Wednesday, April 18, 2007


Palmyra at dusk

A great time to visit as the place is largely deserted except for people (still) selling camel rides, postcards, jewellery and T-shirts. Once past them, it's a lovely atmospheric wander.


Tuesday, April 17, 2007


Tombs, tickets and touts

Had an amusing moment at Palmyra when visiting the tower tombs. Only two are open, and you have to turn up at specific times to get in. So we duly turned at 0830 and waited for the doors to open. There were some very enegetic selllers of scarves, jewellery and postcards around so I stayed in the car while Issy and Helen got out to wander round. They came back in a few minutes and said: we've just been talking to some American tourists, and they say you have to get tickets in advance from the museum in Tadmor. As Tadmor was about ten minutes drive away and the museum was very unlikely to be open, I suggested we spoke to the man on the door when he arrived. Which we did, and he cheerfully took our money and let us in. Issy bumped into one of the American ladies later, who was very put out that we had got in without tickets, quite rude in fact. Issy, who can hold her own with anyone, told her mischievously that their guide must have misinformed them. We had the impression that they wanted their experience to be extra special, and didn't want to think anyone could just wander in and get the same thing - without a ticket!

Interestingly, as we were leaving the second tomb, I found the crowd of sellers around us getting a bit too much. So I said "hallas, habib" (that's enough, mate) to one of them, and the whole atmosphere changed. Very sorry, where are you from (Damascus), very sorry, etc. I think there is an unspoken deal that foreigners are fair game, but locals - which I sort of am - get left more or less alone. On which happy note we left Palmyra and headed back to town.


Monday, April 16, 2007


More tower tombs, and some goats


Sunday, April 15, 2007


Tower tombs at Palmyra at dusk



View from the Baghdad Cafe

The Baghdad Cafe is 100 kilometres short of Palmyra and a great place to stop for a cup of tea. This is the view from its shaded verandah across to one of the mountains that rise up from the plain. Two things astonished on this trip that I had never taken in before: one, that it was so green - quite unlike the rocky waste I had remembered from earlier trips in drier times, and two, that there were people and sheep everywhere. So not empty, either.


Thursday, April 12, 2007


Issy and Helen at the Temple of Baal, Palmyra


Tuesday, April 10, 2007


From my April progress report - ho hum

After meeting with Yamama (SHABAB) and Dana (WorldLinks) to discuss the ever-increasing management burdens being created by the Trust, I wrote the following in the Learning Division report to Mrs Assad on 5 April:

Since the individual projects in the Learning Division were started, they have built up different but very positive team cultures, based around strong values. Through these values they have been able to get things done rapidly and effectively, focusing on getting results, without always having, needing or wanting precise policies or procedures. Decision-making has been fast, and responsibility has been passed to team members, who have been trusted to do the right thing. Managers have been able to manage, and have felt trusted to do so responsibly. There was little hierarchy and a lot of flexibility, of roles and attitude. Motivation and optimism have been high. Internal communication has been quick and intuitive – people knew about their projects and what was expected of them. The experience has been one of energy, creativity, enjoyment and fulfilment. Team members prided themselves on not being like FIRDOS (sorry), which was seen as slow and institutional, or government departments, or even like the private sector. There was a distinct ethos and process to these projects, which made them stand out and impress. They were different. In many ways they represented and made real exactly the inspired, empowered and enabled qualities we seek to build in young people.

It would be nice to report that we are building on this positive picture. Instead, it is sad but necessary to say that inside the Trust these qualities are now disappearing at an increasing speed. Values, responsibility and self-reliance are being replaced by policies, accountability and bureaucracy. Increasing numbers of people now have to be involved in often quite trivial decisions. Processes which once would have taken weeks now take months. New external priorities are now arriving, which conflict with project critical paths, and as a result the urgent is overtaking the important. Communication is better between projects, but is slowing overall as more explanations are given to more people. A sense of creating something new and different is now being replaced by a sense of being part of something conventional and impersonal. A celebration of creative entrepreneurship and teamworking is becoming the celebration of institutional behaviour and avoidance of risk. Managers have little autonomy, and process priorities are now controlled by Admin, not by them. The pace of delivery is slowing, while the pressure of work increases. There is very little fun. Distinctiveness and diversity is being replaced by uniformity and parity. There is an emphasis on process over achievement, rules over trust, organisation over people.

All of this might be mitigated by a feeling that the Trust was likely to actually reduce the load on project teams, and make life simpler, if not now then at some time in the future. To date all the evidence available to team members has been the reverse. An accumulation of administrative requirements, none necessarily large but adding up to a considerable number of hours a week, consumes management time. Candidates are shortlisted for interview who are plainly unsuitable for the role in question, wasting time. Projects are asked to respond in writing to requests that themselves are often verbal, making it impossible to document any exchanges. Policies are implemented without adequate resources in place, creating bottlenecks, or without all the components (eg payslips), creating confusion or frustration. Additional process steps are put in place, as in contracts, which add time and do nothing to reduce errors, which project managers still have to check for. A recent requirement from Finance to get three quotes for expenditure over SYP15,000 [c£150 at that time] exemplifies the impression that the Trust is looking to save pennies while happily wasting pounds in management time and delay to progress. Accountability is being required to inappropriately microscopic levels of detail. It ignores the fact that project managers have already established who are reliable suppliers of quality goods and services and built effective relationships with them. Reliable quality is infinitely more valuable to projects than the saving of a few pounds. It would be bizarre to throw away this value now. Nowhere is there evidence that the emerging Trust is actually looking to get projects done better, only to control them tightly from the centre against cost-mentality criteria.

There is a strong sense that nothing is more important than getting the Trust’s systems into place, that forming the Trust is the only project that matters, whatever impact this or the new systems may have on the “real” projects’ work commitments. Project teams can appreciate that there is work to be done by Admin to get this in place and wish to support it; what is not apparent is any reciprocal recognition that projects are already under extreme pressure to deliver outputs and timetables agreed some time ago. Or indeed that the work of the project teams might of itself be of greater fundamental worth – to the Trust, to Syria – than administrative systems. We will miss delivering Business Awareness altogether this term as it has taken so long to recruit; left to herself, the project manager could have had staff in place weeks ago. It may not have been the best way to do it, but the old way got the job done. The effect on staff’s circumstances is also ignored. As an example, Majed’s salary raise, agreed in principle back in December in order to stop him taking another job, has still not been paid, as this individual case has been swept up in the general process of salary review. As a stop-gap a personal loan has been made to Majed, but there appears no good reason why an uplift could not have been made already as a one-off. The effect is that the Trust is seen to have little care for individual employees.

At the same time, the process of establishing the Trust formally is achieving the opposite of confidence-building. Target dates not met (salary review, legal process), changes to “final” decisions (name), staff working for months without even temporary contracts, uncertainty over senior appointments (RD/FIRDOS, Communications), grasp of facts (salary net/gross issue recognised late in the day), all reduce trust in the Trust. Statements that budgets are not confirmed or approved create uncertainty. Stupidities such as the procedure proposed for re-allocation of laptops donated to WorldLinks diminish faith in policy. The fact that some Admin managers are privy to draft policy detail which is kept from project managers, such as the proposed salary scales during a recruitment process, means that the process is a) ineffective, b) confusing, as one person may be working rigidly to one set of assumptions not known to the other, c) divisive, encouraging an “us and them” attitude, and d) counter to the sort of transparent culture we should be building in the Trust.

Project teams are also now finding that what once were simple channels of communication are now proliferating. They are responding to requests from HE’s office (Lina and Wassim), HE’s press office (with a yet-undetermined remit in respect of Trust media work), and dealing with Protocol for formal events. It would be good to streamline this channel.

All of this is resulting in increasing stress, deteriorating morale, and general dissatisfaction. Tempers are getting shorter as frustration rises. It is particularly true of managers, on whom complaints and worries, from both their own project staff and Admin, converge. Till now, these managers have been able to take the morale and commitment of their teams almost for granted. It is another inefficiency that management time has to be spent reassuring and motivating once healthy teams. Managers' own sense of responsibility and autonomy in respect of their teams has been replaced by the sense that they are accountable to HR, certainly not the other way round. As independent businesses, projects would hire and manage their own administrative services. The services would be accountable to the projects, share their business targets, and report to the directors. What we have now is the reverse, and it is not working to the benefit of project delivery.

Already the Trust is competing with projects, rather than enabling them. It has emerged as yet another demanding stakeholder, with the privilege of questioning projects but immune from questioning by them. It adds no value whatever to the process of delivering projects; instead it is acting as a drag anchor, procedurally and spiritually. If things stay as they are the Trust will become one of the most significant risks to the delivery of project outcomes, and arguably to the achievement of its own vision. It should, I feel, be creating a model of a new type of organisation in Syria, a beacon of best practice attracting the brightest of talents. To date it looks very much like a government department.

It would be pleasant to report something other than a litany of woe this month, but apart from project work, as reported separately in individual progress reports, little but this has been dealt with or talked about in the Learning Division. It is my recommendation that the emerging shape of the Trust is given an urgent and fundamental re-appraisal, as I fear that the current Learning projects will be unable to sustain much more of this short-term building work, or thrive in the apparent long-term Trust form. I can say with conviction that almost nothing of the excitement of Massar (eg giving young people local responsibility for limited budgets) will survive if it is required to stay in the Trust, and I am doubtful that we will meet even a 2010 deadline. All the Learning Division managers are committed to delivering results for the Trust. I hope we can discuss and agree ways in which they can be empowered to do so.


Monday, April 09, 2007


St George's Church, Ezra

Near Ezra, in the south of Syria, is this plain but interesting church of St George, dating from the 6th Century. It's said that this is the first example of a circular dome rising from a square building.



After milking

On the way to Soueida on Saturday we pulled off the road onto a quiet lane to have a picnic. The two ladies here had been milking goats in a field nearby, and passed us as they left. The stony landscape is very typical of this part of the country, with large boulders of volcanic rock everywhere.


Thursday, April 05, 2007


Rewriting history

More comments on forums recently to the effect that the US came to the rescue of Britain in WW2, and we (UK) should be thoroughly grateful for this selfless sacrifice. Let's be clear, as someone who has never had to go to war for his country, I admire those who do without reservation. It's the suggestion that the US entered WW2 as a sort of charitable gesture, rescuing Britons from imminent slavery in German work camps at a heavy cost in the lives of US servicemen and women, that I take issue with.

The thinking behind this thesis seems to be that if Britain had surrendered to Germany, the US would have been okay. It was, after all, the strong Isolationist movement that kept the US out of the war for so long - appeasement at a distance, perhaps. But playing out a scenario from that point seems to argue very much the opposite. Germany would in effect have conquered Europe - okay, had they not opened a second front in Russia when they did. But if Germany had had a solid European dominance, their technological capability would have enabled them to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles carrying nuclear warheads by - say - 1960. What would America have had to respond with, given that its rocketry and nuclear science base grew in large part from what it (or others) captured from Germany? What if Germany had allied itself with Japan, and put the US in an inter-continental pincer movement?

Let's add to that the secrets - radar, code-breaking, computing - that the US got, for free, from or via the UK as a war ally. Just how much of today's US intellectual property can be traced back to freebies like that? The post-war US consumer boom was based in part on manufacturing capability ramped up by war supply needs. The US airliner industry grew from the capacity and techniques developed by the likes of Boeing for - WW2 Europe.

So how about we rephrase that as: today's USA would not have been possible without Britain's resistance to German might in WW2?


Wednesday, April 04, 2007


Easter - church door at Maalula

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Tuesday, April 03, 2007


Stuff happens

After the Kafar Souseh touring event for Sheikha Mozah, we had a complaint from a member of the cultural centre's staff, which (as such things do) reached HE's ears. I wrote the following in explanation:

The event at the Kafar Souseh cultural centre was held in order that HH Sheikha Mozah, Princess of Qatar, could see the Massar programme of activity on her recent visit to Syria. On such occasions, everyone concerned works to strict security and protocol guidelines. Whether reasonable or not, they have to be followed. The Massar team was acting as guides to the activities for the Princess and Her Excellency Mrs Al-Assad, and had been issued with explicit instructions in advance. Our Touring and Logistics Manager, Mr Al-Obeissi, the person being complained about , had much of the responsibility for the practical arrangements, and therefore had been given particularly specific requirements.

In respect of the room in question, it was made clear that no-one should be present but the two First Ladies, three Massar managers, the facilitator and the children. Mr Obeissi had been required to print out a schedule showing the exact names of everybody who would be present in every room that the Princess would visit. No request or instruction to include anyone else had been given to Mr Obeissi. He was therefore entirely correct in asking the cultural centre staff member to leave. He did so politely and discreetly, but firmly; I was there and can vouch for this.
I can fully appreciate that for the member of staff it was disappointing to be asked to leave. However, her name was not on the list, she was not treated discourteously, and has no cause for grievance. It is regrettable, however, that she then chose to verbally abuse Mr Obeissi the following day in public in the cultural centre, when he was escorting other visitors. We did not feel it worth taking this matter up, as in all other respects the cultural centre staff have been helpful. All those concerned, the cultural centre staff and Massar staff, had to be flexible and work fast to make this visit the success it was, and it is sad that for one person it was not a happy occasion.


Monday, April 02, 2007


Clash of priorities

Letter to Mrs Assad:

After much consideration, I have decided to ask you if I can stand down as Director of the Trust’s Learning Division.  I realise that to do so will have many practical consequences, and is likely to throw a large burden onto others.  Nevertheless, I feel that I must make this request for the following reasons.

I cannot give adequate attention to Massar.  As the project grows in size, complexity, profile and risk, I am increasingly worried about the relatively small amount of time and focus I can now devote to it.  At the very least, I used to be able to have Massar’s situation constantly up to date and at the front of my mind; now I feel that the detail is slipping from my grasp, and with it the sense of confidence and control which is vital to its delivery.  Massar is the reason I came to Syria, and remains my priority.  I am letting it and the team down by not doing justice to it.  The Kafar Souseh touring activity was the first I have managed to visit this year.

The role of Learning Division Director is, I am afraid to say, proving completely unsatisfactory.  As an interface between projects and the Trust, it is a dispiriting, time-consuming and problem-laden task, for which there is no administrative support in the Division, and which again I cannot wholly devote my time to doing properly.  As a Director of the Trust I have to devote time to EMT business and organisational development, generally trying (apparently unsuccessfully) to keep the Trust’s and Division's focus on projects rather than administration.  As leader of the Learning projects work and teams I have to coordinate, represent, and motivate.  Were this my only job I would probably still not enjoy it much, but I would be able to do it properly.  Right now I am letting the Trust down, and myself, and you, again.

With the mounting pressure of Massar, the current situation is likely only to get worse.  Of these two roles, I believe realistically one has to go, or both will collapse.  Selfishly, I think it should be the Trust Director role.  The prospect of working for the next three years on achieving Massar still inspires me; the prospect of three years of Trust work does the opposite.  For the first time since I started work here, after the last trip to London I was not desperate to get back to Damascus.   
It would be good to talk this through if you can bear it. If there is another way forward, I will gladly consider it.



Easter - chapel in the house of Ananias, Damascus

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Easter - the monastery at Maalula

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Sunday, April 01, 2007


Nancy Pelosi in town

Nancy Pelosi, US Speaker of the House, is (almost) in town. George Bush has condemned her visit for the usual reason that it gives support to Syria. From my panty-waist liberal and pro-Syrian perspective I can only applaud it, not least because any visit to any country makes it just that little bit less possible to talk about "them" in the uninformed way that has characterised US foreign policy-making recently. It is interesting how often, on quite unrelated forums, one finds apparently bright people talking about "them". Usually about Arab countries like Syria. "They" are not interested in peace. "They" just fight among themselves. "They" don't appreciate what freedom and democracy mean.

This is the sort of wilful ignorance and removal of empathy - demonisation even - that allows appalling mistreatment of people to happen. "They" deserve whatever is coming to them. It excuses the barbarity of Iraq: it's not our fault, we did our best for "them", but look what "they" have done now. A bit more understanding in advance, and a bit less of "them" in the attitude might have avoided the worst of this tragedy. Politicians, and I suppose I include Nancy Pelosi here, no longer meet real people. They meet voters, constituents, donors, policy makers, pressure groups, photo opportunities - not ordinary people. Ordinary people don't matter. Politicians only meet those who can help or hinder, usually the former. And so they miss one of the real insights, which is that "they" are very much like "us", and very little like politicians and diplomats. From his Texas ranch, GW has had no real insight at all into other countries, let alone their people. Nancy P will probably see Syria from the back seat of a bullet-proof car, while advisers tell her everything she should know.

But better that than nothing, or the "git offa ma land" Texas approach. At least she's here. I'd like to take her out to a restaurant in the Old City, and meet and listen to real people, talking, laughing, smoking, eating, completely relaxed, tolerant and welcoming. She might see that this country and its people are not as she may have been led to understand.

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