Bill of Rights

What does the Syrian constitution say about citizenship and how might this change?

Photo by Fadi al-Hamwi

Photo by Fadi al-Hamwi

With the escalation of the unrest in Syria and the accompanying surge in political dialogue, there has been a resurgence of discussion about the concept of citizenship.

In his book Guide to Citizenship, Hassan Abbas, a Syrian researcher, wrote that it is not enough to define citizenship as acquiring a nationality and enjoying the civil and political rights it offers. The definition includes active participation in public life.

“Freedom is the legal status quo of the citizen meaning that a citizen is free to choose between becoming an active citizen who participates in public life or…being a passive one,” Abbas wrote.

“Citizenship means the right of citizens to participate in all aspects of life,” Adel, a young theater critic who asked to remain anonymous, told Syria Today. He explained that the concept combines rights and duties, but that in Syria, duties trump rights.

“Limiting citizenship to Syrian Arabs is unacceptable,” Maalouf declared. “A citizen must be any person who lives in this land and has specific rights and duties.”

Until recently, broader duties and rights as citizens went ignored, he argued, because people were more concerned with their everyday struggles.

“Through chatting with friends or with the grocer, I have a perception that the majority of people here have a similar direction in life: to secure a living for their families,” he said. “What has been happening [since the unrest started] put this view to the test. Things are bigger than that.”

The outline
Lawyers interviewed by Syria Today argued that deficiencies in ensuring citizens’ rights in Syria come from flaws in the constitution, where the state defines its idea of citizenship and organises the relationship between the government and citizens. Others said that the constitution guarantees adequate rights to citizens; however, the problem lies in many laws which are, in fact, unconstitutional.

In his speech last month, President Bashar al-Assad said that the new media, parties and electoral laws will allow “citizens to participate in making decisions, monitor and denounce” activities of the state. Making this change, Assad said, might require revising the constitution or issuing a new one.

President Assad said that no changes will take place before September and if any do occur they will be based on what the national dialogue meetings, held in July, recommended. It called for the establishment of a committee to “offer suggestions” that would create a “contemporary and new” constitution that “ensures political collectivity, social justice, the sovereignty of the law and basic human rights”.

Contradictory rulings
To implement citizens’ rights, as outlined in the Syrian constitution, articles from the very same constitution must be changed and effectively applied.

People’s political and civil rights can be found in the first chapter of the constitution titled “Basic Principles”. It grants all citizens personal freedom, equality before the law, participation in the political, economic, social and cultural life of society, the freedom of faith, the right (and duty) to work, free obligatory education, the right of free and open expression, freedom of the press and the right to demonstrate peacefully.

However, articles like number 8 – which grants the ruling Ba’ath party a monopoly on political power in the country – contradict and effectively negate the right of citizens to participate in political life.

Nazih Maalouf, a lawyer and former judge and the manager of Syria Court, a legal website that covers human rights and other legal issues in Syria, said the constitution includes many contradictory articles. For example, it states that all Syrians have equal rights and opportunities, but another article says that the country’s president must be Muslim and that legislation must be based on Islamic jurisprudence.

“Syrian women cannot pass down citizenship to their children, and they do not have the right of equal inheritance, or even [the right] to take independent decisions in many cases; like marriage, or travel,” Diala, a 27-year-old working in a private bank who asked to remain anonymous, said.

Syrian constitution states that all Syrians have equal rights and opportunities, but at the same time says that the country’s president must be Muslim and that legislation must be based on Islamic jurisprudence.

Anwar al-Bouni, a lawyer and head of the Syrian Center for Legal Studies, said that problems like these come from laws that contradict the constitution.

“In the Syrian constitution, there is no discrimination between men and women, but discrimination exists in some laws like the nationality one [which prevents Syrian mothers from passing their nationality to their offspring],” Bouni said.

Recently, a committee was set up to study the draft bill about amending Article 3 of the Nationality Law, which includes granting nationality to the children of Syrian women married to non-Syrians.

Another measure that contradicts the notion of universal equality came in with the constitution of 1961, which was drafted following a military coup that ended three years of union between Egypt and Syria, when the Syrian republic was first defined as Arab. This remained unchanged.

“Limiting citizenship to Syrian Arabs is unacceptable,” Maalouf declared. “A citizen must be any person who lives in this land and has specific rights and duties. Equality and people’s general liberties must be established by the constitution regardless of their religion or ethnicity.”

A new constitution, if amended or overhauled, should more clearly delineate citizens’ rights in order to prevent such contradictions in the future, he said.

“Individual liberties must be addressed by the constitution and should not be governed by laws because laws are subject to change, according to who is in power and are easy to play around with,” Maalouf explained. “The constitution is obligatory and is not easily changed.”

Challenges to change
“Changing the constitution alone is not enough. There should be a new constitution,” the veteran lawyer Bouni said.

According to Bouni, the power of the country’s constitutional court is restricted. It is supposed to be able to strike down unconstitutional laws. But the president, according to the constitution, assigns the members of the constitutional court to four-year posts, limiting the court’s independence. Another article in the constitution states that only the Syrian president or a quarter of the parliament can challenge unconstitutional laws.

As a result, the system is crippled, Bouni added.

“Obviously, they [members of parliament] are not going to issue unconstitutional laws and then refer them to court. Consequently, there are hundreds of unconstitutional laws in Syria and no one can challenge them,” he explained. “Since the establishment of the constitutional court not a single Syrian law has been challenged as unconstitutional.”

I published this article together with Syrian journalist Alma Hassoun in Syria Today

We used only first names for interviewees who wished to remain anonymous.

Behind the Scenes

Political disagreements and production cuts are affecting the creation of television series for Ramadan this year.

Unshoodat Al Matar Film Set Location 1

The success of Syrian dramas is their ability to convey the social and political concerns of Syrians and Arabs. This year, however, what used to be a strength has turned into a weakness. The outspoken views expressed by some Syrian drama professionals towards the unrest in Syria has caused production companies to deny work to certain artists and has also prompted some activists to boycott dramas made by people with whom they disagree. Further, the economic impact of the unrest that began in March is also impacting the funding available for producing new dramas.

Both factors are causing a decrease in the film industry this year, and this drop will be visible during Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting that begins in August. Many Arabs recognise this season as being as much a time for watching drama series as it is a time for religious devotion. Arab and Syrian production companies release their soap operas during Ramadan.

While there are no exact figures on the number of Syrian soaps that will be produced this year, drama professionals say the number will be far fewer than the 30 series that, according to statistics provided by the state news agency SANA, were aired during Ramadan last year.

Production down
Although political disagreements are hurting drama production, the economic impact of the unrest is the main hindrance in the production of television series.

Syrian producer and actor Firas Ibrahim said in an interview with Shorouk News website that major Syrian production companies stopped several soaps that were planned for this Ramadan season due to financial worries. While he said he is not planning to stop the production of his drama series Fi Hadret al-Gheyab (In the Presence of Absence) about the life of late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, he said he is worried that it will not achieve the financial success he anticipated.

“With demonstrations sweeping over the Arab World, there has become a real marketing crisis because of a fall in advertisements that are the main financers of TV series,” Ibrahim told the website, adding that channels that used to pay about SYP 95m (USD 2m) for a series are now only paying SYP 9.5m (USD 200,000).

According to Ibrahim, some television channels are not signing contracts with studios to buy rights to air series currently in the making because of concerns that, because of the unrest, the production companies would fail to complete the series in time to be broadcast during Ramadan or that they will not attract viewers.

Boycotting drama
Drama, like political dialogue, is also becoming polarised in the current climate. Increasingly, there are online campaigns by young Syrian activists to boycott both series that feature pro-government artists and those that feature people who support the opposition. This division makes it harder to convince advertisers to invest in Syrian soaps this year, since it reduces audience size.

“No sane advertiser would invest in a series that is boycotted by the audience,” said a young woman from Damascus who is a member of a campaign to boycott pro-government artists and asked to remain anonymous.

Activists published lists of pro-government and opposition artists and named them as “shameful” or “honourable” according to which side the activists support. The founder of a Facebook page to “dishonour” pro-regime artists, who asked to stay anonymous, said his page’s “followers” are not only boycotting dramas that feature pro-regime artists but also the channels that broadcast them.

“The boycott has already started. When I asked [people] to boycott (Syrian actor) Abbas al-Nouri’s programme on MBC channel, the followers not only agreed but even asked to boycott all channels that work together with artists from the shame list,” the founder of the page, which had more than 19,661 followers at the time Syria Today went to print, said.
Manea’ al-Jarba, founder of a Facebook page that lists artists who support the ‘Syrian revolution’, said he compiles the lists according to the artists’ statements to the press and their posts on social-networking sites.

Even Egyptian activists, who compiled their own shame lists during the Egyptian revolution, started an online campaign that calls upon the Egyptian production companies to terminate their contracts with pro-government Syrian artists.

There is only one shame list by pro-government activists, but Syria Today could not reach its founder. In addition to listing opposition TV professionals, the list also names politicians and other public figures who support the Syrian revolution. The list had 1,123 followers by the time Syria Today went to print.

Joelle and Rasheed 1

Perhaps more interesting than the economic impact of unrest on Syrian television and its effect on viewership is the drama it is causing behind the scenes. Disputes among drama professionals over the unrest in Syria are aggravating the challenges to producing television series this year.

A petition signed by more than 300 Syrian actors, writers and other TV professionals calling for the Syrian government to “lift the food siege imposed on Dera’a” and to provide the city’s children with food and medical supplies sparked tension between drama professionals. The artists released the statement, dubbed the ‘milk petition’ – because of its request that residents be given milk and other necessities – following the Syrian military operation that started on April 25 in the southern city of Dera’a against what the government alleged were “terrorist groups”.

The signatories were criticised in a campaign by other drama professionals and media spokesmen in both official and some private Syrian media. Famous directors such as Hesham Sharbatji went as far as publicly calling those who signed the petition – including his daughter, director Rasha Sharbatji – “traitors” in a programme on the private Syrian TV channel al-Dunia.

In a statement published shortly after the “milk petition”, 22 Syrian film production companies announced in a statement that they would boycott all its signatories. The companies described the petition’s “fabricated claims” as “a political statement masked as a humanitarian call” that aims to “offend both the Syrian nation and its government”.

Some Syrian production companies also called for rescinding the Syrian Order of Merit that President Bashar al-Assad granted Muna Wasif, the famous Syrian actress and mother of prominent opposition figure Ammar Abdulhamid in 2009, because she had signed the petition.

In an interview with the official Syrian TV, director Laith Hajo said that the Syrian artists’ union also discussed firing members because of their political views.

“We demanded lifting the emergency law and now every Syrian citizen is creating his own emergency law and giving himself the right to randomly attack and fire others,” Hajo told the channel.

As a result, TV professionals reported concerns that they will lose their jobs.

“They [Syrian production companies] want to stop me from working because of my humanitarian call,” Mey Skaf, a Syrian actress who signed the petition, said. So far, she added, none of her contracts had been cancelled.

Attempts at reconciliation
Moves by public personalities to address these disputes have so far failed. A meeting organised by a Palestinian figure to bring opposing drama professionals’ views closer ended without resolution – there was an argument and several attendees walked out. All footage of the meeting captured by local media was seized by the authorities and could not be aired. Drama professionals, some of whom attended the meeting, did not reply to Syria Today’s repeated requests for comment.

President Assad also met a number of Syrian drama professionals, including the actress Wasif, who described the meeting as “transparent and civilised”. During the meeting, Assad asked the artists to stop their accusations and stressed that “the word traitor is not included in our dictionary”, Wasif told the Syrian media following the meeting.

Still, Syrian artists continued to argue publicly over their political stances.

The founder of the Facebook page to “dishonour” pro-regime artists said he believes that regardless of the artists’ views and the boycott campaigns, few people will watch television series this Ramadan anyway.

“Arab news channels are all that Syrians watch these days,” he said. “People from both sexes and all age categories are breathing politics. I don’t expect things to settle down before Ramadan and therefore this year’s drama season will suffer a huge blow unless it focuses on politics and the current Arab revolutions.”

Facebook page founder Jarba agreed, adding: “The Arab World is busy today reshaping its identity, which is taking place on the ground and not on the screen.”

I published this article in Syria Today magazine.

Scared Off

Prolonged unrest is keeping tourists away.

Only last year, Damascus ranked seventh on the New York Times list of top destinations. Since political unrest began in mid-March, however, the alleys of Old Damascus – one of the main tourist attractions in Syria – have emptied. Tourism and small businesses are suffering. Shop owners who used to be busy all day selling goods are now sitting in front of their shops, drinking tea and hoping for customers to pass by.

Syria was previously known as a country with beautiful ruins, a green coast and rich cultural traditions. News of tanks entering major cities and thousands of refugees crossing into Turkey has now fostered the perception of Syria as a country of violence and war.

Warned away
The US and EU countries have issued travel warnings against visiting Syria and international insurance firms have cancelled coverage for travellers. Together, this has caused a significant dip in tourism, Rami Martini, chairman of the Syria Federation of Tourism Chambers said in an interview with Al-Khabar, a local Arabic-language business weekly.

Most airlines flying to Europe have reduced their flights due to lowered demand. In June BMI rolled back its daily service from Damascus to London Heathrow to just four flights a week. Other airlines to have reduced their services include Austrian, Germania, Malév and Turkish; while Cyprus and Lot have cancelled all flights.

As a result, the businesses of hoteliers like Somar Hazim, owner of Beit Rose Hotel in Old Damascus, have been badly hit. According to Hazim, occupancy at his hotel decreased from 90 percent last year to 5 to 10 percent this year, forcing him and other hotel owners to reduce staff. According to Al-Khabar, occupancy rates in Aleppo are close to zero.

“As demand is decreasing, competition is growing and prices are going down. A room that I used to rent out for SYP 5,700 (USD 120) is rented now for about SYP 3,100 (USD 65),” Hazim said. “Our only guests are foreigners who study or work here and their relatives who come to visit.”

The absence of tourists has also affected small businesses, such as the antique shop owned by Nasser Ideen al-Shahrour in Sarouja near Old Damascus. Shahrour said he sometimes goes 15 days without a sale.

“I cannot guarantee anything now. I buy a gram of silver today with SYP 50 (USD 1) and tomorrow the price might be SYP 55 (USD 1.1),” he said. “This means I can’t have fixed prices and this is affecting demand which is already badly decreasing.”

The downswing
Syria’s reputation for safety and its improving marketing strategies boosted the country’s tourism industry during the last two years. Annual tourist revenues totalled SYP 389bn (USD 8.2bn) last year, or about 13 percent of GDP. With dwindling oil revenues, tourism was a crucial foreign currency earner for Syria. While the expected total revenue from tourism in March, April and May was predicted by the Federation of the Syrian Chambers of Tourism to be SYP 23.8bn (USD 500m), the chamber said that income was 30 percent lower than expected in March and has decreased significantly more in recent months.

In its 11th Five-Year Plan, the Syrian government set the goal of attracting 5.1m more tourists a year by 2015; the current annual total is 9m tourists – including travellers transiting through the country.

Lamia Aasi, Minister of Tourism, said during a recent meeting of tourism professionals in Aleppo that there has been a “very sharp” decline in the number of tourists entering Syria. She said that, in May, tourism numbers were 32 percent compared to this time last year, because virtually no European tourists are visiting the country now. Aasi argued it was a “strategic error” to depend so heavily on business from European tourists, with the European market too subject to the changes of global politics. In contrast, she claimed, Asian markets are “only affected by natural circumstances or economic crises”.

She added: “Our long-term strategy is to target Asian markets such as China, Malaysia, Philippines, Russia and Iran which did not suffer a decrease in the number of religious tourists coming to Syria.”

According to Bassam Barsique, director of marketing and development at the ministry, domestic tourism, which makes up 22 percent of total revenue, was unaffected by the crisis. Some major tourism investment deals were unaffected, too. In an interview with Arabian Business, Jumeirah Group, a UAE hotel management firm, said that despite the political uncertainty in Syria, it is continuing with a project it started in November last year to manage the 350-room, five-star Jumeirah Syria Towers hotel built by Souria Holding in central Damascus.

The ministry has also completed a study aimed and finding ways to reduce prices to attract more tourists. It is also rescheduling loans for tourism facility owners and is granting them exemptions on payment of interest and fines.

Even if things calm down, Hazim, the hotel owner, is not optimistic about the future. He said he believes that the harm done to the country’s image cannot be easily undone.

“It will be difficult for the tourism sector to recover quickly,” he said. “Tourism is the first sector to be hit, and the last to recover. It is because it is a profession that depends on a place’s reputation.”

I published together with Muhammad Atef Fares in Syria Today magazine.

Let’s Take This Online

Is Syria’s new online political debate turning nasty?

Syrian online political debate - Caricature by Ala Rustom

Syrian online political debate – Caricature by Ala Rustom

In Syria, Facebook is getting political. Just a few months ago, logging on to the then-blocked social-networking site to write about your day at work, a film you saw or a romantic break-up meant using proxies to bypass the government’s internet security.

Changing netscape

Now that Facebook is freely accessible, Syrians are regularly using it to express their political views. Discussing politics used to be a major taboo in Syria. But since the revolution began in mid-March, many young Syrians are openly discussing politics online as well as in the street for the first time. But that has not been a wholly positive change. Syrian Facebook users living both in Syria and abroad said that what began as a forum for political discussion quickly turned into a shouting match. Users started blocking and in some cases even reporting their ‘friends’ accounts to Facebook because of their political views. Some are going as far as calling those who disagree with their views traitors and calling for their execution. “The discussions I’m seeing on Facebook are depressing and dangerous,” Hassan Abbas, a Syrian researcher in cultural issues, said. “People are no longer discussing their opponents’ argument but their morals.” He believes that abandoning logical argument and attacking the moral veracity of people is the most dangerous element of what is happening on Facebook today. “It is important that discourse remains interactive,” Abbas added. “It’s depressing as this moment requires a high level of awareness and selflessness and to focus our efforts on the future of Syria.” Syrians often post links or comments about sensitive topics online, which can cause heated exchanges and even lead to the break-up of otherwise solid friendships. This is what happened to Mohammed Ghazi, a 21-year-old mechanical engineering trainee. “Sometimes my friends post things on Facebook or Twitter that are very different from what I know they think,” Ghazi said. “I posted a video of a pro-government demonstration and several of my friends deleted me after we argued about it.” Syrian Facebook users first started changing their profile pictures to reflect their political stance during the revolution against Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia. Since March 15 many now reflect their views on domestic politics. Plain black images are used to signify mourning for those who were killed, while pictures of President Bashar al-Assad and illustrations of inter-religious and ethnic solidarity are also popular. Syrian users have also established hundreds of ‘groups’ to promote their political views. “I was constantly being added by friends — without my permission — to groups in support or against the demonstrations taking place now in Syria,” a young Syrian Facebook user, who requested anonymity, said.

Virtual ‘warlords’

As the unrest escalates, conflict between pro-government Facebook users and the opposition is growing more aggressive, forcing other users to take sides or be criticised by both. “If you criticise the demonstrators then you are called a coward and if you criticise the regime you become a traitor – this is depressing,” the young Syrian said. “In the past, I had to bypass internet security to access my Facebook account to speak my mind because the website was blocked. Now that it is no longer banned and easy to access, I’ve deactivated my account because I couldn’t take all the fighting and accusations anymore.” Bassam al-Kadi, founder of Syrian Women’s Observatory, who has been attacked online by both pro-and anti-government figures, believes that instead of discussing the current revolution in Syria, Facebook is being used to promote political propaganda and to mobilise people. “Facebook today resembles a warfront rather than a political platform. Political participation means discussing solutions, the balance of forces, etcetera, and not throwing accusations at each other,” Kadi said. “Facebook users are acting now like ‘warlords’ who, instead of addressing people’s minds, speak to their emotions and polarise them.” “[Facebook users] don’t represent the whole of Syrian society but they do reflect part of the Syrian reality today,” Hassan Abbas said. According to Marwan Kabalan, a politics professor at the University of Damascus’s faculty of political science, the conflict is the result of decades-old policies of exclusion and marginalisation. Since the seventies, young Syrians could not actively participate in their country’s internal politics. The one-party system in Syria and the lack of independent political institutions and liberties deprived them of the means to do so. Young Syrians interviewed by Syria Today said that expressing their views on politics used to equal “trouble”. They believed that leading an active political life was “dangerous” and “pointless” since they “couldn’t change anything anyway”. “Our generation was raised to believe that politics, religion and sex are three major taboos that should never be broken,” Zeina Qahwaji, a 25-year-old Syrian living in Damascus, said. Abbas added that, though politically inactive, young Syrians have deep political awareness. “When you can’t express your political awareness, you try to express it through art or religion or simply pack up and leave the country,” he said. Following the recent events in Tunisia and Egypt, however, some young Syrians’ attitudes towards politics changed. “What I saw in Egypt gave me hope that young people can have a say. I saw it happening. It is possible!” a young engineer in his thirties, who asked to remain anonymous, said. “It is no longer possible to be a viewer. Whether you are pro or against [the government], you have to take a stance,” Mohammad Ghannam, a 32-year-old engineer living in Damascus, said. According to Kabalan, the lack of the traditional means of political participation in Syria, such as political parties, cultural clubs and other organisations, has led young Syrians to find other ways to voice their political views, mainly through social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter as well as by marching in the street.

Reform needed

Establishing new parties that truly reflect the aspirations of the young generation along with an independent judicial system and a new media law that allows freedom of expression and transparency are also crucial to help the youth effectively participate in the country’s politics and push economic reform, Kabalan said. “You cannot have a more competitive economic life if you do not have a more competitive political life,” he added. The new Prime Minister Adel Safar on May 1 promised political reform. He said it is part of a comprehensive package of reforms that the government is preparing in the coming weeks. A committee responsible for issuing new laws regulating parties and elections is also going to be formed “to ensure a more effective role for parties in society”, Information Minister Adnan Mahmoud later said. Young Syrians want political change. “I never had the chance to choose before. I didn’t choose my religion, my name and it’s the same with politics. I had to repeat the Ba’ath slogans as a student at school. I would like to have other choices as well,” Qahwaji said. Since March 15, Syria has undergone political and social changes that cannot be easily reversed. “When you know that you have more political rights and you are able to express them, it is difficult to reverse gear and go back,” Kabalan said. “Let us not fear the side effects that might come with granting political rights to the young generation.”

I published this article together with Syrian journalist Alma Hassoun in Syria Today magazine.

You can download here a pdf version of Lets take this online

Parking Madness

Residents of Old Damascus are sceptical that a parking ban will be issued, let alone enforced.

Old Damascus - Photo by Fadi al-Hamwi

Old Damascus - Photo by Fadi al-Hamwi

Walking around Old Damascus can be an overwhelming experience. Children on bikes race through the narrow alleyways as drivers honk their car horns, forcing pedestrians to squeeze to the sides so they can pass.

Down one such alley, in the first turn to the right, is a narrow passageway. There on one recent afternoon, two cars were jammed beside each other, blocking the entrance to a house. Local residents and passing tourists gathered in a group to offer their advice to the drivers on how to escape while an obviously irate woman confined to her home could be heard screaming curses at the drivers who are “poisoning” her life.

Since early 2009, the Syrian press has occasionally published reports about a parking ban in Old Damascus that would go into effect “next month”. Two years later, government officials began saying that in a “matter of weeks” cars would be banned from entering the old city. Then they said the ban was postponed until the governorate could provide parking lots around Old Damascus, environmentally-friendly, light-weight delivery vehicles and electric cars for shop owners’ and residents’ use.

However, when Syria Today met Abdullah Aboud, the director of traffic and transport for Damascus, in mid-May, he said the parking ban was suspended because of the political unrest that began in mid-March.

“The plan should have been opened for investment by now but this had to be delayed because of the current circumstances,” Aboud said.”We are in the final stages of the master plan.”

Grand plans
According to statistics from the Damascus local authority, the overall car-carrying capacity of the old city is 345 cars. The average number of cars parked there, however, is on average 1,071 cars at any one time, more than three times what the area can theoretically accommodate.

According to unconfirmed figures published in the Syrian media, approximately 27,000 cars enter the old city every day. The large number of cars in the old city causes congestion and pollution and speeds up the dilapidation of old historical buildings, according to experts at Friends of Damascus, a Syrian cultural society which aims to protect the city’s heritage.

According to the plan, only residents of the old city will be allowed to drive inside it and this would be enforced via a permit system, Aboud said. The governorate would divide the old city into seven zones and would only allow residents to park in the zone where they live. Public transportation inside the old city will consist of 75 electric cars with the capacity to seat four and another 20 with a seating capacity of 12.

“These would include a few VIP vehicles for formal delegations,” Aboud added.

A number of lightweight delivery vehicles would also be allowed into the old city for a few hours a week to transfer goods to local shops.

The governorate would also provide visitors with five parking lots outside the old city walls in Sofamiyeh, Bab Touma, Dar es-Salam, Hariqeh and on Amin Street, and the lots would accommodate 800 cars in total. Bus routes would also circumnavigate the walls. In the future, Aboud said he hopes the buses will be replaced by a tramway.

Too good to be true
Old city shop owners and residents alike said they are looking forward to the ban. Mohammad Younes, a young carpet seller, expects it to boost his business.

“Cars are a big ‘fun spoiler’ for tourists. They make the old city polluted, noisy and hard to walk around,” he said. “A parking ban would attract more tourists and shoppers.”

Rasha Mohammad, who has been living in Old Damascus for the last 20 years, said the car ban would provide her with more space to park.

“I have to fight with neighbours and the owner of the nearby restaurant over a parking space for my car. Sometimes, I am forced to park my car in a narrow alley and risk it being scratched by other cars that pass by,” Mohammad said. “Dividing the old city into exclusive parking zones for residents would provide a safe parking place for my car.”

Mohammad, however, said she worries that the governorate’s traffic plan is too good to be true.

“The governorate has been promising to introduce a car ban for ages and nothing has happened,” she said. “Even if they do issue a car ban, what guarantees that it will be implemented on the ground and won’t be ignored just like the smoking ban was ignored before it?”

Read my article on Syria Today website.

Art Lessons

Students and teachers at Syria’s public arts academies say their programmes need to be overhauled.

Imad Habbab, fourth year student at the Damascus Faculty of Fine Arts - Photos by Fadi Hamwi

Imad Habbab, fourth year student at the Damascus Faculty of Fine Arts – Photos by Fadi al-Hamwi

Walking around the University of Damascus’s faculty of fine arts is like entering a rundown labyrinth. Sculptures, paintings and odd-looking metal objects are scattered everywhere. Peeling paint adorns the walls and cigarette butts cover the dusty stairs of the four-storey building. The haphazard physical appearance of the school reflects a similar situation in the curriculum.

Inadequate curriculum

Students and teachers interviewed by Syria Today criticised the curriculum of the three public universities arts programmes, noting their omission of contemporary arts, under-qualified staff and an overly general, rigid and one-size-fits-all programme.

“As the Syrian saying goes ‘a rose from every garden’, this is how the curriculum is. It erratically teaches students a little of everything without giving any depth to any of the subjects,” Zavien Youssef, a lecturer of painting at the faculty, said.

Youssef as well as many students suggested that each teacher should set up a workshop and students should be allowed to choose classes where they could practice several, individual art forms for four or five months.

The curriculum also fails to cover contemporary art. Students like Imad Habbab, who is in his fourth year, said they regret that their curriculum includes modern art history (art between the mid-19th and mid-20th centuries) but none of the contemporary arts like new media arts. Although there is a new media artist teaching at the faculty of fine arts, she is restricted to teaching only what is in the curriculum, Habbab said.

“The earliest part of modern art history that we studied at the university is almost 100 years old. That is ridiculously old,” Habbab said. “The problem is that most teachers are old-fashioned artists and they know nothing about contemporary arts. This is why I don’t think it will be taught in the university any time soon.”

photo by Fadi al-Hamwi

Under-qualified staff

Yamen Youssef, a sculptor and master’s student at the University of Damascus, argued that many professors are less qualified than they were when he was a student five years ago.

“During my time, many of the professors were well-known Syrian artists and art historians,” Youssef said.

According to Alaa Abu Shahin, an art teacher at University of Aleppo, the opening of private art universities during the last five years or so is the reason behind the lower quality of art professors in public universities. As a result, some teachers are forced to teach subjects for which they lack specialisation.

“Private universities attracted most of the big names,” Abu Shahin said. “It’s because they offer better salaries and jobs.”

Students also complained that the faculty does not provide the needed supplies for academic art studies – nude models, for example. Instead, students paint the likeness of the same two fully-dressed men and one female model during their four years of studies.

“We once had a veiled model,” Youssef, the sculptor, said. “How am I supposed to learn to sculpt muscles if I don’t have a nude model to copy? How could it be that today we only get to study artistic anatomy in theory while students in this very same faculty had nude models back in the ‘60s?”

To solve this problem, students said they paint each other, use human sculptures as subjects or pay to hire nude models.

Photo by Fadi al-Hamwi

Rigid system

The faculty of fine arts functions under the Ministry of Education. So it follows a similar system as other faculties, which, in Youssef the sculptor’s opinion, is incompatible with fine arts. During the first year, for example, students have to study painting, sculpture, etching and graphic and fashion design. They can then specialise only in one area, but are selected for this specialty based on their marks in all courses. Fashion design requires the highest marks.

Also similarly to other universities functioning under the Ministry of Education, the faculty of fine arts has specific working hours. Because the buildings close at 2pm, students have little time to work on projects.

“In other universities where people have specific classes, it makes sense to have specific working hours, but when it comes to fine arts that simply doesn’t work,” Youssef said. “In the higher institute of music and theatre, students are free to use the studios to practice their music at any time during the day. It should be the same with fine arts.”

Despite the shortcomings of the University of Damascus’s fine arts’ programme, Abu Shahin said it is superior to the other two public fine art faculties in Aleppo and Suweida. He said the Aleppo faculty suffers from a shortage of professors, equipment and libraries. He argued that one of the main reasons for the shortage in staff is that none of the Syrian artists and academic professors – including those who originally come from Aleppo – want to teach in Aleppo, because it is too far from the capital and the country’s only developed art market. As a result, young teachers are overburdened.

“I am not an academic professor. I’m a recent graduate so I should only teach second-year students, yet I teach students in the second, third and fourth years,” Abu Shahin said. “At least in Damascus they have a larger number of teachers and academic professors. They visits museums and have gypsum sculptures to replace nude models. But in Aleppo we don’t even have that.”

This article was published in Syria Today magazine. Download a pdf veriosn here.

Sad in Saudi

Syrians in Saudi Arabia encounter numerous social barriers but the financial reward of emigrating there can be tempting. 

Illustration by Ghalia Lababidi
Illustration by Ghalia Lababidi

Nothing could have prepared Mohammad Ghannam for what he witnessed at age 12. A drug dealer was beheaded in the courtyard of a mosque near his house in the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh. Ghannam, a 32-year-old Syrian who grew up in Saudi Arabia, said he could not sleep for days after the incident.

“Although executions are public, the Saudi authorities never inform people beforehand that a beheading will take place in the mosque. Since children in Saudi Arabia start going to mosques at age three, they often have to witness executions,” Ghannam explained. By the time he was 18, he said he had witnessed six beheadings, adding that they “become less shocking with time”.

Saudi Arabia is governed by a strict, Wahhabi interpretation of Sharia law and a conservative social code that prohibits interaction between the sexes. Thieves can have their hands cut off and adulterers can be stoned. Despite this stark reality, many young Syrian men move to the oil-rich country to save money to pay off the approximately SYP 300,000 (USD 6,500) fee for avoiding military service or to cope with the rising cost of living. Today, Saudi Arabia hosts 400,000 Syrian workers, thousands of whom are investors, he said.

With high unemployment back home, working in Saudi Arabia offers a better future for some young Syrians. Socially, however, life in Saudi Arabia can be stressful, Syrians living there told Syria Today.

“My job makes me financially comfortable, but, psychologically speaking, I am growing weary of it,” Moonzer al-Bitar, a Syrian who moved to Jeddah in 2007 to work for a medical company, said. The tradition of young Syrians travelling to Saudi Arabia for job opportunities goes back to the early 1930s, when oil was first discovered there. The country was developing rapidly and, with the lack of local expertise, it provided a job market for skilled workers from Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Egypt – many of whom eventually settled there.

Strict upbringing
Ghannam’s family moved to Riyadh in 1979, when he was one month old. The severity of punishments there teaches obedience from a young age, according to Ghannam. Missing prayer can result in lashes to the feet or detention by the moral police. Approaching unrelated women in public can lead to three days in jail. Ghannam said that as a teenager, he never spoke to women outside his family.

“It was too risky,” he said.

Ghannam’s family moved back to Damascus in 2007. While today he leads a liberal life, he said his family still practices the conservative lifestyle they grew accustomed to back in Saudi Arabia.

Anoud Souhail, a Syrian English literature student at the University of Damascus who grew up in Saudi Arabia, said that Syrians in Saudi Arabia often assimilate to the local culture.

“Some Syrian families I know in Saudi Arabia reorganised their houses to have two sitting rooms – one for men and another for women,” Souhail said.

Limited outlets
Life in Saudi Arabia has some enjoyable aspects, too.

Syrians living in Saudi Arabia enjoyed access to modern technology and fashionable cars. Even today, Syrian expatriates often show off their high-tech purchases when they come from the Gulf to visit their relatives in Syria.

“I had my first computer when I was in fourth grade in Saudi. Back then, computers, mobiles and internet, among other things, were not available in Syria. I used to feel that Syria was way behind civilisation,” Ghannam said.

In addition to his access to gadgets, Ghannam had a few social activities in Saudia Arabia that brought him enjoyment. For example, he enjoyed attending hunting trips in the desert with his school.

“Saudi Arabians are experts at hunting,” Ghannam said. “We used to hunt for jerboas (a desert-dwelling rodent with long hind legs), dhubs (a type of spine-tailed lizards) and locusts.”

Entertainment possibilities remain otherwise limited in Saudi Arabia, according to Syrians living there. Bitar said foreign embassies sometimes organise cultural events worth attending. Other than that, segregated visits to the beach, cafés and restaurants are the only social outlets. Women’s activities are restricted to shopping and to visiting female friends in their homes and they are prohibited from taking public transportation.

“Most Saudi women have a car with a private driver to take them around,” Souhail said. “As for Syrian and other Arab families, they mostly moved to Saudi Arabia to save money and cannot afford such luxuries. With no car at hand, women can only take taxis in groups or accompanied by a male relative or family friend.”

Foreign discrimination
While at an official level, foreigners are treated as equal to Saudi Arabians, Souhail said foreign workers, including Syrians, feel discriminated against by the Saudi society.

“In general, Saudi people never fail to highlight that you, as a foreigner, are working for them and they treat you accordingly,” she said. “My teachers at school used to think I was Saudi because I come from the Mushawwah family which is also famous in Saudi Arabia. When they found out I was Syrian, they treated me differently and started giving me bad scores at school.”

Ghannam, however, pointed out that only poorer school children face discrimination.

“Syrians who could afford to study at private schools did not face this kind of discrimination,” he said. Nevertheless, even affluent Syrians never fully assimilate. “Saudis are very loyal to their community. If there is an argument, they always side with the Saudi against the foreigner, regardless of who was wrong.”

A policy issued in 1995 capped the number of foreign workers and also limited certain positions to Saudi Arabians.

“No matter how highly educated a Syrian is, he will never be promoted to a leading position in his company,” Souhail, the student in Damascus, asserted. But, she added, the high salaries mean she may return to Jeddah after graduating.

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.

Bridge of Time

The French mandate period left a lasting impression on Syria’s systems.

The Deir ez-Zor suspension bridge, built in 1927 by the French construction company Fougerolle.

The Deir ez-Zor suspension bridge, built in 1927 by the French construction company Fougerolle.

The highs and lows of the French mandate in Syria are immediately visible to any first-time visitor to Damascus.

The impressive, French-built National Museum – a first stop for any newcomer – highlights the period’s positive impact. Conversely, the domed roof of Souk Hamidiyeh was left punctured with its iconic bullet holes during the 1925 air raid combating a civilian revolt. The French response to the Syrian uprising killed 5,000 citizens and made Damascus, according to US professor and Middle East expert Michael Provence, the site of a dark legacy: the home of “the first civilian carpet bombing campaign ever”.

In addition to these and other visible vestiges of the period between 1920 and 1946 when France administered Syria through a mandate from the League of Nations, numerous intangible fingerprints touch Syrian education, law and culture.

More than 65 years since the French left Syria and the country became an independent Arab republic, the French legacy remains.

French-built apartment blocks in Damascus (top); buildings in Aleppo that were built either in the Late Ottoman period – when architecture began to be influenced by Italian and to a lesser-degree French styles – or during the French mandate (middle, bottom) photos by Adel Samara and Claire Duffett

French-built apartment blocks in Damascus (top); buildings in Aleppo that were built either in the Late Ottoman period – when architecture began to be influenced by Italian and to a lesser-degree French styles – or during the French mandate (middle, bottom) photos by Adel Samara and Claire Duffett

Educational impact

Every spring, secondary school students throughout Syria agonise over the Baccalauréat graduation examination that will determine their qualifications for attending university. During this time, newspapers print numerous stories about students committing suicide because of test anxiety.

Although after independence, the Syrian educational system was nationalised and the curriculum adapted from French into Arabic, certain trademark characteristics of education implemented by the French during the 1920s remain – most obviously the Baccalauréat.

“It remains a huge rite of passage – rightly or wrongly – that can define your entire future,” said Nadya Sbaiti, a professor of Modern Middle East at Smith College in the US. “That’s directly related to the French mandate for sure.”

Under the mandate, the Baccalauréat was implemented and eventually became the demanding ordeal that it remains today, after the French discovered that too many young Syrians were passing the test, Sbaiti explained. In order to reserve government and specialised professions – particularly medicine, law and finance – for French residents of Syria, the examination was made more difficult.

“The whole point was to prevent Syrians from going into these professions,” she said.

Today, the Baccalauréat has evolved, but it remains a high-profile filter that determines who can obtain an affordable education – with thousands more young people finishing secondary school annually than there are spots available at public universities.

Likewise, the French school in Damascus still provides lucky individuals with additional opportunities. While nationalised in 1967, it is an expensive, private-tuition institution to which only the most well-connected Syrian students have access.

“It’s definitely part of the elite culture,” said Randi Deguilhem, a France-based professor at the Institute for Research and Study on the Arab and Muslim Worlds. Wealthy Syrians and children of diplomats attend the school, she said, which is “a clear sign of socioeconomic status. It’s not just the knowledge [learned there] itself, it opens the door to economic opportunities.”

Villa Rose, a mansion in Aleppo built during the French mandate

Villa Rose, a mansion in Aleppo built during the French mandate

Legal tradition
Syria’s legal system – its foundations and some of its high-profile hallmarks – remain rooted in the country’s French background. Syrian law is derived from legislative statutes that follow the French civil law system.

French law first arrived in Syria long before the mandate period. In 1858, the Ottomans, who occupied Syria for 400 years through 1918, replaced its sharia-based legal system throughout its empire – as part of a push towards westernisation –with a criminal law system modelled on France’s, Farouk al-Basha, professor of law emeritus at the University of Damascus, explained.

Later, during the mandate, Syria also adopted France’s civil, commercial and administrative legal systems. While the changes made Syrian law clearer – going from complex sharia to straightforward statutes – according to Basha, a number of oft-criticised laws are derived from the French.

For instance, women under sharia had full citizenship. Only under the French were they stripped of full citizenship rights, Elizabeth Thompson, associate professor of history at the University of Virginia and chair of the workshop on Muslim societies, explained. Women became subjects of their husbands and fathers and lost the ability to pass down Syrian nationality to their children. The latter is a restriction that persists until today in Syria, but was dismissed by the French in 1965.

Furthermore, the law granting lenient sentences for ‘honour killings’ – when men murder their female relatives over alleged sexual impropriety – can be attributed to the French system, despite the phenomenon often being attributed to conservative, eastern beliefs and assumed to be part of sharia. France delineated a now-defunct law in its 1810 criminal code which refers to ‘crimes of passion’, absolving men of responsibility for murdering a female relative if he catches her in the act of adultery. Basha explained that, in contrast, sharia stipulates that four sheiks must simultaneously catch a woman in the act of adultery – a virtually impossible scenario.

The Syrian government also learned a few extra-judicial habits from the French, argued US professor Provence. Syria’s long-standing emergency law, which suspends the constitutional rights of certain individuals, is in part modeled on the permanent presence of marshal law under the French mandate, he argued.

“The big vestige of the French mandate are the intelligence services and marshal law,” he said. “The Syrian government learned disregard for [some aspects of] the rule of law from the French.”

Thompson, the associate professor of history, agreed that various governments in the region learned disregard for citizens’ rights from their former administrators, saying: “Nation-building during occupation is profoundly anti-democratic.”

Cultural heritage
More than education and law, French culture is perhaps the most visible – and positive – mandate legacy in Syria today. Throughout March, the embassy of France and other French-speaking countries hosted the Days of Francophonie: a series of films, lectures, exhibitions and concerts. The French Cultural Centre in Damascus and the French Institute for the Near East are two of the most active cultural centres in the region, said Eric Chevallier, French ambassador to Syria.

“More than events, we have long-term relationships on various key issues,” he added, including academic exchanges with more than 3,000 students and a project for the Louvre in Paris to help upgrade the Syrian National Museum.

In academia, a number of Syria’s most prominent thinkers learned from philosophies that originated in France, Ghassan al-Sayed, vice dean of the Higher Language Institute at the University of Damascus, said.

For instance, the French literary schools of existentialism, deconstructionism, and idealism all influenced numerous high-profile Syrian writers, including the poet Adonis, the deconstructionist Kamal Abu Deeb and the Christian existentialist George Salim.

“All the Syrian thinkers studied in French universities in Syria during the mandate,” Sayed said. During the post-independence 1950s and 1960s, they traveled frequently between Damascus and Paris, and eventually established Syrian-flavoured versions of French philosophies, Sayed said.

For instance, existentialism argues that man is free to make his own choices and must therefore be committed to those choices, he said. The Syrian existentialists – noting the importance of community in their country – extended this idea, arguing that the philosophy includes an inherent choice to be committed to one’s fellow citizens.

He explained: “They took the French concepts and adapted them, in order to acknowledge the Syrian reality.”

This article was written by Claire Duffett in Syria Today magazine. I helped reporting about French influence on Syria’s legal system.