Blog Archive

Blog Archive – February, 2010

Damascus, Syria. Part 2

February 18, 2010

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

News of a diplomatic breakthrough in Syria-US relations in mid-February seems to be a surprise, to the press at least. It comes nine months after the Obama administration extended US sanctions against this quiet corner of the Arab world. Only a few weeks earlier Washington had announced that Syria was among the places of origin for travelers to the US who must undergo enhanced security procedures.

Of the new détente, photos appeared and opinions of ill-informed experts flooded airwaves and blogs. Then this news headline disappeared.

It is difficult to know what this diplomatic move means, apart from a new US ambassador arriving in Damascus after a hiatus of five years. We do not know the substance of the talks between a ‘high ranked State Department official and his Syrian counterpart. What real changes, in terms of economic and political policies, will result between the two nations, we can only speculate.

That said, one thing is clear from observing life in Syria first hand: Syria isn’t waiting for the Americans to expand Syria’s universities, its tourism industry, its private commercial sector. More than seven million tourists visit Syria every year. Thousands of students arrive from around the world to study here. And, more and more international companies, among them brand name apparel and restaurant chains, are opening outlets in the capital, Damascus.

On its side, Syrian industry is expanding, supplying goods to a wide range of local and international markets. All this keeps unemployment low, and the middle and upper class growing. Educated Syrians are more likely to stay at home with lucrative jobs now available in the commercial sector.

, which seems to have missed the global slowdown. Perhaps its omission from WTO, IMF and World Bank ‘patronage’ are to st1:place>Syria’s advantage under present conditions.

Syria, although included as a ‘third world’ nation by the westerner press, is not a debt-ridden developing country; it has ample local resources to feed and clothe its people, and a vibrant mercantile (commercial) community to attract investment and highly trained experts. (This, even though Syria bears the economic burden of more than a million Iraqi refugees inside the country.)

This is my second visit to Syria in recent months. I use it to take a closer look at the economy and explore corners of the capital that I had missed on previous visits. Some of my students were on winter break so I had ample company to the many cafes in the old city, the neighborhood of ‘Bab Touma’. Bab Touma was once known as “the Christian quarter’ of the city. An abundance of churches and seminaries may be found here; but it seems that as many mosques sit side by side with them.

This part of town once housed large families in elegant three story homes. Today, with increasing tourist demands, many of these elegant homes have been converted to enchanting cafes: Mona Lisa, Takaya, Alkaimaria, Beit Sitti and Beit Jiddu are five I visited. Besides offering western meals, they have the usual fare of local dishes. Fifteen years ago one found many small hostels in Bab Touma catering to back-packers. Today Bab Touma attracts more the middle class visitors. And the young. They pour into the quarter Thursday nights, couples arm in arm, cliques of girls, or boys. Some head for the chess cafes; others to hear bands, or solo musicians. It’s a free zone where you can munch hot waffles dipped in chocolate, puff arguile pipes and sip zattar tea in relaxing cafes. Whatever politicians any be planning, the Syrian public is confident their lives have already broken bounds.

[ Damascus, Syria. Part 2 ]

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