I HAVE A DREAM *
By: Samir Aita
The site never ceases to amaze me. This forest of huge electro-mechanical windmills in the outskirts of Homs, through which the train rolls on endlessly. The electricity these strange giants produce has completely transformed this windy region, as well as the Lebanese Hermel. Syrian, Arab, Chinese, European, Turkish and Indian industries, installed wall-to-wall and producing shoulder-to-shoulder here, have made the new city created out of nothing few years ago one of the most astonishing and cosmopolitan places in the Middle East. Laid out in true oriental style, the city’s numerous squares decorated with splendid fountains celebrate its position at the junction of the water pipelines coming from Lattakia, Deir-Ez-Zor and Turkey.
Some of the people working here live in Damascus or Beirut and shuttle everyday by High Speed Train (TGV in French). I, myself, make it almost everyday in the opposite direction. My Aleppo-born wife did not wish to settle in Damascus. “Our carved-stone houses are much nicer than yours”, she argued. And the obliging Damascene that I am would never dare to defy proud Aleppo, especially as the city experiences now an economic boom, having become the inevitable crossroad of whatever happens between Milan, Istanbul and Moscow towards Baghdad, Dubai and Bombay, and vice-versa.
So, my home is now in Aleppo and I take the one-hour TGV ride twice a day to Damascus and back, where I can calmly sit down and catch up on the never-ending unfinished work or watch the news on my individual seat screen, browsing the tens of TV news channels of the country: Economic, social, cultural and touristic. I don’t even waste time with the train controller, who just checks the train chip payment card with his electronic reader. Barely two seconds and then: “Ahlann Wa Sahlann. Have a nice trip Ustaz”.
Damascus is so noisy. Not because of the traffic really, as most people use the dense and efficient network of suburban tramways browsing the titles of their preferred newspaper during the ride. The noise is that of the coffee shops. There are thousands of such coffee shops in town where people heatedly discuss geopolitics and internal politics, where they take apart and rebuild the world everyday. Arab intellectuals and artists, nostalgic of Beirut of the 60’s, comment on the events in their own countries, the new unique currency to be introduced at the end of the year in most of the Arab countries, as well as the proposed common constitution and how it should or not refer to its roots in the Arab- Islamic-Christian civilization. As for Syrian politicians and businessmen, they discuss with great excitement the next parliamentary elections.
Syrian politics are in fact rather complicated. They are dominated by three major parties: The liberals, the islamo-democrats and the social-democrats. Their debates are passionate and surprising to a foreigner. Leaders in each of the three parties lay claim to the heritage of the Baath, and others not. Who cares? The entire Arab region envies us our political hubbub, and how our political parties rotate smoothly in government. We were even the first Arab country to have a woman as President of the Republic, the former head of the High Council of Justice who spent all her life fighting for the independence and integrity of the Judiciary.
In fact, each of the political formations has played a role in building the modern Syria. One has launched the major infrastructure program. Goods are now delivered by sea to the ports of Tartous and Lattakia, and also to Beirut, Tripoli, Iskenderun and Adana, from which they cross Syria towards the South and the East by fast trains or highways. High speed internet has been installed in every town and village, boosting electronic commerce and making phone conversations practically free.
The other party has organized the world inter-religious conference, when all international TV networks have shown “live” the esplanade of the Omayyad Mosque echoing an illuminating call to prayer made jointly by Ulemas, Ayatollahs, Popes, Archbishops, Bonzes and Rabbis. All celebrated the universal and tolerant Islamic splendor of Damascus, like in the old ages. Also, this political formation has done a lot for the reform of the education system. Since then young people come from the entire region, to graduate from Syrian engineering, medical and law schools.
The last political formation has established the anti-monopoly law, and has worked to make the health, social security and retirement systems of the country some of the most advanced in the world. It fought corruption severely and established equality of all, and for all, in front of taxation and law.
However, the excitement of everyday for people is not really politics. It is rather the organization of the next Olympic games or the stock market. Hundreds of companies are listed on the Damascus stock exchange, including some Lebanese, Jordanian, Palestinian, Iraqi or from the Arabic Peninsula. Millions of shares are traded daily rating the performance of the big industrial conglomerates, private or partly state-owned, which had spread their activities worldwide, but also the performance of banks, pharmaceuticals companies, touristic enterprises of all sorts, railways and major water projects. The most significant stock price movements follow news and rumors on a new implementation of a Syrian company in Egypt, Turkey or Pakistan, or on the innovations created by the new bio, optical and nano technologies ventures.
Hundreds of such high-tech companies have mushroomed in the technoparcs. The one I work in is the ever-green and swarming “Maysaloun” on the Damascus-Beirut road. Here, strongly motivated Syrians and Lebanese combine their productive and commercial skills in an innovative creativity. The feeling of freedom of the young top-level-educated women and men working there is making miracles. This same challenging spirit spreads in all the other technoparcs, each with its own special flavor: “Ras Al Ain” up in the North East, “Bab al Hawa” in the North West and “Majdal Shams” in the Golan heights which have returned to their Syrian homeland.
I shall always remember the day of joy, when a government of national unity signed the peace treaty with the “neighboring cousins” who had retreated, leaving the land to enjoy
the long awaited reunion between family members. Of course, even while peaceful, the relations with the “cousins” remain a bit cold. Everybody moves freely, with no borders, in the whole region, down to Cairo, Sanaa and Muscat, except to where the cousins are. Not an issue. The “cousins” still need more time to get out of their insular mentality, and to come to our civilization full of color to which Kurds, Circassians and Armenians are even more proud to belong than anybody else.
Tonight, I shall stay in Damascus. First, I have to pay my regular respectful visit to my old professor and mentor. He is on the Board of the “Upper Council of Sciences”, the top authority in the country steering the priorities in the significant national research budget. This nice gentleman has nurtured several generations and at the age of over 70 years, has retained the insight on how to build the future. Later on, I am invited to attend the premiere presentation of a new film produced in the Media City near Banias, a super- production, huge-investment, epic of the Hittin battle of Salah Uddin Al Ayyoubi (the Saladin of the Western world).
Tomorrow morning, I shall first pass by the Damascus City Hall to renew my passport, a formality which now takes only a few minutes. Then, I have an important meeting with a consortium of Syrian banks to negotiate a financing scheme in the hundreds of millions of euros for the first “synthetic gasoline” factory in the country, built on a new technology. Several foreign companies participate in this project which, in the aftermath of petroleum crude oil having become rare worldwide, will bring back Syrian energy exports to a sizable figure but, this time, without the ills of oil economies.
The young women and men of my country have made this dream come true. Reverting to the wisdom of their ancestors and to the greatness of their history, they build on them to fashion their own future.
* In fond memory to Reverend Martin Luther King.
Many thanks to my wife Roula, Rajaa, Karim, Jihad, Ibaa, Racha, Imad, Dureid and others for sharing the “dream” and to Munzer Kheir for editing the English text.