30 August 2008

Roads to Damascus

By Juliette Harkin

Damascus is currently in the limelight not just because of its political position but also as the Arab 'capital of culture' for 2008. The regional and international machinations of the big powers take place on a level that has little to do with the everyday lived experience of Syrians. Damascus in 2008 is a melange of cultures, people and perspectives and host to international jazz concerts in the old Citadel, famous Lebanese singer Fairuz and Palestinian dance troupes and much much more.

It is hard to paint a picture in words as the colours are so very varied. Taking a break from my Arabic studies I visited the new sports centre near my apartment in the affluent suburb of Mazraa. The women's only session at the pool was just a taste of the cultural complexities of this noble city.

To my left in the bright sunshine was a sylph-like 'super-model', Syrian style. Revealing an itsy-bitsy bikini and long hair reaching down to her golden waist chain as she took off her pink chiffon trousers she epitomised one part of modern Damascus. Confident and comfortable, the new Syria.

To my right I glimpsed a young mother in head-to-toe modest white robes as she prayed by the poolside. After praying by the side of the pool she changed back into her swimsuit, and started sunbathing and playing with her children. The naturalness of religious adherence is just another facet of ordinary and modern Damascus. Personal religious beliefs do not mean the rejection of a modern life. Given the skewed media coverage of Muslim countries here in the UK it may come as a surprise that observant Muslims embrace the trappings of modern life just as we do!

Perhaps we all have more in common than we imagine when we hear about places such as Syria in the news. Talk here too is of the rising cost of living and of climate chaos. It is quite something to experience a true heatwave and then torrential downpours during the usually dry and already hot high summer. With gradual cuts in subsidies and the massive impact of Iraqi refugees (see my column Let the refugees in), the economy is going through a difficult time of transition. It remains to be seen to what extent economic reforms will impact on the (much-contested) percentage of the population living in poverty (the Syrian government claims a figure for absolute poverty of less than 10% whereas United Nations figures put it much higher) and the large numbers of unemployed youth.

The young boy in dirty clothes who knocked on our door the other morning asking for money is a reminder of what lies beyond the jasmine-lined streets. If our own free market experience is used as a measure then the rich-poor divide already seen here means that Syria is attaining the features of the free market with its gross social inequalities.

The much hoped for and much debated press freedoms have been forfeited by a fast-paced marketisation of the media in Syria. Money from big name advertising is central to the success of any of the private media players. Meanwhile the state-run media continues to be subsidised by the government, presumably at a great loss. One has to wonder how such an economically-inefficient media can possibly be sustained in the long term. But, the West no longer can claim to have the ideal model for how the media should be controlled and organised. The cases of Italy and the USA show that control by big business is not necessarily more desirable than control by the government.

Syria is grappling with these issues and claims to be taking another road in reforming the economy – one that factors in the effects of reforms on the most vulnerable. This means a continuing central role for the state along side market liberalisation. The future role of the state is an important part of the reform equation in Syria as the state-led model has been seen as bloated and corrupt. But we have learned the hard way here in the UK that state control of health and other essential services can be a good thing, not to be given up lightly. In 2008 we seem to have an obsession with minimising the role of the state assuming that the state is bad and the free market is good. Perhaps Syria has the opportunity to take a different path. The politics of the region, transformed forever as a result of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, could present the Syrian government with a reason for stalling at the crossroads, but there seems little doubt that change is afoot, here in Damascus.