Blog Archive

Blog Archive – September, 2009

Two African Men

September 28, 2009

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

They addressed the UN general assembly in New York last week. A first time for each man. Was it planned so that the contrast between their presentations would be so stark? One spoke for 90 minutes, the other took barely 20.

One is African Arab, the other African American. One has been in power for 40 years while the second, a newcomer—has headed his country for 8 months. One spoke in his native Arabic; the other in English. One expressed a widespread disapproval of the UN and world nations. The other, although critical at times, raised future possibilities and called for harmonization, muting any hint of censure. Need I go on?

Even if the press highlighted the Arab leader’s eccentricities and excesses, a close reading of the speech of Moammar Kaddafi of Libya is hard both to admire or to defend--whatever one thinks about the history of failures of the world body. What the Arab declared was not unreasonable. And much of what Kaddafi said was, in my opinion, true. Many heads of state present there may have wanted to utter what Kaddafi dared, but lacked the courage.

What Kaddafi did was offer the world press, especially western media, an opportunity to contrast this new, handsome, elegant and eloquent western leader with a rough, long-winded and long-serving Arab head of state. The better Obama ‘appeared’--and he is clearly a man of ‘appearance’-- which is not to say he is phony. (More and more  critics are viewing him as ‘a paper tiger’.)  Yet the American’s elegance only heightened the comparison. It made me, as an Arab, want to hide under the nearest table.

US and British media seemed to delight in highlighting the Arab’s style and they took advantage of the Libyan’s problems over his NY city accommodation to emphasize what appeared to be ‘silliness’.  Kaddafi provided the media with photo ops no journalist could pass up.

Even now, when Libya is enjoying normalization with the st1:place>US, and where mainly US businesses will benefit, it is at the cost of Arab dignity and leadership. Who is at fault? How can this change? I wonder: would the presumed successor to the Libyan leadership, Moammar’s son Saif, be a better match?

[ Two African Men ]

A Short Visit to Syria:Part I

September 17, 2009

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Although the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, Damascus is still a place to be discovered. Particularly Americans have much to learn and enjoy to a visit to this country, starting with the capital.


A pity the new administration decided to extend the sanctions against Syria. More than a pity. A mistake, as far as I’m concerned. And it disappointed many who had expected new policies from Barak Obama.

Damascus in particular appears to have changed a lot since I was last there, in 2003. Being summer, one sees more foreigners, Europeans but also Arab people. Many who live in the Gulf states come to Syria to escape the summer heat. Although Syria was hot (a dry heat) too. Syrians living in the Gulf States return here for their holidays. I was surprised to meet a great many students studying Arabic, although I had already heard that Syria is now a favored center for Arabic language study.

There are many, many things to do in Syria besides study Arabic: visit roman ruins at Palmyra (Tadmoor) in the East, and Bosra in the South; the hilly very early Christian towns of Sadnaya and Maloula not far northwest of the capital are also popular for visitors, and for weekend trips. Damascus has its ancient city center, the old city, with its market places and large, elegant, old houses, many now converted to restaurants. The city streets and cafes were full every night.

A really popular attraction for locals and visitors is the mountainside, Qaasiuun, that dominates the valley. A line of outdoor cafes, some rather expensive, now lines the ridge from which you overlook the entire city. It’s windy there and a popular place on summer nights; families sit on the grass and stroll along the paths through the evenings.

What most stuck me was how the city has expanded over the past decade. Whole new suburbs have been developed extending the city in all directions, with wide roads linking them to the city center. And the cars! And elegant indoor shopping malls! Even at 10 pm, traffic is heavy through the city.

I felt no tension at all moving around Syria. People are helpful and welcoming. Transport is easy. But Damascus in particular is great city to stroll around.

With the anticipation of Ramadan month, shops remained open late for shoppers. Then, one the holy month began, after slow day traffic, and following ifthar, when the streets completely empty while everyone is enjoying ‘breaking fast’ with their families and friends, the city begins to awaken. Streets and cafes are crowded until well after midnight.

All schedules change during Ramadan. It’s not a school or work holiday, but the pace slows considerably. One never knows when to phone a friend, and it’s never clear what hours offices are open.

Sounds like a page for The Lonely Planet guide? Not my usual entry. But I need to set the context, so little is known about Syria, that I want readers to know just how pleasant a society it is, how comfortable Syria is for a visitor, how at ease Syrians are.

Part II we’ll learn more, especially about the economy and education.

[ A Short Visit to Syria:Part I ]

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