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.

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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.

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.

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.

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.

Behind the Legends / Naziq al-Abed

Syria’s revolutionary heroes of the struggle against the Ottomans and the French in the first half of the 20th century have become national symbols for Syrians. Their names are used during the current Syrian revolution against the Assad regime as symbols of national unity and struggle for freedom. 

More than acts of bravery and leadership, the heroes of the past revolution were real people with families, homes, interests and quirks. I looked beyond the textbook tales to find out more about who these key figures really were. I profiled Naziq al-Abed, a revolutionist from Damascus.

Naziq al-Abed (1898-1959)

Naziq al-Abed (1898-1959)

Our Joan of Arc

Naziq al-Abed was a pioneer for both national independence and women’s rights.

It might be hard to imagine Damascene women in the 1920s – generally perceived as illiterate and cloaked in traditional mlaye (a short skirt and veil) – as freedom fighters. Yet many of them took up both pens and arms in the fight against foreign rule.

Naziq al-Abed, a robust woman with a round face and dark, curious eyes, was one of the most controversial women to partake in the Syrian revolutions against the Ottomans and French. Born in 1898 as the daughter of an aristocrat and an insider in the court of Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid II, Abed traded the French dance saloons, European tours and luxurious lifestyle that her family maintained, for the battlefield. She was also a passionate feminist, often infuriating the sensibilities of Damascus’s conservative circles.

“She was not like any of her sisters,” Burhan al-Abed, Naziq al-Abed’s third cousin, said. “She was very liberal with a strong character. She was a true rebel.”

Burhan, an anesthesiologist in his nineties, recalled with nostalgia his visits to his cousin’s farm, where he usually found her working in the field or sitting on the floor eating with her fellow workers.

“She was a humble person who loved sports and horseback riding. She used to dress like middle-class Damascenes and avoided accessories and ornaments. She was the only woman at that time who wore trousers and boots and carried a whip,” he said.

Transition to politics
Following her student years, Abed became politically engaged. Although she originally studied agriculture, she worked as a journalist and became a vocal critic of the Ottoman and French policies in her country. In 1919, she led a women’s delegation that discussed the French mandate in Syria with the American King Crane Commission that was tasked with determining the attitudes of Syrians and Palestinians towards the settlement of their territories.

Naziq held anti-colonial views despite her family’s ties to the Ottomans. She came from a prominent Damascene family whose members held important governmental positions during the Ottoman empire. Her father, for example, was the wali (governor) of Mosul and her uncle, Ahmad Izzat, was the aide-de-camp and private advisor to Sultan Abdulhamid.

Many women activists worked with Naziq al-Abed. Together, they formed the Syrian Red Crescent in 1922.

Many women activists worked with Naziq al-Abed. Together, they formed the Syrian Red Crescent in 1922.

Yet, according to Burhan, her family did not mind Naziq’s political stance, even though she was exiled as a result of it in 1914 and again in 1919.

“Even though the Abed family held important positions in the Ottoman empire, they were proud of their Arab roots,” he said.

When France assumed the mandate of Syria in 1920, Naziq was the only Syrian woman to take up arms and join Youssef al-Azmah, Syria’s then-defence minister, and the military at the Battle of Maysaloun. She is also said to be the only survivor of the battle, which ended in a catastrophic defeat and in the French occupation of Syria.

Newspapers at the time hailed her as “Joan of Arc of the Arabs” and King Faisal named her an honorary general in the Syrian army. Burhan Abed proudly recounted the king’s visit to his family house, based on the story his mother used to tell.

“We served him lemonade,” he said, leafing through a thick, leather-bound book and pointing out the common ancestors between his family and Naziq’s.

Burhan al-Abed, Naziq al-Abed's third cousin / photo by Adel Samara

Burhan al-Abed, Naziq al-Abed’s third cousin / photo by Adel Samara

Advocate for women
Her ‘liberal’ views about women were less welcomed by her family, Burhan said. Naziq Abed removed her veil several times in public and in front of television cameras. Unlike her sisters, she was unmarried until she was in her forties and until then had lived alone in her farm in the Ghuta, a green area of Damascus fed by natural aqueducts.

“Naziq’s family were very modern and open minded compared to the mentality at that time,” Burhan said. “Even so, they did not always like her behavior. But she did not listen to them. She did what she wanted to do.”

In 1919, Naziq al-Abed established Noor al-Fayyha (Light of Damascus), the first women’s organisation in Syria. She also helped to establish many associations and organisations that advocated women’s rights in Syria and Lebanon. She financed a hospital and was the founder of the Syrian Red Star which, according to Hazim Ba’ale, director of medical services at the Syrian Red Crescent, led to the opening of a women’s branch of the international organisation in Syria in 1922.

Historical facts are based on official documents from the Historical Documents Centre in Damascus and the book Steel and Silk by political analyst Sami Moubayed.

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.

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.