watched Lebanese protesters publicly insult Bashar, shaking the regime for the first time. That is when the “menhebak” (we love you) posters started appearing, and when the regime began peddling Syrianism (basically, Syria First) to replace Baathist Arabism. /21
After the hasty Lebanon retreat, Bashar promised Syrians big changes were coming. We were not holding our breath, but when he then convened a Baath Party Congress (the first since 2000), some again dared to hope the regime had finally learned its lesson. Silly them. /22
The Congress declared that the economy (officially socialist for people, capitalist for ruling elite) would henceforth be known as a “social market economy,” whatever that means. Poverty continued to rise, the velvet society continued to sip frappuccinos at the Four Seasons. /23
Ostracized by the entire region and the world, Bashar was saved by Hezbollah’s infamous May 2008 assault on Beirut which led to a reconciliation agreement sponsored by Qatar, leading itself to his reintegration into the international community and an invitation to Paris. /24
The bigger Bashar’s head got on a regional level, the more his actions increased Syrian despair and disparity. And when he declared in early 2011 to WSJ that Syria was immune to the Arab spring, the children of Deraa pointed to the naked emperor and wrote: it’s your turn. /25
Syrians endured suffocating hardship over decades of Assad tyranny before they started the revolution – a revolution in every sense of the word. To understand this seemingly sudden unleashing of the free Syrian spirit, you need to know about the decade that preceded it. /26
This thread merely scratches the surface of the trajectory of Bashar Assad and Syria, which I researched for years at Chatham House, and wrote and spoke about in hundreds of articles, talks and interviews. Expertise on Syrian affairs is needed, above all from Syrians. /27
Hafez Assad bequeathed him a hereditary republic; Bashar took this massive trust fund and destroyed it over the course of 20 years, little by little at first through reckless abandon, and then with every weapon of mass terror and destruction. /28
This gluttonous, incompetent, barbaric regime is unreformable, proving repeatedly it will use all means at its disposal to maintain its violent power, 50 years on and counting. Since March 2011, most Syrians have sacrificed everything to liberate themselves, with little help. /29
As the world rethinks its selective commitment to fighting injustice and upholding human rights, after the exposure of horrific crimes on unarmed civilians, it should help Syrians get justice too. For that to happen, Bashar Assad’s 20th anniversary in power must be his last. /30
I reproduce here my diary from that time as it is. The text accompanies my podcast “Pourquoi l’oralité” which deals with Syria here at the end of the chapter. Below, my first message sent from Damascus as well as those that will continue throughout the month of September 2002. My publishing partner was Pascal Hyde in Belgium who put my texts and photos online, at least at the beginning.
Damascus, Saturday night fever, September 14, 2002
I have seen you!
Let me tell you, (the trip is later) :
At the 3rd address, I find a functioning cybercafe: the machines turn on, I land on cc21, I see with relief that db messages me and she mentions ifead, (BTW, IFEAD is too stale for me; I took a look at their admission test and realized it would be a year from now) (my punctuation is starting to go off the rails here, but the words, the feelings all get out of control)…. And just as I’m about to reply from an Arabic keyboard coupled with a qwerty keyboard, everything freezes and the manager tells me no more internet today.
So, I’m trying to post again tomorrow after sending this prose (who can I trust?) to the Jeck (I have to since he’s the only one who knows my password) in case I can’t get it up and then he’ll post it for me.
Db, if there was a quest, then I found it. I love Damascus, Syria and the Syrians, the Arabic spoken there and the beauty of which, even from my beginner’s level, I can appreciate. I thank you for your research. Nevertheless, I insist, there is no quest because there is nothing to find outside oneself. And you know, my quest also ended in Edinburgh and even in America (the one in the sixties that expired in 1975 with the end of the Vietnam war).
Let’s get back to the journey.
A Syrian friend of mine told me: for the weight, no problem, I go with 50 kg, plus a big package in accompanied luggage; they never say anything.
On Friday, a friend, a luggage consultant, comes to help me for the dress rehearsal and I, who had weighed everything to the gram, under her impulse (I’m lying), I get carried away and I say to myself: damn, I’m going; with a bit of luck, they’ll let me through: this country writing table that has been sleeping in my shelves for twenty years, I’ll finally inaugurate it to write my prose in front of my fountain, and all these dresses will be part of the trip, folklo here, but they’ll fit very well there.
And she says to me: this big winter coat, you are not going to wear it on your arm! Be classy and travel at ease; look, you have room in this kitbag.
Total: JBV drives me to the airport with four heavy bags that I could only lift with difficulty.
Well, in the stinging bill that was slapped on me, this coat weighs as much as a new one (at the Salvation Army, where I get dressed). Because, you guessed it, they made me pay every last gram. No, I don’t regret it, because I was actually expecting it. And since the ticket cost me 1400 potatoes less than elsewhere, I knew the counter.
Why didn’t you send it by post? They say that packages get lost. And you, do you know my post office in the Tielemans street? You wouldn’t ask.
Air freight? Have you ever cleared something in another language?
I did it in Dutch with my car on my way back from the US and had the humiliation of having to admit later in writing the inadequacy of my Flemish which had made me answer a question wrong.
I will spare you the boarding (still, some Syrians, who must have believed the above-mentioned friend, paid extra for their hand luggage; it must be said that these logistics are implemented by a ruthless Dutchwoman who spins her stony eyes in our carry on board; I am told that on the way back, where it will be the Syrians who will be doing the checking, I will really be able to bring back everything I want).
I didn’t spare you the boarding, but I’ll skip the description of the meal on board (well, but the weaning begins: no wine. Fortunately, I filled up before leaving), to move on to my row mate. At first glance, I thought: this is a cousin of a well-known leader, currently in the crosshairs of the Yanks; he had a manly moustache and manners that were just as manly, if by manliness one can understand bad education.
You’ll see: “we don’t study Arabic anymore at your age, Madam; it’s good for the little children, but for you, it’s too late” and he mentions my 60s. I’m thinking shit, (here, Jeck, you add a smiley face and delete this parenthesis) he must be a cop, NO ONE ever tells me my age.
As if mentioning my age wasn’t enough, he tells me to convert to Islam, put the hijab on my head (that’s the headscarf and not the bourqa for those of you who don’t know the difference) and tells me everything will be fine.
I’m not joking anymore, how can I explain in a country of believers (Muslims, 65%) that my only religion is the respect of others and the love of freedom?
I think I’ll have to hypocritically fall back on the religion of my childhood.
The debate is not even to be considered.
I also meet a Syrian journalist who is really moved when she learns that she is meeting a future great Arab writer, since this is my avowed ambition; we talk a bit about women and she feels very well in her single skin; she is not at all the type to be small.
I go through customs with my four bags and my laptop without any problem. Before, they used to put everything of value in your passport so that you wouldn’t be tempted to sell your belongings.
I (phew!) finish, but not before telling how a young man in his 3rd year of pharmacy, properly hit on me, gave me his internet login and password (something you never do unless you’re in the grip of a strong passion; no Le Jeck, that’s not why you have mine) and was quite surprised to learn (ah! those well-behaved young people) that I could be his grandmother. And no, he hadn’t met me in a dark street.
Come on, I’ll sleep on my laurels and my affronts. Ciao, as PPDA says (it came back to me). And don’t worry, I’ll make it shorter next time.
September 16, 2002
Accessing the net and the mail is a bit chaotic; for example, I thought it was smart to give everyone my hotmail address: in total, I can only access it through miraculous detours. And at the newspaper’s office (cc21) it’s no better because some smart guy – you know who – has fiddled with my password so that this address, which was given to me with great pomp, is just used to suck my money since, while I’m trying to access it, precious minutes are spent in vain.
Actually, time on the internet is cheap here, but the slow connection doesn’t encourage you to surf. I’m sure it will get better like everything else.
So, Damascus? Google will give you some very good sites about the city.
There is ugliness, pollution and magic. Yesterday, I stopped at the Bekdash ice cream shop whose owner’s wife is the daughter of the man I met on the plane (the one who thinks I’m too old to study) in the Souk al- Hamidiyya where they pound the ice cream by hand and for 25 FEB you get a big cup topped with pistachios. This place is always packed like an egg.
Then I went to my fountain next to the An-Nafourah café, but it was dry and I was sad not to take my hookah, because what’s the point of smoking in front of an empty cage (the fountain is in a cage).
In my confusion, I awkwardly kicked the pedestal table on which my glass of tea was placed, sending the whole thing waltzing on the jeans of a tourist sitting next to it. Without a word (and without counting me out), the boy came over and put a new glass on my pedestal table. The tourist was a bit more demonstrative.
Water is THE problem of the region; why don’t we finance an aqueduct from Europe to here? We can live without oil, but without water? When you fly over Syria from Aleppo, all you see is a huge desert. The reason why the Israelis would refuse to give back the Golan Heights is because of its water resources.
Let’s get back to the magic. It is in the street, the people, their kindness, their easy contact.
In a store, I ask for an adapter for my computer plug; they don’t have one, but they send a little boy to get one for me. Another store has no floppy disks: same thing; they bring me some. In front of the barber shops, on the sidewalk, towels are drying on small plastic racks.
I’m sure I have to tell you about the women; in the neighborhood where I’m going to live, they are in jeans. The girl who is going to teach me wears the hijab; so what? What business is it of ours? On the plane, I met a journalist “in hair”, who lives alone, not married, and who when she travels to Saudi Arabia, wears the veil. I am occasionally asked if I am Muslim; I answer that I am Catholic and the answer is enough.
Let’s talk about my hotel: a jewel. Exotic and comfortable, efficient and clean. It is for all new arrivals a first family.
Nevertheless, at my first shower, I still looked suspiciously at the neon sign that is not far from the (shower) head. [A travelogue had already taught me that Syrians are not afraid of electricity (a bare wire could at any moment turn the iron bed that the author shares with her lover into an electric chair)].
I found the apartment the day after I arrived; I knew right away that it was what I wanted: close to the institute where I’m going to study, and pleasant. I naively thought that all I had to do was pay and I could move in the next day. Wrong, but with the help of a gentleman, who serves as my interpreter and guide, I happily cleared the hurdles (embassy, foreign affairs, police station) and I expect to move in tomorrow, Tuesday, or at the latest, Wednesday.
The US embassy, which I pass on my way back from the foreign ministry, punches you in the face: a monument of arrogance, domination, defiance. I find it very hard to see them as defenders of the free world. It’s a citadel, surrounded by high walls; the staff probably lives there. There are soldiers everywhere. It is a bunker, an alien station.
As for the institute where I am going to study, it has students from all over the world, and we will be forced to communicate in Arabic; I can’t wait to start the classes.
Would you like to hear about my – dear – luggage? By the way, I forgot to tell you that the Dutch were in charge of the luggage at Zaventem; they even charged an extra fee at the foot of the bridge to some Syrians who had probably listened to Samir’s advice too.
I undid and redid everything because I could not find anything. Nevertheless, I think I haven’t forgotten anything. Good for you, Pascal.
With that, I’m going to start again with the adventures of the Jacques of Assimil who is ordering his meal at the restaurant.
Damascus, Thursday, September 19, 2002
First mail from my apartment
… and a second night spent on a mattress on the floor, my landlady’s bed being the surest way to a new passage on my orthopedist’s table. Since I must have cost my government a million dollars, I think buying a mattress is a small favor to both of us, especially me.
My cornak (for non-French speakers: person who introduces, guides sb), whom I will call the Friend from now on, finds me a workshop in the old city where they will make me a suitable mattress in three days.
Jonathan from Fez (American language institute, sorry… Arabic language institute, nothing to do with the first one, I was assured) studied here and warned me that without a solid knowledge of Arabic I would never manage to get past the administrative hurdles to get into an apartment. He was entirely right, but that was without counting on the Friend and his providential interventions.
Why didn’t I ask my bazine (landlady in Flemish) for a new mattress? There were plenty of candidates and it was take it or leave it. Besides, Syrian prices are not comparable to ours and having a mattress made is not a ruin.
Nevertheless, with the small expenses and the payment of the rent for six months, my capital is melting quickly; no, there is no way to go to a small box to withdraw cash, nor to go to a Bank to get funds on a Visa card. In case of emergency, you run to Beirut or Amman.
However, since a few months, you can open an account in Euros or dollars and have funds transferred to it. And the funds stay in Euros or dollars.
My sister says: ah, you have an apartment? Give me your address so I can write to you! I do have an address, but you forget to send mail there. I think there are no letter carriers and I have not seen any mailboxes. People have a post office box, or they phone each other. My host hotel is offering to serve as a ball.
So much for the practicalities for those who are tempted by the Damascene adventure.
Let’s talk about the intoxicating magic of the place; the nights are cool and you store this coolness in your walls, then you close all the exits as people in hot countries do.
From two o’clock to four o’clock, you take a nap; then I go to the old town and enjoy the slide from the still torrid heat to the lull, until the absolutely delicious temperature of six o’clock.
There, I sip my glass of tea at An-Nafura or at the café across the street, after a detour to the ice-cream parlour, and it’s the abandonment to the softness of the evening (yes, yes, under the red and black sky etc. see Bolero).
The fountain has water, but it does not flow; as for the hookah, I believe that I will give up because it becomes very quickly an addiction and the Friend tells me that only one hookah is equivalent to 20 cigarettes.
Wine, beer? It is extremely easy to do without.
I won’t take out an Internet subscription since I have a cyber in front of me and the connection is too slow to surf; besides, I will need all my time to study. I realize that I don’t know anything, but still…
Yesterday, in the old city, a lost and distraught couple hears me speaking English and asks me for a specific restaurant, near there, in an old house. With my rudimentary Arabic, I ask a boy: do you know where is a restaurant in an old house near here? And my interlocutor indicates it to us. My admiring anglos: oh, how nice it is to find someone who speaks Arabic and English. If they only knew!
L’Ami accompanies me on my first shopping trip so that I don’t get cheated; this man, who is the age that a son could have been, treats me paternally, but without any condescension. He thinks of everything, changes my lock and tells me that if he puts my foot down, I won’t need him so much.
Good evening friends,
This mail is very important to me, especially since I don’t have access to mine yet. Hotmail is off limits for the moment. If you want to write me a note live try firstname.lastname@example.org, or email@example.com.
I spent three hours of anguish because I thought I had lost my passport. Without a passport you are dead.
Like everywhere else, without a passport you don’t leave the country, but – much more importantly – you don’t get any money in your bank account. Of course, I had already decided to go to the embassy to get another one, but if in Brussels it takes you three weeks, God knows how long it would have taken me here!
It wasn’t until the tenth pass that I decided to lift the innocent discman he was lurking under. Always write down in a place you won’t forget, the place where you hide your valuables.
Let’s go back to Damascus
One foot on the gas, the other on the brake, the finger on the horn. They are virtuosos. I haven’t seen an accident yet. We travel by minibus when we become part of the furniture; until now, it was the cab, but I want to travel like the locals. The minibuses have no other stops than those of their clients. When you are at the back, you pass your five pounds (four FEB) through the other passengers to the driver who, while driving, sends the change back the same way. There is always someone to help you navigate the routes.
Evaluation of my Arabic knowledge
The teacher must have been much less impressed than the lost tourists of the other day.
Anyway, I don’t think I’ll ever be taught the alphabet.
Ahead of my appointment with my landlady, I go for a coffee in a nearby bar and can’t help but overhear a lively conversation in French between five women sitting at the next table; they are obviously talking about current events and some of the things they say make me want to know more. What do I risk? I approach and introduce myself; they welcome me with open arms and invite me to come to their weekly meeting. They are Syrian and there is a French girl who is going to take courses at the same institute as mine. Unfortunately, I could only go once as they meet in the morning.
It is marvelous in its taste and comfort; the mattress would be suitable for anyone else who does not have my back history. The first day, I can’t light the butane and, to add insult to injury, I have to make myself not only a nescafe, but also a cold one. Having learned to turn on the gas, I think of you, Dominique, every morning, while making my Arabic coffee with cardamom in the little pot ad hoc, which must cost 150 FEB, and of the monster (my 600 Euros espresso machine) that I left you with relief.
I have a washing machine, fridge etc. I buy a plastic armchair for the mini balcony which has the only advantage of being outside; next door, there is a school.
The neighborhood is like Bockstael: there are a lot of Arabs J; I say that as a transition to humor. You really have to tiptoe around, because what we find funny can offend elsewhere.
My next-door neighbors
There are three other apartments, one of which is occupied by a traditional family. A ring of the doorbell is always followed by a commotion, and when the lady of the house comes to open the door, it is with her veil on her head. In the family, the women keep their hijab on if there is a man from outside. In the other two apartments, there are respectively Lebanese and a family whose wife does not wear a veil.
I’ll be much less talkative in two weeks when my classes start; I’m not taking pictures for now because I’m waiting to know how to speak before asking permission etc. A “mumkin? ” would suffice, but I’m in no hurry. What I love are people’s expressions, their poses, their whole way of being.
L’Ami continues to provide me with invaluable services such as paying the electricity bill (this is done in a small shack along an avenue) and telephone calls (local calls are cheap, but international calls with a card are 80 FEB per minute at peak hours; in the other direction, my sister tells me that from Paris it costs four Euros per minute. Is this possible? With the 1666 in Brussels, it was much cheaper. Jecko, you can sleep on your big ears, you won’t have any more phone calls for eight months and I’m sure you’ll regret it. Admit it!
I get a phone call at midnight, and unlike in Brussels, where it could only be Margot or stalking, here it’s completely normal. Goodbye nine o’clock in the morning – nine o’clock in the evening.
Arabs in Germany
My landlady was finishing her phone call when I came to pick up the keys and told me, almost in tears, that her daughter, who lives in Germany, had been summoned by the police and that the same applies to anyone with an Arab name or who has committed the crime of being born with an “ugly face.
In America, they would sweep up everything of the protest generation that still stands on its feet. The land of the free is looking less and less like it.
db could you help me?
I have doubts about the proportion of Muslims here; on the plane I was told 65%, now I’m told 87% (?). It’s not that it’s that important, but I don’t want to give you wrong figures. According to Lonely Planet (not sold in Syria, but tolerated; I never hid my copy), Arabs represent 90% of the population (17 million) (that doesn’t mean 90% of Muslims since there are Christians and Druze among others), Kurds number one million and the rest would be divided between Armenians, Circassians and Turks. The guide does not mention the number of Palestinians.
Dominique, Arcopal, is that you? Across the street from my house, there is a store that sells them. Did you design the dishes?
Well, have a good Friday (that is, a good Sunday).
I don’t think my cyber will be open.
Saturday, September 21
Friday indeed looks like our Sundays; I walk through the souks where all the stores are closed, or almost, but where there are walkers. Bekdash, the famous ice cream shop, is open. At the bend in an alley, I come across a very active clothing market. I don’t know what will happen in the afternoon because I will be in the middle of a nap.
That’s all for now. The Friend brings me today my mattress, a small table and the plastic chair and with that I will be equipped for my eight month stay. He also found me a cleaning lady.
If you have any questions, do not hesitate. Please contact me through Pascal or Dominique or through my private.
Tot ziens (Illa lika)
Sunday September 22, 2002
First coffee on the balcony
After an orthopedically correct night on my new mattress, six o’clock finds me, with my little Arabic coffee, on the terrace; the school next door must be a boarding school because there are three pairs of socks, one per window, drying stuck between the slats of the outside blind.
Aside from his rampant smoking, the Friend is very health conscious. For example, the foam on the coffee would be harmful. Your advice, Dominique. I’m willing to take his advice on many things, but I don’t take it.
And isn’t it dangerous to give up all my vices at once? My body has already been brutally weaned from its bacchanalian intake, am I going to deny it the pleasure of hookah? To look at my beloved fountain through the perfumed cloud of a smoke, which was after all washed, is it not worth a few days less on this earth?
On the radio, the fresh voice of Fairouz.
What do you miss?
Not much; you do. The jokes I used to exchange with Pascal, the days at the Turkish Bath in Saint-Gilles, my exchanges with my tabbagh and my baker. My dear Ayse. The daily conversations on the phone with my sister.
My music; because of my weight, I only took a CD of Oum Kalthoum and that of Emilio, a fellow student I met in Morocco at Alif (Arabic language Institute Fez). This shortage will be easily made up for because the CDs are for nothing here and I bought a small radio.
My sheets J in percale; bourgeois, eh? Here, the merchant said to me: you will think of me by slipping into it. He didn’t mean it that way. They look like sandpaper J. They also cost ten times less than at home.
My home (continued)
I am very close to a mosque and last night I could hear some beautiful chanting on the speakers.
My building is set back from the street at the end of a passage planted with honeysuckle; I won’t tell you more.
While taking inventory of the place, I find large plastic bottles, filled with water, under the sink. There must be twenty liters there.
Each apartment has its own water quota and as I live alone I don’t have much to fear, but it is better to take precautions. I will also have to get a small emergency butane; my tank is nearing the end and I have to hook up with the dealer who regularly passes by in the street. I also need an emergency lamp in case of power cuts.
Emptying your mind
When I went to the United States in 1969, a colleague told me: go without prejudice. Anti-Americanism was the order of the day in left-wing circles at the time. This attitude allowed me to create my own America and I loved it a lot. It surely still exists under the clutter of current propaganda.
I do the same here. I am not a political scientist or even an intellectual; I am describing my life from a very personal – and of course, privileged – point of view.
It is with some trepidation that people ask me what I think of their country. All I can tell them is that I feel good there and that I like the people and the city. I haven’t had time to leave Damascus yet. I have to say that when I ask a foreigner in Brussels about his opinion of Belgium, I am also a little worried.
A funny place. Just across the street. Sometimes I can, sometimes not. The site is sometimes taken over by the schoolchildren next door, probably during recess, who play on their screens in the dark. And it smokes!
The “manager” must be at least 17 years old. Very nice. I don’t know what happened with hotmail, but now it works. If you are not
are not in my address book your mail doesn’t reach me because I have activated the anti-spam device. So try here.
By the way: I write this text from the comfort of my machine and my answers on the spot are necessarily terse because I have to type on a qwerty keyboard and I believe that the cyber has a limited number of lines; I am sometimes asked if I am almost finished.
Monday, Sept. 23, 2002
On the balcony at six o’clock, with a quintuple ration of “Turkish” coffee since that’s what we call it; I can already hear the Friend saying that it’s very bad for the health, but I woke up with a terrible headache.
At boarding school, I count six pairs of socks. The kids get up at the same time as me because there is light in their house.
The task became urgent because I had the shaggy head of an old Belgian.
My teacher gave me the address of his hairdresser’s and I arrived at 7:30 p.m. without an appointment – that’s how it’s done – thinking that at that hour I would have no chance of getting a perm. Not at all. I tell the boy: not like a sheep please, and I leave (I didn’t want them to be dried) curled up like an astrakhan. In fact, when I get home, I’ll notice that the perm is very successful once I’ve given it a brush.
This happy ending comes at the end of days of struggle to make my head look presentable.
You know how we are always on the lookout for natural products, local recipes etc.?
Here, there is Aleppo soap which is the best in the world; I relegated the bricks of YSL offered by girlfriends in my linen drawers, which they discreetly perfume, to use Aleppo in everything. Even as shampoo.
Well, at the grocery store, I find a fabulous mix for my dry hair: olive oil, almond oil and cactus. I apply big gobs of it on my thirsty hair.
Well, it took me three washes with Aleppo, then finally an Elsève type shampoo to get my hair back to its (dry) state. I thought they were oiled for life! I’ll have to get the instructions.
At the hair salon, I ask if next time I can get a henna application. And like all tourists do, I repeat the word louder and louder, thinking that with the volume, it will be understood. They don’t understand me.
Today I’m going to the hammam to spend the day and I’ll try again. Maybe the word hinna (etymology from the Petit Robert) will come across better.
Last night there was a knock on my door and my neighbor (in a veil) introduced me to a very distinguished gentleman who came to collect my monthly contribution to the salary of the man who washes the stairs and collects the garbage (they leave it in a bag outside the door of the landing). “If you need anything, I live downstairs. If I ask him to record a poem by Mahmoud Darwich for me, do you think he’ll blink?
L’Ami told me that the building houses artists and journalists. A bit like mine in Bockstael.
While leaving the hairdresser’s, I plunge directly towards a basement which posts a word containing podo; I say myself, ah, a “podiatrist”. When I ring the bell, a lady comes to open the door, mask on her face. I show my feet and she shows me her teeth. She was a dentist. Everything remains to be done.
My next stop is for a linen store; I am in Malka, a beautiful district of Damascus. Life is short; I know my emery sheets will soften after a few washes, but I need a second pair for my eventual guests. I found some very nice Syrian-made ones, and last night, they were so soft against the skin!
All these details are quite insignificant and only interest me, but I would have liked to know them before coming and I tell myself that among those who read me they will interest someone.
On the way to the hammam and my first step on the soapy slope of vice (hookah).
Monday evening September 23, 2002
What an adventure to send this evening’s message! I tried twice, without success. Then I tried again, and it finally went through, unfortunately with the usual droppings.
Let’s go back to (not AUB) in Damascus
And prosaically, to my hair. Before the hairdresser (and we say hairdresser in Syrian Arabic) I was an old Belgian, afterwards, astrakan, afterwards, it was fine, and now it’s like before, except that it’s curly.
Henna, forgotten since “my” spice merchant tells me it’s for greasy hair. I also have “my” two shoeshine boys and my “La Perle” (a restaurant in Bockstael where I used to regularly taste the dish of the day).
I arrive with my motor oil hoping to get better results, but also hypocritically telling myself that finally it is my “washer” who will be responsible for degreasing my hair.
Ah, this steam room! I’ll have to photograph it! Magnificent, and at the same time funny familial with the bath sheets drying high on a wire.
From the street, where a man is posted on guard to prevent any unwanted irruption, you arrive immediately in the large reception and rest room; there are couches along the walls, a basin in the middle. This is also where you undress in a corner barely sheltered from view; there are few people at 10 o’clock in the morning. The women only have one day a week, probably because so few of them come.
I choose the big game with waxing; that also happens in the big room. But when the vigorous lady advances with her big ball of caramel (a mixture of sugar and lemon), pretending to aim for my pleasure, I stall and show her my half legs. The whole thing, I keep it for the interrogations which will be soon if you continue to post nonsense, db and dominique. Sorry, a little black humor. I’ll ring your bells tomorrow.
The lady points out my bruises, which are always numerous, and I tell myself that given the strength of her pushes, they will soon join together to make one. Well no, his work will not leave any traces or hairs.
This being done, I enter the heart of the establishment: a rectangular room in the center of which there is a long marble on which one sits, then lies down according to the operations; another woman sprays me, then makes me enter a room which is the steam bath itself. There was no steam for fifteen minutes, but I was sweating! When the steam arrived, I thought I was in a pressure cooker. I don’t stay long.
Afterwards, it’s time to clean up; the lady points to my bruises and is satisfied with that. I am otherwise afraid that she comments on my breast, but she is tactful. Anyway, I wouldn’t have been offended, but sometimes she would think I had the evil eye with my scars in front and behind! I’ve never been so clean in my life. She pampers me in all the corners, except the essential one, care that she leaves me. She also sands my feet.
Before starting this whole ritual, she innocently coated my hair with my oil. What I tasted for my fault! She washes my head with Aleppo soap and I think to myself that the Americans have invented something good with the No More Tears. Aleppo soap in the eyes, but it’s a peel! What a horror! Obviously, she has to do it twice, doubling my martyrdom. Then she switches to a softer shampoo, but I’ll come out of there with the whole problem. db, the quest continues. All that’s left is for me to shave my head.
Finally, all clean, you’ll be sprawled out on the couches sipping sweet tea.
Note for those who would come in a Syrian hammam: we don’t walk around, as at home, with our buttocks in the air; we come with a little panties, but the breasts can be uncovered.
Alone in Damascus?
Yes, I am quite alone, even – apart from the Friend – quite alone, but meetings are easy.
This morning, on the road where she was waiting for the micro bus (and not the mini bus as I wrote; the micro must have ten seats, the mini is bigger), an eighteen year old Circassian woman invites me to her village and I think I will go. This village would have received a distinction for its cleanliness and I believe also because they practice birth control there.
This young girl, who speaks English better than I speak Arabic, but with whom the conversation is exhausting, takes it into her head to lead me to the souk Hammadié where my ablutions must take place, taking paths as new for her as for me. At one point, we have to cross a cemetery. She hesitates and wants to go around it. I propose to cross it. We get lost among the graves and finally find the exit. She explains to me the meaning or the purpose of the plants on the graves. They would have something to do with the repose of the deceased. I will have to find out more.
In short, the walk is interminable and my headache returns. Nevertheless, I smile because she is so nice. She takes my hand as we do here, even between men. She asks me why I smile: I tell her I am happy. She is not happy. I ask her: heartache? She seems quite determined to escape this trap. I will not know more. She makes this detour for me on her way to her grandmother’s house. She leaves me in the hammam and gives me her phone number.
Another woman who gives it to me (her phone number) – I meet her in the hammam – is a Moroccan woman married to a Syrian.
It is also there that I meet two Spanish women, one of whom lives in Beirut. When her sister told me she was going to Syria, people’s eyes widened: IN SYRIA ????
Last meeting of the day, a Mauritanian who was looking for the previous tenant. One thing led to another – after I refused to go to his house or for him to come to mine – and I agreed to a meeting in front of the fountain for tomorrow, Tuesday. He describes himself as handsome, a kid for sure: 30 years old; but he would be a poet and will record me Mahmoud Darwich. For those of you who don’t know him yet, he is the greatest living Arab poet (C.K. correct me if I’m wrong) and Palestinian.
I don’t know if I’ll go because of my bad hair…. Here, what if I cover my head? This hair, I think I’ll throw it away.
Consulted about the date with Mohammed, the Friend tells me : ok, go, but be careful with your money.
Alas, we are no longer at the age where we must fear for our virtue.
Before closing, there are demonstrations for the Palestinians; today it was in Yarmouk, a Palestinian camp/village (I was too tired from the bath to go) and on Friday here in Damascus. I’m on my way.
It’s 10:45 am; I’ve been waiting for my landlady for 4 hours; at 6 am I asked for a break to get my mail and something to eat; she said, I’ll come at 10 am. I told you, there is no time here, but this is the first person who has done this to me. Besides, she’s not coming.
On the other hand, the Friend is always scrupulously punctual. Tomorrow, at two o’clock, he will introduce me to my cleaning lady.
Leyla sayda (good night) (I transcribe this with y’s instead of umlauts because of the tricks word plays on me; that’s also why I say sister instead of sister and why I’m going to type o euf)
The next morning (Tuesday, September 24, 2002) on my balcony
Across the street, there is a T-shirt and maybe a pair of underpants.
You two, db and dominique, stand at attention. I have quarrel with you.
What is this mercantile spirit? I’m writing for my own pleasure and you want to collect these uninteresting columns and put them on paper? I write internet style, not writer style. If you like to read me, it’s because you like me; these reflections would only be of interest to those who have a connection with Syria or with me. I mentioned Lieve Joris; her book has nothing to do with this. She is a serious person who has done her research. But you know, leaving the room after farting in it, or rather, if it were possible, the other way around, very little for me.
Let me dream: the book of my life (suspension points) I do not think it will see the day. The Damascene present cannot bring the past to the surface. But to write a worm, only one, and in Arabic, which would be recited in schools and inscribed in restaurant ashtrays!
BTW, I have already written one, in Scottish, in Edinburgh at Buccleuch place, on my bench which will be my tombstone. I stole it, unknowingly, from Robert Fergusson, a poet who died at 24 in the madhouse, before Robert Burns, whom he inspired. So, in gratitude for the wonderful months I spent in Edinburgh, I offer a bench to the city on which I have a plaque with my name and a verse of Fergusson’s that I erroneously believe to be very well known (as if in French one believed oneself obliged to write under “ô temps, suspends ton vol” the name of the author). And so I will go down in history as a great Scottish poet.
Reikie, fareweel! I ne’er cou’d part
Wi’ thee, but wi’ a dowie heart.
As for Arabic, I’ll do better. And since we’re talking about a tombstone, if I die here, have me wrapped in a sheet (of percale) and if possible, buried in the desert. Definitely no crates or promiscuity.
Come on, I’m at the end of my formula roll: see you again, in cha Allah.
I think it means hello, goodbye, welcome
You want to know everything about my date with Mohammed? Well, you’ll be disappointed and relieved to know that I bailed.
By three o’clock, my hair was presentable. It had yielded to the fourth type of treatment (L’Oreal) and I wasn’t going to need to cover my head.
I had gone to the dry cleaners to get my formal clothes, a loose Arab-African style outfit made in Holland and sold at the Galerie des Princes, which this morning was the envy of a black American Muslim I met when I registered at the institute. But, we’ll come back to that later. The dry cleaner had done an absolutely impeccable job; I’ve never seen that. Not a single crease and from the photos in the store, these are men who iron. When they put their minds to it, they manage to be amazing!
So I’m ready for the 6 o’clock meeting, when said date (Mohammed) calls me and I ask him who was the person he knew in my apartment before I moved in? I had asked my landlady. Paf, he fails the test.
Then, not wanting to waste my time or his, I insisted on the fact that I was an old lady and his answer made him pass. If he was after my money, it was also a zig zag session that he had in mind.
In order not to risk running into him, I went to the fountain at 4 pm dragging my field clipboard; it was high time he reimbursed me for his transportation costs. What do you do with a field notebook? Well, you write to Margot, who has neither computer nor fax; she has an answering machine now, but it’s not even hers. A granny of my age totally refractory to progress. So I wrote her my babble by hand and I also wrote some postcards that you will receive in a while.
You can find them here and there; they are red, as always, and bear the words “Boîte aux lettres” and the equivalent in Arabic. The country became independent in 1946 after being under French mandate since 1920.
Today for the first time I realized that I had changed my name. It had actually happened when I went to our embassy, which had issued me a certificate in Arabic and French for the police.
In Assimil, Jacques Verneuil becomes Firnouille, and I am now Aani Rousenz because there is no G(ue) in Arabic, except in Egypt where they transformed Dje into Gue (Gamal Abdel Nasser, whereas it should be pronounced Djamal A. N.). I’m going to drop Marie for eight months to simplify my life and that of others. The name of a great Arab poetess is apt.
It was the morning of registration and I was there half an hour before the opening. I respectfully stood in the waiting room where a totally exhausted Moroccan man was sleeping and came to accompany his Algerian friend. We were quickly joined by the African-American Muslim who admired my outfit (I’ll call him Abu Kamel, but if he has an Arabic name, it’s not that one), and by a bearded man in a cassock whom I thought for a moment was a priest, but I was wrong. We waited quietly and saw people passing by and disappearing towards the corridor on the right; the man in the cassock was the last to arrive, and we continued to wait until Abu Kamel decided to take matters into his own hands and went to the information office.
He finds the right office and comes to free us from our dead end. In the meantime, I have lost my lead and, at five minutes, I won’t be able to finish the formalities today.
So, I met Aani Rousenz while filling out the forms; I also started to get familiar with my address since I had to decline it several times.
This is just the beginning and it is the easiest. Four stations in different offices and we are given our mission order.
First, go to the Bank (which is not near) to pay. Then, to cross the whole city to go to the AIDS office in order to get stung.
To help us, we are given little pieces of paper with instructions for the microphone or cab driver.
I thought of proposing to Abu Kamel to team up with him, but he disappeared and I won’t see him either at the Bank or at the AIDS office.
If you come for classes, take 16 and I’m not sure that’s enough (I’ve given out 12 so far, but I’m not done). You leave them everywhere (embassy, police, bank); at the Institute, I see that they ask for 7 and I blush, I only have 5 left. Relief, they take five; it’s when I get to the Aids office that I understand where the other two should be housed. There is a long line, but here women come before everyone else (ah machismo has its good sides!). So they ask me for the two photos I don’t have and photocopies of my passport that I don’t have either (you make six of them to be safe if you come); photocopies of all the pages.
Fortunately, there is a photocopy and photo store nearby.
There, thinking they were doing the right thing, they also sold me 500 pounds worth of tax stamps, which the Aids people saw and sent me back to the store RIGHT AWAY (and not after the injection as I would have done) to get my money back because students don’t pay.
The doctor is done with his shots and sits down at the desk where he dislodges a female doctor who will continue them. He vigorously stamps forms; signs papers and receives a pile of passports that come to rest on mine, which I do not take my eyes off for a moment.
He handles the passports like a croupier or a magician; I am anxious. He calls out names at full speed and they all come to collect their property. There is one left: it is mine and the doctor finally takes care of me. He takes a good look at the needle that my GP gave me because theirs are fresh and single-use, and that’s it.
You will come back tomorrow at 10 am to get your certificate. I would have gotten there earlier, I would have finished it all in one sitting. And the AIDS office is FAR away! You don’t want to get tangled up in the paperwork and give the driver the one that goes to the bank when you want to go to Aids. Finally, you learn to take life as it comes.
And my cleaning lady?
She didn’t materialize any more than Mohammed did, but that’s not my fault. There is a nasty virus in Damascus that is resistant to antibiotics. The horrible shingles I bought myself before coming will protect me from it, I hope. The lady may come tomorrow; if she is still ill, the Friend suggests a man who works at the hotel and who is perfect.
You must be getting tired of me praising Damascus, but I am under the spell; hypnotized.
And finally (suspension points) the French-speaking ladies
I met them again yesterday, less numerous than last week. In order to adapt to my schedule, they offer me coffee on Wednesday afternoon since all my mornings are taken. I talk at length with, say, Suzanne. We have in common our past as interpreters, a profession she quickly left to get married. When Suzanne takes out a picture of her son who works at the World Bank, I show them a picture of Charles and they ask me what his job was. When I say: gendarme, there is a silence and I realize that I have in front of me the wives of diplomats who are perhaps meeting for the first time a gendarme’s wife. It will be a good test. They may not come.
I want to get out of this mess. I try not to be racist, but the diplomatic community has never interested me; however, when, like me, one claims to respect the individual, one does not reject people because they belong to a community with which one does not have much affinity.
In the evening, Suzanne calls me and we have a long chat. She proposes me a jogging at 5:30 am! Pity! it was good formerly. We live a few minutes away from each other; there is a park nearby that I’m going to discover as soon as I get out of this cybernetic cave.
Come on, masa al hayir (we say that in the afternoon) and you answer, masa al nour.
Thursday, September 26, 2002
I passed my AIDS exam; I arrive at 9 o’clock, but they told me ten o’clock and in the meantime I invite myself to a coffee at the place of the guy who made my photos and sold me the tax stamps yesterday. I chat with a woman I saw at the institute and who also invites herself to my hosts’ café. She will serve as my interpreter.
A young employee of the manager comes to chat with us and tells us his desire to work in Belgium. I show him a photo of Pascal (here a dismissal at the head of Jeck) and I ask him: do you really want to live with people like that? He recoils in horror when I show him another one of Mr. Hyde (all these guys are one and the same) having a wonderful time in my kitchen.
He smokes three packs a day and it costs him almost 100 pounds; I ring the bell for him through Greta, my future classmate, by telling him about lung cancer.
In short, I spend an exciting hour. At ten o’clock sharp, I go back to AIDS and they make me go up to the director’s office; I think to myself: it must be serious for me to have to go and see the Numero Uno, but frankly, only the Holy Spirit could have contaminated me.
No, it’s because they don’t want to make me wait any longer and they make me skip the first floor step, with the forms waiting in the director’s office to be taken down.
Back to the Institute
Another small photocopy of the AIDS diploma and I am almost at the end of my journey. Nevertheless, you have to fill in a long questionnaire where they ask you the name of your maternal grandfather (I know him).
In the corridors, I meet beautiful, beautiful Russians and people of all colors. Abu Kemal also returned from his mission.
Finally, and I was surprised not to hear the sound of trumpets, it is the consecration and the delivery of the student card.
Not so fast, Aani Rousenz, if you don’t want to end up in Alif, Bâ (abc for the roumis) class, there is still a language exam to do.
The sheet of paper I’m presented with is entirely in Arabic and I’m standing there deciphering it like functional illiterates do: by moving my lips.
I pass the first exam, I wouldn’t say with flying colors, but the result is good enough since the bar is set higher. This second level leads straight to the rapid weight loss that Greta told me about; she struggled so much that she became as thin as a nail. I could have used it, because as a lady in the souks told me: in Damascus, you don’t lose weight! Abstinence or not, sugar quickly fills the void left by the wine and it’s nothing but divine loukoums (sorry, Ayse, even better than the Turkish ones), pistachio sweets, little honey cakes and …. candied fruits! I buy them by four, at my spice shop, otherwise they would all be gone.
I make a big detour when I pass by the Palestinian pastry shops because you can’t not go in to eat these white rolls, stuffed with cream, these grilled vermicelli that top a well of cheese and the trays of “madloka”. I’ll name names later.
Anyway, despite my desire to lose weight, I give up trying to reach a stronger level. So, the oral now; I read, with a certain brilliance, to the two ladies who scrutinize me, a text that I have on me, but that I prepared with my teacher (and I tell them so); the debacle is the conversation as soon as I get out ready-made sentences. Too bad, I go ahead and mumble strings of words, mixing present, past, masculine, feminine. The two ladies are charming and patient. I will know in five days which class I will be placed in. Classes begin on Tuesday, October 1.
I’ll give up posting
…. But not to write as the words are overflowing from my fingers; if the two heads of cc21 would download my texts ? I sometimes spend three quarters of an hour trying to get these imperishable words into their nest. The other advantage would be that I wouldn’t have to hunt for poop by deleting all the apostrophes in my text.
Although I’m working on my Arabic, I’m still on vacation, but Tuesday, no more laughing.
I will let without commenting the cat of my little neighbors come to lie down early in the morning on the end of its blanket exposed to the sun; a hand picks up the sock which fell from the blind on the windowsill, then, the second hand or rather the second sock being snatched in its turn. The fleeting passage of a woman on the end balcony.
Towards the evening, it is another kitty which comes to lie down, in the shade, on the wall which borders our long passage towards the entry of the building.
My gaze plunges into the gardens of the first floor; the first one contains a dog kennel, a very rare animal in Damascus, thank God, and sorry to those who love them, but what a pleasure to be able to walk without looking where one puts one’s feet and to not hear barking! The second is a real garden with trees; further to the right, the gardens are under construction.
As I look at the cat on the wall, I think to myself, there it is, the charm of the people here. They are cats; they have the elegance, the voluptuousness, the flexibility, the attitudes, the softness, the seduction.
I guess that’s what it means to fall in love with a city.
I think of that peaceful shopkeeper in Hamadié’s large renovated alley, lying on the floor of his false ceiling, leaning against his window, watching people pass by with a meditatively curious air.
How could an American friend see Damascus as a “dusty, poor, third world town”?
I’m leaving you; there’s Jacques Firnouille from Assimil and Masaka (in an African tale) waiting for me. Jacques has finished having tea with the gentleman he met on the plane and Masaka is getting married to the one of the three brothers who has a good heart. As for all the sick people of Atoui, I wish them a quick recovery (it’s the excellent book we had at Marie Haps, but the doctor must have been doing good business because of the number of times we went to him or he came to our characters).
Presto, to my cyber cave and I wish you a good one.
The presto of yesterday evening made nothing; the boys occupy all the consoles in the cyber. I’m told to come back at 7pm. In the meantime, I’m going to visit the nearby park (I have to get out of my safety rut) and when I come back, it’s 7:30 p.m.: after the hour, it’s not the hour anymore. Come back tomorrow. This afternoon, I’ll post without any problem.
Friday 27 Sept. 02
Wait a moment, let me shake off the flour I got rolled in today.
In pursuit of the Palestinians
It was the day of the silent demonstration for the Palestinians that was supposed to start at 9 o’clock from Merdjé (Martyrs) square.
I am on my balcony where I am doing my homework and I am watching the cat from the boarding school next door who is going to come and sunbathe on his blanket. Bad sign, he doesn’t come.
DS told me: no demonstrations, you swore to stay quiet.
And I resist… until the song El Quds (Jerusalem) sung by Fairouz pulls me out of my absenteeism and I decide to go downtown.
Democratically, in a microphone (the name is Service; you see it written at the stops, which are of little use since the said microphone stops everywhere).
From the terminus, I walk to Merdjé Square; it’s 10 o’clock and I don’t see anyone. Hell, when they say 9 o’clock, it’s 9 o’clock. The police tell me to take a cab to catch up with the demonstrators. The cab drops me off in front of the US embassy and I tell him: what about the Palestinians? He shrugs his shoulders and leaves. I will never find the demonstrators. In the evening I see on television that there were not many of them; after all, I marched in the one on April 7 in Rabat, where there were hundreds of thousands of us. This does not mean that the Syrians are indifferent; but it was a Friday and like the friend I will tell you about below, many are busy with their religious duties.
I consoled myself by going to the souk Hamadié to have a tea at the fountain.
For what followed, I decided to erase the details of the financial beating I took; however, the Friend had warned me. I’ll jump right to the conclusion: in business, no feelings. Whether it’s a Palestinian or a merchant on the verge of bankruptcy, you offer half of what he asks.
The balm will come from the cab which will cost me ten pounds (20 cents Euro) less than usual and from the contemplation of my purchases: beautiful and of excellent quality, paid finally at home prices.
Tomorrow, Saturday, the Friend comes with the cleaning person, a man.
Here we do the big cleaning twice a year, says Suzanne (one of the French-speaking women I met last week, with whom I sympathized and whose maid, affected by the mysterious virus, is now cured). In autumn and spring we clean the walls and of course the curtains and drapes.
She tells me about Ramadan, which promises to be quite special.
Friday is for her a day of meditation spent reading the Koran and meditating; her husband goes to the mosque. I think of our Sundays in the past when we would put on our best clothes to go to mass and go to salvation in the afternoon.
When I tell her that I washed the grapes that a neighbor gave me – she had a whole tray of them; politeness would have wanted me to refuse them, but I couldn’t resist – so that I washed them with chlorine, she gives me a more civilized way, namely soaking them in water with lemon salt.
She explains to me again the extra red tap in the kitchen: it runs until one in the afternoon and the water comes from a spring. The rest of your water is stored in your personal tank and would be less good.
Next week, I’ll have to make it shorter; at the institute, you better work. The stage is now pretty much set and if I have trouble posting, don’t be alarmed; the network is growing and demand is greater than supply. The Internet is over the phone. When I make a phone call abroad, it takes me five minutes to get a line and when I have managed to get the two codes through, the one on the card and my personal code, I often have to go through it four times.
Aani Rousenz, a candied pear, but not contrite.
Sunday, Sept. 29, 2002
It is indeed in the weight loss class that I will land. I’m lent the Awal book (the first class, the previous one being the preparatory one), and at first sight it should be negotiable, except that at this stage I don’t know how to speak properly, not even at all. Today, I will only go out in the evening, I spend the day studying.
The cleaning man
Yesterday the Friend came to introduce me to him.
Have you ever seen those ads for the White Tornado? I’m still lucky: it’s him. In no time at all everything was clean: curtains washed and put back in place, windows washed, etc. Also, this man is adorable. I continue to marvel at the gentleness of the Syrians I meet, a gentleness that does not fit well with the image that is projected of them abroad.
The other day, having exhausted my cash, I went with my heart pounding to the bank where I had opened an account in Euros. What did all those papers on which I had put my blind signature (in the absence of the Friend) say?
I had been assured that I could withdraw Euros, but I only half believed it. But that’s what happened. I left with bills in our currency. Actually, Syrian pounds would have been fine, but I wanted to test the system. No, I don’t enjoy changing money on the black market. It’s not worth it.
At the bank, many of the staff are women. These women wear the hijab and are dressed in a coat that must be warm in the summer. I think there is air conditioning.
35° yesterday; it’s hot, but dry. My well-being also comes from this heat; I spend from day to dusk in the nearby park. There are several ambassadors’ residences in this neighborhood, Suzanne tells me, which may explain why people are not very friendly; I am in Mezze, but the part between the popular Mezze djebel and the more chic Mezze where the Institute is located. I am far from the center, but with a microphone or a cab, I am there in no time. The advantage is that I can walk to class.
Greta chose Bab Touma, near the old town, more “oriental”, but where there are a little too many students for my taste.
You shouldn’t eat just anything or anywhere when you arrive here. I finally established a causal relationship between canned eggplant stuffed with pistachios and you know what. The only remedy if you have to go out, an immodium; and if you stay at home: rice with cooking water and bananas. That’s for a simple case. I hope I can’t give you the remedies for a complicated case.
I don’t know anything about botany, but it’s not our pigeons that come and soil my laundry that’s drying outside. Would they be turtle-doves? They would be turtle-doves “bulging their grey and pink throat under their precious black and white ruff” (Genevoix) except for the ruff, that’s what it looks like.
The inventory is coming to an end
I can still talk to you about the cinema, you forget, except that there is a festival every year at the Chams (a big hotel); about the Syrian television, the only one that I can get at the moment (with the Moroccan and the Algerian ones as well as a channel called Nil) which sometimes broadcasts good programs, in particular the transmission of the Silk Road festival from Palmyra and curiously, news in Hebrew. L’Ami is going to come and fix my saucer which would allow me to receive Al Jazeera and even CNN.
I don’t know what’s going on in the world; I understand that Bush is not giving up his war plans. I could get news in English or French, but I need to know the times.
Yes, there will be some, Pascal, but give me time to explain to people that they are for the Internet; not everyone will agree. In the meantime, I’m going to ask to be allowed to photograph the hammam. I just found out that I had burned a copy of irfanview on a cd, so I installed it and will be able to reduce the size of the pictures.
Two updates please!
Surfing is very very slow here; do you still remember your telephone modems? If it’s possible, could you send me an update for Universalis? My version is not compatible with XP and I can’t find anything on the internet to upgrade.
The second one would be the possible adaptation of Arabic for French speakers (II) from Nova intelligence; I had to install word with Arabic characters, but it always comes out with cabalistic signs when I try to consult my dictionary.
I started working on my immortal verse in Arabic; it doesn’t sound very good. J
In two days, it’s back to school! Tomorrow, the hammam, purr.
Monday, 30 Sept. 02
My Sunday of study was cut short by a telephone call from the hotel: two letters for you.
In the morning Paris had called me: pleasure to wait all week for a phone call, however brief. We only tell each other the essential.
The pleasure of receiving a letter, of reading it quickly, of sitting down on the usual terrace and reading it again and again. This has not happened to me for a very long time.
On the internet, I used to receive 200 messages a day that I would gallop through, and if by chance there was one that deserved my attention, I would copy and paste it and answer it point by point, but that’s not the same as a letter.
At the terrace, I met a monosexual couple whose appearance I didn’t like at first sight, but who turned out to be quite charming. They are French and in love with Damascus, too.
I get two cleaning contracts for my smiling little shoeshine boy; you who find it degrading to have someone else do this work for you, there is nothing to stop you from paying properly. When it comes to work, only the pay is degrading.
I stop at Zak’s, my spice merchant, and he has a big surprise in store for me. His store is a narrow corridor, very well arranged, at the end of which there is the cash register, a chair and the air conditioning. He invites me to a coffee, sits down on a stool and makes me listen – it’s not possible – to my absolutely favorite tune “when I am laid in earth” by Purcell (Dido and Aeneas). Not only that, but he lends me the tape.
My music is one of the only things I miss.
I think I’m going to move here. I feel so perfectly at home.
“For the last time: Criticizing the State of Israel and its cruel and violent system of legally-enshrined racism is NOT antisemitic.Those making the claim that it is have done so much damage they literally have blood on their hands.
First, Palestinians who have been ethnically cleansed, oppressed and murdered by the self-proclaimed “Jewish State” have to bend over backwards to prove that they’re not “antisemitic” and resisting or even public talking about their own dispossession and erasure is attacked as aimed at destroying the Jewish people. Oppressed groups have enough to worry about without having to cater to the hurt feelings of their oppressors.
Second, politicians and other public figures who dare to speak out for Palestinians as they do for other oppressed groups have been subjected to systematic campaigns to destroy them. Lifelong anti-racists and champions of such as Jeremy Corbyn, Ilhan Omar, Angela Davis and so many others have been viciously smeared in this way and, in the case of Corbyn, helping to smash a powerful social justice movement that could have transformed Britain. It is no accident that pro-Israel forces tend to be more tolerant of racism in general and even of anti-Jewish racism, while true anti-racists are being smeared as “antisemites” by those same intolerant and Right-wing forces. The “antisemitism” is this ironically targeting true anti-racists and empower empowering actual racists.
Third, Jews who speak in support of their Palestinian brothers and sisters are also being silenced and smeared. I’m constantly told by pro-Israel Jews that I’m not “really” Jewish and even that I’m an “antisemite,” among many other things. This attempt to control what it means to be Jewish and what Jews can and cannot think, is itself a form of oppression against Jews and the very idea that to be Jewish is to automatically support the State of Israel is a fundamentally racist. To propagate this falsehood is furthermore to inextricably associate all Jews with this Israel and its crimes. In this sense, Israel is literally using the Jews of the world as human shields in its racist colonialist project.
Finally, the weaponization of “antisemitism” to shut down legitimate criticism of Israel ironically hurts all Jews, both Zionist and non-Zionist, as it makes a mockery of the charge of “antisemitism” and thus discredits and undermines the fight against real anti-Jewish bigotry, prejudice and racism.
When anti-racism to becomes synonymous with “antisemitism,” what does that say about Jews?We need to stop having this conversation. It’s time to put to rest once and for all this cheap and destructive tactic designed to silence critics of one of the most brutal systems of organized racism on the planet.
So, if “antisemite” means a person who opposes the institutionalization of Jewish Supremacy in Palestine (which is ironically directed against actual Semites), it’s a badge I’ll wear proudly. What I oppose is racism, bigotry and prejudice, including against Jews. And that is exactly why I oppose Israel: not because it’s Jewish, but because it’s racist.”
May 23rd marks the EU Day Against Impunity For Genocide, Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide (the EU Day Against Impunity). For the sixth time, the European Commission, along with the EU Genocide Network, Eurojust and the Portguese Presidency of the EU Council, raises awareness to the issue of impunity for these most atrocious crimes. This time with a special focus on the EU and member states efforts to tackle the impunity gap.
On this important day, the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM) wishes to express its gratitude for the work accomplished by a great variety of actors working towards justice and accountability for international crimes committed in Syria. A number of significant signals have been sent in recent times that provide a silver lining for those who seek justice. However, it is more clear than ever, ten years after the start of the Syrian revolution and with the illegitimate presidential elections in Damascus around the corner, that there is much work to be done and action to be taken for justice to become a real perspective.
After long years of impunity, the past year has provided victims of the Syrian regime with the first tangible result of a quest for justice that was set in motion years ago. In February 2021, the Higher Regional Court in Koblenz, Germany, handed down the worldwide first verdict by a criminal court. In the case against a former security service officer, the court found that the Syrian regime committed crimes against humanity in the framework of its state-run torture program. Another trial is underway at the same court against a higher-ranking officer and additional investigations are conducted and trials prepared in EU member states such as France and the Netherlands.
Thanks to the efforts of Syrian victims and witnesses willing to provide their testimony to bolster investigations and help bring along cases, criminal complaints regarding the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons against its own people were filed in the EU member states Germany, France and Sweden. On this EU Day Against Impunity, it is the SCM’s hope that these jurisdictions join forces to investigate these most heinous crimes of employing toxic gases against women, children and the elderly with the aim of terrorizing and forcibly displacing innocent civilians.
Next to these hopeful developments in national jurisdictions, the SCM compliments the recent and continuously crucial work that international organizations such as the Organisation for the Prohibition of ChemicalWeapons (OPCW) in The Hague and the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism for Syria (IIIM) in Geneva perform. The OPCW Conference of States Parties in April expectedly condemned the Syrian government for its repeated violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention. The organizations’ Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) responsible for identifying the perpetrators of the use of chemical weapons used in Syria recently published its second report finding units of the Syrian Arab Air Force responsible for a chemical attack on Saraqib on 4 February 2018. Often in the background but indispensable, the IIIM is continuing to collect and analyze information, and provide national prosecutors with dossiers of evidence used in investigations and trials. The SCM is glad to see the intensive and fruitful cooperation between the EU and its agencies with both the OPCW and the IIIM and hopes that the mutual support and cooperation will only increase and yield even more fruit.
Meanwhile, the government of the Netherlands last September announced it would hold the Syrian regime to account, including for human rights violations and torture in particular. In this effort, it was recently joined by the government of Canada. The SCM welcomes this concrete legal step by a EU member state and encourages other EU countries to join the Netherlands in this effort. This encouragement for more action is reflected in a resolution passed by the European Parliament (EP) on the occasion of the 10 year anniversary in March this year. The resolution includes many valuable recommendations for further steps to tackle impunity for atrocity crimes committed in Syria. These were reiterated just now in a letter from members of the EP to Justice Commissioner Reynders and High Representative/Vice-President Borrell demanding a concrete EU Action Plan against impunity with concrete measures for victims and war criminals in the EU.
The SCM wishes to emphasize that while the aforementioned variety of steps, efforts and tools towards this goal are important and more than welcome, they do not represent wholesome justice. For this to become a reality, there must be transitional justice based on a political transition in accordance with United Nations Resolution 2245. Without sustainable peace, there will not be justice in Syria and, in extension, also in the region and Europe. The achievements of the past year are important signals and give hope in this regard, especially after the long period of impunity.
On the occasion of this year’s EU Day Against Impunity, to tie words to action and strengthen the praiseworthy developments in the EU and beyond further, the SCM calls for the following recommendations to be implemented as soon as possible:
EU member states and other jurisdictions should amend their judicial legislation. These amendments should result in an inclusion or expansion of existing provisions on universal or extraterritorial jurisdiction and related criminal procedure.
These amendments should also enable local and regional courts hearing universal jurisdiction cases to have the competence, resources and capacities to properly conduct these complex trials, invest in multilingual outreach to and accessibility for the affected Syrian community, and effectively protect witnesses when needed.
In parallel, national war crimes units investigating cases and analyzing evidence should be fitted with the necessary support and capacity to enable their expedient and complete handling of the increasing number of complaints and cases.
Meanwhile, the EU and its agencies as well as other relevant authorities should ensure that victims, witnesses, and defectors have access to the war crimes units and courts to enable real participation in the justice process.
To build on the positive results of national courts, member states and other interested jurisdictions should be encouraged to consider pooling their jurisdictions for the possibility of a treaty-based tribunal for atrocity crimes committed in Syria. Including as a response to some of the recommendations above, this effort could be complementary to and strengthen national universal jurisdiction efforts.