Saturday, August 25, 2007


Apartment Plan B

In something of a Syrian way, the apartment in Malki didn't happen, and I'm now in a different apartment about 500 metres from the last one. The landlord of the Malki apartment, a very prominent businessman here, suddenly wouldn't take calls, so just days before I was hoping to move we had to come up with Plan B, which is a place just behind the Canadian Embassy. It seems as if it will be very pleasant, but I can already hear the upstairs neighbours!

Thursday, August 23, 2007



The apartment I had my eye on has materialised after some last-minute negotiation to get the price down to an affordable level. So I'm packing up stuff to be ready for a move that may happen quite soon if all goes well. The new place is big (3 bedrooms, one of which I will use as a study), and in a very smart part of town, Malki. It's on the top floor, which means at least I won't have upstairs neighbours keeping me awake at night. This is what I will miss least in moving out of my current apartment; the up stairs neighbours are a complete pain. They're not there all the year but when they are they seem to have a routine that involves moving furniture around at midnight, and running about the house in very hard shoes, so that bumps and squeaks and louds taps echo down to me. Reasoning with them didn't work, and neither did shouting, so I put them down as stupid and insensitive at best.

Apart from that and the rubbish that gets dropped into the garden from time to time, this has been a nice place to live, and although the new place is very pleasant, it lacks some of the conveniences. Still, good to have a change.


The changing nature of things

It is worth looking back on some very distinct attributes of Massar in its first two years.  This was a very small team setting out on a journey which was new for everyone.  There was a strong sense of intimacy and interdependence as we went forward.  In front of us was the vision far away on the hill and there was no road map, no guide book, on how to get there.  It was up to us to plot the route and set the speed, but we all knew that if we kept our eyes firmly on that vision, we would get there in due course.  Strategy, systems, staff, structure, shared values, all these were in our hands.  Because Massar was new, we could in a sense make it anything we needed or wanted it to be, play a variety of roles depending on circumstance and whom we were dealing with.  Our identity was ours to decide, and the result was an inspired piece of branding.  There were very few rules, but some strong values and a huge degree of implicit trust that individuals would first and foremost do the right thing.  Because there was no organisation to which it was accountable, Massar could be (as far as practical) hierarchy-free and self-directed; people were able to take on tasks well beyond their conventional job description, and frequently did so.  They knew that in doing so they would have the backing of the Massar management whatever the circumstances.  It was free-wheeling, autonomous, creative, energetic and filled with momentum.  Team issues could be dealt with quickly and personally.  The Massar team met young Syrians frequently, spent time on the road, felt close to the interface between Massar’s activity and our beneficiaries. The task was complex and at times frighteningly ambitious, but we were able to maintain a simple approach to it.  When it did get frightening we had a sense of humour to rescue us, which maintained a sense of perspective.  We were, and felt, in control of our destiny and could carry the weight of the First Lady's expectations, and national expectations, with pride and confidence.  Massar was all we had to concentrate on, it was our sole aim and objective, and everyone in the team cared about it intensely.  It was for the good of Syria, it had the First Lady's confidence and support, and we were delivering it.  This was Massar as a process embodying Massar as a concept.

Today, every one of these aspects has changed to one degree or another, and for the worse.  The project is bigger, more defined, and more expensive, which certainly makes it necessary to bring rigour to its process.  We have made choices about what we will and cannot do and the project phasing has shifted from opening out to firming up and implementing, from ideas to action.  Massar is no longer the whole world – now we are accountable to the Syria Trust in ways that run from procedures to values.  The former intense loyalty that its people felt solely to Massar has been tempered by the requirement to be part of a larger organisation, in which Massar is only one of many concerns.  Whereas before we did what was right for Massar, now we do what is right for the Trust. 
Today we share the affections of the First Lady with many others, and that makes Massar feel less special.  Caring intensely about Massar has come to be seen as caring less about the Trust, not signing up to the bigger organisation and its goal.  Massar no longer defines its own identity, nor is master of its own destiny; in all circumstances Massar now has to seek permission, to check conformance, to ensure that it is what the Trust requires it to be.  The Massar team has grown, and new people bring new flavours which add value to the project’s gene pool but can dilute the intense feeling of a small family.  Growth in numbers is a necessity, more new people will come, and the specific project DNA which would previously have surrounded new staff is now Trust DNA.  Our eyes are no longer on the vision far ahead; they are usually on the path immediately under our feet as we concentrate on conforming to policies, procedures, payscales, plans and other requirements.  Often our eyes are on the road behind us as events months past are resurrected, picked over and made tidy.  Doing the right thing and focus on goals has been replaced by not doing the wrong thing and a focus on process.  Implicit trust has been replaced by systems which signify, and are sometimes explicit, that staff cannot be trusted or relied upon, and unless controlled will be inefficient or dishonest.  There is far more administration and far less work in the field; especially for those original team members direct encounters with beneficiaries have all but gone.

As a director of the Trust, my own management attention is now not just on Massar but also on the Learning Division and the Trust.  So my own position can no longer be one of unqualified loyalty to Massar, its team and goals above all else; there are many occasions when my responsibilities mean I cannot simply pursue Massar’s interests as I once would have.  Moreover, I am quite sure that my own at times serious reservations about the Trust and worry about its direction will have been picked up to some degree by Massar staff, which will also have had an effect on atmosphere.It's not inspiring.


Sunday, August 12, 2007


Catching up

It has been an exhausting few months, with little time for home, leisure or any other of life's pleasures. The pressures of the project have magnified for a number of reasons, and the imminence of the opening of our first regional centre in Lattakia has added to the tension. The fact that we have got content work going on in Canada, software development in the UK, graphics in Egypt, and interactive exhibits in Germany all for this one installation just adds to the - erm - interest.

The discovery centre had had a commitment of government funding for the building, and we have recently being trying to put all of this into an agreement which reflected that public money would be spent, but kept us free from government interference. This has got more and more complicated, with more and more senior politicians and legal advisers involved, so that I recently despaired that we would ever be able to keep government cooks out of the Massar broth. However, in some respects at least we now seem to have some productive options which, if not perfect, are at least not a disaster.

Circumstances have also pushed a lot of recruitment back my way which is actually quite enjoyable, but very time-consuming and draining. However, we have already found a number of good candidates for roles in the organisation, so with luck we will keep our momentum going.

While all this is going on, I have also been looking at apartments as my current apartment (which it turns out I was occupying without any proper lease agreement) has just been sold. Two bedrooms, one very small - $1.2 million!! Prices are just ridiculous in Damascus now. Anyway, there has been a rather fruitless trawl round alternatives, many of which are just not suitable, while those that might be are filled with abominable furniture and fabrics. One decent but expensive apartment looks possible right now, so I am keeping my fingers crossed. It is unsettling knowing that you have to move out of your home without anywhere else to go.


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