Addressing the Mediterranean Water Crisis

I have contributed to Revolve´s annual water report about the challenges of water scarcity that affects the Mediterranean and Middle East.

I visited Spain´s Almería region and investigated about the price of watering Europe´s southern plains.

You can download a pdf version of my article here or read the full report entitled “Water Around the Mediterranean” here.

The Most Important Thing: Syrian Refugees أهم شيء: اللاجئون السوريون

Another beautiful photography project about the Syrian refugees this time by the UN refugee agency UNHCR. Below is the description of the project as it appeared on the agency´s flicker account. The photos are great, but make sure to read the stories connected to each one. That´s the real thing!

What would you bring with you if you had to flee your home and escape to another country? More than 1 million Syrians have been forced to ponder this question before making the dangerous flight to neighbouring Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq or other countries in the region.

This is the second part of a project that asks refugees from different parts of the world, “What is the most important thing you brought from home?” The first instalment focused on refugees fleeing from Sudan to South Sudan, who openly carried pots, water containers and other objects to sustain them along the road.

By contrast, people seeking sanctuary from the conflict in Syria must typically conceal their intentions by appearing as though they are out for a family stroll or a Sunday drive as they make their way towards a border. Thus they carry little more than keys, pieces of paper, phones and bracelets – things that can be worn or concealed in pockets. Some Syrians bring a symbol of their religious faith, others clutch a reminder of home or of happier times.

مشروع تصوير ضوئي جميل آخر عن اللاجئين السوريين، هذه المرة من قبل المفوضية السامية للأمم المتحدة لشؤون اللاجئين. أدناه وصف المشروع كما ورد على صفحة المفوضية على فليكر. الصور رائعة، لكن تأكد من قراءة القصص المرتبطة بكل صورة فهي أروع ما في المشروع.

   إذا كان عليك مغادرة منزلك فجأة والهرب إلى دولة أخرى، ما هو الشيء الذي ستأخذه معك؟ أكثر من مليون سوري أجبروا على مواجهة هذا السؤال قبل الشروع بالرحلة الخطيرة إلى الأردن، لبنان، تركيا والعراق أو دول أخرى في المنطقة.

هذا هو الجزء الثاني من مشروع نسأل فيه مهاجرين من مختلف أنحاء العالم، “ما هو أهم شيء جلبته معك من منزلك؟” القسم الآول من المشروع كان عن السودانيين اللاجئين إلى جنوب السودان، الذي حملوا بشكل علني أوعية وصهاريج مياه وأشياء أخرى تساعدهم على تحمل عناء الرحلة.

على نقيضهم، عادة ما على الأناس الهاربين من النزاع في سوريا تورية هدفهم والتظاهر بأنهم ذاهبون في رحلة عائلية صغيرة عند توجههم إلى الحدود. لذلك لا يستطيع هؤلاء حمل أكثر من مفاتيح، حزمة أوراق، هواتف وأساورـ أشياء صغيرة يمكنهم ارتداؤها أو أخفاؤها في جيابهم. بعض السوريون يحمل رمزاً دينياً، آخرون يحضرون ذكريات من منزلهم تعود لفترة أجمل من حياتهم. .

Syrian Constitution Stuck in the Past

The Syrian constitution is out of date with how Syria has changed in the last four decades since it was issued.

The current constitution has many articles in common with the series of constitutions drafted since the French left Syria in 1946. In a report published on the Damascus Center of Theoretical Studies and Human Rights, Syrian researcher Jan Habbash wrote that it was the previous 1958 and 1964 Syrian constitutions, for example, that introduced the one party political system in Syria. The constitution of 1950, on the other hand, first restricted presidency to Muslim Syrians after the French mandate.

Written in 1973, the current Syrian constitution is out of date with how Syria has changed in the last four decades, according to Nazih Maalouf, a lawyer and former judge. Syria’s 10th Five-Year Plan called for an open, social-market economy while the constitution clearly states that the country’s economic policy should be socialist. References to “socialism” and the “socialist Ba’ath party” occur 25 times in the first few pages of the constitution.

“The Baath party’s ideology defines all the articles of the constitution. Therefore, there is no use in amending the constitution by the Baath party. Other expertise in the country must be involved too.”

Maalouf said in reality the concept of citizenship rests on the political system of the state. The general concept of citizenship, he said, is stipulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but in reality this concept relies on the political systems of socialism or capitalism.

Ahmed Haj Suleiman, from the parliamentary Constitutional and Legislative Committee said in an interview with state television that the constitution should be read and discussed as a whole, because all articles are related to each other.

Legal experts like veteran lawyer Anwar al-Bouni and Maalouf say that country’s political and legal authorities should be involved in writing a new constitution.

“Controversy is not limited to article number 8 [the article which grants the ruling Ba’ath party a monopoly on political power in the country] which was written under exceptional circumstances. The Baath party’s ideology defines all the articles of the constitution,” Maalouf said. “Therefore, there is no use in amending the constitution by the Baath party. Other expertise in the country must be involved too.”

They also call for the separation of power between the legislature, executive and judicial authorities, to protect the rights of Syrians citizens.

“I haven’t read the constitution, thus I do not know what should be changed. However, everyone is talking about it now, and specifically Article 8,” Majd al-Hamwi, a 22-year-old fine arts student in Damascus said. “What I know is that when people call for political pluralism and setting a certain presidential term, it is not because of a certain person or a certain party but because they want to participate,” he said.

This is a longer version of the text I published together with Syrian journalist Alma Hassoun as a box to accompany our story “Bill of Rights” in Syria Today magazine.

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.

Bottoms Up

Changing legislation is altering how alcohol is bought and consumed in Syria.

photos by Adel Samara

photos by Adel Samara

Assalamu Alaykum is not exactly how one expects to be greeted when walking into a liquor store. Yet, that is how Ayman Kaadan, owner of the Royal Stone alcohol shop in the Muslim-majority Barzeh neighbourhood greets his visitors.

Kaadan said he does not see any contradiction in being a Muslim who sells alcohol. However, liquor stores in Muslim areas were prohibited by Syrian law until July last year, when the law licensing alcohol shops was modified. Places where alcohol can be consumed, however – such as pubs and restaurants – are still illegal in Muslim-majority areas.

Modern alcohol legislation dates back more than 60 years. According to a law issued in 1952, pubs, restaurants and other locations where alcohol is consumed must be located in non-Muslim areas, 20 metres from police stations and government buildings and 100 metres from places of worship, schools, hospitals and cemeteries. A similar law used to govern liquor stores. Kaadan’s shop, which he opened in 2009, operated without a licence for two years.

According to employees at the governorate of Damascus, the growing demand for alcohol shops drove the Ministry of Local Administration to modify the law. The ministry issued a new law in July 2010, allowing liquor stores to open with the only restriction being that they be located 75 metres from places of worship and that shop owners do not allow customers to drink inside or in front of the store. When the new law was issued, Kaadan immediately applied. He was granted the licence late last year.

Unlicensed pubs
Since the law licensing liquor stores was modified, the number of new shops has increased. Other previously unlicensed shops also applied for licences, Ghassan Maamouri, director of the licensing unit at the governorate of Damascus told Syria Today.

The number of licensed pubs and restaurants serving alcohol, on the other hand, is decreasing, Abu George, the 50-something owner of a 70-year-old pub called Abu Gerorge’s, said. Abu George inherited the pub in Bab Sharqi from his father and grandfather.

“Many alcohol shops and pubs in my alley closed because their owners died and the family did not want to continue the business,” Abu George, who started working in the pub when he was seven, said. “The number of places of worship, schools and hospitals is steadily increasing. This is leaving little space for new, licensed pubs to replace the old ones.”

Because of the high public demand for pubs combined with the challenging licensing conditions, the number of unlicensed pubs is increasing, Somar Hazim, the owner of Beit Rose, a licensed alcohol-serving hotel in the old city, said. Hazim counted six unlicensed pubs near his hotel.

Maamouri from the licensing unit said that unlicensed places that sell or serve alcohol face penalties of SYP 500 (USD 11) and are given a two-week notice to apply for a licence. This penalty is repeated twice. If the owner still does not comply, his shop is closed. The governorate, however, could not provide statistics about the number of unlicensed alcohol selling and serving shops that have been recently closed down.

Hazim from Beit Rose hotel said that this system is not enough. He argued that strict monitoring is required. Kaadan from Royal Stone alcohol shop agreed.

“I didn’t have any trouble with the governorate for the first year-and-a-half when my shop was unlicensed. Unless neighbours file a complaint against the shop, the governorate does not know that the shop is unlicensed,” he said.

Hazim said that this is affecting his and other licensed, alcohol-serving establishments.

“Some restaurants serve alcohol undercover,” he said. “They don’t have to pay taxes so they can sell alcohol for cheaper prices than we do. It is spoiling our business.”

Customers at Abu George’s like 20-something Maher Samaan also complain that, with the lack of monitoring from the government, many unlicensed pubs mix local, low-quality alcohol with imported liquor, while illegal stores often sell smuggled, low-quality alcohol.

Anwar Hamoud, owner of liquor store in Dummar, argued that the unreasonably high taxes on alcohol – as high as 85 percent of the product price – encourages illegal sales, which harms business.

“[Unlicensed shops] can afford to sell for much cheaper than legal purchasers of alcohol can. This leads to great losses in the government treasury,” Hamoud said. “If taxes were reduced, it would no longer be worth it for smugglers to risk being caught.”

Abu George at his pub in Bab Sharqi

Abu George at his pub in Bab Sharqi

Segregating non-Muslims
Salina Abaza, a graphic designer in her twenties who enjoys going to pubs, said she believes that the law regarding pubs and other alcohol serving places should be modified. She said that restricting alcohol serving places to predominantly non-Muslim areas segregates the country’s non-Muslim community.

“Serving alcohol in only non-Muslim areas limits the places where Christians, for example, can hang out,” she said. “This segregates them from other Syrians.”

Tony Khouri, a 40-something trader and one of Abu George’s regulars, agreed.

“I like going out and having lunch with my wife and drinking a glass of wine, but I’m bored of the old city. I live and work here so it would be nice to hang out somewhere else,” he said. “The problem is there is only a handful of restaurants that serve alcohol outside old Damascus and their numbers are decreasing.”

Pub owners in Bab Sharqi also said they believe that restricting alcohol-serving places to predominantly non-Muslim areas is ridiculous, since most of their customers are Muslim.

“About 70 percent of my customers are Muslim,” Abu George said. “Even veiled women come and have a drink in my pub.”

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.

Q&A: Christina Markus Lassen Danish Ambassador to Syria

Denmark’s representative in Damascus comments on improving relations between the two countries.

Christina Markus Lassen Danish Ambassador to Syria / photo by Carole Farah

Could you give us a background on Syrian-Danish ties?
Denmark and Syria have had diplomatic relations since 1950. We have a strong bilateral relationship based on frequent political contacts and good people-to-people links. With the establishment of The Danish Institute in Damascus in 2000, another component was added to our relationship, giving us an excellent launch pad for Danish-Syrian cooperation and enabling even more Danes to come to Syria and get to know the country. 

How have ties changed following the cartoon crisis?
I think that we all learned valuable lessons during the crisis. We learned that knowledge, dialogue and respect between people is the only way to counter misunderstandings and misconceptions.

In Denmark the crisis made people much more interested in understanding and exploring the Middle East, learning the language and meeting the people. Now we see a growing number of Danish tourists coming to Syria, wanting to experience this beautiful country. People always leave Syria with big smiles on their faces and I believe that the personal encounter is the best and most efficient way of moving our two countries closer.

How many Syrians live in Denmark?
There are all together about 4,000 people of Syrian origin living in Denmark. Approximately 4 percent of the Danish population today is Muslim, who obviously enjoy the same civil and political rights in the Danish democracy as other citizens in Denmark.

Denmark has just released a new immigration law. Is it making it more difficult for Syrians to travel to Denmark?
Denmark is always in need of skilled people and globalisation means that people will be less bound by national frontiers. The new legislation will make it easier for well-educated foreigners to come and work in Denmark and it does not change the rules for leisure and business travel. That being said, Denmark has its rules when it comes to immigration as does any other country in the world and, being a member of the EU, there are also common European rules and regulations that Denmark needs to follow.

What are the fields of collaboration between Syria and Denmark?
I would like to mention the cooperation between Syria and Denmark in the field of cultural heritage and museums. We recently had a delegation from the Danish National Museum visit Syria. Also last year, an agreement on economic cooperation was signed between our two countries. We soon plan to also sign an agreement on educational exchange between Syria and Denmark.

How will Denmark sustain good relations with Syria?
Denmark wishes to have good relations with all countries in the Middle East. We have a mutual interest in present and future cooperation between our two countries and consider Syria a very important partner in this region. Regionally, we support a negotiated solution to the Middle East Peace Process, and there can be no peace in the Middle East without Syria.

This interview was published in Syria Today magazine.

My 2010 year in numbers

The stats helper monkeys at WordPress.com mulled over how my blog did in 2010. Here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads This blog is doing awesome!.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

A Boeing 747-400 passenger jet can hold 416 passengers. This blog was viewed about 2,700 times in 2010. That’s about 6 full 747s.

In 2010, there were 35 new posts, growing the total archive of this blog to 102 posts. There were 80 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 15mb. That’s about 2 pictures per week.

The busiest day of the year was October 31st with 54 views. The most popular post that day was Springtime for Saudi Cinema? .

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.

1

Springtime for Saudi Cinema? October 2010

2

Q&A with Sabine Lubbe Bakker and Ester Gould, the directors of Shout March 2010

3

Q&A with Journalist and Photographer Doha Hassan August 2010
1 Like on WordPress.com,

4

A Woman’s Touch February 2010
2 comments

5

Interview with Palestinian Jordanian filmmaker Sandra Madi October 2010