Sizing Up Syria
Published: June 2009
By John McLaughlin
Ruled with an iron fist, Syria has long been a country cloaked in secrecy and mired in contradictions. Now, with a new president at its helm, this Middle Eastern nation is looking forward to an uncertain future.
Bashar al-Assad was never meant to be president of Syria. That role had been reserved for Basil, his dashing, rakish elder brother whose death six years ago—in a high-speed car crash—was the perfect illustration of character as fate. Basil looked every inch the natural heir to his father, Hafez al-Assad, who dominated his country for 30 years until his death this June. Bashar still looks like the ophthalmologist he was trained to be.
Bashar managed to seem solid and dignified at his father's funeral. He also did a pretty good job of looking the part of head of state at his swearing-in as president in July, an occasion that, in this nominal republic, took on the cast of a coronation. Yet he can't quite hide the gangly, slightly diffident young man that he is. His most trumpeted quality in the local press is his love of computers: a techno-nerd taking over what in many ways is still a tribal state.
To some, Bashar seems like an unlikely candidate for the job. The Syria he inherits has yet to make peace with Israel. Its economy is in the tank. And after 30 years as a police state, the intellectual leadership it once shared with Egypt is merely a memory. What's more, Bashar is surrounded by his father's cronies, many of whom have done very well under the status quo and may not respond kindly to undue shows of independence from the son.
But Syria also has a youthful population that is burning to be part of the wider world. Because of the Arab-Israeli peace process and the slow modernization of the economy, a shift had begun even before 34-year-old Bashar took over. Since his accession, Bashar has talked of greater economic freedoms, a massive expansion of Syria's Internet access, and securing "peace with honor"—in other words, the restoration of the Golan Heights—exactly the kind of future many young Syrians would like to see.
This could be Syria's moment. Yet, if Bashar is to win over the old guard and drag his country into the present, he'll need more than a love of computers and a European education. He may need to be as famously astute and hardheaded as his father—or at least appear to be.
Illusions are one thing Syrians know all about. Their modern history tells of little else. The Baath party that came to dominate the country after independence in 1946 was led by idealistic young nationalists who theorized endlessly about carving out a new identity, not just for Syria but for the wider Arab world. It didn't work out that way. The country's union with Egypt in 1958 was short-lived and unhappy. The idealists who had co-opted the military to gain power became its pawns, and Syria was soon trapped in an almost comically predictable game of coup and counter-coup. Finally, in 1967, came the Six-Day War, in which Syria, looking to play the part of the Arabs' savior, arrived on the scene after Egypt and Jordan had been defeated by the Israelis. Syria promptly lost the Golan Heights to Israel, and with it much of its self-assurance.
The defeat came as a shock to a people brought up on the triumphalist rhetoric of the Baathists. It marks them still. "There is a big difference between my generation of writers and the generation before us," says Akram æatrib, a young poet, amid the din of a garden restaurant in Damascus filled with young Syrians and embassy staff. "We were born at a time of disintegration, when dreams had failed. My generation has no idealism." His friend Usama Esber, a writer and translator in his thirties, nods in agreement. "With the previous generation, politics was so important," he adds. "They wrote about heroes and saviors and dreams of a better world." And what does Akram write about?Usama glances at Akram and laughs. "Killing his father," he says.
Bashar is in the unenviable position of trying to fill his father's shoes. Not even Syria's most artful propagandists can make him appear to relish the task to come. Small wonder, for Assad set a daunting example. When Islamic fundamentalists in the town of Hamah rose up against the regime in 1982, Assad sent the army in. Thousands of civilians were killed and much of Hamah was destroyed. There has been no serious opposition since. Assad's image still hangs in every shop and taxi and public building, an avuncular patriarch dressed in a Brooks Brothers suit. Once, driving north through a deserted plain, I came upon a 30-foot-tall roadside statue of Assad, smiling familiarly, his arm outstretched as if to speed me on my way.
IN THE GREAT WORLD OUTSIDE—INCLUDING THE SOVIET UNION, SYRIA'S COLD WAR PATRON—THE OLD ORDER MAY have crumbled, but not in Syria. Dissent is rare and invariably brief. As one local journalist tells me wryly: "There is an opposition in parliament, but it thinks everything is going just fine." Government control of the economy has been eased, much to the delight of the ruling class, which has snapped up whatever businesses have come onto the open market.
At the same time, the mood on the street is perceptibly more buoyant than when I first saw Damascus six years ago. Western publications once were cut to ribbons by censors; now the roofs of the city sprout satellite dishes. Artists and writers concede that even if open protest might not be a good career move, there is room for criticism. Wisely enough, though, Damascenes have yet to drop their guard. Streets that are crowded with young people at nine in the evening are empty by 10, and though the slow-growth economy has plenty to do with that, it also reflects a city whose citizens are still on the defensive, where the preferred locus of social life is the home. Damascus is a city of tight-knit groups, small circles of intimates bound by ties of friendship or family, in which often stern public postures barely hint at the warmth and intensity of private life.
I have come to know well the members of one Damascene family. Each time I have visited I've been invited to their homes, showered with presents for my own family, and ferried around as if I were visiting royalty. They are professionals, mostly, successful within the system, politically astute, and progressive. They live with their teenage children in small apartments, with little garden terraces in the back where friends and family gather for beer or arak and mezes on warm weekend nights.
Within the family, no issue is off-limits and discussion is as frank, funny, and unguarded as one could expect in such a tightly controlled society. The regime is accepted somewhat wearily as a fact of life. But it is also defended, for keeping Islamic fundamentalism at bay in what is an avowedly secular state, for fighting Syria's battle in the war against Israel.
Syrians might still feel beleaguered, but social life in Damascus is slowly opening up. Granted, youth culture as it is known in the West, with its clubs and discos, is nonexistent. Yet as tourists come in greater numbers, luxury hotels are being spruced up left and right. There are beautiful little restaurants in restored old houses. Buildings, ranging from dilapidated Ottoman palaces to faded grand hotels from the days of the French mandate, seem poised for renovation. As yet there isn't a single McDonald's, but that probably won't be too far off either.
IN THE UMAYYAD MOQUE IN OLD Damascus is a mosaic of a city in a garden. Golden minarets and alabaster palaces jostle for space amid the palms. Oranges and lemons hang from trees so green they seem to burst from the wall. Everywhere there is water: in spraying fountains, surging waterfalls, the rippling progress of a river.
This is either Damascus as it once was or a vision of paradise. If we are to go by Muhammad's reaction, the mosaic is an accurate portrait of the city. It is said that when Muhammad arrived at the gates of Damascus, he refused to enter, reasoning that one should see heaven only once.
Today it is difficult, at first, to identify the city whose temptations the prophet took such pains to avoid. The modern center has the banal ugliness and traffic-snarled streets of many a Middle Eastern capital with a perfumed name and a golden past. The Barada River, once the city's source of water, is now a muddy ditch. There is barely a garden to be seen.
Miraculously, though, the old city has survived inside the chaos of the new. At the center of it are the souks, the great, gaudy bazaar of Damascus.
The Hamidiye souk, the natural point of entry, is hardly the most welcoming. Much of the merchandise is tawdry tourist fare, the central avenue crowded with aggressive hawkers. After running that gantlet, I am able to wander undisturbed for miles along streets that date from Roman times. Beneath vaulted Ottoman ceilings mingle Armenians and Kurds, bedouin and Druze, Iranian pilgrims headed to the tomb of Ali and rich Saudis on shopping sprees.
It seems as if nothing is unattainable here. There are small "neighborhoods" entirely devoted to sequined wedding dresses or ornamental fountains or bedouin weaponry—new and old. There are streets with nothing but coffee sellers and tea merchants. There is a long avenue of spice stores displaying henna and galingale and aniseed.
Many of the souks are located exactly where they have been for hundreds of years, with the same family of store owners often serving the same family of customers they have served for generations. Tea shops and barber shops, carpet weavers and tile makers occupy storefronts near pocket-sized mosques and trim Greek Orthodox churches, all still in use. Every so often you glimpse the secret life of Damascus through an open doorway: women in long dresses laughing around a fountain; kids playing ball in a sunlit courtyard. These sudden images are like snapshots of another world. Here, in the blank-walled alleys, Damascenes seem to look away from the often harsh public sphere, to lead their lives in private, as they always have.
AGAIN AND AGAIN I'M TOLD THAT TO "understand" Syria, I must visit the desert. One glance at a map confirms the logic of that advice. Damascus sits in the far southwest of the country, turned toward the Mediterranean just 50 miles away. Behind it, for hundreds of miles, is desert. Even on my detailed map, the rest of the country appears almost blindingly empty, though right in the middle is the ancient city of Palmyra and, farther north, the Euphrates. Across the endless rocky plains are communities barely affected by the political shifts in Damascus. The allure of this wilderness lies not only in the remnants of Syria's rich past, but also in the part of Syria that is less drawn to the West, more deeply linked to its Eastern roots.
From Homs, about 100 miles north of Damascus, the desert road runs straight east. There is little to break the monotony other than the occasional herd of sheep, or a bedouin emerging from his hide tent. Every so often I pass a cluster of traditional beehive houses and once, suddenly in the lee of a hill, a neat row of six tanks crouched like beetles in the sand.
Palmyra, which the Arabs call Tadmor, is a broad green swath. These days it makes a living from the tourists drawn to its Roman-era ruins and the little museum in the nondescript new town. It is also known as the site of Syria's most notorious jail, where countless political dissidents were imprisoned under Assad. Since his election, Bashar has released a few, though many see this merely as a token gesture.
Two thousand years ago, Palmyra was a boomtown. Caravans came from all over the East and took off again to Antioch, Damascus, and the Mediterranean. With their cut, Palmyrene traders built a city in their own image—one as flamboyant as Las Vegas.
If the bones of Palmyra are Roman, its essence is Persian. There are colonnaded streets here that once housed Eastern-style bazaars. Every column is fitted with brackets that hold the busts of local notables. The decorative floral motifs and bulging bunches of grapes testify to Palmyra's triumph over the desert.
Syrian pride in Palmyra appears to stem from more than the simple fact of its wondrous preservation. This is a country, after all, that is almost drowning in the leavings of past civilizations, from Bronze Age cities to Byzantine ghost towns. But Palmyra, despite its Roman influences, is Syrian through and through, right down to the faces of the dead in the Valley of the Tombs, just outside the city.
The tower tomb of a noble Palmyrene family may be as many as four stories high; each level is studded floor-to-ceiling with burial niches, some decorated with eerily lifelike busts of their occupants. Most of these likenesses have been removed to museums in Tadmor and Damascus. The remaining ones seem to suggest that if you are rich enough, you really can cheat death.
From Palmyra it's 150 more miles of desert to the next town, Dayr az Zawr. I drive the last half of the journey through a howling sandstorm that is still raging when I arrive. The few townspeople on the streets are hugging the buildings, mouths covered.
Once the fog clears, people reemerge to congregate by the immense, slow-moving Euphrates. Men stand knee-deep in the water holding fishing rods or sit in small boats, their lines hanging over the edge; boys take turns diving from a high bridge; and women in black chadors gaze silently over the emerald river as it steamrolls its way southward.
In the early morning I set out for Aleppo, 200 miles away. Everywhere, women in buttercup-yellow and bright-red dresses are making for the fields. Men follow in pickup trucks. The road runs for miles along the wide, fertile farmland by the Euphrates' banks. The desert lies just over the ridge.
THE FIRST PERSON I MEET IN ALEPPO is 60-year-old Ahmad Modallal. He approaches me casually. "You have just arrived in Aleppo?" he begins. "Welcome." He has embarked on a career in tourism, he informs me, after years as a civil servant. He'd like to show me around.
"My father is a famous singer," he continues, sensing my resistance. "He was the muezzin in the Great Mosque. He goes soon to sing in Paris, the Chambre des Députés, the Gare St.-Lazare." He pauses, arching an eyebrow. "He is now eighty-two years old. It is from him I get my love of music. I like very much American music—Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin."
Not everyone I meet in the city has Mr. Modallal's flair. Still, Aleppo is a surprise. It rivals Damascus for antiquity, yet it is more cosmopolitan, filled with traders from Russia and Armenia, Turkey and Uzbekistan, who come to buy and sell in the souks. And the goods are more outlandish: entire stores devoted to honeycombs or sheep's heads, animal pelts or rope.
The modern city, too, is prettier than the capital. The boulevards leading to the university are flanked with trees and elegant balconied apartment blocks. There is something extravagant about this place. Even the traffic cops seem obsessed with style, their motorbikes decorated with tall, brightly colored feathers.
For all that, Aleppo has the resentfulness of a second city. Where Damascus is easygoing, Aleppo is all hard sell. I spend half my time dodging merchants or guides or translators whose opening gambit I make the mistake of answering.
But Aleppo is at the beginning of its own mini cultural revolution. At the Shibani arts center in the shell of what was once a Franciscan school, I meet Issa Touma and his partner, Majed al-Bean. Issa has needed all the tenacity at his command to haul the Shibani Center into existence.
"I want to bring everyone in, not just the little world of the artistic community, but the people in the street," he tells me over a lunch of kibbeh and tabbouleh at his parents' house in the lovely Jdeide area of the city, where Ottoman palaces are being furiously converted into spectacular restaurants for the burgeoning tourist trade. "Soon, we'll open a photography and documentary film center. With luck, it'll take a year." He smiles at the idea. "It'll be the fastest project in Syrian history."
My arrival coincides with the last night of a festival for women artists at the center. Issa confesses that he'll be very upset if he doesn't get two hundred people. In the end, the event draws so many, they are spilling down the stairs and into the tree-lined courtyard; a writer struggles to read her short story above the chatter.
Then comes a pair of traditional Lebanese dancers, and the crowd falls silent. A local poet recites from his work. Finally, a frail old man in a red fez is coaxed from the audience onto the stage. His voice rises strong and clear through the hall and out into the night. At the close of the cycle of Syrian songs, there is an explosion of applause. Only later do I discover that this is Sabri Modallal, my guide's father, who will shortly depart for the Chambre des Députés, the Gare St.-Lazare.
Issa had told me over lunch that the greatest barrier to change in Syria was not politics but the quiet stoicism of the people outside Damascus and Aleppo. "Their religion is their family, their cows and sheep, the rain they hope for," he said. "A new political regime arrives and it is just another face, another set of slogans."
With such forbearance, Issa seemed to be saying, what chance is there of becoming a more open, more modern society?As a new leader takes over, a self-styled modernizer who may or may not be able to escape the past, that is a legitimate question. Recalling the unfettered joy of Sabri Modallal's songs, the legacy of the ancient Palmyrenes, and the long nights of talk and laughter in modern Damascus, it struck me that Syria's chances might be pretty good.
The best way to see the country is by car. You can rent one through any large hotel at a reasonable rate, with or without a driver. If you want to do the driving yourself, you will need an international driver's license. Get a copy of the Freytag & Berndt map of Syria, which shows gas stations, and make sure you fill the tank whenever you can. Taxis are the best way to get around the cities—and they're metered.
Le Meridien Shoukry al-Qouwatly St., Damascus; 963-11/332-2650, fax 963-11/373-8661; doubles from $150. Near the National Museum, it's the best in the city for facilities, location, and ambience.
Sheraton Damascus Hotel & Towers Umayyad Square, Damascus; 800/325-3535 or 963-11/222-9300, fax 963-11/224-3607; doubles from $205. Standard-issue Sheraton on the city outskirts, with a pool and tennis courts.
Cham Palace Maysaloun St., Damascus; 963-11/223-2300, fax 963-11/221-2398; doubles from $220. More winning than the average hotel in this chain, with views of the Old City from the rooftop restaurant.
Zenobia Hotel Ruins Center, Palmyra; 963-31/910-107, fax 963-31/912-407; doubles from $79. Once frequented by spies and writers, now popular with archaeologists.
Pullman Al Shahba Hotel University St., Aleppo; 963-21/667-200, fax 963-21/667-213; doubles from $100. A good, modern hotel near the university, with an exceptionally helpful and friendly staff.
RESTAURANTS AND CAFÉS
Restaurant Zeitouna 24 Zeitouna St., Bab Sharqi, Damascus; 963-11/543-1324; dinner for two $15. Intimate restaurant in a renovated Damascene house. Near the East Gate of the Old City.
Palais des Nobles International Fair Grounds, Damascus; 963-11/221-6397; dinner for two $44. French and Middle Eastern haute cuisine served in an ornate covered garden.
Annadi Al Ommali 29 May St., Damascus; dinner for two $50. Wonderfully relaxed bar and restaurant, close to the Cham Palace. A favorite of local artists, professionals, and foreign embassy staff.
Al-Nofara Badreddin al-Hassan St., Damascus. A quaint café on the eastern side of the Umayyad Mosque. In the evenings, there is often traditional storytelling.
Sissi House Jdeide Plaza, Aleppo; 963-21/221-9411; dinner for two $15. Middle Eastern cuisine served in a mansion in the old quarter.
Baron Hotel Baron St., Aleppo; 963-21/221-0880. Once Syria's most glamorous hotel—its guest list includes everyone from Lindbergh to Atatürk, Lawrence of Arabia to Agatha Christie—but now rather dilapidated. Have a drink at the bar, where much of the French colonial furnishings and memorabilia remains.
Bayt Seba'i Madhat Basha St., at the center of the souks, Damascus. A Damascene manse converted into artists' studios that are open to the public.
National Museum Shoukry al-Qouwatly St., Damascus. Highlights include the 1,700-year-old synagogue transported whole from Dura-Europos, and the Hypogeum of Yarhai, an underground tomb from Palmyra.
Shibani Center Aleppo; 963-21/331-6827. Call for current performances and exhibitions.
Absolute Asia 800/736-8187 or 212/627-1950; from $4,380 for two. Eleven-day tours that take in Damascus, Aleppo, Palmyra, crusader castles, and villages along the Euphrates.