Saturday, October 29, 2005


The project team

I'm lucky to have a great team working with me on this project. Finding them took a long time, and two of them came through rather a strange route, but we've now been working together throughout the summer, and I can't remember a better group of people to be with and work with. All the team are Syrian of course, and a real mix of personalities, backgrounds and beliefs. I have been taken to task for paying more than the going rate and setting a bad example, but I'm looking for the right skills and attitude, which are rare round here, and it doesn't seem worth paying less and settling for less. First appointment was Dina, my deputy, an architect by profession, mother of small daughter Maria. Dina is very gentle but very tough and determined, and is the main reason I have survived so far without some form of mental collapse. She has good English and laughs at my jokes, which I always appreciate. Dina keeps things going when I'm in the UK and is the reality check for my more irrational ideas. She has lived in Canada. Zuhair, big, shaven head, looks after the touring programme. He came from the commercial exhibitions sector so is used to coping with deadlines, shipping, hotels, inadequate electrics and double bookings, all of which has come in useful this summer. He also knows everybody in the trade. Mais, the office coordinator, which means she is usually stuck here while everyone else is off at an event, is young and very bright. She is studying to be a translator, so her skills have come in very handy during the training and in getting all the documentation produced in Arabic. This is her first job. Lastly Maged, operations support manager, who shifts things and people around, organises minutiae, helps with the set up at events and writes procedures manuals. He too has worked around the world.

They're marvellous. I'll post some more pics in due course. This one shows Zuhair carrying a bunch of flowers presented to Dina, with Maged in the background.



Looking back on the project's summer programme

It was hard while the programme was running to assess how it was going. We toured to six cultural centres in five cities (two in Damascus, one in Zabadani, Lattakia, Homs and Hama), doing one week on and one week off to keep ourselves sane. 4600 children attended the sessions, about 75% of capacity. There were three activities, storytelling, digging and debate, the last of these for the teenagers. This was the most difficult activity to get right, but the most powerful when it worked. Up came topics like housing, immigration, violence in school and the home, health, the role of women, overpopulation, water usage, pollution and much more. The feedback was that the teenagers felt that for the first time they were being really encouraged to contribute and being listened to.

Feedback to the programme overall has been very positive. Lots of thanks from parents and children directly. We have had teachers asking if they could go on the training course we put the facilitators through, as thety found the interaction with the children inspiring. Many teachers have said their schools would pay money to attend sessions like these. One girl said: "for the first time I don't feel that children in the West are more privileged than we are". We've had stories back about younger children searching for archaeological remains (the theme of the digging) or asking for magnifying glasses to study things they have found, so the impact seems to have endured.

Some of this enthusiasm can be put down to the fact that there is little like this going on here, and it is so different from the very traditional educational model found in state schools. But a lot of it seems to be purely down to the fact that parents and teachers saw their children really being switched on creatively. The programme had a real buzz about it, but it wasn't allowed to get out of control - there was always a structure that meant the energy was channelled properly. One thing that was very successful was working in groups; this is not done at all in schools.

There were lots of snafus to start with until we got routines worked out, and I think we now have a slick process, which of course we are now spending time tinkering with and improving. We will video the teenage debates, or at least get some talking head shots. We're looking at a different story for the storytelling. But without being over-produced (by some margin) we have got a well-run operation, and I feel very proud of the standards we have achieved.



London and elsewhere

Just back after another trip to London to see the family. Deputy Dina joined me for some visits to various discovery/science centres in the UK - Eureka! in Halifax and At-Bristol - and Paris (La Cite Des Sciences). Lots of good stuff to see, as well as some tired-looking exhibits, but the important thing was to just get a sense of how things work, or don't work, in places which have been running for some time.

Found Dina a cheap but slightly odd place to stay on the Bayswater Road, the Soroptimists' Residential Club. Her room was tiny and smelled of paint as it had just been redone. However, it was good enough for the few days, and the location just north of Hyde Park is excellent. Dina was surprised that people said good morning at breakfast, and that London generally was a chatty place. Her impression had been that British reserve was still the norm.

The pattern this visit was week off first and then work week second, the reverse of usual, and I found it strange. Couldn't unwind until end of week one, by which time I had to do all the trips, which took most of a day each. Then had to get stuff ready at the last minute for the trip back to Damascus, which meant that various things got forgotten, like renewing my international driving licence (just have to hope noone stops me here), or left behind, like my wallet. Luckily all my credit cards were with me, otherwise I'd be here without means of support.

Had some great meals in London and two not very satisfactory ones. The worst was in a restaurant called Island, beside Lancaster Gate tube. Stylish place. However Dina's "medium" steak was rare, and my "pink" grilled liver was raw, with that particularly unpleasant jelly texture that raw liver has. The broccoli was too tough to cut with a knife. I don't recommend this place at all, for anyone, ever. At 190 Queensgate, where we went with the family, Jon found a sizeable piece of plastic wrapping in his pudding! Pointed this out to the waiter who said he would pass it on to the chef. Noone apologised, noone offered to deduct the pudding from the bill, and the whole place felt as if it was being run by sloppy amateurs. A pity, because the food there is good, and this sort of thing makes me want to avoid it in future. These spoiled what was otherwise a good trip.

Back in Damascus interviewing web designers. We haven't reached the end of the list yet, but so far the level of creativity has been so LOW. I'm hoping, perhaps vainly, that we will unearth some young web genius who has been in despair at the unremitting bordom of the websites that get created here, and enable her or him to do something wonderful. I'd just like to interview someone who has ideas, even if they're not very good. But too many agencies turn up and say, we can do whatever you want. In fact of course they can't because I want them to do something that I haven't thought of and which will blow my socks off.

Zuhair has left for a short break in Russia, where his wife comes from, and is looking forward to seeing snow again. A cleaner who was supposed to start work today called, late, to say there had been a death in the family. It's a sad thing, because there may well have been a death, but I just don't believe it, it's a sort of cartoon excuse nowadays. I'd prefer it if someone just said sorry I slept in. So now, possibly wholly unjustly, I have him pegged as unreliable, unoriginal and untruthful. All that before he's actually started work. I hope I'm proved wrong.


Wednesday, October 05, 2005



Ramadan, the period when devout Muslims fast (no food or drink) between dawn and dusk, started yesterday. There are some aspects to it which strike me as admirable and others as odd. Of the oddities, one is that noone knows exactly when Ramadan will start. Although we live in an age when people have walked on the moon, and we can compute the time of the birth of the universe, the start of Ramadan can only be confirmed by a visual sighting of the new moon. So right up to Sunday, people were still saying, well it might be Monday or it might be Tuesday.

Then there is the change to daily life. Things don't wholly shut down, but it does become much less easy to get stuff done. Most businesses here shorten the working day by two hours or so to make things more tolerable for fasting staff. There is a (literally) frantic rush-hour at the end of the day as people try to get home for the evening meal. Driving standards, which are fairly low here at the best of times, become simply dangerous, and the accident rate shoots up. There's a sort of institutionalised acceptance of all this, that during Ramadan people will act differently and that's okay, which I find at odds with the spirit of the fast. Fasting during Ramadan is (in part) supposed to concentrate the mind of the more fortunate on the situation of the poor, and provide a real reminder of what hunger and thirst can mean. Working shorter hours and reckless driving are not, in my view, compensatory options open to the poor. It would be altogether more meaningful to work a longer day and drive more carefully than usual. But then that's easy for me to say. I'm not Muslim and I'm not fasting.

Evenings are the time for families and friends to get together to break fast at the evening meal. Everything is hugely social for a couple of weeks until, as someone told me "we're all tired of seeing one another", and then goes slowly back to normal. That is until Eid, the holiday at the end of Ramadan, where everything really does shut down for three days while everyone celebrates.


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