Sunday, July 29, 2007


Events, dear boy

Off to Copenhagen for a day-long workshop with the architects about the configuration of internal spaces in the discovery centre, and then a second day with the landscape architects on the layout of the park. Flew Austrian Airlines, which went well, as did the workshops. Also took a visit to Louisiana, which is beautiful, and was packed with people.

On the last evening before a crack-of-dawn trip out to Copenhagen Bob and I went out for dinner, and chatted for a couple of hours. At the end of which I reached into my pocket for a notebook to write something down and discovered that notebook, passport and mobile phone had all been lifted. The person who did this must have been exceptionally good. Bob who was facing me directly didn't notice a thing, and neither did I. Mercy was that none of my credit cards were taken.

So the trip back to Damascus went down the tube. The local police station was closed after ten oclock at night. So I went there the next morning, got a crime report, then had my photo taken and without much hope of sorting things out quickly went off to the British embassy to see about getting myself back to the UK. And was delighted to be told that I might get the passport the same day, which indeed proved to be the case. The new passport was ready in less than four hours, and the embassy staff were both helpful and charming.

I then flew back to the UK to arrange for a visa back to Syria, which will happen on Monday with luck. So a good reason to spend a couple of days at home as well. All in all, while very inconvenient, this could have been so much worse. The hotel (Guldsmeden) staff in Copenhagen were marvellous. I am a mobile phone worse off, and this may mean the loss of my cherished Syria number, but in many ways the most irritating loss was the notebook, which was packed with stuff of use to me, and which will probably have been tossed into the nearest bin by the pickpocket.

One things struck me on the trip back. Every time I have waited in Copenhagen airport my laptop has crashed, with alarming messages about system failure, and did so again this time. I hadn't connected the previous two times, but this third occasion made me wonder whether the airport's security screening does something horrible to laptops. I wonder if this happens to anyone else.


Saturday, July 28, 2007


The state of things as I see it

In response to a very opinionated (and apparently equally uninformed) online comment about Syria:

Syria is already engaged in economic reforms and liberalism, and needs no pressing from its neighbours to make further progress. It may be moving at a slower pace that certain western powers would like, but this is change that is emerging from within, involves both government and non-governmental agencies, and takes as fundamental a wholesale commitment to human development. In his most recent speech, President Assad spoke of democracy, the rights and responsibilities of individuals and further liberalisation. He mentioned poverty, the problems Syria faces, and corruption. Only a few years ago, these would all have been firmly off any public agenda. Now stated openly, these challenges and opportunities can at last be properly addressed. As it is, investment money is flowing into Syria, private banks are springing up, new laws make business easier, and money movement possible.

Noone is denying there is a long way to travel, but Syria is making progress. And it is doing so with nearly 2 million refugees from Iraq (which does not include those from Palestine, Afghanistan and now Africa) in a country of only 18 million people. What would help would be a little less of the knee-jerk demonisation that has until recently characterised UK/US policies, and a bit more readiness to see Syria as part of the solution, not just the problem. Syria, remember, is a secular state, not fundamentalist, and is now seen by most of the region's Christians as the only truly religiously tolerant country. It is an ancient trading nation that in many ways has a more Mediterranean outlook than Arab. President Assad has said publicly that he can see a future in which Syria and Israel can exist peacefully side-by-side. I believe the signs are positive, IF other nations can stop assuming they are always right and Syria is always wrong.

I have welcomed many people here from Europe and America. Invariably they come with expectations of anti-Western hostility, insecurity if not actual danger, violence. Most have been warned by friends not to do something so dangerous. In reality they find the place and people at ease, welcoming, extremely hospitable to all, entirely safe (honest!) and almost wholly free from street crime. If you ask embassy staff here they will tell you that Syria is among the world's safest postings. Anyone who wants to see for themselves will be perfectly safe here.

If Syria went the way of Iraq, it would be an eternal and irrecoverable disaster for the region. Stand back from the political rhetoric for a moment, look at what Syria is doing (and yes, its own PR is lamentable) and then wonder why it gets conveniently lumped together with Iran (with which it has almost nothing in common) as the region's bad boys. Ask too why some neighbouring countries (I will mention no names) which are far from models of democratic behaviour, have appalling track records on human rights, equality for women and other issues, are so immune from criticism from the west. Could it be that their willingness to spend money on our weaponry, house our military bases or supply us with oil has something to do with that?

Syria is not Iraq, Assad is not Saddam Hussein. If we have learned nothing else from Iraq it should be that such a scenario is just not the way to a solution. Syria already has a way forward; it should be helped.


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