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Syria 100 SP

February 2011│Issue 48

Balancing the Health Sector Inside the reforms aimed at affordable health cover for every Syrian Beating the obesity epidemic The truth about STDs in Syria Guest: Health Minister Rida Said

Business: Room for new players in Syria's broadcast market? Culture: Belly dancing through the ages: art or seduction?


Forward Syria, February 2011



Lesson from Egypt: West is not Best ------------------------------------------------

Broadcast media: Open to new players? ------------------------------------------------


Syria: Planning ahead ------------------------------------------------


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Government issues massive handouts to fight poverty ------------------------------------------------

Food for thought: Guest editorial, Bouthaina Shaaban ------------------------------------------------

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New market for health and nutrition ------------------------------------------------


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Swaying between art and seduction ----------------------------------------------Shalimar reveals all -----------------------------------------------View from the street level ------------------------------------------------

Live critics invited to attend as painting goes digital -----------------------------------------------Love is in the air ------------------------------------------------

In Syria we Trust


Cover Story

In our special health issue, Forward Syria assesses the reforms designed to give every Syrian access to affordable health cover. We take a good hard look at two of the biggest health issues facing the country - diabetes and obesity - and one of the least understood - STDs. Just how does Syria's new health plan weigh in?


Second development conference call for submissions ------------------------------------------------

Face of the Future


SŮ? yria's Olympic equestrian, Ahmad Hamsho ------------------------------------------------



The effect of US sanctions on the Syrian health sector ------------------------------------------------

a talented photographer? 59 Are you Publish your photos with Forward Shabab

Let's talk about the birds and the bees and STDs ------------------------------------------------


Syria’s battle with the bulge ------------------------------------------------

Sufi dhikr at Muhieddine mosque ------------------------------------------------

Forward Guest

The Last Word

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Health Minister Rida Said -----------------------------------------------Syria 100 SP | Lebanon 5,000 LL | USA $6.50 | Jordan 1.5 JD | UAE 10 AED | UK 2 GBP | Saudi Arabia 10 SAR


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Syria 100 SP

January 2011│Issue 47

inbox Send your comments to: Fax: +963 11 222 3465, P.O.Box: 28, Damascus, Syria E-mail:, Blog:

Energized Previous issue:

With successful diplomatic efforts to achieve the Five Seas dream, Syria's energy future looks bright.

Dardari on the new Five-Year Plan Syria's new Casino set to cause a stir Branding: The government gets a modern makeover

The cast

President Assad visits the tomb of the unknown soldier in Kiev

The Five Seas Policy that was highlighted in the January issue of Forward Syria is something we have long heard about but actually, knew very little about. We have read contradicting reports about where and when it first surfaced, with some people citing Turkey in 2004 while others saying it emerged during President Assad’s visit to the United Arab Emirates in the 1990s, before coming to power. Some people also say it is four seas, others say six, while Forward’s Ibrahim Hamidi put it at five. What is the reality of the policy? And to what extent is it feasible? It can be done, for sure, when it comes to Ukraine, Roma2

February 2011

nia, Bulgaria, and Cyprus, but can the Arab world really cooperate for results in trade, infrastructure, and energy transfer? Can Jordan and Iraq cooperate - top leaders don’t really worry us. They have proven that when there is a will, there is a way. But what about the stiff bureaucracy that stretches across Iraq, through Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, and perhaps - we are not sure - Turkey itself. We need to read more into the future, but thanks for tackling it from different angles. Rami Adjouni, commenting on the Five Seas Policy

Chairman: Mohamed Haykal CEO and Publisher: Abdulsalam M. Haykal Editor-in-Chief: Sami M. Moubayed Managing Editor: Lauren Williams Copy Editor: Mariam Ghorbannejad Staff Writer: Obaida Hamad Art Director: Ibrahim Aladdin Production Officer: Firas Adra Photography: Ibrahim Aladdin, Cimino, Simon Burns, Manaf Hasan, Phil Sands, Khaled Sandid Cover: Ibrahim Aladdin Contributing Writers: Dr Bouthaina Shaaban, Josh Barry, Jennifer Mackenzie, Mariam Ghorbannejad, Dareen Saleh, Simon Burns Advertising, Circulation, Subscriptions by Haykal Media Executive Manager: Ammar Haykal Creative Advisor: Karim Shukr Group Sales Manager: Soud Atassi Communication Officer: Yara Barhoum Distribution Supervisor: Mohamad Taleb Circulation Manager: Ameeneh Abaza Printing: Salhani Printing House, Syria Correspondents: Dubai, New York, Doha, Montreal, Washington DC, Beirut, Amman, London Distribution - Syria: General Establishment for Publications Distribution. Lebanon: Moyen Orient Distribution SAL Contact: P.O.Box 28, Damascus, Syria Tel: +963 11 2245200 Fax: +963 11 2223465 Editorial: Advertising: “I dedicate Forward Magazine to my father Mohamed Haykal, whose guiding optimism has helped me see the many ways forward.” - Abdulsalam M. Haykal

Licensed in Syria by Decree 80 of August 24, 2008. A publication of


Lesson from Egypt:

West is not Best

Mubarak's fall from grace reflects fickle US allegiances.

By Sami Moubayed When Husni Mubarak was appointed Vice-President of Egypt in 1975, nobody expected him to last this long. Nor did anyone expect him - after 30 years of autocratic rule - to collapse in such a fashion. Next October would mark Mubarak's 30th year in power. The 84-year-old Egyptian President came to office neither by election nor by coup. He happened to be vice president at the right time - when Anwar al-Sadat was killed by Islamists on that fateful day in Egypt; October 6, 1981. A “president-byaccident,” he has survived longer than all his predecessors - double the time of Gamal Abdul Nasser. The dramatic events in Egypt forced me to change my editorial; I had written about Tunis and the toppling of President Zein al-Abidin Ben Ali. All of a sudden, in three swift days, Tunisia became old news as Mubarak’s regime hung on a thread. Syrian reaction to the Mubarak collapse is very different to the events in Tunis two weeks earlier. Apart from those who have lived there, most Syrians knew very little about Tunisia or its 75-year-old president. Egypt is a different matter. Watching the drama unfold via Al Jazeera with a mix of curiosity and fear, many are thrilled to see the end of Mubarak, whose relationship with Syria has been cold - to say the least - since 2000. On the street level, Syrians hate him because of his positions vis-à-vis the Palestinians in Gaza, the resistance in Lebanon, and his firm commitment to Egyptian-Israeli peace. Regardless 4

February 2011

of Mubarak, however, on a street level as in people-to-people, relations are very strong; our modern histories are interwoven. The two countries merged to form the United Arab Republic in 1958. For over three years, they had one passport, one army, one parliament, and one president. In 1967 and 1973, Syria and Egypt jointly went to war against Israel. Egypt has been a haven for Syrian artists, many of whom shot to international stardom in Egypt, while Syrian writers and intellectuals have for years written and published in Cairo. Syrian popular culture is filled with Egyptian figures, icons like Um Kalthoum and Abdul Halim, Gamal Abdul Nasser, Adel Imam, and so on. Hence why Syrians are gloating over Mubarak, they sympathise with Egypt. There are two kinds of leaders in this region: those who rely on their people for support, and those who rely on the West. Ben Ali, Farouk the Shah, and Mubarak all relied on the West, but the West abandoned them without blinking when it was clear that their regimes were no longer useful. The Shah of Iran was an ardent supporter of the US. For years, as his ruthless SAVAK forces crushed dissent in Tehran, while consecutive US presidents looked the other way. When he was toppled in February 1979 neither the US nor Great Britain agreed to grant him or his family political asylum. The same thing happened to Zein al-Abidin Ben Ali, whose plane drifted from one country to another, seeking asylum for the ex-president of Tunisia, in the UAE, Italy, and Malta. The other kinds of leaders are those like President Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt, and Bashar al-Assad of Syria. When Nasser faced the Suez war of 1956, the people of Egypt came out in his defense. When he stepped down in 1967, the people of Egypt came out in their millions, asking him to stay in power. The same applied to Syria's Assad, whose people rallied around him during the difficult years of the George W Bush’s

presidency. The overnight generation of Egypt fans reflects the dreams and ambitions of young Arabs who desperately want similar street revolts against their own aged and ailing despots. These Arab leaders, many being friends of both Ben Ali and Mubarak, have terrorized their own people with a stick - given to them by the West - for over 20 years. Let’s not forget that stick and where it came from. If there is one lesson to be learned from all of this, it’s that the West is a false friend indeed. For eight years, Ben Ali and Mubarak have been hailed by both the White House and State Department as loyal and unwavering allies in America’s “war against terrorism.” Both the US and France knew exactly what kind of rule Ben Ali was applying in Tunisia, or the autocratic one imposed by Mubarak in Egypt. What is also remarkable in both cases is that today, one month after the Tunisian leader’s downfall and while Mubarak is on the verge of collapse, not a single demonstration has been staged in their favor in all of Tunisia or Egypt. Apart from Muammar al-Qaddafi, not a single voice in their support was heard throughout the Arab world. As we go to print we don’t know yet how Mubarak will leave Egypt. Will he be ejected with last-minute dignity provided by the Egyptian Army? Will officers escort him out with 21-gun salutes as they did with King Farouk 59 years ago? Or will he be forced to flee in secret like a bandit, like Ben Ali? What is so beautiful about the Tunisian and Egyptian stories is that this time, it wasn’t flamboyant and inexperienced young officers toppling an equally flamboyant and inexperienced young king – as was the case in Egypt 1952. Nor was it turbaned clerics toppling an autocratic and aging royal, like Iran 1979. It was also not US tanks rumbling into Tunisia, as was the case with Baghdad 2003. It was the people of Tunisia - the young and old, the intellectual, and the unemployed. It was the glorious people of Egypt, who said “enough is enough.”



President Assad moves decision making to Aleppo

Appetizers Local News

Food for Thought

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Government issues massive handouts to fight poverty On January 13 President Bashar alAssad issued decree No. 9 that calls for establishing the National Fund for Social Aid to offer periodical or emergency subsidies according to authorized criteria. The Fund, which is being offered with technical assistance from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), will provide social assistance to about 420,000 poor families to the tune of about 12 billion SP ($250 million). Minister of Social Affairs and Labor Diala Haj Aref said that the Fund will initially aid through cash payments, and later will support empowerment issues, training and rehabilitation; indicating that subsidies will be go to the most deserving. That is, those committed to the enrollment of children in educa-

tion and primary healthcare “vaccination programs” and reproductive health. “The Fund is a governmental tool targeting the families most in need through enhancing their development indicators,” the Minister said. “The Fund grants periodical or emergency subsidies to the families most in need, to meet their basic needs. The subsidies to be given to eligible families this year are estimated at 10-12 billion SP.” On January 25, Promotion and Communication Officer at the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor Afraa Sleiman said the Fund’s board of directors decided to start distributing subsidies for eligible families on February 13. She added the eligible families were divided into four categories according to their living standard. The subsidy

sum varies from one category to another; the first gets 3,500 SP monthly, the second 2,500, the third 1,000, while the fourth gets 500 SP. The decision is apparently in contrast to the government’s long-standing policy to reverse subsidies, which have cost the government millions of dollars. The Syrian government also issued orders to all government owned hospitals and health centers to offer all kinds of healthcare to the Syrian citizens who are members of the Fund. Last month the Prime Minister Mohammed Naji Otri told Adonia television the new poverty combating measures were “completely unrelated” to events in Tunisia. Poverty afflicts 14% out of a population of 23 million, according to Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs Abdullah Dardari


February 2011


Appetizers Interview: Norway's Foreign Minister, Jonas Gahr Støre

Say again... "Syria is not a company, looking just to make money. Gambling is a disease and just like drug addiction or adultery we should struggle against it." Mohammad Habash, Islamic MP in the Syrian Parliament comments on the Damascus Casino “I don’t consider my nomination a challenge to anybody.” Najib Mikati, the former prime minister of Lebanon, on his nomination to the post again as replacement to ex-Premier Saad al-Hariri

During his visit to Damascus for talks with President Bashar al-Assad last month, Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre spoke exclusively to Forward Syria about Norway’s role as chair of the Donor Support Group for the Palestinian Authority and Norway’s commitments in Syria. How would you characterize SyrianNorwegian relations? We have projects that link environmental and social research, welfare reform, and experts who exchange experiences - which has all been positive. Then, over the last three years, we have seen a resumption of close political dialogue on regional issues. This is my third meeting with the President in the last three years and I think on regional issues, where both Syria and Norway are involved, we have a very constructive dialogue. What could be, or is actually, the involvement of Norway in the peace process in the Middle East and the Syrian-Israeli track in particular? On the Syrian-Israeli track, Norway has no specific role. We understand that the potential to resolve outstanding issues on that front will have an important impact on Syria, on Israel and on the region. We have only support and encouragement for that. Norway has been engaged in the Mid8

February 2011

dle East for many years but we don’t have one specific role, it depends on the context. At the moment, Norway’s major role is Chair of the Donor Support Group to the Palestinian Authority. So succeeding in donor support for Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s plan of institutional reform is highest on our list of priorities, in addition to supporting progress toward negotiation on the political front . Can you support Fayyad without having a coalition government between Hamas and Fatah? Fayyad has proven the ability to deliver concrete reforms, better institutions, better accountability and more transparency. That merits support. In the long run, I believe Palestinian reconciliation is very important but that has to be achieved by Palestinians. Does Norway plan to collaborate with Syria in order to help stabilize the situation in Lebanon? We talked about this and I listened carefully to President Assad’s analysis. My position is that this has to be worked out by the Lebanese, not by the different regional factions. Countries from the outside should do whatever they can to work constructively on this process but not intervene in a way which may take away from their own domestic responsibilities


“We're giving up the Golan, so we need more in Beitar Illit [an Israeli settlement 10 km south of Jerusalem]." Tzipi Livni, the Israeli foreign minister, quoted in a 2008 document recently leaked by AlJazeera TV, while negotiating with the Palestinians. “When I see your map, I advise you to go to Syria first. It will help us. If this is your proposal, let us wait. I am serious." Ahmad Qurei, top Palestinian negotiator, responding to Livni’s comment on the Golan, leaked in the same Al-Jazeera documents. "We expect to change the RCD (Constitutional Democratic Rally) completely, and to establish a complete separation between the party and the state." Mohamed Ghariani, secretary general of the now ousted Tunisian Constitutional Democratic Rally

this To see amazing candid photos of the President, First Lady and their family, as well as other press photos by Syrian photojournalist Ammar Abd Rabbo, visit: Ammar Abd Rabbo 20 Ans 40 photos

Appetizers British Muslim delegation visits Syria

President Assad moves meetings to Aleppo In one week last month, President Bashar al-Assad received three foreign guests in the northern city of Aleppo, setting a precedent given that meetings usually take place either in the capital Damascus or in the port city of Latakia. Occasionally in recent years meetings have also taken place in the ancient city of Palmyra in the Syrian desert. Days after the declared collapse of the Syrian-Saudi Initiative for Lebanon,

President Assad met the interim Foreign Minister of Iran, Ali Akbar Salehi, and his Argentinean counterpart, Hector Timerman, both in Aleppo. On January 22, he received the Emir of Qatar Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani and together with him and First Lady Asma al-Assad, toured the Citadel of Aleppo. Reportedly, the Syrian president has a ‘soft spot’ for Aleppo, having visited the city frequently since coming to power in 2000. in Syria Online shoppers frustrated by American sanctions that prevent them using eBay now have a local alternative. Dubizzle, the UAE’s largest free classifieds and community website, is now available in Syria. It provides users with a portal to buy, sell, or find anything and contains an extensive classifieds section, property for rent/sale, job opportunities, a wide range of automotive listings and a variety of other useful and interactive pages. Dubizzle is free for the end user and employs rigorous processes to help protect users from fraud. Launched in August 2005, Dubizzle has become the UAE’s leading online classifieds and community portal. Today there are over a million unique visitors and more than 45 million page views monthly. Dubizzle is available in Arabic, English and French, giving each listing three times more viewing opportunity within the Syrian community. “We’re very proud of the way Dubizzle has grown in the last few years and Syria is a great new market for us. It is a country with a lot of opportunities and we will be reaching out to the Syrian community through our site,” explained Sim Whatley, co-founder of Dubizzle. Visit the site at:

Early last month, a British Muslim delegation made a visit to Syria to shed light on the lives and experiences of Muslims in the United Kingdom. The four-member delegation held meetings with a number of Syrian religious scholars in the cities of Damascus and Aleppo. The talks dealt with developing cooperation in the field of religious education and the challenges of countering religious extremism, according to the British Embassy in Damascus. “We hope to illustrate the real situation of the Muslim community in Britain,” Mohammad Ali al-Mossawi, a member of the delegation, said in a press conference at the Dedeman Hotel. “We are British citizens so we have rights and we shoulder our responsibilities. We come to Syria to know more about Syrian Muslims and exchange experiences with them.” For his part, Britain's Ambassador in Damascus Simon Collis said the visit aims to introduce Syrians to the lives and experiences of British Muslims in the UK, hoping the visit would help consolidate Syrian-British relations. Muslims make up 4% of the UK population, numbering about 4 million, and practice their religious ceremonies in 1,600 mosques, 200 Muslim religious schools and 60 religious courts.

Harvard comes to Syria The Syrian American Business Council (SABC) met with the Harvard Alumni Association led by Professor of Indo- Muslim and Islamic Religion and Cultures at Harvard University, Ali Asani, at a special reception at the Samer Kozah Art Gallery in Old Damascus early last month. Over 20 prominent American Harvard Alumni, on tour in Syria, attended the reception. The Harvard Alumni travelers explored Aleppo, Palmyra and the Old City of Damascus. Attendees reported that the Harvard Alumni Association would seriously consider the SABC board members’ request to enable stronger and freer business and educational ties between Syria and America.

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February 2011

Appetizers Damascus casino closure “imminent”

The controversial casino, located on the Airport Road close to Damascus International Airport, opened late December and is understood to be operating without an official license. In January, leading Islamic scholars and MPs, including MP Muhammad Habash publicly opposed the casino and said a bill would be tabled in parliament to have it shut down. Last month al-Quds al-Arabi reported the Syrian government was moving to close the Damascus casino on the basis of a licensing breach, quoting sources close to the decision as saying: “The owners of the casino

thus received notification in this regard under the pretext of license-related reasons. This emerged at a time when the Islamic movement’s activists in the Jordanian professional unions adopted a sudden decision during the last couple of days under the headline of ‘popular activities’ to close the night clubs in the country in general and especially in the two most important streets of the capital Amman, i.e. Holy Mecca Street and Medina Street, “where violations that anger Allah are being committed.” “In the meantime, there is talk in Damascus about the intention of a number of businessmen to establish three similar casinos between the rich Yafour area just outside Damascus, where most Syrian businessmen own private villas and estates and where a large number of accredited ambassadors to Syria reside, and the tourist town of Palmyra in the center of Syria. As for the third casino, it will be located in the capital of the north, Aleppo,” al-Quds reported the source as saying.

First Audi lounge opens in Damascus The first stand-alone Audi Lounge in the Middle East region was opened by Omar Karkour, chairman of Karkour Trading Company, on Mazzeh Highway late last month. Damascus elite mingled with media at the opening, admiring Audi displays and accessories as well as the vehicles. The lounge, which includes a restaurant, replaces conventional menus with iPads, while a state-of-theart Bang&Olufsen sound system entertains guests with subtle music, just like in Audi’s luxurious cars. The lounge allows Audi fans and car fans in general the chance to socialize and interact with Audi in an environment, which conveys the Vorsprung durch Technik spirit (Advancement through Technology). Karkour Trading Company is the official agent for Audi cars in Syria.


Inheritance laws changed for Catholics The personal status law was amended last month to give Catholic daughters equal inheritance privileges to their brothers. Catholic courts will determine the application for inheritance, paving the way for Catholic women, even those who are unmarried, to receive an equal share of parental inheritance to their brothers or male counterparts, in the absence or dispute of a will. Previously, Catholic women were subjected to the same laws as Muslim women, who are not entitled to the same share of inheritance as their male relatives. The new law also allows couples to benefit from the marital home in the event of death of a spouse. “Unfortunately, this law does not apply in cases where the couples are from different religions,” editor-in-chief of al-Thara electronic newspaper, Yahya Al Aous, told Forward Syria. "I don't think there is any possibility the law will be changed for Muslims."


Iraqis granted visas at the border Damascus will start granting Iraqi visitors visas at the border in the latest sign of the two countries' improving relations. SANA reported late last month that the new regulations will be implemented from this month. The decision reverses a policy adopted in 2007 that restricted visas to a limited group of Iraqis including businessmen, families of students studying in Syria and people with illnesses. Those restrictions were put in place as ties soured between the two countries over Baghdad's allegations that Syria was harboring Iraqi insurgents. An influx of Iraqi refugees to Syria also played a role. The latest decision follows a January 15 visit by the Syrian Premier to Baghdad during which the two countries agreed to boost cooperation in security and economic affairs.

SMS is the only English news service live to your mobile Syrian news as it happens ‫ ׀‬Forward Send “Sub” to 1844 to activate your subscription


February 2011

Appetizers Technology


Syrians to form strong presence at Lebanon ArabNet Digital Summit ArabNet, the largest conference for the Arab web industry, will bring together over 1,000 Arab web business leaders and start-ups, including a strong presence from Syrian entrepreneurs following the successful ArabNet workshop recently held in Damascus. The 4-day conference takes place in Beirut on March 22-25 under the Patronage of H.E. General Michel Sleiman, President of Lebanon, and in collaboration with the Central Bank of Lebanon. ArabNet Founder Omar Christidis said, “Building up to the Summit, the ArabNet team has just completed the ArabNet Road Show, a road trip in the ‘ArabNet Bus’ across seven countries, fuelled by the mission of finding promising youth and encouraging them to launch their own businesses. We found an incredible groundswell of talent around the region and the strong participation of young Syrians in the Damascus workshop reflects the tremendous talent in the country.” The Damascus workshop was held on December 5, with an attendance of more than 300 people. One of the participants, Bassel Al Jiroudy, founder of OneFinancial, a highly successful financial IT company advised entrepreneurs to “always partner with people who want to grow with you, don't look for money or people who want money.” Abdulsalam Haykal, founder and CEO of Haykal Media, another Syrian entrepreneurial success story, advised entrepreneurs to go to market as fast as possible, and that being the first mover is the only way to safeguard their ideas. Overall, the Road Show received great support from governmental organizations, NGOs and the private sector, eager to help realize the potential of Arab youth and to develop knowledge-based economies. Rashid Al Ballaa, CEO of National Net Ventures, the largest web company in Saudi Arabia, said ArabNet was “the most important internet event in the Middle East in 2010, and we expect 2011 to be the same.”

Purchasing index launched Under the patronage of Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs Abdullah Dardari, and in a joint effort between Bank Audi Syria and Saghir Advisory Services, the Syria Purchasing Managers Index was launched on December 28, 2010 at the Art House Hotel in Damascus. The event was attended by Syrian officials, various industrial companies, private and public banks, brokerage and financial services companies. The aim of the initiative is to create a simple and timely economic index that can help accurately measure the country’s economic performance on a monthly basis, consistently with the government’s efforts to attract foreign and local investment. Mr Bassel Hamwi, CEO of Bank Audi Syria said the initiative was “an im-

portant tool for Syrian and foreign investors, who need a credible and consistent way of ascertaining the performance of the Syrian economy.” Mr George Saghir, the executive manager of Saghir Advisory Services said the success of the index “depends on responding institutions, who will commit to becoming continuous partners by providing us with monthly data. It is noteworthy that the survey questions do not require financial figures related to company expenses or profits.” He emphasizes that respondents to the SPMI will remain strictly anonymous and confidential. After calculating survey data, index results will be announced publicly by Bank Audi Syria at the beginning of each month.

Bena Properties signs $77 million agreement with banks Bena Properties, the real estate development and investment arm of Cham Holding, announced a $77 million syndication agreement with a consortium of leading local banks for the development of Yasmeen Rotana hotel in Syria last month. The announcement was made during a private gala dinner held at the Four Seasons Hotel, where key local media joined officials from Bena Properties and Cham Holding shareholders, along with senior representatives from the participating financial institutions represented by Bank Audi Syria & Bank Audi S.A.L as the Lead Mandated Arrangers, in addition to the other participating banks namely Banque Bemo Saudi Fransi (BEMO) S.A., Qatar National Bank-Syria, Byblos Bank Syria and Fransabank Syria. The five-star Yasmeen Rotana is the largest privately owned hotel developed in the Damascus governorate. Hawazen Esber, CEO of Bena Properties stated: “This agreement is a major achievement for both Bena Properties and the lending entities as it is the first syndication for a tourism project in Syria. Even with the global financial crisis, this project was able to gain the trust of leading local and regional banks, reflecting the soundness of this investment and the strength of Syrian financial institutions.


Memac Ogilvy annual management and creative conference Held under the theme “Tomorrow Starts Now” Memac Ogilvy gathered under one roof its tier one and tier two managers from across its Middle East and North Africa network for a combined management and creative conference. The conference was attended by the managing directors of Memac Ogilvy offices in UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria.

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February 2011

Appetizers food for thought

The real evils plaguing the region

Egypt is back as it once was when millions of Arabs used to turn to the radio to listen to the voice of Egyptian masses. In those days, our parents used to fix themselves in front of old radio sets to hear the magic words charged with freedom, dignity and hope. Today, once again everyone is glued to TV sets this time passionately watching what is happening in Egypt. Everything happening there indicates that a new phase of development is being ushered in for all Arabs; for Egypt’s awakening once meant an awakening for all the Arabs, its fight against colonialism ushered in a phase of freedom for all Arab peoples. Today we hear the thundering voice of its people on the streets and know that they are creating a new era. Is this the time for Arab masses to

ment rates, required growth rates in order to provide jobs for these young people and enable them to get involved in making the future of their countries. Western governments urged Arab governments not to use ‘violence’ or called on them to make ‘political reforms’ which allow for freedom of expression through a free press. We all know very well that the West is not concerned about corruption or oppression; its only concern is oil and Israel’s security. While Middle East ‘experts’ in Washington, London and Paris try to analyze what is happening and provide answers to their governments and their public opinion, none of them touched on the real causes, maybe because they are invisible to them. There is no doubt that the needs of millions of young people throughout the Arab world need to be addressed in a manner different to what governments have used so far. This is a generation living in the 21st Century; it needs to get seriously involved in building their country and their future. The reasons for this rage are complicated. They cannot be explained away by unemployment or poor living conditions. Mohammad Bouazizi, who provided the spark to the Tunisian revolution, was a university graduate working on his fruit and vegetable cart until he felt insulted and humiliated by the forces of oppression. His desperation pushed him to set fire to his

go the streets to force their will on governments which have, for decades, imposed their will, slogans, gods, failures, alliances and differences on their peoples without achieving any of their aspirations. Grievances, frustration, betrayal and political, economic and social failure accumulated, while the Arab ruling elites did not feel the simmering anger of the masses? When the masses filled the streets of Tunisia, Jordan and Yemen, the West did not pay much attention. But when the voice of Egyptian masses rose, the ‘free’ world got into a frenzy; examining growth rates, youth unemploy-

body which stood for the body of a whole generation. His suicide was the last straw which removed the barrier of fear built between his generation and the might of governments. This is what sparked the call for change throughout the Arab world. So, it is a cry for the dignity of Arab citizens, a dignity humiliated by seeing their people besieged in Gaza and seeing six million Palestinians placed in large prisons inside their occupied country, occupied since 1948 and in refugee camps and being killed on a daily basis amidst Arab impotence. American reactions to demonstra-

By Dr Bouthaina Shaaban


February 2011

tions in Egypt far exceeded interest in Tunisia, Jordan or Yemen, which is understandable. No American official said anything about the factor of humiliating wars which infuriated people time and again and prevented the Egyptians from standing with their brothers in Gaza, Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq. It is easy to trace the critical moments which accumulated rage in the Arab conscience, particularly as a result of their government impotence and silence regarding the tragedies which befell Iraq and Palestine. This feeling is ignored by American and western decision makers because they actually aim at humiliating the Arabs assisted by the ability of oppressive government forces to quell the voice of Arab masses calling for solidarity. WikiLeaks contributed by uncovering complicity with the enemy against the brother and getting what was happening behind closed doors into the public. In reality their behavior in secret was shown to be the exact opposite of what they claimed in public. ‘Hakika Leaks’ and ‘Transparency’ came to confirm that those entrusted with the destiny of their peoples have been inciting the enemy against their own brothers. Don’t we all remember how young Arabs in many Arab towns and cities have been prevented even from demonstrating in support of the peoples of Iraq and Palestine? And how those trying to bring food and medicine to their besieged brothers have been tried like criminals, while war criminals in the wars on Lebanon and Gaza, like Tzipi Livni, Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu were received and embraced? The United States’ concern and monitoring of events is in fact concern for a criminal entity in our region; the real cause of all these wars, destruction and oppression of our people. If anger is directed today against governments and aims are to change rulers and their methods, there is no doubt that the position of these rulers over the question of the liberation of Palestine from Israeli occupation will be a major factor in what is happens over the coming weeks and months


Bouthaina Shaaban, PhD, is the political and media advisor to President Bashar al-Assad


Photo by Manaf Hasan

Chef Karaket spicing up Safran restaurant

Introducing an entirely new range of tastes to Syria was a bold move but one that was in keeping with the Four Season's spirit and objective of introducing exciting new experiences to Syria. Until recently, Asian cuisine in the country was limited. You wouldn't know it, though, tasting the authentic and exquisitely balanced combination of spicy lemongrass, oyster mushroom and tiger prawn Thai Tom Yam Gung soup on the new menu at Safran Restaurant. Under the direction of Thai chef Tin18

February 2011

nakorn Karaket, who arrived in Syria four months ago, the team at Four Seasons have spent the last three months perfecting the Asian menu to include a delicious selection of Japanese, Thai, Malaysian, Korean and Chinese dishes to make sure each and every dish tastes absolutely true to its origins. Indeed, Karaket has nailed it. Trained as a chef in Thailand, he has spent years working in Asian kitchens for the Four Seasons group around the world. Here, he has sourced the best local ingredients and imported spices to

create an excitingly diverse array of dishes, skilfully matched to artful and complex sauces. Thai deep fried duck spring rolls are delightfully subtle and fresh; the light and crispy pastry shells thankfully ungreasy and just a hint of the rich duck flavors make them the perfect starter, while connoisseurs will detect just the hint of coriander in the fine sweet chilli sauce, so often sticky and overly sweet in unskilled hands. Lightly fried Japanese king prawns, served on vegetables and a prawnnoodle shell are brightened with the most subtle wasabi mayonnaise dressing. And already a favorite amongst visitors to the restaurant, the Malaysian Beef Selaish - wok-fried sliced beef with green chili, red and green peppers and long beans is healthy and hearty, without being heavy, and makes an ideal lunch choice. Conveniently, the menu - which will be officially launched at a press lunch this month, has a spice rating for the chili lovers (and haters). "We spent three months tasting and then tasting again - until we knew we had it right," explained Karaket. "Even though a lot of the tastes are new, we've found Syrians are keen to try new flavors." "I try to explain to our guests where each taste comes from and what makes it specific to the region." Supply of good quality fish from Latakia, local beef, chicken and duck, and a wealth of vegetables mean the chef has not had to "adapt" the menu to suit Arabic palettes either. "This is not fusion - it's all authentic from each Asian region," he said. "As people become more familiar with the styles, I am planning to add daily and weekly specials that are even more adventurous." Although it's tempting to fill up quickly - visitors to the new Restaurant are encouraged to exercise a little self discipline to make room for the divine desserts; the mango pudding with crispy banana bread is hard to miss, while the refreshing and beautifully presented Thai style crunchy water chestnuts in coconut broth and granita is superbly cool and clean on the palette. Safran is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day


Cover Story

Health system reforms:

Photos by Phil Sands

Better services at what cost?


February 2011

The healthcare system in Syria is currently undergoing major reforms, designed to improve services and cover the population’s increasing move towards the private sector. Will patients, however, bear the cost? By Obaida Hamad


his modernization program includes financial reforms, such as introducing payment for services that used to be free of charge to patients. It is also giving local hospital managers decision making powers, in an effort to reduce bureaucracy and improve efficiency. Introduction of fees, which began on January 15, 1998 at the Al-Bassel Hospital for Cardiac Care, has been controversial but, according to Jamal al-Wadi, the deputy minister of health, the idea is being accepted. “In general people want to have access to health services without paying money and they think everything should be free,” he said. “We began applying the principle of commission at the Al-Bassel Hospital and started asking citizens to pay money for their treatment and they [the patients] welcome that because they get higher quality health services.” The Syrian healthcare system is dominated by the public sector with the Ministry of Health providing primary, secondary, tertiary and public health services through a relatively large network of healthcare facilities. But official figures show this has been a costly system, with 7.8% of the government budget allocated for health. Total expenditure on health accounts for approximately 4.5% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The interest shown by those at the highest level in Syria is a reflection of the significance of the issue. Early last month President Bashar alAssad held meetings with the Doctors and Dentists Associations to discuss means of improving medical services and developing the national health system and healthcare provided for citizens. The president called on the medical profession to cooperate with the Ministry of Health in developing laws and regulations. Since 2004 the European Commission has given 30 million Euros to support the Health Sector Modernization Program (HSMP), making it the EU’s largest project in Syria. Isaac al-Mankabadi, international codirector of HSMP told Forward Syria the

plan to reform the healthcare sector was comprehensive, and would upgrade facilities enabling them to meet the growing demand, but this would require a greatly increased role for the private sector. “The program aims to develop Syria’s health sector by decentralization of the sector, financial reforms, improved accreditation of health facilities and the introduction of the national health insurance system,” he said. “The current public health facilities cannot cover more than 30% to 40% of Syrian needs, so the government should build new hospitals or encourage the private sector to cover the remaining 60%.” Al-Mankabadi insisted this did not amount to privatization. “The private sector has a bright future in Syria,” he said. “The government is working to organize the health sector, not privatize it, but encourage the private sector and paying section of public hospitals and give a bigger role to health insurance companies.” That was also stressed by al-Wadi at the Ministry of Health. “The Syrian government will not privatize stateowned health services and the Ministry of Health will keep sponsoring citizens’ treatment expenses,” he said. Planned introduction of health insurance would involve companies paying towards medical costs, he said, as part of an employee’s salary and benefits package. “The government will keep the free sections in its hospitals for those who cannot pay,” al-Wadi said. “And the social fund will pay for poor families but it is impossible to have only the public sector providing these services. We are looking for partnership between both [public and private] sectors.” Impact of reforms At Damascus Hospital, the largest public medical facility in the capital, the reforms have begun to take effect. The hospital receives about 1,000 patients every day and has 600 nurses, 500 February 2011 21

Cover Story resident doctors and 200 specialist doctors. Patients are divided into three different groups. The first get free emergency treatment; the second pay a commission that almost meets the cost of surgery; the third group go to a private section in which the patient can choose their doctor and does not need to wait for a long time. These people pay for the full cost of their treatment. Dr Ahmad Ojjeh, the hospital’s general director, said the changes had brought positive results. “In the past, the hospital was affiliated to the Damascus Health Directorate. So, if you needed anything such as medical equipment, we had to wait and get permission from this directorate to buy it,” he said. “While now, I - as a general director - have the authority to buy what the hospital needs immediately. The system of independent commissions [of hospitals] is very successful and gives us more control over financial and administrative affairs.” “Today we can hire the best doctors, give bonuses to nurses and doctors who work nights and other challenging shifts and improve the quality of food and cleaning at the hospital,” said Dr Ojjeh. Although private hospitals are improving, some patients still prefer to go to public hospitals for big operations such as kidney transplants or treatment for burns. “I prefer to come to Damascus Hospital because my private doctors advised me to come here where there are good doctors and equipment, and the cost is less,” said Abdul Rahman Khalil, a 33-year-old truck driver from Qamishly, 600 kilometers north east of Damascus, whose thyroid gland is increasing in size. “Now, I pay money but I get good health services with no need to wait in line for weeks.”


Syria’s health facts and figures: Average Persons per Bed


Number of Physicians


Average Persons per Physician Number of Dentists

Number of Pharmacists


15,799 17,162

Number of Nurses


Number of Public Hospital Beds


Number of Private Hospital Beds


Number of Public Hospitals

Number of Private Hospitals

121 370

Source: Syrian Central Bureau of Statistics for 2010. 22

February 2011

Photo by Phil Sands

The effect of US sanctions on the Syrian health sector


yria’s public and private sectors are feeling the impact of US economic sanctions. Former US president George Bush signed an executive order on May 11, 2004 imposing the embargo in accordance with the Syria Accountability Act. These sanctions prohibit the export to Syria of American products other than food or medicine, but the ban also prevents the export of medical equipment to Syria. “I will say, frankly, that the sanctions stopped the flow of medical equipment from the United States to this country,” Syria’s Deputy Minister of Health Jamal al-Wadi said in an interview with Forward Syria. “These sanctions prevent Syrian citizens and companies from accessing American-made medical equipment. So we went to other countries and companies to get similar equipment. These sanctions are illegal and illogical because

they target the healthcare sector, which is a humanitarian sector and this proves that the US administration’s practices are against its principles. They put pressure on Syrian citizens, not the government.” Karim Tabah is one of the directors of Syrian Medical Services, a private company that represents several international firms who provide hospitals with medical supplies. “Our company was representing an American company but, after the sanctions were imposed, our business with that firm was stopped. We are required to get special approval to import its products. But because it was not high-tech equipment we were importing, we preferred to source them from other countries,” said Tabah. According to Tabah, the Syrian medical market is split; 70% is accounted for by the public sector, with the remaining 30% being private. Although the private

sector is expanding, the public sector is the major buyer of European goods and high-tech equipment. European companies are strongly represented in Syria, a result of geographical and historical ties. British, Spanish, Italian, Belgian, French and German companies have a significant presence in the country. “I would describe the sanctions as irritating but not as having a high impact,” Tabah said. “The sanctions are irritating in diagnostic fields such as X-rays, Computed Tomography (CT), Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRIs) and Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Imaging (NMRIs) because most of the components they use are American. However, Germany and Japan can supply us with the same quality of equipment. From the beginning, our company dealt with European products although the companies that bought American products are wholly affected by the sanctions.”


February 2011 23

Cover Story

Let's talk about the birds and the bees and STDs

Photo by Manaf Hasan

Awareness campaigns are underway to prevent and manage sexually transmitted diseases, which remain misunderstood and underestimated due to pervasive social taboos.

Amal Dulati at the Halbouni Health Counselling Center in Damascus

By Jennifer Mackenzie


hen Do Raeda Jarah was invited by UNRWA to give a training session on adolescent development and health issues, including HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), to several classes 24

February 2011

of male and female students, she was startled by their reactions to the medical diagrams. “They didn’t know anything about their bodies - neither the boys nor the girls,” she said. Director of Halbouni

Health Counseling Centre, one of the Syrian Family Planning Association’s clinics in Damascus, Dr Jarah, has made protecting Syrian’s reproductive health her vocation. “We must correct our wrong beliefs,” she said, citing clients

who believe that HIV can be contracted from toothbrushes, swimming pools or toilet seats. This lack of knowledge exists in spite of a high school curriculum that includes a section on reproductive health, which has been recently updated, and government awareness campaigns to educate Syrians about the dangers of STDs. But the issue of sexuality as a taboo topic in society remains a formidable barrier to these goals.

“Some teachers are ashamed,” said Doctor Jarah, “so they don’t explain in a proper way.” For instance, the clinic’s health counselor, Amal Dulati, reported that her daughter “was waiting for this lesson, but the teacher cancelled it. She [the teacher] said, you can read it at home, alone.”

However, discussing such subjects at home is also difficult. “In families, we don’t talk about these things,” Dulati said. “Families don’t provide information - they believe it’s very shameful to talk about.” And while she tries to encourage women to, “give the right information to their kids, many mothers don’t know anything, either.” This lack of awareness is far more dangerous for more marginalized groups; intravenous drug users, men having sex with other men, and prostitutes, who are up to 100 times more likely to contract HIV. “We have to work more with marginalized groups - we must focus all our efforts on them,” said Doctor Hussam Eddin Baradee, the national coordinator of a new partnership with Global Fund to create a fiveyear National Strategic Framework on HIV/AIDS. As these groups are illegal, he explained, “We cannot go to them directly.” Strategies to detect STDs Since Syria began testing for HIV in 1987, there have been 302 positive cases among Syrian citizens, according to the Ministry of Health. Recently, efforts have been made to encourage incidence reporting, and since then, 50 new cases were recorded in just two months. Premarital STD screening is mandatory, and the ministry also hopes to ban marriage between the carriers of certain diseases in order to eradicate them. Doctor Baradee is optimistic about the new strategies, but added, “They’re not enough, we don’t have a study of high risk groups,” which also includes sailors, truck drivers, and youth living outside their family homes. Another Syrian doctor concurred. “You can’t deal with a problem if you don’t know how big it is. You don’t have formal studies, so you can’t estimate how many cases you have hidden. In general, STDs are well-controlled in Syria, and not that common, but they’re increasing - syphilis, pelvic inflammatory disease, gonorrhea and chlamydia. Our main focus is on HIV and hepatitis, but I think chlamydia and syphilis are equally important.” He also pointed out that, “in big cities like Aleppo and Damascus, the health system is sufficient, but in rural areas it’s not, and it’s low on informative and preventative measures.” For some groups, awareness alone may not be enough. According to one

study, most sex workers know how STDs are transmitted, but, as one social worker put it, “if he pays more, she cancels the condom.” In the gay community, by contrast, awareness of STDs is “nearly nonexistent,” declared one member. “Everyone sleeps with everyone, and doesn’t use protection. They’re not looking for information unless they get something - then they do research and say, Oh, so that’s what it’s called.” Equally, the subject can be tricky for married couples. “It’s very difficult for women to talk to their husbands about using condoms if their husbands travel,” said Doctor Jarah. “If a wife wants to use condoms, it’s like accusing her husband of being unfaithful to her, so it can cause problems in the relationship.” Still, the staff at the Halbouni Center are excited by the progress of their three-year-old pilot program in holistic healthcare, supported by the EU and implemented by the Syrian Family Planning Association with the technical assistance of the Italian Association for Women in Development. “It’s not immediate - it takes time,” said Doctor Jarah. “After being trained by international experts, the Halbouni staff are providing this training to other clinics,” she continued, so that they can bring their model to other cities like Deir ez-Zur and Aleppo. Zahra Lazkane, the youth counselor, is also proud of her young volunteers. “I train ten people, and then they’re responsible for another ten.” Perhaps her experience offers an analogy for society. Before, she found the isolation of one health issue from another daunting, but, she says, “when we started this project, it’s more comfortable to work with a group.”


Health Minister Rida Said on the AIDS problem... "AIDS has been underestimated in this country. A few months ago we decided to change our communications on this matter. We need to demystify the disease and treat it in a much more transparent matter. The up-to-date treatment is provided for free by the ministry. We need to change the way we think about the disease and get to those infected, and treated." Read our full interview with the minister on page..

February 2011 25

Cover Story

Syria’s battle with the bulge D

ina is an attractive woman in her early thirties whose deep brown eyes light up when she talks about her two young children. As she takes her 11-month-old daughter’s hands and helps her to stand, she tells me how the joy of giving birth a second time was tainted by the unwanted changes in her body: “Three months after the delivery I was still carrying a lot of extra fat,” she says, “I felt exhausted and I didn’t like the way I looked - I was ashamed of my body.” Though she may have felt isolated, Dina’s case is far from unique. While it is natural for a woman to be left with extra weight after pregnancy, more and more women are finding that weight difficult to shed. And the problem of obesity and being overweight in Syria is not just confined to mothers. Though no nationwide studies of the issue have been carried out, several regional surveys suggest that the number of obese and overweight people is reaching alarming proportions. A survey of adults in Aleppo found that 38.2% were obese, while a 2009 report estimated that a quarter of Syrian school adolescents were either obese or overweight. “It is a very serious problem,” says Dr Hannibal Kawas, a nutritionist and head of the British Medical Center in Damascus. “The prevalence of obesity in Syria has been growing, and with it associated chronic health problems have grown as well.” The rates of obesity and overweight people among Syrian women are particularly worrying. The Aleppo study found just under half the women surveyed were obese, far exceeding the figures for other Mediterranean countries with similar nutritional patterns, such as Turkey at 29.4%, and Greece with 15%. In fact the Middle East has the highest rates of female obesity and those considered overweight in the world, according to World Health Organization (WHO) figures, and it is only Egypt and several Gulf states that are comparable to the Syrian levels suggested by the Aleppo study. 28

February 2011

More alarmingly, in the 46-65 age bracket a staggering 81% of women were found to be obese. The study found that the prevalence of obesity among women increased with age and number of births. But age and birth rate alone cannot explain why Middle Eastern women should be so susceptible to putting on weight, and according to Dr Kawas culture plays a part. “Many Syrian women stay at home, watch television, eat snacks and get little exercise,” he says. “It is connected to… certain traditions.” Dr Kawas is alluding to conventions that see woman’s primary role as child rearer and housewife, and frown upon ‘unseemly’ bouts of physical exercise. Women in the Middle East are thought to be among the least active, a contention backed up by various studies including the Aleppo survey, which found that half of women fell into the low activity category. Obesity and those deemed medically overweight are also increasingly prevalent in Syrian youth. “We are seeing more overweight children these days, and even children with type II diabetes and hypertension,” Dr Kawas reports, “and the main reason for this is the consumption of junk food.” The proliferation of fast food outlets in Syria is a fairly recent phenomenon, but it has continued apace and such outlets are very popular with young people. “Junk food is particularly bad because it contains high levels of saturated fats in rather poor quality meat. And to make it more palatable it is flavored with mayonnaise, ketchup and other sauces, which just add more calories,” says Dr Kawas. While obesity is a dangerous disease in itself, it is also known to increase the risk of diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease, as well as osteoarthritis and certain forms of cancer. An analysis of almost one million people carried out by an Oxford University research team found that moderate obe-

Photos by Ibrahim Aladdin

By Josh Barry

sity r e duces a person’s life expectancy by an average of three years. The WHO has deemed obesity a global epidemic, and estimates that non-communicable diseases, which include but are also linked to obesity, account for 74% of preventable deaths in Syria. Meanwhile in the United States the issue of obesity and being overweight is now vying with smoking as the leading preventable cause of death. It’s official: fat is fatal. But where did all this fat come from? The basic cause of weight gain in individuals is quite simple, says Dr Kawas. “If you consume more calories than you expend you will gain weight.” To explain why a whole society is getting fatter is more difficult. Obesity and being overweight is now common in all regions of the world except for Sub-Saharan Africa, and the issue continues to occupy both media and experts. Various culprits have been called to the dock over the years, with junk food, the automobile, television and genetics all featuring heavily in the ongoing show trials of fat. While each may play its role, both in Europe and the US, and more recently in Syria, no single one can account for the vast surge in people who are overweight and the numbers of obese that has occurred in recent years. The fact is that widespread obesity is a strictly modern phenomenon. It is only in the last 150 years, since the mechanisation of our lives has enabled

us to work less and consume more, that obesity has become a problem of the masses, rather than an indulgence of the rich. “Modern civilization has invested a great deal in the idea of relaxation,” says Dr Kawas, “and as our idle time has increased so has our intake of calories.” As Syria has been increasingly exposed to these modern changes it has begun to imitate the expanding waistlines of the United States and western Europe. And it is not just more food, but more processed foods that the tides of globalization have washed up on our shores. These foods are energy rich and contain more sugar, salt and fat, particularly saturated fats, which clog up the arteries and contribute to a number of health problems. More recently the availability of affordable cars in Syria has contributed to a more sedentary lifestyle. “Before 2000 very few people could afford cars,” says Dr Kawas, “recent changes in taxation and the availability of credit have made cars accessible and for many Syrians owning a car is still a novelty - so they’ll use it even to go ten meters.” Type II diabetes - formerly known as late-onset diabetes until it began increasingly to appear among young people - deserves special attention. It frequently occurs as part of a cluster of metabolic risk factors known as metabolic syndrome, which is thought to lead to cardiovascular disease and is most frequently found in overweight and obese people. Moreover, the health complications associated with diabetes are severe: a survey of diabetes patients admitted to Aleppo Hospital found that around half suffered from hypertension and various other pathologies, while 60% of patients underwent partial amputation. The standard definition of obesity is based on body mass index (BMI), which is calculated by dividing a person’s weight in kilograms by the square of their height in meters. A BMI of over 25 is considered overweight while someone with a BMI of over 30 is classed as obese. Though BMI does not take account of factors like muscle mass and bone density it is generally a reliable indicator of the level of body fat in adults. A recent study by the National Institute of Health in the US estimated that every five point gain in BMI increases the chance of death by 31%. But being overweight is not just detrimental to physical health. It can have a serious impact on social life, career and mental well-being as well. “It can February 2011 29

Cover Story lead to serious problems in a person’s sexual life, which leads to poor self-esteem and feelings of inadequacy,” warns Dr Kawas. “Also, the chances of getting a job are greatly limited. When we see a fat person most people think they will be lazy, smelly and greedy - employers don’t hire fat people because they think they will be poor workers and will cost the company a lot.” Children in particular can suffer a great deal. “They get teased, especially during sports activities. They get ostracised by their peers.” Even without pressure from friends and family, many overweight people can be prone to depression and anxiety. When Dina was unable to lose her excess weight after pregnancy she began to worry that her husband would no longer be attracted to her. Wary of changing her diet while still breastfeeding she decided to get the help of a nutritionist. “I felt people were looking at me differently. I was no longer a young woman, I had become just another fat mother.” It is now eleven months after she gave birth and while she is approaching her target weight, she is still unhappy with her appearance, and finds the struggle to keep the weight off very taxing. How to address the problem of obesity and being overweight is a question that deserves considered attention. The weight loss industry in Syria is growing, with treatments ranging from dieting and exercise, through to drugs and the more extreme surgical remedies such as stomach stapling or gastric bands. While each of these can have its place, Dr Kawas warns against reliance on a magic cure. “The foundation of achieving healthy weight must always be exercise and diet,” he says. “It takes a long time to accumulate fat and, though it can be shed fairly quickly, the real challenge remains in keeping that weight off. That requires will power.” Bad habits can be hard to shake and Dr Kawas believes we should focus on education to attack the problem at its roots. “This needs to start at school. We need a methodical approach that is also enjoyable for young people, so we can teach them the right habits at an early age.” Prevention is better than cure, so the saying goes. With the right efforts today, Syria may just be able to avert a real crisis in the future 30


February 2011

First “HSE” conference, 2011 Proposed axes: •

Management of the “HSE” concepts

Pre-risk assessment of “HSE” during all work phases

Restricting and/or dealing with any potential environmental damages that might results from the operations of extracting or shipping oil via following safety procedures

Foreign company contributions to developing service enterprises within different scopes of work which are help in developing the areas concerned with oil extracting operations and also to lessen the resulting effects of the production operation processes

Discussing recommendations of the parliament committee working on studding the environment effect resulting from oil and gas extraction operations in Deir El-Zour

The most important standards of the acquisition of the international certificate such as ISO 19001 the certificates of OHSAS 18001

Fundamental road safety behaviors and the safety status of roads and land transportation in order to ensure proficient production operation processes

Crisis management and/or handling emergency situations in order to ensure continuous work flow

Benefits of the air-pollution meteorology station in the province

River water pollution treatment methods

Surveying studies of waste recycling together with polluted soil burial systems and measuring gas emissions and their effects on the environment

Health awareness at job sites and introducing how to control chemicals at work sites

Job risks and the basic precautions to restrict or mitigate injuries on job sites

The targeted categories: •

Public companies working in the gas, power and electricity sectors

Oil companies

Oil services companies

Economic activities

Domestic society

Conference location:

Deir El-Zour, Furat Alsham Hotel Conference Date: 6 -7 March 2011

Mary for events: Tel.: +963 51212589 Fax: +963 51212589

Media Sponeor


World Entrepreneurs

Business CEOs

Political Leaders



Photo by Khaled Sandid

The latest health expenditure survey showed more than 50% of health costs are being paid out of pocket. Why are most people choosing to go private? In the ideal health system we will have universal coverage for each and every citizen. The main problem is mismanagement of the public health system. We don’t have full time doctors working in hospitals and we have a certain laxity in the culture of the public system. That’s partly because of low salaries and a lack of involvement and also a lack of a sense of responsibility (on the part of employees) towards their public function. At the moment each doctor is obliged to work a second job because the salary is low, which means that they are not fully committed to their work in the public domain. This, of course, is not a problem with the Ministry of Health but a legislative problem.

Health Minister Rida Said With health listed as one of the top priorities of the 11th Five-Year Plan, Health Minister Rida Said shares his vision to make health cover available to every Syrian. By Lauren Williams


et’s start with the good news: life expectancy is up and child mortality is down; what are we doing right and what are the challenges ahead? In principle, the health system is

good. We have good hardware - that means hospitals, primary healthcare units, dispensaries etc, all over Syria - and we are planning more. The main problem in the public sector is the human resources.

Does this mean removing caps on doctor’s fees? No, I’m talking about moving towards a different model, heading towards independent hospital units. That means hospitals will be independently operated - administratively and financially - allowing them to offer paid services to insurance companies and collect certain fees from patients without abandoning complete coverage for people in need. In this way, the hospital has a secured income and from that income there will also be incentives for medical staff, which will not only improve their financial situation but will allow them to fulfill their capacity as public employees. What is the difference between what you call “independence” and “privatization?" We are definitely not going to privatize our public hospitals. The income and policies of the hospitals will be managed by the government, hence they will remain public. They are free of charge for those that need it and emerFebruary 2011 33

Forward Guest gency services will be free of charge for everybody. The fees to be collected will be fixed by the ministry, taking into consideration the social and financial status of the citizens involved. That means fees will be tailored according to affordability? Yes, but the key thing is that they remain public run. The idea is that we attract a higher quality of medical services because, under this system, medical staff will have a full time job at the hospital - they will get a higher basic salary plus incentives. What about the move to increase health insurance coverage? We are starting to introduce health insurance in Syria and we now have a public health insurance system that covers all government employees. Soon it will be extended to their families as well, which will mean we cover nearly a third of the entire population. There is also an increase in the number of private insurance companies. All private companies are starting to insure their staff for medical services. So, in the end we will have three categories of patient - the wealthy patient who is going to pay for his services, either at private hospitals or at public hospitals that have a private sector. Then you have the insured people who will be covered by their insurance. The ministry will foot the bill for the third category of patient, who have neither money nor insurance. Let’s talk about the private sector. What is the role of private foreign investment in healthcare in this new model and how is private investment being encouraged? The private sector is on the health map and we will continue to encourage this, whether they are not-for-profit or profit. We are encouraging investment in this field and giving incentives and facilities to investors on the condition that they meet international quality standards at their hospitals. Private facilities with high international standards don’t have to comply with local charges for medical services. They are also allowed to have a certain percentage of foreign medical and administrative staff. We will be setting up a system so that we can buy services from them in fields that do not exist in the public sector, according to the new PPP law. 34

February 2011

We are enhancing investment opportunities; private investors give services to the wealthy and at the same time they might also assist in developing the health tourism industry in Syria. We are going to create a national emergency system based on all levels of this service - that means ambulances, helicopters and a central command. We will be financing all of these things through different sources. The plan is that the expansion of the insurance sector will help to cover a certain percentage of the health cost. But this has nothing to do with the planning for full coverage by the ministry. Our plan is to increase coverage for Syrians whom the private sector is not prepared to cover. We will continue to insure Syrian citizens who do not choose to use these facilities. We will continue to provide medicines free of charge to all those people in need, and full coverage for those with diabetes, chronic diseases, hepatitis, that kind of thing - so the government is still acting in the role of the primary healthcare provider. You say human resources are the challenge; what kind of investment is being set aside for medical training? Under the new structure some hospitals will be accredited as teaching hospitals. These hospitals will have a council, run by the Ministry of Higher Education, to train medical students and residents in-house. We are developing our training and educational facilities to produce graduates in needed areas of hospital management, health financing and other public health professions that are required. We have a shortage of nursing staff in Syria - what is being done to address it? At the moment we have 39 nurses for every 10,000 citizens. We need to double that number, at the very least. We have created faculties of nursing in Latakia, Hama, and Deir ez-Zour but we are still giving support to the school of nurses. We will license new private nursing schools, which will also work on enhancing nursing services. We have a young and rapidly growing population. How much of a burden is this on the public health system? It’s a huge problem that we are taking very seriously. We are working with the

family planning association on measures to lower the birth rate. Whatever investments we make, they cannot keep up with such a high growth rate. It doesn’t just affect health - this is a problem for all sectors. What does this mean? Promoting birth control? It’s about promoting sexual education, contraceptives, education across all societal levels. We are working with the education department and also religious authorities, for example to forbid the marriage of women below a certain age. This is a big task that will take coordination from all ministries. One of the recommendations made as a result of the 2009 household expenditure survey, was that we need to target preventative medicine, particularly communicable diseases, What needs to be done to implement this? The biggest problem is not infectious diseases. It’s non-communicable diseases - cardiovascular disease, hepatitis and cancer - that are costing the state most and which are the major causes of death amongst Syrians. Care is given to all communicable and non-communicable diseases and we created a nationwide system to deliver the required services for patients with hepatitis, tuberculosis, leishmania, diabetes etc. We have created a new directory for these and are restructuring the system in how we deal with the primary healthcare for these diseases. In the prevention of inherited diseases, we have established the premarital exam and genetic counseling. In summary, what is your vision for the next five years? Big changes take time and we need some time to perceive some of the changes we have embarked on. I think the health system is going to be greatly improved in the coming years. I want to see patient satisfaction from their very first encounter with any public health service. I want to see an efficient emergency system, which is a major responsibility of the ministry. I want to see every citizen, wherever they are in the country, getting access with equity to quality medical services through their local provider. At the same time, I want to see the emergence of a very high standard of private hospitals



Start Up: A successful venture into health and nutrition

Business Banking





Broadcast media:

Open to new players?

Only liberalized five years ago, the sector is still dominated by state-run operators. So is there room for the latest channel about to be launched?

By Mariam Ghorbannejad Television is by far the most consumed media platform in Syria, enjoying popularity across the generations and social strata divides. Syrian soaps are popular around the Arab world but when it comes to actual numbers of channels available here, there are just two state-run terrestrial, three government satellite channels channels (four if you include the recently launched Al Akhbariya As-Souriya) and a handful of private satellite ones that physically broadcast from Syria.

State-run operators The Syrian Arab Television and Radio Broadcasting Commission (SATRBC), affiliated to the Ministry of Information, provides the personnel for the staterun channels. It counts 4,800 staff; government employees and freelancers. About six months ago, Syrian television was celebrating its fiftieth anniversary. Channel One, a terrestrial channel, was first broadcast to the nation in 1960. State-run satellite channels, avail-

able to anyone with the relevant dish worldwide, are the Syrian Satellite channel, Drama and Education. The Syrian Satellite channel, launched in 1995, broadcasts cultural programs, ones on economics and politics, documentaries and news in English, French, Russian and Spanish in addition to Arabic. For instance, Spanish was chosen to cater for the south American market, home to a significant number of second and third generation Syrians. “It is very important not only as a February 2011 37

Photo by Manaf Hasan

Honey Al Sayed, host of ‘Good Morning Syria’ says the future is promising for Syrian radio

bridge between people who are originally Syrian living in south America but because it carries a message that Syria is not only a country constantly being threatened or in a state of tension. It offers a lot in the way of tourism and culture. Not everything on the Internet about Syria is correct so the channel helps to show that,” says Reem Haddad, director of Syrian Arab Television. In a move to support the local soap opera industry, the Syrian Drama channel was set up in April 2009. It shows soap operas almost round-the-clock, predominantly Syrian, but also including Kuwaiti and Lebanese productions. Terrestrial channels can only be seen in Syria. Channel One airs service programs. It is a local channel that is interactive. For example, people can call in with a plumbing problem in a particular area and the program will contact the authorities on the viewer’s behalf to try and get the issue resolved. Channel Two has differential scheduling depending on which governorate you reside in. In the future, the plan is for this channel to specialize in sports. Soon, in 2015, the SATBRC will be go38

February 2011

ing digital, paving the way for between six and eight terrestrial channels. The Commission is considering all options including renting the channels out or the potential to offer movies on demand. Censorship Clearly, state-run operators are subject to certain limitations on what they can broadcast. Is this a good thing? “It is very safe to leave your children to watch Syrian television; there is not too much violence or religion and religion is presented in a way that is neutral or positive. It caters to everyone. “The space is divided equally between programs on religion, science fiction, culture, the economy, politics etc. Censorship is positive because it doesn’t go in one direction. It is transparent. Television shows things as they are, not as one would like to present them,” said Haddad. Foreign competition News summaries run throughout the day on all channels besides Drama, with the main, longer bulletins airing four times daily. Breaking news flashes up on-

screen and normal programming would be interrupted if necessary. However, the Syrian Satellite channel is not a news channel. It is currently airing a lot of news and political programs but once Al-Akhbariya is fully up-andrunning, it will increase its cultural and documentary content and allow the new launch to compete directly with big players in the region like Al-Jazeera. Going private These channels are complimented by private offerings: from Adonia, Al-Rai and, the most recent operator to enter the fray, Ninar TV. Owned by Rami Makhlouf, chairman of SyriaTel, Ninar is scheduled to begin broadcasting in April this year. Al Madina TV, headed by Mezar Nizameddin and whose parent company already runs commercial radio stations, is also planning a summer launch. Adonia, run by a Syrian businessman, has output that extends to news, current affairs, drama and sport, with a focus on Syrian football. Al-Rai TV, owned by former Iraqi MP Mishan al-Jubouri, shows Iraqi resistance activities. The license was obtained through his Syrian wife.

Free Media Zone There is no Syrian law that refers to licenses for satellite channels. There are two laws that pertain to media; the first is the publishing law of 2001 and the second is the radio licensing law for FM only of 2005. There is nothing that relates specifically to broadcasting in Syria or the AM airspace in radio. Instead, all satellite channels are granted a license to work in the Free Media Zone (FMZ) of Syria. The idea of the FMZ came about as a result of a reinterpretation of a presidential decree pertaining to publishing and media law by the Ministry of Information and the Ministry of Economy. The free media laws have an article allowing licenses for media establishments. Any owner of a new channel must be Syrian, and it must remain in Syrian ownership for the first five years of its operation. “Essentially, the thinking behind the Syrian owner requirement was to ensure that there would be protection from competition who have large capital backing,” said Taleb Kadi Amin, former deputy minister of information. He is now director of the Arab States Broadcasting Union Radio & Arab TV Training Center in Damascus, part of the Arab League. If the founding of new channels were open to foreigners, the opportunities for Syrians would be squeezed, he says. Syrian laws are not applied in the FMZ. The Ministry of Information has no authority over these channels or publications. The ministry can only apply post-broadcast censorship. The duty of the Ministry of Information is just to give the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to any new channel. “Syria will be the best Arab location for broadcasting if they can use FMZ in a good way,” said Amin. He notes many points that make Syria an attractive choice: its geographic location, its moderate climate, its welltrained staff and the FMZ means there are tax exemptions. In his current role, Taleb is part of an organization that represents all channels broadcast across the Arab world. The Center offers training to industry professionals, in engineering, editorial and programming.

Sharbaji, former general director of the SATRBC, it is currently in the testing stage that is expected to last between three and six months. This translates into what is currently being broadcast on the channel; photo montages and short, timeless news items. Once the experimental period has ended, normal programming will begin from the company’s large studio in Dorusha. A smaller studio, which can be hooked up to the headquarters for down-theline interviews, is located in Gomarek Square to accommodate live guests. “Al Akhbariya is an independent channel from a media, financial and administrative perspective,” said an authorized source at the channel. “We speak in the name of Syrian Arab society and we plan to cover news in the Arab world and news from the rest of the world, outside the region,” he continued. According to the source, the channel will be sponsored through the state fund, something he likened to the BBC, which gets money from British taxpayers, and Al-Jazeera which receives an Emiri grant every year but who are “independent of the Qatari government.” “We will represent the people’s aspirations - not the government’s - and that means that if we cover any news it will not be the government’s view that we show. We will show all sides,” he said.

Latest channel enters the fray Al Akhbariya As-Souriya is a new channel that began broadcasting on December 15, 2010. Headed by Fouad

Looking to the future How do people in the industry view future prospects? “One should always aspire to do bet-

Radio: the other medium Radio, on the other hand, is not affected by free media zone laws. Commercial licenses for private radio stations have been granted since 2002. The first commercial radio station to be launched was Al Madina FM, a hip upbeat bilingual radio station that plays 70% Arabic and 30% English music. ‘Good Morning Syria,’ the morning show hosted by Honey Al Sayed was the first program to go live. Rotana Style radio is an oriental station that broadcasts classical Arabic songs and the Tarab while Mix FM Syria broadcasts English music. Other private entertainment radio stations were established after Al Madina FM include Arabesque, Cham FM, Souria al-Ghad and Al-Arabiya.

ter. Syrian television has been ascending, sometimes not as fast as we would like, but it is improving. There is better décor in the studios, light systems, producers who have studied production and there is a clear line of thought and direction,” said Haddad. Honey Al Sayed, well-known host of ‘Good Morning Syria’ says that she sees the state of Syrian radio as promising. “We need more unique radio stations as that brings competition and that means you have the responsibility to advance yourself. That is a good thing for Syria because you are bringing quality to that field,” said Al Sayed


Entertainment provides antidote to news channels Massaya TV is an Arabic satellite channel, launched on May 1 2007 from Dubai and Damascus, specializing in events, fashion shows and special occasions. It covers and creates trendy clips that are broadcast at certain times at exhibitions, events and ceremonies such as jewelry, beauty and fashion shows, branding events and professional conferences. In addition, their unique approach extends to covering and broadcasting personal events, such as weddings that will provide their audience with the opportunity to interact with the cultures of the Arab world. In 2008, Massaya opened offices in Lebanon and Egypt. Recently, in line with their expansion plans, the channel set up an office in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. The channel has a total of 94 staff across the Arab world, employed as technicians, editors, cameramen and in an administrative capacity. “The idea behind Massaya TV is unique and considered to be one-of-a-kind in this region. Massaya TV broadcasts event clips for personal and public events and ceremonies around the clock on the Nile Satellite. This enables friends and family to interconnect and share joyous occasions with their loved ones,” says Mohammad Al Shple, marketing manager at Massaya. “For public events, it enables businesses and organizations to interconnect with their associates and share joyous occasions such as company and product launches,” he continued. February 2011 39


Enicar watches return to Syria


nicar watches started manufacturing in 1854. The company was founded at La Chauxde-Fonds and made mainly lever watches with a wide palette of movements. Soon afterwards, Enicar moved its factory to Lengnau in the German speaking part of Switzerland and started to specialize in water resistant and tough watches. The name Enicar was derived from the reverse order of the name of Swiss watchmaker Ariste Racine who created it. In the early 1960s, Enicar started to produce its own watch movements; the renowned “Rubirotor” bears witness to a time where most watch companies developed their own movements. Many high-end brands are still using Enicar’s movements even now. Many Rubirotor to CSOC movements were used in Enicar's UltraSonic Collection. A break-through in popularity, however, occurred when a Swiss Himalayan

expedition wore Enicar Sherpa models that could withstand the most adverse conditions: cold, snow and ice. After 1956, the date of the expedition, many more Sherpa models were introduced, and many other expeditions started using them, such as in 1956 and 1960, when Japan's South Pole exploration team appointed it twice as their official watch, instead of using one of their own national products. It was also chosen by the captain of the first transatlantic cruise. Enicar is back, and to reclaim its culture that is well intertwined with its name, it has been working hard on its public image. It is currently sponsoring many F1 races and tennis players as well as sponsoring the first East Asian games in China. CSR-wise, they brought 500 young students to the World Expo, and they have been involved in a worldwide conservation effort of endangered bears. On a promotion tour, and a visit to their newly appointed agents in Syria,

Abou Watfa watches, Vice President of Enicar International Sales, Timothy Kao, commented: “We are excited to return to Syria after more than half a century’s absence, this time though; we will be more involved in the culture.” “We chose Abou Watfa as our partner because we all know that Abou Watfa is about more than just selling watches, they specialize in quality pieces, and the most important thing is that they provide quality service to their customers. We hope to further our cooperation in the future,” added Timothy Kao. Enicar used to be one of the most renowned watches, but after the Quartz revolution in the 60s, it became less well-known. However, now it is back, with the same high-quality products and decent prices. Enicar is making chronometers again, and in 2008 they managed to get back into the top 10 Chronometer movement users. In the near future, Enicar will build new elegant mechanical modules using ETA Swiss Calibers. February 2011 41


Syria: Planning ahead

By Marc-Andre de Blois The beginning of the new year saw the entry into force of Syria’s latest FiveYear Plan, the 11th in the country’s history. Although some have criticized the use of five-year plans as outdated, the government believes the system continues to provide a helpful framework to set goals and mark progress as it works to reorient the country away from socialism towards its stated aim of a “social market” economy. The plan aims to achieve average growth of 5.7% over its duration, with 4.3 trillion SP ($94.9 billion) of investment required. Of this, just over half (53%) is expected to be provided by the private sector. The bulk of this is likely to go into manufacturing, construction, finance and extractive industries, while public investment will be concentrated in government services, transport and storage, agriculture and water (particularly irrigation networks). Running through the plan is a strong focus on the social dimension of development. To this end, the government aims to create 1.25 million jobs to keep pace with the expected number of people entering the labour market to 2015, and a further 250,000 to mop up existing unemployment. Although exact figures are not available, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimated unemployment at around 11% in 2009 and this is unlikely to have changed significantly since. To achieve these aims, the plan envisages a reorientation of government spending towards investment in physical and social infrastructure, public service reform, as well as changes to the regulatory and taxation regimes to promote greater domestic and foreign investment. A significant change in this direction 42

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is the government’s plan to dismantle Syria’s remaining energy subsidies and allow prices to rise to market levels. Over the course of the previous five-year plan, the government spent 1.3 trillion SP ($28.7 billion) on energy subsidies, a sum greater than the total amount of social investment over the same period. In 2008, the government removed subsidies on heating oil and diesel, which reduced the cost of subsidies to around 5% of GDP in 2009, according to the IMF. A number of food and agricultural subsidies are also due to be phased out by 2015, with the money saved reallocated to development spending. Despite this broader objective, on January 16, the government announced a rise of 72% in the heating allowance for civil servants and pensioners, a move that will cost 15 billion SP ($331 million) and benefit around 10% of the population. The 11th Five-Year Plan also outlines a new program of administrative and institutional reform. Both Syrian businesses and members of the public often criticize the bureaucracy as slow, inefficient and tainted with corruption. In the 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index, produced by the anti-corruption organization Transparency International, Syria ranks 127th out of 178 countries. The 11th Five-Year Plan aims to reduce corruption by introducing performancerelated pay and decentralizing responsibilities, both regionally and within individual departments. The state is also expected to increase the transparency surrounding public expenditure and introduce e-government services. By removing direct contact between citizens and officials, e-government should help to reduce bribery while at the same time improving the efficiency of services. The plan rules out large-scale redundancies in the public sector and the privatization of state-owned enterprises. However, the structure of many is to be changed, granting these organizations greater operational independence and the ability to retain profits, which can then be re-invested into the business. One of the main challenges currently facing Syrian industry is a lack of competitiveness, which is reflected by low levels of productivity. The government intends to tackle this by investing in infrastructure and human resources. The government believes that increased connectivity with the global economy will allow the country to recov-

er its traditional role as an entrepot on the eastern Mediterranean and is pushing ahead with integration plans while investing substantially in the country’s infrastructure. The spending program includes upgrades to the country’s two main ports, Latakia and Tartous, improvements to airports and roads, and reviving and upgrading the rail link to Jordan. To help attract investment, the authorities plan to introduce a dedicated public private partnerships law, to be issued sometime this year. With 2015 the target year for achieving its Millennium Development Goals, the government is using the five-year plan to support objectives to reduce poverty and unemployment levels. These remained static during the last five-year plan due to the impact of the global recession and high population growth. The authorities aim to reduce the rate of population growth from 2.45% to 2.1% and will allocate 30% of the plan’s budget - 2 trillion SP ($44.1 billion) - to human development, including healthcare and education. To help pay for this, the government has committed itself to reforming the tax system to increase collection and encourage investment. Value-added tax, which the government has been preparing to introduce for a number of years, is expected to be rolled out within the period of the plan. In another attempt to raise revenue, the government issued its first treasury bonds in decades in December 2010. The oversubscribed short- and longerterm bonds raised a total of 5 billion SP ($110.4 million) for the state. The Syrian banking industry had long been awaiting this development, welcoming it as a means to increasing the country’s macroeconomic stability, as well as helping to mop up excess liquidity and contributing to greater price stability. Syria’s public sector looks set to retain its relatively large footprint under the 11th Five-Year Plan, with all of the associated costs that this entails, the government has laid out measures to rein in expenditure, including a particular focus on reducing subsidies. In addition, the strategies for raising money and the developmental spending priorities laid out in the plan should help make it a success. If all goes to design, Syria can look forward to a period of sustained growth over the next five years



New market for health and nutrition

Photo by Manaf Hasan

After graduating in Dietics and Nutrition from McGill University in Montreal, Racha Najmeh returned home to Syria where she recognized an opportunity to make real positive change in Syrian lives. With iron will and clever marketing strategies, the director of the Biocalories Nutrition and Wellness Center says the business is thriving.

You are just over one year old in the business scene in Syria. How has it been so far? After graduation, I was working at the Montreal Children’s Hospital in pediatric nutrition and I realized that my impact and input could be much bigger in Syria than in Montreal. The idea of the clinic came from the realization that while Montreal had been a fantastic learning experience, this was a new field that I could introduce to Syria. I returned to Damascus in June 2008 and opened the business in November 2009. We have a clinic in Malki, where we offer full nutritional services, not just weight loss and weight gain, but moral support, nutritional consultation and food catering. We have meal plans and a kitchen where we prepare balanced, tailored meals that we deliver to clients. We make our own breads, catering for all people, including those with Celiac disease or certain intolerances. It’s very individualized. What was the hardest thing about starting up a business in such a young industry? I have to admit that when I first 44

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started, I didn’t know how to proceed with regard to marketing. It really wasn’t my field and it was a completely new concept. I opened the clinic without any actual advertizing at all. Instead, I decided to do a lot of indirect marketing to build my profile. I write about health and diet for magazines and I have my own radio programme on Arabesque radio. I also work at the hospital and have the opportunity to do follow-up work with patients, so that is also good exposure. How has the market changed since you started? Since I opened I do think Syrians have become more health conscious. People are more aware of the role of nutrition in preventative health diseases and cancers. I think the exposure to Lebanese TV and radio has helped drive that awareness. The Lebanese have always been very health and image conscious. The other thing is that there tend to be more internationally trained doctors here now. Worldwide there is a trend towards a more holistic approach to health and medicine. So the

younger doctors are coming back having worked in a team that included a nutritionist, a physiotherapist, etc, so they have more awareness of diet in overall healthcare. On the whole, I think Syrian cuisine is quite healthy, because we eat a lot of vegetables and we cook in oil more than in animal fats now. We also eat a lot of legumes – broad beans, kidney beans, lentils which are very healthy. But there is a misconception that because we are using unsaturated fats, then it’s good for you. The reality is that our diet is still too high in oil. There are a couple of other clinics offering similar services popping up now, but none that offer the same full service that we do. Since we opened, the number of clients has more than tripled, which tells you a lot. The other thing is that more and more men are starting to look after their health. When we started they were mostly dragged along by their wives, now they come of their own accord. The ratio now of women to men who visit our clinic is about 60:40. What about staffing? Did you need to train staff? We currently have three people on the team at the clinic. I do all the consultation and then we have one person looking after the kitchen and one person looking after the cellulite treatment, which is very popular. In the kitchen, we have six people, who have been specially trained in cuisine preparation. What is the most satisfying thing about the business? The nicest thing is when people tell me that they wait for my shows and read my work. It keeps me motivated to give more. The other thing is when people come in and tell me that someone has noticed that they look better, that they have lost weight. It really works



Culture Music



Swaying between art and seduction Belly dancing has always been associated with the “Exotic Orient.” But how accurate are modern perceptions of this ancient craft? By Dareen al-Saleh

Valentines Day special: how do Syrians celebrate February 14.


Ghada Bashur smiles as she recalls one September night in the mid 1960s, when she gave a personal belly dance performance to her childhood hero, Fairouz, at the Officer’s Club in downtown Damascus. Coming from a conservative family Bashur, who was contracted to perform at the club every Thursday, Saturday and Sunday night, refused to wear the revealing belly dancing costume, replacing it with the Arabic abaya, adorned with a colorful scarf across her waist. When the Lebanese diva Fairouz walked into the Officer’s Club after staging a memorable performance at the Damascus International Fair, the young dancer could not believe her eyes. She walked up to her table and swayed to Fairouz’s classic songs and the diva, clearly impressed, had a quick chat with her once the show was over, applauding her dancing style as “expressionist, emotional, and elegant.” Now some 40 years on, Bashur has retired from belly dancing and television where she was generally cast as an ageing housewife. The physical attributes of the belly dancer have succumbed to age, yet her passion for the art of dancing remains as strong as ever. Historically associated with the “enchanting Orient,” the craft has always held a tenuous line between being perceived as a skillful art form or as a seductive moral transgression. While many may like to watch belly dancers on stage or on television, they say they would refrain from getting too close to them. Much of that, Bashur told Forward Syria, is due to the negative reputation a new generation of belly dancers has brought to the craft. “I learned to belly dance, along with other forms [of dance] like Andalusian samah dancing and ballet, while I was a young girl, from respected masters February 2011 47

Culture of dance in the Arab world,” she said. “I practiced expressionist dancing, telling a story with every move that

I made.” Looking back, she said, “It took a lot of courage, since we had no belly dancers in Syria. I used to dance at respectable venues, those reserved for families only, and at private weddings.” Bashur continued, “Women would bring their husbands to watch me dance, because it was expressionist art, and I never got too close to the tables, to avoid embarrassing anybody,

including myself.” Her family curtly said no to the profession at first, but soon caved in under her pressure. “Eventually, my father started accompanying me to the venues at which I was scheduled to dance.” Steadily building her career, she danced at VIP clubs in Syria, Lebanon, the Emirates, Tunisia, and Algeria, picking up a number of awards as she went, and performing next to stars like Lebanese Wadih al-Safi and Walid Tawfiq, and Jordanian Samir Tawfic. Dancing is often described as an “international language,” but oriental dancing - or belly dancing - is one of the most famous genres of dance, often associated with sexy, seduc48

February 2011

tive women whose captivating ability to create perfect harmony, sound and sight is considered a perfect form of indulgence. A solo performance, there is no handbook or formal instruction for a belly dancer’s moves - the individual dancer’s spontaneity is part of the attraction - and the seduction. Among the poets and writers who have praised the beauty of belly dancers throughout history, Ahmad Abdul Muti al-Hijazi described the dance as “emotional dancing that stresses the presence of the human body.” It reminds audiences of the human world, with all its instincts and lust, depicted in forms that now, at least, runs the range from hardcore Sufi spirituality all the way to cheap marketing of human flesh. Fans of Oriental dancing are not restricted to the Middle East. Enchanted westerners claim the dance assists them understand the exoticism of the east. This goes some way to explaining why the peculiar dance has become a pervasive symbol of the east in western show business and Hollywood and is even beginning to make its presence felt in the Far East. Currently, belly dancers from China, for example, come to Egypt annually, either seeking work, wanting to learn the profession, or to take part in dance competitions, for which Cairo is famous.

Suheir Zaki, the famous Egyptian dancer who performed in front of US President Richard Nixon during a visit to Cairo in the 1970s, said that no matter how hard foreign belly dancers try, they will “never” compete with the Arabs. “They lack a musical ear, one that is accustomed to Oriental tunes and melodies, in addition to the spirit of light humor,” she said. And although many have gone into the business as professionals, and there are still committed fans, belly dancing remains frowned-upon in other stratas of the Arab and Muslim world. With their exposed legs, breasts, and belly, they view the nave as not only

provocative, but synonymous with nudity. The depiction of the belly dancer in smoky cabarets and nightclubs where alcohol and vice abound has not helped the image of the dance. Belly dancers were thus seen as the exact opposite of what any decent man would want for his home and children. They were seen as sexy, cheap and opportunistic women who “steal” husbands from their wives. The image of a wife refusing to accompany their husband to any venue that has a belly dancing show is common. Rarely have others managed to scratch the surface and understand that belly dancers themselves were normal human beings who had their own families, were mothers of children, and who practiced the profession just like any other, because it provided a decent income. Retiring from the scene Speaking of her retirement, Bashur says, “Never during my years in the profession did I suffer any disturbances, mainly because I had my own circle of fans, who respected me tremendously. I left the job at the apex of my career so as not to perform anything less than what I had given in the past; I wanted them to continue remembering me in my finest hour.” That was one reason. But the other, she says, is an unfortunate truth that the craft has been corrupted, “doing a disservice to the profession by how they [the dancers] dressed, and how they acted.” “There is not a single dancer that impresses me today; they are not presenting art, only cheap movements they call dancing.”


Belly dancing for men Recently the profession has expanded to include men. There is no law or regulation, male enthusiasts insist, that stipulates belly dancing as being a “women’s only” profession. Art in all its forms, whether it be ballet dancing, singing, or acting, should be open to both sexes. Although physiologically women are better able to move their hips, men have started to enter the profession. Currently men can be found practicing belly dancing on stages in Lebanon and Egypt, swaying to Oriental music with the briskness of their female counterparts.

Under the patronage of the President of Lebanon, H.E.

General Michel Sleiman



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Shalimar reveals all As the most famous of the “new generation” of belly dancers in Damascus, the one and only Shalimar has her say on the ongoing debate over art and sex. By Lauren Williams Shalimar is dressed in a black leather t-shirt, smoking a cigarette, in a downtown Damascus cafe. Perched next to her on the pink velour couchette is an un-creased copy of the popular novelist, Ahlam Mosteghanemi’s latest book on the female experience, No doubt some of the men in the room recognize the voluptuous beauty from her second home, the stage on the 8th floor of the Semiramis Hotel. At 12am every night for the last ten years, the 28-year-old PalestinianLebanese dancer has taken to the stage to perform her belly dancing routine to enraptured crowds. The young dancer has developed somewhat of a cult following in those ten years and regular clientele now make up the majority of her loyal audience. Despite the routine, the talented dancer, who has suspended her law degree at AUB temporarily, says she never grows tired of her craft. “Give me music and a stage and I’m happy,” she says. Shalimar, who goes by her first name only, learned to dance from her mother, a professional Caracalla Theater performer in Lebanon. As a child she was literally plucked from the crowd when a restaurant owner recognized her talent as she danced freely while dining with her family. Arriving in Damascus in 1997, the young dancer approached the Semiramis hotel and after seeing her dance just once, the hotel manager offered her an exclusive contract for five years. Ten years and six marriages later, the young dancer says she has built a solid name out of her dancing passion. Citing 1960s stars, Suheir Zaki and Samia Jama’al amongst her inspirations, she says she no longer suffers the negative stereotypes conservative Syrians tend to associate with her craft. 50

February 2011

“I am a follower of the old school of dance, but I add some of my own style and technique.” “Certainly the new generation of dancers tend to show off the flesh, rather than the dance itself.” Popular depictions of belly dancers on screen have certainly perverted the image of the dance, but then again, says Shalimar, conservative Damascus is also partly to blame for the lack of acceptance of the dance as a craft. “Here, it’s still kind of something forbidden. There are no schools for the dance for instance - they call them gyms.” “People tend to think that dancers are uneducated, people who don’t read, who have to dance out of desperation.” “I used to get that kind of response, but now I have established a name for myself, they know me and they respect me as an artist.” Competition from those who cheapen the craft is no longer a problem. Instead, she says, she tries to downplay the seductive side of the art, by dressing more conservatively than her “cheaper” counterparts. “The look and how revealing the dress of the dancer is makes an impression that lasts five minutes, the rest is in the dance.” Seduction, she says, is a natural offshoot of the relation between solo performance and any audience. “There is always going to be a seductive quality to a dance where a woman is the centrepiece for a male-dominated crowd, but the same goes for a male singer on stage in a female-dominated crowd.” Having recently married for the sixth time, Shalimar says she will never stay with a man who prevents her from dancing. Her dream is to open a school for the dance, where the shame associated with it is lifted. “The details are still being worked out, but I hope it will open next year,” she says



View from street level

Photo by Khaled Sandid

Riyadh Neama, an Iraqi artist who came to Syria in search of freedom, has finally realized his dream of producing a collection of paintings that shows the reality of life as lived on an ordinary street.

By Obaida Hamad His latest work, entitled ‘The Street,’ can be seen from January 25 until February 26 at the Rafia Gallery in Damascus. It is his fourth solo exhibition in Syria but the 42-year-old has exhibited extensively internationally - in Lebanon, Jordan, the Czech Republic, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. One day he hopes to show his work in his native Iraq. 52

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Please tell our readers a little about yourself. I was born in Baghdad in 1968, although my family are originally from southern Iraq. I obtained my BA from Baghdad University’s Faculty of Fine Arts. In 1998, I was forced to leave my country for political reasons under the regime of the former president Saddam Hussein. Ever since I was young,

I had a dream of coming to Damascus and most Iraqi intellectuals who left the country came to live here. Currently, I spend most of my time painting. I also do some graphic design work. What does Syria add to your own artistic experience and vision? My experience in Iraq was simple, naive and had no roots. When I came to

Can you explain the school of art your works represents? I didn’t commit to a single art school in my career. Many artists and critics disapprove of moving among different schools of art. I think any artist cannot stick to one school in all his works. I began with the realist school when I was going to Baghdad’s coffee shops to paint portraits and still life. Later, I did some copying of well-known international artists’ pictures, not to sell but to practice and learn their skills. I did some work in the modernization school but only for two years at the end of the 1980s. Then, I began painting in an expressionist realist style up until this latest collection. What is the theme for your latest collection ‘The Street’ and why did you choose it? I named this collection ‘The Street’ to show the reality of lives around the world. It is a cosmopolitan theme. I chose children with gray backgrounds in most pictures because children represent all humanity and the dark backgrounds illustrate the hard and unclear future, especially for Iraqis who have no stable or clear future. This collection was shown in Amman and Beirut. Today, the collection is on display at the Rafia Gallery in Damascus. Where would you most like to display your work? My dream is to show this collection in Baghdad’s streets, opposite the Green Zone where the concrete walls face Iraqis and divide them. The invasion of Iraq pushed me to be closer to real life and also to realize how hard it is to demonstrate the bloody and difficult reality on a still and motionless painting


Live critics invited to attend as painting goes digital

Photo by Manaf Hasan

Syria I began painting with no taboos, no censorship and no restriction. Syria, compared to Iraq, is freedom. As with most Iraqi artists, I was just drawing with sandy colours, using Sumerian symbols and palm trees. I think artists who paint with these materials do it for commercial reasons - it’s “tourism painting” and does not touch national identity, but it does make money. When I moved here, I met many good Syrian artists and critics, one of them told me that I should illustrate what I know and not look to what is in my memory. Then, I started to become influenced by Syrian subjects and colors, which are more fresh and greener in color.

Syria’s biggest selling artist alive, Safwan Dahoul, will paint his next major work with each brush stroke broadcast in a live video stream on the Internet. It will be the first time that a major Syrian artist has exhibited both the finished work and the creation of that work. The idea for the project came about when Dahoul sat down with Khaled Samawi, the owner of Ayyam Gallery. Dahoul wanted a large space to work on a huge 6-meter canvas, and Samawi suggested he work directly in the gallery, with visitors able to come and see him painting. From that point, it was a small step to take to decide to install cameras and broadcast the event on the Internet. “It is a new idea to see a Syrian artist work in an open space with cameras broadcasting on the Internet while he is painting. I hope to paint three works.” Dahoul’s ongoing project, ‘Still Dreaming’ is now 30 years old. The latest addition to the collection is a 10 painting large-scale series currently being exhibited at Ayyam Gallery Dubai DIFC from January 17 to February 28. Dahoul was born in Hama in 1961, to a large, middle class family. His father, who worked as a driver, sent his youngest son to the city’s Plastic Art Center where Dahoul’s hands and eyes began to play with colors and painting. “When I was studying and training at the Art Center, there was no problem,

but when I decided to go to the Faculty of Fine Arts in Damascus, my family stood against me,” Dahoul said. But he was determined to finish his studies and, after graduating top of his class in 1983, went on to receive a scholarship to study abroad from the Ministry of Higher Education in 1987, obtaining a doctorate from the Higher Institute of Plastic Arts in Mons, Belgium in 1997. The first time Dahoul exhibited his paintings was at the Ministry of Culture’s annual Fall Exhibition in 1985. Later, he exhibited his paintings at solo and group exhibitions throughout Syria, the Middle East, Europe, and the United States. Dahoul, like all Syrian artists, exhibited at the best Damascus art galleries such as A’ashtar, Alsayyed, Rainbow, and others, until Ayyam Gallery was founded in 2006. Ayyam gave him a new opportunity to work and exhibit, he said. “Ayyam Gallery came up with a new idea, it’s old in the rest of the world but new for us, in Syria’s artistic life,” he said. “Ayyam deals with 20 artists who represent different generations and schools of art. They [the gallery] signs contracts with them to show their works at their galleries in Damascus, Beirut, Dubai and Cairo.” In 2009 his painting, ‘Dream,’ set a record for the highest price paid for an artwork by a living Syrian artist, when it was sold for $140,500 at Dubai’s Christie’s auction house in 2009


February 2011 53


Love is in the air

Photos by Cimino

By Jennifer Mackenzie


February 2011


specially for young couples, Valto tell somebody you love them? I still the scrumptious Valentine’s cakes he entine’s Day - “the Feast of Love” don’t get it.” is planning to create in the shape of in Arabic - is a new and exciting Indeed, the most common objechearts, frosted in pink and red. holiday, and in Damascus, many are tion to the holiday is that it is now less But, personally, he too was skeptiadopting it wholeheartedly. about love than about profit. “Everycal about the change in values he feels “It’s a chance to show your love to thing turns red, and the price of a red the holiday represents. “It used to your partner, or to let someone know rose goes up five times!” said Suheila, be that people had real love for each that you have these feelings,” said one a single woman in her early thirties. other and their families,” he said. “But English literature student who is hop“It’s really a holiday for students, and now people are disconnected from ing to get her first rose this February. the most beautiful, simple way for their parents and siblings, and they For more established couples, Valthem to show their love is by giving a just think that love means sex.” Then entine’s Day is also an opportunity to rose - but the prices go up so much, again, he reflected, “Valentine’s Day treat each other to something spethey can’t afford it!” is really a day for young people; it’s a cial and to create some vivid memoAnd a shopkeeper in Bab Touma, day for them.” ries. “My best Valentine’s Day was last one of the main commercial centers year,” recalled one thirty-something of the celThe secret's out musician. “I surprised her [my fiancé] Perhaps some of the amwith her favorite chocolates and bivalence about the growing roses, and took her to an amazpopularity of Valentine’s ing Italian restaurant. It was Day in Syria is a natusomething that both of us can ral reaction to a society look back on, like an anniin transition. As the versary.” culture and economy Maryam, a university stuopen up, quite a few dent, still glows when she Syrians feel nostalremembers the feast her gic for “the good old boyfriend treated her to days.” 1. Say it with flowers: whether it’s the classic, long-stemmed rose, last February. She, like many “Ten years ago, or an eclectic bouquet. Just remember, red is for x and pink is for other couples interviewed no one here had y, but avoid yellow - it means jealousy and z. for this article, declined to ever heard of Valen2. A picture’s worth a thousand words: a beautiful photo album be photographed, saying that tine’s Day,” recalled or scrapbook is the perfect way to remember the sweet moit would spoil the privacy and one bachelor. “So I felt ments you’ve shared together. the intimacy of the occasion. like it was my secret, 3. Spa treatment: pamper the one you love with a relaxing “Some people like to show off to share only with that and rejuvenating trip to a spa. the number of gifts they get, but one special person. Now 4. Diamonds and pearls: grand or delicate, a beaufor me, it’s not a public event.” everybody knows about it, tiful necklace, bracelet or pair of earrings or She also voiced skepticism about and I don’t feel like it’s mine cufflinks make the ideal gift. some people’s use of the holiday not anymore.” 5. If music is the food of love: let music to declare true love but to play the Still, for those who value both carry you both away with a visit to field more. To illustrate this, she told their privacy and the celebration the Opera Theater’s upcoming the following joke: a man walks into a of their love, there are always creorchestral performances card shop and asks to see what cards ative ways to combine the two. For of latin music or they have for Valentine’s Day. The ebrainstance, one young couple, objecting classical Italian shopkeeper shows him one that reads, t i o n , to the public “hype” of the holiday, opera. ‘To My Only Love.’ “That’s perfect,” p u t i t created their own tradition: they give replies the customer. “Give me twelve more plainly. “It’s each other gifts and have a romantic of those.” an event they created Valentine’s Day evening…a day after to sell us things. It has nothValentine’s Day. Increasing expectations ing to do with this culture - and even “It started last year as a trick my Another student also voiced conevents from here are getting so comboyfriend played on me,” the woman cern that the increased visibility of the mercialized, I’m starting to hate all explained. “He pretended that he forholiday creates an expectation that occasions.” got about it, that he hated the whole makes those who are not dating anyOf course, the flower and chocolate thing and didn’t believe in it. Then, the one feel left out. “If you don’t have a sellers are excited about the holiday. next day, he showed up with all these lover you’re sad - and if you do, you’re The florists are unapologetic about presents - flowers and sweets - and he even sadder, because you’re poor, and the inevitable tripling or quadrupling said the best part was how surprised I can’t afford to give them anything,” of prices. “It’s the demands of the was,” she recalled, laughing. “Now it’s she joked. “For me, a piece of chocoholiday,” one florist explained, addlike our private joke.” In the end, then, late is worth more than a million guys. ing, “love makes people generous.” His there are as many “feasts of love” as And why do you need a specific date neighbor, a baker, lovingly described there are couples to enjoy them

Five ways to treat your sweetheart


February 2011 55

In Syria we Trust

Second development conference calling for submissions It wasn’t too long ago that civil society was a foreign, abstract concept in Syria. Now it is a well-worn phrase.


The first international development conference in Syria, entitled 'The Emerging Role of Civil Society in Development,' was held in January 2010.

fter just four years of operation, the Syria Trust for Development has worked to inform Syrians and the greater international community that Syria is ready and capable of embracing positive real change through nongovernment cooperation in capacity building and development work across the country. When First Lady Asma al-Assad, the chair and patron of the Syria Trust for Development - itself an independent NGO - opened the Trust’s first development conference in 2010, she spoke passionately of the need to engage all stratas of society in institutional change and development beyond the charity level. “The government alone cannot move this country forward,” she told the conference. Entitled The Emerging Role of Civil Society in Development, the conference was designed to bring together exper56

February 2011

tise from both within the country and around the world to share experiences and exchange ideas. Keynote lectures by international experts from Harvard University joined heavyweight international players, including the former United Nations deputy secretary general. The conference was lauded as a milestone in the development of a civil society movement in Syria. Since then, the Trust has patronized dozens of development projects and worked to loosen government control and act as a unifying platform for NGOs. Since its inception in 2007, the Trust has provided an institutional home for several projects, focusing on building young people’s citizenship through non-formal education (MASSAR), rural development (FIRDOS), enhancing youth employability and entrepreneurial spirit (SHABAB), culture and heritage (RAWAFED), and socio-economic and civil society re-

search (Syrian Development Research Center). Now, following on from the success of the first conference, the Trust last month announced the second development conference will be held from May 2123 this year. It is calling for submissions from researchers, practitioners, analysts, and interested parties on best practices/ lessons learned in human and economic development that are supported by evidence-based research, in keeping with the subject of this year’s conference. The conference theme will be: The Role of Institutions in Development, Innovations in Institutional Development, and Applied/Policy-oriented Research on Development and Institutions. This year the conference will be held in Aleppo, the industrial capital of Syria. Submissions close on March 1. Full details of the submissions process are available at

Looking Forward

Face of the Future: Ahmad Hamsho

Photo by Manaf Hasan

competition. My brother is also started the sport now, but I don’t think he will continue with it professionally. It’s a beautiful sport and I took to it immediately. You only know when you start whether you have the right communication and once you know it, that’s it, you’re in it. You can prepare as much as you like, but at the end of the day, you are dealing with an animal and you can’t always predict how he will feel on the day. That’s the beautiful thing about the sport.

At just 18 years old, Ahmad Hamsho is the first ever Syrian equestrian to qualify for the Olympic Games in London 2012 at the Jumping World Championship at the World Equestrian Games being held in the US last year – and the youngest to ever qualify for the Championship. Having just won the Sharjah International Championship for Equestrian Jumping in Dubai, he is now ranked third in the Arab League table and says he now has a medal in sight. How did your career start – was horse riding in the family? No, my father wanted me to be involved in a sport and he chose horseback riding. I started in 1999. My first international show was in 2004, in Damascus at the junior level Al-Wafar 58

February 2011

You are also studying – how do you find the time for both? I am studying economics and general science in London, but I had to take last semester off to go to the US World Equestrian Games in October. I took a year out from riding in 2009 to finish school. I realised that if you try to do both full time, you just end up failing at both. It’s hard. I have to travel a lot. I live in London, but my horses are in Germany, so I travel to Germany nearly every weekend. You are away from your family and home for long periods and it can be really tiring. But I am determined to finish my studies; I just want to finish it because it’s important to have a degree, to have a good education. I know you can’t just do one thing in life. What is your ultimate ambition with the sport? My ultimate ambition is to get to the 2012 Olympics and win a medal. Then I will have done what I set out to do. I think it is the greatest feeling to hear your national anthem played to a crowd in another country. That would make me feel so proud. After that I will hang up my boots and just continue riding as a hobby and continue what my father started.

It makes me feel sad and happy at the same time; happy because I will have achieved my goals and sad because I’ll be giving up my passion. If I don’t win a medal, I will keep trying until I do. But I won’t try forever. There are limits. Do you feel older than your years? I know that most of the time, I am around people that are older than me and that I have to be very independent to do what I do. I have travelled a lot, and I have a professional career that I take seriously, but no, generally I feel my age and I like to live my age. I am not in a hurry to live my life sooner. What do you want other young riders and readers to know about the sport? If you don’t feel it, then this sport is not for you. Also, you should never let yourself think that you are the best – that’s when you fail. You need to be humble. I also want to thank Mrs Manal AlAssad for all her work in promoting the sport and all her support to young riders – I always look to make her proud. I also want to wish the Syrian youth team all the best at the upcoming World Equestrian Games for Children this month. I know they will make us proud


Five minutes with Ahmad Hamsho: What are you reading? I never get the chance to read – I know it’s important to read, but if I do, it’s only textbooks for now. Who is your best friend? My horse, Wonderboy, and of course, my father. What do you miss about Syria when you are away? Syrians all live like one big family. That’s something you don;t get in other places. So I miss the Syrian family. What was your happiest moment? When I qualified for the Olympics at the World Equestrian Games. It was an amazing feeling. Where do you see yourself when you are 60? Exactly like my grandfather – in Syria, with a big family and plenty of grandchildren.




THE you a talented photographer? Publish your photos with Forward Shabab

Manaf Hasan, 29, photographer, took this photo of Beit Djin, Quinetra, during a walking tour of the region. Photo details: Model: FUJIFILM FinePix S5Pro. Shutter Speed: 1/40 sec. Exposure: Manual. F-Stop: f/25 ISO Speed: 500. Focal Length: 23mm


Are you a talented photographer?

Would you like to see your professional photo in Forward Syria (and on the cover)? Send us your high-resolution photos with a photo caption at The photos can be on any topic you desire as long as the photo is pro. February 2011 59



Damascene Things


Forward Organizer

Photos by Simon Burns

Places to go

A spiritual experience: Sufi dhikr at Muhieddine Mosque By Simon Burns The circle of men falls silent. A string of prayer beads swings from the creased hand of a gray-bearded sheikh, all else is still. For an instant the circle seems to hold its breath. “Ya lateef, ya lateef,” chants the sheikh. The voice of a young boy bursts in with it, “Ya lateef, ya lateef.” Devotion is flying from 30 or so sets of lungs, filling every corner of the Mosque of Muhieddine Ibn ‘Arabi in Salihiyyeh, in the foothills of Mount Qasyoun.

This is the Sufi dhikr (remembrance) and the men in the circle are sending out a chant of devotion at the Muhieddine Ibn ‘Arabi mosque. “They are connecting with God from the very center of their hearts,” says Ahmad Al Mujahid, one of the circle's leaders. As the chant gathers momentum, the energy swirling around the circle is almost palpable. Some are rocking back and forth, their palms upturned

towards the sky, with tightly shut eyes and intense expressions on their faces. The chant rolls on, faster and faster, louder and louder. Then, whoosh, and silence descends. This singing, like the other chants, draws words from the Quran and hadith. Ahmad says that the participants sing themselves into a state of fitra, where they feel their primordial nature - the original way that God made them. Less than five meters from the dhikr February 2011 61

Forward Advisor

Forward Organizer... Art & Culture

circle lies a tomb of great power. According to Sheikh Muhammad, it is the Damascus equivalent of the Kaa’ba. Pilgrims journey to say a prayer, ask for a cure for sickness, help with hardship or just bask in its presence. It is the Muhieddine Ibn ‘Arabi tomb, more commonly known as Ibn ‘Arabi to English speakers, or Al Sheikh Al Akbar (The Greatest Master) to Sufis. He is a saint, philosopher, mystic, poet, traveler and sage of universal importance to Sufism. Born in the 12th Century, with a body of work stretching to 15,000 pages, he has inspired philosophers from China to Europe - from Daoists to Dante. Sheikh Muhammad Al Yaqoubi is a Syrian scholar and Sufi descended from the prophet Muhammad. Formerly the Mufti of Sweden, he now lives in Damascus and gives a weekly Friday speech at the mosque. “Attachment to God is a work of the heart,” he says. “The heart is detached from everything except God in the dhikr.” He says that Ibn ‘Arabi is present in the tomb, listening to the pilgrims who visit the mosque. “They cannot hear his replies because of the veil that separates humans from the world of spirits and djinn. Only great Gnostics can perceive him.” Some Fridays, though, believers report seeing Ibn ‘Arabi. Participants in the ceremony have been known to see a beam of light projecting from his tomb to the dhikr. One Friday, Sheikh Muhammad forgot to include the Fatiha (the opening verse of the Quran) in his evening speech, as he usually does. “Ibn ‘Arabi appeared to me in the audience and reminded me! I had to stop and 62

February 2011

say the Fatiha!” Andalusian Spain of the late 12th Century was a mix of religions, managing relative harmony among the followers of various faiths. From an early age, Ibn ‘Arabi saw the underlying unity of the three monotheistic faiths. According to Sheikh Muhammad, Ibn ‘Arabi saw in them not difference, but a single shared essence. The same is true of Damascus, he says. “In Damascus, people of different religions have always known how to live together. From an early age we learn to distinguish our religions and ourselves, but not to hate other religions. We respect each other’s right to live together, and to share land, air and food. In this respect, Syria presents a model for the west on dealing with minorities.” More than 770 years after Ibn ‘Arabi was laid in his tomb, a line from his poetry gives expression to a sentiment that resonates to this day in the dhikr. It resonates with people, regardless of faith: “By God, I feel so much love that it seems the skies would be rent asunder, the stars fall and the mountains move away if I burdened them with it: such is my experience of love.” Participation in the dhikr is recommended to all Muslims regardless of denomination (Sheikh Muhammad calls it the tissue of Islam). Anyone is welcome at the tomb of Ibn ‘Arabi, and men of all faiths can observe the dhikr every Friday after the Maghrib prayer (a little after 4:30 pm). Sheikh Muhammad al Yaqoubi gives a speech every Friday at the mosque after Asha’ prayer (just after 6 pm). He will begin classes on Sufi mysticism in English in coming months


Retrospective of documentary films by German director Werner Herzog (WHR) Screenings of documentaries by Munich-born filmmaker, Werner Herzog, in cooperation with DOX BOX Festival. All films have Arabic subtitles. Goethe-Institut Damascus 9 January - 27 February Cold Gardens Installations and photo exhibition by Syrian-German artist Rabi Georges continues. Goethe-Institut Damascus Opening February 14 Rahad Al Jallad photography exhibition Mrs. Rahad Al Jallad will present mostly black & white works. Goethe-Institut Damascus January 17 - February 10 Opera House Events For more information, please call 2256144 or 2256542 Ext. 113, 114 or 115 For program updates, please visit Ara Malikian and José Luis Montón Ara Malikian (violin) from Armenia and José Luis Montón (guitar) from Spain perform with the participation of Kinan Ednawi (oud) and Gaith Jamal (guitar) from Syria. 8 February 8pm Open Hands Initiative’s Book Launch In cooperation with the Open Hands Initiative charity association in the US. 9 February By initation only Encho Trio A music and opera singing concert by the French Encho Trio (piano, violin and voice). 11 February 8pm

Tarab Orchestra Conducted by Majed Saray Aldeen with participation of Mayyada Hennawi honoring composer Baligh Hamdi (1931-1993). 14 February 8pm Violin Cellissimo Ensemble Chamber music concert given by the Violin Cellissimo Ensemble. 16 February 8pm Tahleeleh for Sufi Chanting A spiritual chanting concert given by Tahleeleh for Sufi Chanting on the occasion of the birth anniversary of the Holy Prophet. 17 February 8pm Bassel Rajjoub Lebanese saxophonist Bassel Rajjoub and Ensemble present songs from the album, Khameer. 21 February 8pm "Music from the Caribbean sea" Syrian National Symphony Orchestra perform, conducted by Jose Molina from the Dominican Republic. 22 February 8pm Raji Sarkis Solo piano performance given by the pianist Raji Sarkis featuring works of the Syrian composers Zaid Jabri, Chafi Badreddine and Rami Chahine. 24 February 8pm

Lectures FOCUS SYRIA Lecture Series: The Ghouta - The Garden of Damascus Dr H. Werner Mueller, working with ACSAD in a project for management, protection and sustainable use of groundwater and soil resources, will talk about Ghouta and soil quality. In German, with Arabic translation. Goethe-Institut Damascus 23 February Creative Economy British policy analyst Kate Oakley will lecture on the concept of the creative economy. Rida Said Hall 19 February

Pecha Kucha nights in Aleppo! Pecha What? Pecha Kucha. Japanese for "chit chat," Pecha Kucha Night started as a simple idea for a one-off event, devised by Astrid Klein and Mark Dytham of Klein Dytham architecture as the first event held at their creative kitchen SuperDeluxe in Tokyo, in February 2003. Since then it has grown into an international movement - now in close to 300 cities with over 60 events a month. The forums are designed as an exchange platform for anyone working in creative and design fields, including - but not limited to - Architecture, Interior design, Product design, Web design, Graphic design, Fashion design, Furniture design, Illustration, Animation, Arts, Typography, Sculpture, Ceramics and Photography. It rests on a presentation format that is based on a simple idea: 20 images x 20 seconds. It's a format that makes presentations concise, and keeps things moving at a rapid pace. Held in collaboration with the Goethe Institut, this is the second time the night will be held in Aleppo, this time at the beautifully restored 12th Century Al-Shibani School and Church. 27 February

Workshops Design Workshop Students of the Faculty of Architecture at Damascus University will work on models of light and easily movable constructions of “concert shells” for open air concerts in Damascus. Faculty of Architecture of Damascus University 6 - 10 February Typography and Book Design Workshop The Berlin based group ‘On Mondays,’

consisting of Syrian born Kenan Darwich and his two German colleagues Nils Küppers and Rene Siegfried, will work with Syrian students of the Faculty of Fine Arts of Damascus University on texts in Arabic and German. Faculty of Arts of Damascus University 13-19 February To list your event in Forward Organizer, email an explanation of the event in under 100 words, inlcluding dates, times, location and price, to February 2011 63

The Last last word Word

Honour slander shames us all

By Lauren Williams

Recent changes to the criminal law on honor killings and rape got me thinking about shame culture...and Jodi Gordon. Jodi Gordon was a young beautiful star of the most popular Australian television soap in 2009. Living in a waterfront penthouse apartment with her boyfriend – the heir and son of Australian media mogul, Ryan Stokes - she seemed to have it all. One night in June, police responded to a call to an apartment in Sydney’s red light district. When they arrived, they found Gordon cowering in a cupboard with a less than reputable gangster criminal. The pair had been holed up for days, and had called police in the midst of a drug-induced hallucination that the apartment was under attack from intruders. Police leaked the story and within days the paparazzi and tabloid press, including my former employer, were chasing the young star wherever she went. The scandal was delicious. It was on every channel and every magazine cover. The public couldn’t get enough of the fall of Sydney’s “golden girl” to shameless harlot. What had gone on in the apartment was anyone’s guess, but the insinuation was clear - Jodi Gordon was a slut; she had cuckolded her rich and powerful media boyfriend and shamed her family and employer. Within days of the “scandal” she had moved from her apartment, the couple split and the television network dumped her from the lead role, deeming her actions incongruous with the clean image of her role. I met Jodi Gordon in person weeks after the initial scandal, after chasing her down the street to ask for comment on the scandal. With a tape recorder shoved in her face, Jodi Gordon broke down in tears. Later I learned 64

February 2011

she was on her way to a psychiatric appointment and reportedly suffering depression. Reaction to the amendments to the criminal law regarding honor crimes and rape (amongst other crimes) as announced early last month in Syria have been mixed. On the one hand, human rights groups say the increase in penalty for the murder of a wife, daughter, sister or other female relative suspected of having illegitimate sexual relations from a maximum of two years to a minimum of five has been applauded as a step in the right direction, effective in convincing any man contemplating the act to at least think twice. The increased punishment, they say, at least gets those who think they have a legitimate right to kill a Syrian woman to think of the act as a crime. A maybe two years to a certain five years in a Syrian prison would certainly make me think that perhaps what I was doing wasn’t such a good idea. On the other hand, women’s groups and legal practitioners tell me they were disappointed with the amendment; which, despite years of campaigning, still categorizes the murder of a woman as a crime of passion, differentiating it from any other homicide. In other words, family “honor” is still a consideration in handing down a sentence. That shame culture should be legitimized in Syrian legislation in this way is seen as an inappropriate form of mixing religion and law. In all discussion of the new law, the critics have focused on how Islamists will react. “These things have to be taken slowly,” said one prominent analyst. “You can’t undo the law completely – otherwise you will upset Islamic groups that still have a lot of power.”

Foreign media are fond of saying that shame culture and honor crimes are a unique scourge in Islamic countries. In fact, Robert Fisk shocked international readers with his September 2010 honor killings series in The Independent newspaper, essentially labeling the problem an epidemic in Islamic societies. But hang on a sec – who said shame culture is unique to Islam? Shame culture has little to do with religion and everything to do with culture. Personally, I don’t believe that a woman should remain a virgin until marriage - unless she wants to. I don’t believe her sexual preferences have any bearing on her ability as an actress, mother, secretary, lawyer or human being. It’s simply none of my business. Legitimizing shame culture through public institutions is damaging and discriminatory. Western, predominantly Christian countries, perpetuate the shaming of women through popular media in exactly the same vulgar way. No one is saying that killing a woman is equal to slandering her. Not at all. But the same attitude towards women’s honor is at work here, be it in the homes of Arab families, or on the pages of Western tabloids. Whether it is through law, or media destroying a woman’s career, hurting her physically or slandering her character through insinuations about her sexual engagements, we are using shame culture. For that, we should all be ashamed


Forward Syria - February 2011  

The new issue of Syria's leading English-language monthly, featuring the reform of the health sector

Forward Syria - February 2011  

The new issue of Syria's leading English-language monthly, featuring the reform of the health sector