Bridget Palmer | Syria Blogger United States
July 7th, 2007

Re: ‘If you had the choice what would you change in Syria?

What is the most essential change that needs to be made in Syria?

In my opinion, the most essential change that needs to be made right now is that Syria needs to stop making changes ‚?? in one area, at least: the arrival of Western fast-food chains.

If you had told me two years ago that there would be a KFC in Damascus by now, I wouldn‚??t have believed you. Sure, we had Hesburger (jokingly called ‚??Hezbollah Burger‚?Ě by us and our friends‚?¶probably in bad taste) out in the Dummar suburb. It was never clear to us why this Finnish burger chain was allowed in the country and all the American varieties weren‚??t. The Hesburger manager‚??s explanation was that any company with Jewish investors was not allowed to set up shop in Syria. Whether his explanation is accurate, I‚??ve never been able to find out. In any case, that‚??s certainly not the reason I think these businesses should continue to be blocked from entering the country.

Rather, Syria should remain fast-food-free because to do otherwise would go against the nature of its attraction. Damascus is billed as being the oldest continually inhabited city in the entire world. The genuine quality of its ancient streets, souqs, and culture is almost palpable. In my opinion, a slough of garish chain restaurants would only cheapen this atmosphere without providing enough benefits in return.

It‚??s true that these kinds of businesses often provide stable, well paying jobs, often for women. And American fast-food restaurants may very well give a boost to the economy and increase the perceived convenience factor for foreign tourists.

But the first two benefits can be achieved through other means, and the third may actually deter as many travelers as it attracts. Certainly, more traditional Syrian restaurants (and other types of businesses) can ‚?? and should – offer positions to women. And the kind of traveler who comes to Syria for a purposeful, independent visit is likely not one who also appreciates the effect of golden arches over a narrow, ancient alley.

Where else in the world today is there such a place without a McDonald‚??s, Hardee‚??s, or Pizza Hut to destroy its enchanting atmosphere? Granted, I know there are other countries without American fast food, but that is just one of the things that makes Damascus so unique and authentic. Because how foreign can a country really be when you can still biggie-size a burger and fries, or be sure of a clean public restroom with toilet paper and hand soap? Not very, in my opinion.

Some may counter that the introduction of Western fast-food establishments to Syria would usher the country into the 21st century ‚?? finally. To this I say: I hope Syria never enters the 21st century in certain respects. A more modern approach to cumbersome bureaucracy and high-speed internet would be welcome, of course. But holding on to the values of past generations means that the corner grocery store, an emphasis on strong family ties, and an extremely safe community are traditions that are still alive and thriving.

Syria doesn‚??t even need these kinds of restaurants. Why does a country that is already home to fabulous eateries like Elissar, Beit Wakil, and the Parfait even need a McDonald‚??s, Burger King, or Hardee‚??s? Besides, the introduction of the authentic Western restaurants would make rip-offs like ‚??Pizza Hot‚?Ě and ‚??Popay‚??s‚?Ě redundant.

Perhaps I‚??m just being selfish. I will admit that in many ways, I want Syria to remain the same charming place it was when I lived there. Yes, there were moments (especially when I was pregnant) when I wanted more than anything else to be able to order something ultimately familiar, something like chicken nuggets or a vegetarian pizza topped with fresh mushrooms, real American mozzarella cheese, and sterile, generic olives out of a can. But these moments passed and in the end, I was left with a profound sense of appreciation for the capital city that Damascus is, not what it could be.

If they must come ‚?? and I realize that eventually, they probably will ‚?? at least let them try to fit in with the aura of the city. Villa Moda recently opened a branch in Damascus ‚?? in the Old City, no less. But the designers of the boutique were careful to make the shop an integral part of its surroundings, not an eyesore.

So go ahead: open up more jobs for women, more businesses to drive the economy, and free up some of the state controls. But don‚??t use American fast-food restaurants to accomplish these things ‚?? they‚??ll stab you in the back every time.

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18 Responses to the Article

Alex Says:

Bridget,

I totally agree. But there is no way Syria will refuse to allow McDonald’s or KFC to operate in Syria… that would be very anti American.

It should be ok if they keep them outside the old city and its surrounding areas … the rest of new Damascus is not that charming after all : )

Bridget Says:

You know, Alex, you make a good point. If they tucked them out of the way then it might not be so terrible. Except in principle, of course. It really was remarkable to be able to say that Syria had no western food establishments whatsoever.

Your anti-American comment is meant to be facetious…

Right? :)

Alex Says:

: )

I think if the Syrians finally mange to have friendly relations with the United States (post 2008?) they will go out of their way to show them that they are “friendly” to America … they will welcome McDonald’s.

Besides, for first time American tourists, the sight of the rotating 100Kg of Shawarma meat will probably look intimidating … it does not look like anything they ate before. Trying to understand the contents of “Hommos” or Falafel is not easy either.

DJ Says:

Bridget,
Thank you for the article, it was interesting to see the concept of change through different binoculars‚?¶!

I have teenager cousins who are living in the Gulf with their parents, would you believe that they despise going to Syria on vacation because they hate being deprived from Pizza Hut and Mc Donalds?

And they dare call the lack of such fast food chains ‚??Takhaluf‚??! (backwardness or underdevelopment)‚?¶

I think that what also should be changed or improved, is the self-esteem of the average Syrian citizens‚?¶

SimoHurtta Says:

The restaurant in Damascus is run by a licence to a local licence holder.

Hesburger is a Finnish company, created to offer an domestic alternative to US based hamburger chains. The company has been extremely successful economically and in popularity, being much more profitable as the US chains Finnish subsidiaries. When McDonald’s has had here to reduce the number of its restaurants Hesburger has continued its fast expansion.

No doubt that the fast food restaurants are not a sign of good taste in food or often in architecture, but as astonishing as it is those restaurants are popular everywhere.

On the other hand Finland has nowadays hundreds of Kebab restaurants run by Turks and Kurds (some of them most certainly from Syria). Kebab the oriental “hamburger” is hardly an original Finnish food and some say they should have no place in our “culture”.
:)

Let the customers decide …

Bridget Says:

Those shawerma stacks can be very intimidating, especially when they’re being carved by shirtless men with hairy backs (as we’ve seen before). But anyone who’s afraid of pasty hummus and unassuming balls of chickpeas needs to live a little. :)

DJ, that is both fascinating and terrible about your cousins! I’ve heard a lot of complains from Khaliji visitors about Syria, but that’s a first. I seem to remember reading somewhere (so it must be true, right?) about how Saudi Arabia’s McDonald’s restaurants are some of the chain’s most profitable locations in the world, but I can’t locate the specific source. I wouldn’t doubt it, though.

Simo, thank you for explaining the mystery of Hesburger. And also spinning the issue so we can see it from the other side. :)

George Ajjan Says:

On the topic of American culture and what it symbolizes in the Arab world, I will never forget walking around Dubai City Center mall and seeing a teenage local pass by sipping a drink from a McDonalds cup, while he was wearing a t-shirt imprinted with Osama bin Laden’s picture.

Jill Says:

Do Americans these days really not know about hummus or falafel? I’m pretty sure I’ve been eating hummus for about 20 years, but still have not been to the Middle East proper (although I live in Morocco, most Moroccans do not eat hummus the paste, as opposed to hummus, the name for chickpeas in Arabic).

I don’t know how those chains are perceived there, but in Morocco, McDonald’s is considered upscale by young people. On a Saturday night, it’s impossible to get a seat. Teens come dressed to the nines to meet each other, tonight I stopped by for a milkshake and the bathroom was filled with girls putting on makeup.

But I would imagine that Damascus, being a world class city of sorts, probably has better restaurants of its own than Morocco, which is sorely lacking in a restaurant culture, native or otherwise.

Hammam Yousef Says:

You Are puzzling me people…
So, the thing that should -not- be changed is… “to keep Damascus/ Syria American-fast-food-free”

What about “Democracy” or “Development” or “Prosperitiy” or “Ending the state of Marchal Laws” or “Ending the Assad Dictatorship” or “Freedome of the Press” or “Real Human rights”

???!!!

Trent Says:

Going to have to disagree with you there Bridget – from my experience in Egypt, the arrival of the American fast food chain created a sudden alternative to dirty, dingy, unhealthy local fast food chains which as a result of the competition within a year multiplied into competent copycat restaurants, overall became cleaner, brighter, had more varied menu’s and in the end some of them have become more popular than thier American counterparts. Same thing in Jordan, from what I saw. I really think Syria needs some competition when it comes to fast food, 2000 restaurants offering the exact same menu is not in Syrias best long-term interest.

Bridget Says:

Jill, you’re correct that McDonald’s (and other restaurants like it) is definitely more upscale overseas than it is in the US. You also make a good point that a place like Damascus (or Aleppo, or wherever, except Homs, which has NO good restaurants) doesn’t need a McDonald’s to kick-start a restaurant culture. It already has a thriving one.

Bridget Says:

Dear Hammam, if that is your real name,

Read some of the other articles on this forum for thoughtful essays that address those very topics. This article is only my opinion – there are many others to choose from on this same page.

Bridget Says:

Trent,

I still contend that change in the restaurant sector, in the areas that it is needed (you’re right that variety is probably one of them), can come from sources other than Western fast-food chains. In fact, Syria already has the “competent copycat restaurants” of which you speak, without having been polluted :) by McDonald’s and others. Check out Popay’s, Pizza Roma, Cafe Uno, and In-House Coffee for examples.

Hammam Yousef Says:

Dear Bridget,
Yes it is… and if you can read Arabic letters (Ŕ?Ŕ?Ŕ?ōßŔ? Ŕ?Ŕ?ō≥ŔĀ) maybe you are confusing (ō≠) with (Ŕ?Ŕ?) as all the foreigners do because they can’t pronounce (ō≠)… unless you are wondering for other reason :)

I have read the other articles, but I wanted to express my opinion too, in what I have felt a little bit off the subject approach, my apology if you were offended in any way.

My reaction to your approach is similar to all those Syrians who can‚??t afford going to any of the restaurants you‚??ve mentioned due to the dire economic situation they live in because of the political/ power structure of the Syrian regime. It very much reminded me of Mary Antoinette who ‚??when told that here people can‚??t find bread to eat- suggested eating cake instead!!

Alex Says:

Hammam,

The idea of having so many of you writing is to have a variety of opinions and to cover more areas of any topic. I’m sure you did not want ten authors repeating the same points about fighting corruption and political reform .. that would be boring : )

And if you ask me, food and restaurants are on many Damascenes’ minds. Bridgette covered a relevant topic! … I wish in Canada we could go out everyday like they do in Damascus. And for an architect like you, I thought the issue of protecting the character of old Damascus (from an invasion of fast food chains) would be considered more relevant.

You are a bit harsh in criticizing Bridgette’s post. In Syria, like in most countries, there are those who are rich enough to own those big restaurants, others who can afford to go eat there, some who can not afford to eat in restaurants, and some who struggle to feed their families with bread and rice.

Why didn’t YOU write something about the things you felt strongly about? : )

Bridget Says:

Hammam, I’m sorry if I treated your name lightly. The truth is, I couldn’t resist. I couldn’t tell if you were joking or if (as you pointed out, thank you!) that was a legitimate name. Thanks for clarifying and also for letting me know what you thought of my article. I appreciate the input, even if it’s not complimentary!

Hammam Yousef Says:

Alex,
True, I could have written something about what I feel strongly about as you said, I am guilty on this matter.

And yes I admit that I was a bit harsh, and the reason in not the content of Bridget’s post mainly, but I also (couldn’t resist -as Bridget put it) to use the opportunity to vent some frustration of some “approaches” to Syrian’s daily struggles!

As an architect, I don’t see the matter exclusively related to Macdonald, Pizza Hut or any other fast food chain, it is more related to what approach the architect will use if he found him self forced to insert a modern function into an old urban texture, but I agree, I wouldn’t want to see the golden arches in the same scenery with Omayyad Mosque Gate :)

Bridget,
Here is the compliment, I totally agree on what you’ve suggested.

And thank you for your apology‚?¶ I gave you the ‚??benefit of the doubt‚?Ě if the expression is correct, and thank God my name is not Dick ūüėČ

My remark is: this issue comes on the scale of urgency much lower than political cultural and social reforms; I am not saying that it is not related; actually it is deeply related to the cultural identity of Damascus and Syria in general.

Americanization (as in Globalization) takes many shapes and forms, one of them is what you’ve stressed out, but what protects peoples‚?? interests is there own awareness, unfortunately we can‚??t keep Damascus safe from fast food chains’ attacks in a free market economy!

The only way to protect our selves is to be producers not consumers, the thing that our leaders don‚??t care for at all, and it all starts with real education, real freedom‚?¶ real Human Rights.

razan Says:

this is for Alex: im sorry,but you really sound very stupid. im sure you arent as brainless as you seem,but you sure do a good job in making yourself sound it. you said: ” Besides, for first time American tourists, the sight of the rotating 100Kg of Shawarma meat will probably look intimidating ‚Ķ it does not look like anything they ate before. Trying to understand the contents of ‚ÄúHommos‚ÄĚ or Falafel is not easy either”

oh im sorry, we should open up crappy food stores from the US so that when you guys come to visit,you feel perfectly at home? ah,youve got the american enlarged ” we are the center of the world ” ego.

do you not realise,that if an american is coming here as a tourist,the whole point of his visit is to get to know our culture and eat our food etc etc?

well, i have to keep what you said in mind, next time i go to japan, i will demand they open up shawirma stores,since you know, trying to understand the contents of sushi is hard. .. and..lool. you must be some chicken shit if you think shawirma looks intimidating.
——-

dear bridget,

i liked your article very much.

we really dont need mcdonalds,i couldnt believe it when i was told they would open one here. why would we bring mcdonalds,when we are anti israel,and mcdonalds gives a large percent of its profits to israel? something is not right, we say we are anti israel and have anti american policies,yet on the other hand,we are bringing kfc,mcdonalds,subway,coca cola,pepsi etc etc,and are selling many many many products which send most of their profits to israel. this is very strange and very sad. it makes me feel ashamed too.

other than the political wrong doing in bringing these companies, the obvious reasons we dont need this crap is because..they are just that..crap!

i was always proud that i could tell people that we dont have american fast food places, it made damascus unique, and i agree with you bridget, i also do not want some aspects of our lives to become involved in the 21st century.

ive spoke to a few foreigners who much to my amasement said things like “syria needs to become more modern,open up mcdonalds-” have you ever been told things like that? i get the “gasp! omg you guys dont have mcdonalds?!..woaw..you guys need to be more modern” saying lots. as though having these gross fast food places is what makes a country developed. get real.

you know whats sad? that we were just given the title” capital of arabic culture” now,a year latter, mcdonalds is opening up. freaky isnt it?

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