Departed Syria yesterday, and am at the moment in the library of the American University in Sharjah, where, although it is a university built by a non-democratic Arab ruler, you can find Hannah Arendt on the shelves. I find myself more and more attracted to her writings–even in disagreement she provokes thought.
Syria is a great place for a traveler with limited funds to visit. It’s cheap and fascinating. Damascus is still offensively dirty, but less so than when I was here just two years ago. For whatever reason, people seem to use the public trash bins more and the sidewalks less for disposing of trash like the wrappings from street food. It’s probably a matter of ruthless enforcement, but hopefully it becomes cultural. And it’s a great city for street food. Don’t worry about what it is, just point to it and enjoy it. There are countless shawarma shops, where a filling meal may cost all of two or three dollars. Rumor is that you can get camel kabobs, if you go to the right place, but to my regret I didn’t find them.
Syria’s economic development is picking up steam. My Syrian colleague was shocked at the changes two years ago, having been absent for five years at that time, and we were both shocked this time, after only an additional two years. There were no ATMs at all seven years ago, and only two (I think) banks, both state run. Two years ago there were several foreign banks and a bare number of ATMS, none of which I saw being used, and none of which seemed to be hooked into the cirrus, plus, star systems. Now it looks like any other big city in the number of banks, almost all of which have ATMs outside them, almost all of which are hooked into that system. And I saw non-tourists using them. That’s a big change for a country where the people have traditionally been very distrustful of banks. I would assume the plethora of banks also means there’s an upswing in the availability of credit, which the country sorely needs.
In general, Syria is liberalizing its economy in real structural ways, not just rhetorically. When I was last here they were starting to shut down money-losing state-run businesses (the ruling Ba’ath Party historically emphasized a combination of Arabic nationalism and socialism–although they’re still emphasizing the former, they’re giving up on the latter), and they were allowing more people to open small shops. Now they are creating free trade zones, and have free trade agreements with Turkey. Turkey has been the main financial beneficiary, but Syria is benefiting from the development of greater technical and quality control skills (sorely needed in a country where it’s common to see cinder-block construction going on with blocks that are broken and have holes in them, and with lines that don’t even pretend toward a Platonic approximation of level). They also have lots of written agreements with Iran, but that’s more theory than substance, as Iran can’t offer the type of quality goods Turkey can. In fact despite nominal sanctions, Syria imports more from the U.S. than from Iran.
The Syrian-Lebanese border was interesting. The line of trucks crossing from Syria into Lebanon was several miles long, and was standing stock still. My taxi driver said that the border guards check each truck’s manifest and load diligently, trying to prevent weapons from being smuggled across the border. They were far less concerned with me. An American crossing from Lebanon into Syria has little problem at all, as long as they’ve properly applied for the visa in advance. I heard a story, though, of two American tourists who, crossing into Syria from Jordan, had failed to get their visa beforehand and were politely given a visa free of charge. Syria’s disagreements with the U.S. government are not extended into official hassling of U.S. citizens.
Getting out of the country by airplane entails bureaucratic foolishness suitable for a Monty Python sketch. I had to show my passport no less than 4 times, including at the entryway 10 feet beyond the immigration control counter. At the last check prior to boarding (where they checked again), the soldier merely flipped my passport open, then flipped it closed again; he wasn’t even on the right page to see my exit stamp and obviously didn’t care. Talk about your Ministry of Silly Walks. Whomever’s in charge of this rigmarole needs to take some classes in organization theory/public administration from a western university. They might learn that the more redundant your processes are, the less seriously your staff will administer them. But I suspect the actual security aspect is less important than the symbolic aspect of demonstrating the authority of the government at every spot and in every way possible. Still, it’s not wise to forget that behind that symbolism, the power is both real, and really arbitrary.