Yazan Badran | Student Japan
July 11th, 2007

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

To define what kind of change is needed in a country like Syria is not an easy mission, and most definitely it is not one without controversy.

I would say, among all the fundamental issues that our country (Syria, in the tightest geographical sense that is) is suffering from at the moment, whether it is a failing economy, a rising sense of consumerism, the issues of democracy and human rights and the constant retreat of secularism against conservatism, among many. The disintegration of our sense of Identity strikes as the most alarming. (The space is too limited to go into the clear signs of this disintegration.)

Everybody perceives his own identity in a completely different manner. And even within a collective identity, there will always be not-so-subtle differences within every other person, whether it’s his choice of religion, ideology or even his choice of music. That being said, for a country, a society to function at its full potential there has got to be a sense of belonging, a collective choice of belonging, that is.

In essence, the kind of change that is needed is one that brings up that topic to the debate. In very few words, one that allows us to do some soul searching.

The civil society has been tightly controlled for at least the last 25 years, and that definitely contributed to this state that we are in. We need to give ourselves a breathing space. I am not talking about unions, or pressure groups or NGOs, on the contrary, we need to encourage people’s individual collaborative efforts, whether it starts with a book club or a small school paper.

There has got to be a real force behind re-introducing values of individuality and volunteerism. We need to get people interested again in communication on levels other than the daily routines. For example, re-instating boy scouts (It was re-introduced a few years back, but never regained its once-popular place) as an alternative of the Tala’ea el-Baath and the Church’s clubs. We need to encourage local radios and newspapers, and any other outlets that bring out more space for people to debate their very own lives. Whether it is a new gas station that is bringing distress to a neighborhood or the effects of globalization.

Encouraging these alternative outlets can be very stimulating for the rediscovery of our identity. It can re-vitalize the debate, and bring it back from the intelligentsia to the average Syrian, which is what really matters. It is what we average Syrians agree on, that matters. Only then can we claim that we are in the process of developing our sense of the place, our sense of the other, and our sense of ourselves (which is a never ending process, or at least, should be.)

To get people debating their identity, acquiring such an identity, we need to raise their interest in this place that they live in. More importantly, we need to raise their knowledge of this place they live in. It is very, very sad to notice how many young Syrians never got a chance to visit a place like Palmyra or Bosra. Or how little knowledge many of us have about the most important place in Syria’s economy, al-Jazeera. It is sad that we know about the daily life of an American kid more than we do (and for many of us, will ever do) about our own people.

Re-introducing art, theater and cinema for the larger population, can help fill out that void that our mobile phone carrier companies have been making money out of. The amazing popular reaction to the emergence of Syrian Drama, is not an insignificant sign. It clearly draws our need to be proud of ourselves. Our need to relate to something, After many years of living parallel lives, chanting words that have lost all meaning, and that many of us don’t even understand in the first place. Syrian cinema has always had a real potential, and until this day, many agree that the quality of this industry have survived many, many bad years. It is time that we give it a much deserved chance. It is time that we introduced it to the people that it draws itself from. It is not very hard to get the people interested in going to cinema. I will never forget the sights of many sold out nights when Naseem el-Roh was being shown in cinemas. Very few Syrian movies had that luxury, to be shown in Syrian cinemas.

It is very important of course to attract foreign investors, but it is more important to protect the few cultural icons that have survived the grey years of the 80s and 90s, and stayed as one of the few collective memories we share, even if on a small community scale. We need to rediscover our downtowns. We need to redeem these places that hold much of our sense of belonging, whether it is Marjeh Square for Damascenes, or Latakia’s sea side for Latakians, or Aleppo’s Citadel for Aleppans.

Of course, many of this is taking place at the moment, but what is happening is mere breakthroughs from few individuals, it is not done on a global scale, it is not endorsed by the system, and most importantly the class and geographic distribution of it is very poor. It is, to say the least, not the trend. And even this fragile start stands the danger of being crushed down by much more stronger currents that are sweeping our society at the moment. Many of them have no interest in seeing that happening. Whether it is in politics, the regime trying to re-instate its grip on society, or in economy with the frightening waves of capitalism and monopolies that have grown out of control in the last few years.

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25 Responses to the Article

Alex Says:

Thanks Yazan. I’m very happy you found the time to write this wonderful piece.

And you asked the big question: What exactly is “Syria?”

I will elaborate in my late, late article.

abu kareem Says:

Yazan,

Excellent essay and I couldn’t agree more. The keyword that you used is giving the people “breathing space”. Once that happens, much of what you recommend will happen spontaneously.

DJ Says:

That is a great article Yazan, I am never disappointed!

I totally agree with you. Actually, in my reply to Bridget‚??s article earlier in this thread, I said that part of the change Syria needs is to restore the self-esteem of the Syrian youth, namely the esteem that relates the national pride. Syrian youth, who are the majority of the population, need to understand that it is essential to their existence not to take their identity for granted.

How do we do that? As you said, by re-tying the ruptured chords in the society. Culture, culture and more culture is what we need‚?¶

Alex Says:

DJ,

I do not have your email, but I would like to invite you to write if you have something different enough to add.

Wassim Says:

This is a very interesting article Yazan. If I understand you correctly, we need to articulate a confident and renewed self image for youth in Syria. Invigorated and reminded of themselves, their identity and history as well as their culture is the surest way of blocking any encroachment of consumerist politics, business and culture.

The real question is, how do you kick start this? There is a wealth of material and people available and somehow these need to be given a fertile enough soil to take root and thrive. Perhaps an online collaborative effort which serves as a template for a new non-pop culture? Literature, stories, committed songs, films…Am I starting to sound like a propagandist or does this make sense? :S

Yazan Says:

Wassim,
The main point was to let these youth decide for themselves what they want their collective image to be, give them the means, give them their history back, give them their land back, and let them shape it like clay, until they feel at home. I have my own preset image of Syria, and I am sure that you do, just like everyone else… What I want to say, is that by letting these outlets happen, by opening up the debate, we can find a common place for us, where we all feel like home. I need to feel, when I say I am Syrian, that I do represent Syria, whether I am Arab, Kurdish, Armenian, Assyrian, Or Turkmen… otherwise, people will have no choice but feel excited about a new mcdonald’s opening up in bab touma just because it added “McShawerma” to its menu, masalan.

We are in no place to lecture them on what they listen to, or read… what i was advocating was exactly the opposite, before u decide to reinvent your identity, you need to have absolute confidence that this people have earned it over the years, if you do, then the only thing u need to do, is to open up the door for the debate, let them go to cinemas, watch whatever they want, let them eat whatever they want, let them listen to anything whether it is Ziad Rahbani walla Haifa Wehby… it is not my place to tell them what is right, it is them, us, who we need to decide what this country will be… I have full confidence in us. I am confident that many aspects of this identity will not be to my own personal satisfaction, but as long, as i am, with my own differences is accepted, just like others with their own differences are accepted into this framework… then this has got a chance to work.

Do I sound too vague? my main point is, i dont consider myself in any place to direct this debate… this should be an open one, in every sense of the word…

Alex Says:

Yazan,

This is an important point. After talking with many Syrians who are thinking of new ways to reform the country I realize that most of them still believe in setting new policies, institutions, and programs that will continue to lead Syrians and tell them what they should do.

New, but still similar (maybe better) to the old mentality of “we know what is good for the stupid masses).

I am for a gradual transfer of responsibility from leadership to the people. Not today but over the next few years. But surely we need to stop at some point telling everyone “we know what is good for you and we will protect you from anything we consider bad for you”… with some obvious exceptions… There will still be need for a role for the state to exercise leadership.

Personal blogs are a good place to start this process. Are they now unblocked?

I have been quite impressed with the content of many Syrian blogs which are mostly run by Syrians in their twenties I imagine. But you are the expert on this one, what are your thoughts?

Wassim Says:

Hi Yazan,
Ah I see what your point was, a cultural rediscovery but along somewhat liberal lines. Now what you are proposing does sound and look good, but in actuality how do you know that this is even possible? For example, as a child your parents raise you and teach you. Now there are influences and people your parents would not want you to meet or learn things from before you are sufficiently ready, applying the same logic would mean that the children grow “bala tirbayeh”. I’m not knocking your idea down but I have a strong feeling that most people are not always the best judge of what is good for them (totalitarian sounding I know!). So, in a scenario such as you are proposing, you open the way for a complete cultural McSyrianisation, a cultural application of the free markets ideology, by removing what acted (rightly or wrongly) as some block to these.

The illusion of Liberalism works when people are truly independent and rich enough to identify and articulate their interests, it is in effect, a rich mans ideology. If we applied a truly open space as you propose, who is to say we won’t see the equivalent of present day Mitsubishi (McWorld) competing and completely overtaking a 1920’s Ford style manufacturer (Syria).

There are some who argue that the countries in the West applied a protectionist policy to their industries, and continue to do so, before beginning advocating free markets and no trade obstacles. That is why less developed countries are so far behind. I find no reason why one can’t apply a similar logic culturally especially with Syria considering we do already have an identity that we strongly cherish and as bearers of a rich and long tradition. That be my 20p’s worth.

Majhool Says:

Abu Kareem,

Thanks!! It seems that we tend to agree on most things most of the time. As to your suggestion for me to start a blog; I do have one that you actually used to read but it’s under a different name. I only use Majhool when I am critical of the government. I guess that tells you how suffocated Syrians are.

Yazan Says:

Alex,
I have written about this in many places, the personal blogs around the syrian blogsphere, although they dont represent a real image of a majority of syrians, they all someway or another advocate individuality, in their own sense ofcourse. I have been here for more than 2 years now, when I started blogging there was roughly 16 blogs, since then there had been a real explosion… and it is striking.
There are conflicting reports about the blocking/unblocking… maybe its different from one ISP to another.

Wassim,
You raise a very important point, and it is a real risk.
But, what I mean when I say re-invent, is not starting from zero. We are as a people and a culture, deeply deeply rooted, we have so much heritage and so much richness within every corner of this place… when I say re-invent, I mean to stop this mimicking of Syrian identity, and equating it with fixed concepts, Identity is a very very dynamic concept, at least it should be…

We are Romans, we are Phoenicians, we are Arabs, we are Armenians, we are many many different things, we have many things that have been blocked by one exclusive sense of identity or another, whether it is religiously [Syrian cities have never been more of a gathering of ghettos than they are now, and that is real…], ethnically, culturally….

I am not against putting forward our culture, that is exactly what I am advocating, the difference maybe, is that I see our cultural in a Global sense, as a very integral part of Human culture, i feel that it is only fair for this culture, to be cherished at its full potential, and be given the chance to also grow at its full potential and with its own dynamism…

You wanna call that a liberal illusion be my guest, I don’t wanna call ur approach totalitarian, just because i dont really believe in such wide statements, but I most definitely don’t see myself a better judge than most people…

Majhool Says:

Yazan,

Ya3ni as always i tend to agree with you..So I don’t know what to say other than well said!!

Ma3loom and Yazan need to have a drink one day soon!!!

DJ Says:

Dear Alex, could you please give me your email address?

Lujayn Says:

Thought provoking as always, Yazan. I am hardly the expert on Syrian national or cultural identity, being only an infrequent visitor to the country, but I have noticed people becoming increasingly alienated from their surroundings despite living in crowded neighborhoods. Where people used to know the residents of the entire street, let alone their building, nowadays people barely acknowledge their neighbors. People identify increasingly with family, and of course, religion, but hardly with geographical communities or neighborhoods.

Where the entire building used to feel a sense of responsibility for its well-being and cleanliness, as well as that of the street, nowadays people take care of their homes, and feel no responsibility for anything outside of their homes, whether its cleanliness or security or development. That hasn‚??t stopped them from listening to Haifa Wehbe or Ziad Rahbani. In fact, I find Syrians are among the most culturally aware and stimulated in the Arab world, but there is a fracture or gap between their cultural identity and their surroundings. Like they belong to two different worlds.

Alex Says:

DJ

it is info at creative syria dot com : )

Lujayn,

Maybe this the what happens when you now have internet access and satellite TV… your communications and entertainment options are not limited to visiting the neighbors.

Lujayn Says:

There isnt any hope for a sense of community, then, is there? Its not a Syrian problem, per se, as the same is happening in most modern societies. I just felt that fostering a sense of cultural identity does not necessarily mean Syrians would feel “Syrian”. There is no shortage of people who listen to Sabah Fakhri or watch Syrian drama series, yet they do not appear to feel any sense of responsibility for their community or identify as Syrians, except when their national or cultural symbols are under attack from outside forces.

Yazan Says:

Lujayn,
You can not ignore the fact that we are a generation that was brought up in a literal orwellian world. We have no belonging except those fragments that we managed to sneak through the year, from the families, from the books or from the remains of our cities.
Most of us, never had anyone reaching out to us, telling us what it means to live in a country that has been way before god even existed for many people. We have not had a chance to learn about it, we know all about el-Tadamun el-3araby, but we dont know what it means to be an arab, except that he believes in the “el-mujtama3 el-3arabi el-ishtiraky el-mowahhad”. Let alone what it means to be Syrian.
Identity is not a born element, it is acquired and changing every living hour.
I strongly disagree with alex. It is not the internet, it is our shaken foundations.
For a long time being active in your community was a reason for suspicion. That is changing now, and we need to take advantage of that, and fix what has been severely broken. Our collective memory has had somekind of an amnesia for the last 40 years. we need to rebuild that…
We have many means, we have a generation that is frustrated with the status quo.

Lujayn,
I know what I am worth, and I am not being modest [in reality I am on the arrogant side to be honest, and being a lonely child doesnt help].
But, I am no exception, when I say i need to debate my identity, i know that i speak for many other shabab/sabaya who are absolutely lost in the whirls of Syriatel and Areeba, their frustrating college years, and smoking argileh after school… who would do anything to join the few circles that are promoting this sort of direction. [which are, unfortunately, nothing but a small sub-culture elitist-minded circles].

Alex Says:

Yazan,

I was only commenting on the effect of internet access on socializing with the neighbors. WHy would you disagree with that? … same way parents complain that their children are on their PC the whole day and that they can not talk to them anymore, I am sure the neighbors can say the same.

Besides, most Syrians in their teens and twenties will continue to be more interested in personal fun activities no matter what we change. In Syria, as in other countries, only a minority of them will be interested in leadership roles, in community service, in cultural activities …etc. Not everyone is a Yazan.

DJ Says:

That sounds like a very authoritative email address Alex ūüėČ … anyway I’ve already sent you an email …

allah yeistore… :)

Majhool Says:

Alex,

True not everyone is a Yazan just like not everyone is a physician or a rocket scientist we still need them in fact it‚??s these suffocated ‚??minorities‚?Ě that could have the most impact.

Here is Boston, I go to my neighborhood communality meeting and of course not everyone shows up but those who do make an impact.

Yazan you said

‚??For a long time being active in your community was a reason for suspicion. That is changing now‚?Ě

Is it changing? How? Is it possible now to hold neighborhood meetings? Clean the street? Mentor the kids? My understanding was that this was the most dangerous crime one could ever commit in Syria. Let me know if that changed‚?¶

Alex Says:

Majhool,

I was not implying that we do not need to improve the conditions in which Yazan-like active young Syrians would feel free to communicate. I was simply expressing my doubt that a majority of young Syrians will respond to such changes.

Yazan Says:

Alex,

Maybe not a majority, but a lot more than you think… Alex, the alternative socialising windows for a young syrian are still very limited, and I am positive that many will welcome any chance to go out and meet new people, and many will be willing to give up on lots of prejudice and stereotypes once that happens.

Majhool,
It is changed in the sense that, you can, if you are willing and have the time and resources to clean your own street, or gather friends who would do it.
I think the state has went back to the kind of passive observer when it comes to that, as long as you stay clear of the many red lines.

Yazan Says:

btw Alex,
Where is your late late post?

Alex Says:

Coming very soon : )

Mazen Says:

Yazan,

This was an excellent article. I keep referring to the fact that I am an engineer who for some time used to think that technological advances were the thing we need. Boy, was I wrong.

We need the humanities, art, music, drama, cinema, and all forms of expression. Although I would have to say that the Syrian drama has been too focused on Damascus. I’m not worried about Aleppo :) but the Jazeereh and the Coast need more attention. They are also 100% Syrian and should not be neglected not one bit. 5 stars!

antonio gragna Says:

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I’m writing a book on fantastic cinema, the most complete ever and i’m looking for someone disposed to help us in filling the gap about Arab/Syrian cinematographies. Please write to: testevacanti(hat)libero.it and i’ll explain you more.

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