Saturday, May 19, 2007


The title to this blog has nothing whatever to do with St. Paul or a Crosby-Hope Road flick of the 1940's. Instead, it is about my recent adventure in the Middle East.

I hope you noticed my absence from the blogosphere for the past several days. Given the rapid pace that Special Ed and Bush's pal Steve Harper are destroying their respective leaderships and governments, I just had to take a breather.

Well, if not a breather, at least a pleasant change. I have just returned from Damascus. Not Damascus, Saskatchewan. No Siree. I mean the real McCoy - Damascus, Syria - the ancient, mysterious, fascinating, oft-criticized pivotal Middle Eastern city of one of the most important Middle Eastern countries, in a region fraught with danger, intrigue and violence, none of which I observed. The pursuit of the elusive black liquid took me there. Unlike St. Paul, I did not have a conversion on the road. I remain what I was before I boarded the plane -I'll leave it to you to fill whatever you think is the appropriate expletive deleted that defines me.

The voyage to Damascus from Calgary is a long one. My colleagues and I stopped in London after an 8 and a half hour flight to shower and catch a few hours in the city via the very efficient and very fast train (it takes about 15 minutes) into Paddington Station from Heathrow. A few hours later we boarded a British Airways jet for the 6 and a half hour flight to Damascus via a short stop in Ankara. We arrived at our destination in the wee small hours of the morning, a calendar day and a half after our departure from home. There is a 9 hour time difference between Calgary and Damascus. It is not a short hop.

Syria in recent years has taken a pummelling in the western press. Much has been said about its repressive regime, its alleged harboring of terrorists, its jails and murky justice system, and so forth. That is not the side of the country that I observed in Damascus. Admittedly, the trip was short - about 6 days - and so there remains much for me to experience and learn about the place hopefully a next time.

Damascus is big. There are 4.5 million plus people, spread over a broad valley below Mount Qasioun, the site that Muslims believe was where Cain murdered Abel. The panoramic view of the city from Mount Qasioun is a dramatic one, and gives emphasis to the vastness and power of the metropolitan area. There are several restaurants near the top of the mountain from which diners can eat and drink while absorbing the dramatic view at the steep mountain's edge. Housing has crept up the mountain side over the years. It now includes even squatters who have built their crude, ramshackle cement block dwellings with million dollar views from precipitous angles to the valley and city below. At night, the view of the lights of the densely settled side of the mountain from the city is equally wondrous.

Damascus is old. It is so old that it is widely acknowledged to be the oldest continuously occupied city in the world. It has been inhabited as a human settlement since at least 8000 years BC. Some say, it goes back as far as 10,000 BC. Therefore, there is plenty of antiquity. Because my time was limited I barely scratched the surface of its many historical wonders. However, I did walk through parts of the old city with its warren of narrow lanes and interesting shops, restaurants and cramped ancient homes. I visited the famous enclosed Al-Hamidieh Market with its many wares and antiques, and sampled a generous helping of sherbet-like Arabic ice cream (bouzat haleeb). Nearby I entered the serene Omayyad Mosque which dates back to the 8th century. The Mosque contains the heads of John the Baptist and Hussein, son of Ali. The ornate Minaret of Jesus is located at the Mosque. It is said to be the place where Jesus will appear on Judgement Day.

Much of Damascus is modern. There are many chic neighborhoods, as befits a city with a prosperous and growing middle class. Construction standards are clearly not what they are in the west and some of the inferior workmanship is readily apparent. Nonetheless, there are some very impressive buildings. One of the most prominent is (what used to be until recently) Canada's own Four Seasons Hotel. It is a tall, imposing building of white stone of perhaps 25 or so stories attached to a large shopping area in the same style. It is well-located in the inner city business district and the best hotel in town.

As Arab cities go, Damascus is a liberal city. The vigorous nightlife came as a surprise to me. Outstanding restaurants abound, as well as a goodly number of well-frequented bars and discos. I was reminded that the current Baathist regime led by the Al-Assad family is a secular one. Islam is not the official religion of the state, quite unlike other Arab nations in the region. Christians, mostly Catholic, comprise about 10% of the population and live in relative harmony with the Muslim community, which is 75% Sunni, with the rest divided among the Alawi, Druze and Shia. Ethnically, 90% are Arab and 10% among other groups, the main ones being Kurds and Armenians.

The Al-Assad family are from the minority Alawi sect. Our hosts told us that Syria did not have a problem with the Jewish people, but rather the Zionist state. However, they looked forward to an ultimate negotiated and honorable settlement with Israel. Given that they were sophisticated and respected businessmen with significant commercial interests who have prospered during recent times of relative stability in their country, I had no trouble taking them at their word.

I had occasion to dine out at two great Arab restaurants in the old city - 'Oxygen' and 'Old City.' Both are part of a group of a hundred or so very old houses in old Damascus that have in recent years been converted to fashionable restaurants, the design of which gives full measure to the exotic Arabic style. Given that Damascans still live by the generous siesta in the afternoons, things get started late. Most people show up for dinner at 10 or later. Live entertainment with Arabic singers and musicians generally begins at 11. For the next several hours, guests stuff themselves with the best of nuts, pickles, pita bread, hummus, salads, grilled lamb and chicken . . . . and other equally delicious morsels, all tastefully spiced and excellent in every way. Wine and cocktails flow freely, all of which I ingested liberally, dare I say. Water pipes (hookahs, or hubbly bubblies) are always present, the scented tobacco smells from which seemed far less oppressive than what I remember of cigarette smoke back home in the old days.

We were hosted in an exemplary way by our hosts and future business colleagues. With them we happily sampled some of the night life into the wee small hours and visited officials of the Government, as well as Canada's Ambassador to Syria. During those moments when we did not talk business we talked openly about politics.

The current Baathist regime of the Al-Assad family began in 1970 as a result of a coup d'etat led by Hafez Al-Assad, upon whose death in 2000, was succeeded by his son Bashar. Syria's turbulent history is bloody and violent. Before the mid 7th century and the coming of the Muslims, the country had been ruled by Aramaeans, Babylonians, Greeks under Alexander the Great, Romans, and Egyptians - to name but a few. During this time it was sacked, occupied, destroyed, and conquered a multitude of times. With the coming of the Muslims the carnage continued, with tribal wars, and invasions by the Turks, Crusaders, the Egyptians under Saladin, and the Mongols. The Ottoman Turks occupied and governed the region and city for 400 years, ending only with their defeat in World War 1 in 1918. Arabs of the region expected independence to emerge from the War, after having fought with the Allies (remember Col. T.E. Lawrence of Arabia) in routing the Turks. They were to be disappointed. The French were given the mandate to govern and entered the country in 1920. They remained there until 1946. During the whole of the French occupation, the struggle for independence went on, with continued revolutionary and counter-revolutionary activities, bloodshed and violence. Syrian independence came at a terrible price of death and destruction.

For many years, it didn't go much better after independence. The country remained in a state of continual crisis with at least 11 coup d'etats between 1946 and 1966. On top of that were the Arab-Israeli wars of 1948, 1967, and 1973, the civil war in Lebanon (just across the mountains from Damascus), the chest-pounding aggressive and authoritarian Sadam in Iraq to the south, Gulf War 1 (in which Syria was a member of the anti-Sadam coalition), Dubya's Gulf War 2 (which has resulted in as many as 2 million Iraqi refugees seeking a Syrian safe haven), and the Palistinian refugees from the creation of Israel, the occupation of the West bank and the troubles in Lebanon. The population of Syria is about 20 million, which number includes Palistinian refugees, but excludes the refugees from Iraq.

I noted that there were no tears shed for the departure of Sadam. Equally obvious was the scorn held for George W. Bush's muscular and one-sided Middle East policy, which in their minds has only served to further destabilize a region which was already in a delicate state, not to mention Syria's further alienation from the United States. Canada, because of its long-standing even handed approach to the regional issues (at least until now), earned high marks.

With its history it is small wonder then that, according to our hosts, order is uppermost in the minds of the people as well as the regime. Without order there is no peace, and without peace, there is no progress. It is for the pursuit of order, that the regime tolerates little opposition, and deals harshly with it's suspected opponents or potential opponents. Law enforcement is severe and quiet. There is virtually no crime in the city. And no terrorism. A highly sophisticated organization of internal security has so far been successful in rooting out potential disruptive elements. Armed military personnel are scattered liberally throughout the city. Given the country's record of coups and counter coups, it is little wonder that the system has evolved in this way, with order being considered of the utmost importance.

The delivery of good health care we are told, whether it be public or private, is problematic. People who have some money are likely to get serious health problems taken care of in Amman, Jordan, rather than Damascus. There are plenty of poor people.

The recent wars and instability in the region has contributed to a gigantic influx of refugees. Statistics indicate that 6 to 700,000 Palistinian refugees are in Syria with most being in the Damascus area. They have the same rights as Syrians and more than 70% are employed. Many own homes. The number of Iraqi refugees crossing the border has been as high as 30,000 to 40,000 per month with estimates of between one and two million having settled in Syria since the current war began. They have access to all government services. This new influx is creating pressures on available housing, public services, educational facilities and health care. It is a growing and immediate problem for the state. Whereas Egypt and Jordan have erected barriers to Iraqi refugees entering into their respective countries, Syria has kept an open border.

We ended our brief stay with a fantastic banquet at the Meridian Hotel. The food was excellent and abundant. The wine, first class. The conversation, stimulating. The music, haunting and exotic. And a belly-dancer that was to die for.

I can't wait to go back.