A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

a multi-faceted look at the middle east, and the middle west

Archive for the ‘Syria’ Category

Logorrhea, Mufti-Style

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on November 2, 2009

When it rains, it pours. and pours. and pours. and sometimes pours out so much that it starts to sound rabid. or maybe just very, very, very post-modern.

When I clicked on Naharnet’s evening headline, Jouzo: Let the Lebanese Maronite and the Rest of Lebanon Go Back to Syria, what I hoped to find were a few mis-translation gems. It never crossed my mind that this headline might in fact actually be what Mufti “dare to spell differently” Muhammed al Jouzo said. But apparently it was.

So. Let’s take this step by step.

In a statement on Sunday, Lebanese Sunni Mufti of Mt. Lebanon Sheikh Muhammed al-Jouzo said that “Lebanon has turned into an Arab Babylonian tower with its folkloric leaderships and new parliamentary faces only fit for exhibitions and decorations while the losers turn into sectarian symbols standing on the government’s doors” with their conditions hindering the formation of the government.

It must be hard to be the Sunni mufti of Mount Lebanon, an area historically low in Sunnis and high in other groups with elevated senses of their own importance. But sometimes getting up on a soapbox does more harm than good. Ancient Babylon was not Arab, and Lebanon’s leaders are not folkloric, unless “za’imi” now translates as “folkloric”. On the other hand, a MP campfire singalong would make for a priceless photo op. And I bet Sheikh Saad has a guitar.

“There are politicians who move from right to left and vice versa while their slogans change with the stock exchange. One day you see him a Gulf Arab and another day a Persian Iranian when a third time he becomes an American and then again a Russian. One day you see him an enemy of Syria and then again Syria’s best friend and so on. There are no principles, no morale, no charters and the ‘unity’ presidency stands bewildered before the political “Sufi-sectarianism”; next to the allies or to the opposition!” he added.

The Lebanese stock exchange changes basically only when Solidere does. The U.S. stock exchange, on the other hand, has been on a pleasant upward tick, Friday’s 250-point decline aside. Which bourse is he referring to here? And the only political figure who might possibly qualify for the bewildering khaliji-ajami-amerki-russi raqs is, of course, Yoda Bey. But even with him I’m skeptical. As for “Sufi-sectarianism” … hunh. I just don’t get it, but I’m trying. (Sunni Mevlevis twirl with hands up, Shii with hands down?)

“There’s no civilized nation in the world like that of our Great Lebanon. The Lebanese people abhor this category. To those I ask you, what’s your true identity? Who robs the electricity money, the foreign, internal, sea and land telecommunications’ money? A nation that lives the culture of hate with leaders leading them to sectarian wars, hating each other; hatred in the name of religion, in the name of sectarianism and in the name of the parties,” he added.

I’ve read this bit several times now, and I’m still wondering: which category is it that the Lebanese people abhor? Civilized? Nation? Great? Lebanon? And are they the “those” whom al Jouza addresses? (I think we all get the point of his question about robbery, but I don’t understand its connection to this bit about categories and abhorrence.) Condemning hate sounds more equitably distributed – “hating each other” – and hate is a good thing for a religious leader to condemn, even if his words are a bit vague.

“Our educated youth is faced with only one exit, that of emigration. They have grown to hate their country and their nationality and have traveled in quest of finding another one keen to protect their integrity and protect them from the politicians and their resentment,” he continued.

What? I’m not questioning the fact of emigration, but what other types of exits might there be? Mental? And as for “hating their country and their nationality” and journeying on some heroic quest to find another (a much nicer way of putting it than “trying for the American passport”), most overseas Lebanese I’ve met want nothing more than to return home.

This is the Lebanon of today, so why don’t all the people emigrate and offer our country as a gift to Syria and their infidels? Did not the Maronite come from Syria, so why not go back to it and along with them all of Lebanon and not just those who have missed Syria?,” he concluded.

Ah, the sectarian fun begins. Here’s where an Arabic original would be helpful (and here’s also where we reach and exceed the limits of back translation …), as well as a history lesson. By “infidels” does he mean the Alaouites who run Syria, or is suggesting that Syrians in general are irreligious? And what’s with the jibe at Maronites?

Finally, and just as a minor point: historically speaking, the Lebanese who wanted Lebanon to go back to Syria were the Sunnis. And only the Sunnis.

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Posted in Americans, Arab world, Arabic, Beirut, Islam, Lebanon, religion, Syria, Uncategorized, words | 1 Comment »

Syria’s fashion police

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on October 24, 2009

I know: today was meant to be installment number two in Diamond’s Origins of Jihad series. But I can never resist a fashion update. This article, which focuses on Syrian traffic police and their new uniforms, comes from the UK’s Institute for War and Peace Reporting.

Changing uniforms isn’t on the same level as changing policy. But clothing is more important than many people imagine – and breaking the connection between ‘police’ and ‘military’ that seems to plague so many Middle Eastern countries is an important step.

(And who doesn’t love seeing men in crisp white shirts?)

In an attempt to make some of Syria’s police look less like soldiers, the government has decided to change traffic policemen’s uniforms from military olive green to more civilian white and grey shades.

However, many critics of the authorities have dismissed the move as cosmetic, with some asserting that it comes amid growing state repression.

[I do think that the state is and has been cracking down – but that doesn’t mean that the decision to change these uniforms was meant to either make up for that or distract people from increasingly repressive measures in other spheres.]

The decision on the change of uniforms was implemented in Damascus in September, with the rest of the country due to follow later. It included also the uniforms of customs officers at Damascus international airport and on the borders with Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.

[Oh, the border officials. I’m not sure that uniforms are enough here, but surely anything that might improve their attitudes is worth a go.]

The new outfits are composed of grey pants, a white shirt with yellow shoulder patches and black belt and shoes.

[Vogue agrees: yellow is in this season! Good choice, Syria.]

It is the latest in a series of moves in recent years to shake off the image of Syria’s socialist, militarised society.

Four years ago, the authorities substituted military green school uniforms with other colours like grey, dark blue and off-white depending on the pupils’ grades.

Mandatory military service was reduced to one and a half years from two years in another move in the same direction.

[I would say that these are two very important changes. Children and adults both take cues from their uniforms, and primary school should not feel like basic training. And reducing the mandatory military service might be a way to start gently downsizing the overweight Syrian military. Might be, says the optimist, but even so.]

The government appears to be conveying an image that it is moving away from the militarisation of society, said a lawyer living in Damascus who also requested anonymity.

In schools, officials have toned down the practice of conditioning pupils not to be concerned with personal issues but to focus on broader regional topics like the liberation of Palestine and the struggle for Arab unity, which were slogans that students had to repeat every day, he said.

In a way, students are now treated less like soldiers and more like just students, he added.

An Arabic language schoolteacher from Damascus who also asked to remain anonymous said that since the new school uniforms took effect, students’ behaviour had improved, especially that of high school students. They had become “more polite”, he said.

[Hugely important – not the politeness, but the evolving attitudes toward students and what they should be learning.]

Similarly, the move to modify the uniforms of policemen and customs officers comes as part of a government plan to change the way people view civil servants.

Mona al-Ahmad, a journalist who works for a Syrian website and usually reports on social issues, said the decision was made by the new interior minister, Said Samour, in an effort to separate officials in charge of maintaining security from those tasked with serving the Syrian people.

The authorities have retrained officials in charge of traffic by instructing them on how to address citizens and deal with them in an appropriate way, she said.

[The idea of service – as in, civil service, civil servant, serving the nation, serving at the pleasure of the people, etc., etc. – would be GREAT. And once Syria gets it down, could they please send a delegation to Lebanon?]

Several websites hailed the decision. The pro-government website Damas Post said the new uniform “resembles that of French traffic police”.

[Oh for heaven’s sake.]

But many critics remain sceptical that changing the appearance of some police officers would solve core problems.

Some anonymous web commentators said that it was more important to stop traffic policemen from seeking and taking bribes.

Others said that the focus should not be on fashion but on the creation of a state where officials respect institutions and laws.

[Yes, but I would suggest that the two go hand in hand. Fashion that emphasizes service rather than state power might be a real help in this process.]

It is a far-fetched dream to expect Syria to become a really civilian-oriented country, said a Damascus-based civil rights activist, who preferred not to be named.

He argued that the tight security grip on political dissent along with the intimidation and imprisonment of intellectuals and journalists was increasing.

[Ouch. Clearly, the state is treating dissidents more harshly. But describing Syria’s capacity for change as a “far-fetched dream” sounds like this man has written off his fellow citizens entirely.]

Posted in Arab world, clothing, fashion, Syria | Leave a Comment »

Banking on Syria

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on October 20, 2009

No love stories today, I’m afraid – but I do have a fairly interesting article on money to share (and we all know how closely connected love and money can be. Oxford Business Group’s latest report on Syria focuses on its banking sector, which has been slowly but steadily liberalizing, and which still has great potential for continued expansion.

I remember when the first banks began to appear in Damascus – the first banks other than the various branches of the Syrian commercial bank, I mean. And I remember when the first ATMs appeared – or at least, the first ATMs that would accept a foreign bank card. They reminded me of my attempts to use the local ATMs when living in Morocco in the late 1990s. I would stop by the ATM every day – not because I was so desperate for cash, but because the ATMs response to my US bank card varied so dramatically. One day I would be able to take out 400 dirhams; on another, I would be able to take out 10. And on a third, the ATM would reject foreign cards altogether.

The Syrian ATMs weren’t quite that erratic – with them it was all or nothing: either I could take out money, or I couldn’t. And when I couldn’t take out money, it was often because the ATM had run out of money. This was often heralded by a literal snowfall of white papers on the ground around the ATM: evidently, the restocking took place fairly infrequently, and would-be customers had no interest in taking the paper receipts that the cashless machine faithfully printed out. Lots of litter, not so much cash.

At any rate, I think that a liberalized banking sector is a benefit to Syria, although the tightened Syrianization law and the banks’ excess liquidity to me are signs of its fragility. It will be interesting to see how banks develop in the next few years.

Less than a decade into Syria’s financial liberalisation efforts, banking is proving to be one of Syria’s fastest-growing sectors and an increasingly important pillar in the overall transformation of the economy.

Since the government began issuing licences in 2001, 11 private conventional and three private Islamic banks have set up in the country, with another two planning their initial public offerings (IPOs) and expected to be operational by year-end. Current legislation limits foreign ownership to 49%, and all of the private banks established to date are subsidiaries of either Lebanese, Jordanian or Gulf-backed institutions. While private banks account for just under 20% of the market, they are experiencing impressive growth (86.2% in 2008), and most have been able to turn a profit within their first two years of operation.

While the sector has liberalised dramatically in a relatively short period of time, and boasts some of the most advanced legislative frameworks for Islamic banking, microfinance and anti-money laundering in the region, it remains tightly regulated in comparison to neighbouring Jordan and Lebanon. Although this strict oversight has been credited with helping to insulate the country from the volatility that has plagued other markets. Further reform is needed to strengthen the sector’s maturation and performance.

A decree issued by the Ministry of Labour in July, stating that financial service firms (including banks and insurance companies) must reduce their volume of expatriate staff from 10 to 3%, has also prompted some reflection by local institutions, given that foreigners often hold key management and technical positions.

Khalid Wazani, the chairman of Arab Bank – Syria, told OBG “Our bank, even prior to the announcement, has been working hard on training in order to lower our dependency on foreign staff. In every country we operate, we would like to employ as many nationals as possible. Even so, staffing decisions should not be based on meeting percentages, but about having the right mix of required experience and expertise. Even in Amman, where we have our head office and have operated for over 79 years, we have to hire expats to fulfil certain technical areas of expertise.”

The impressive growth of private banks has been generated largely by deposits, rather than lending, resulting in excess liquidity in the market. World Bank’s “Doing Business 2010” report ranks Syria as 181st of out 183 countries in terms of access to credit, and according to the IMF, credit to the private sector has stood at around 15% of GDP since 2005, versus figures of 75% for Lebanon and around 100% for Jordan.

This can partly be attributed to the fact that the more established state banks are better positioned to service government clients, forcing private banks’ to rely on smaller business borrowers for whom financial records are harder to come by. Strict regulations and a lack of financial infrastructure also inhibit the expansion of credit, as an absence of a treasury-bill market or certificate of deposit system means that money deposited at the Central Bank accrues no interest.

The government, on their part, is proactively working to accelerate financial reforms, with Abdullah Dardari, the deputy prime minister for economic affairs, telling OBG, “We realise that access to funding is a major issue and the central bank is undertaking a number of measures to ease banks’ willingness to lend.”

Adib Mayaleh, the governor of the Central Bank, echoed this sentiment in an interview with OBG, “We want private banks to start financing big projects, whether public or private, and will introduce a certificate of deposit guarantee that should encourage them to do so.”

The government is also working on introducing treasury bills by year-end, as well as a new mortgage and leasing law that is expected to make easier the foreclosure and recovery of assets for non-performing loans. “We are also setting up a mortgage finance corporation to supervise mortgage lending as this is an area that needs more support,” said Dardari.

A positive offshoot of the increased returns on deposits will be a greater willingness to spend internally, with the expansion of bank branch networks a major focus. As banks are already constrained by qualified staffing shortages and complicated zoning laws that make finding a suitable location difficult, investing in new branches is a challenge. Bassel Hamwi, the deputy chairman and general manager for Bank Audi, told OBG, “Without the issuing of treasury bills, we as banks cannot invest and make money on our deposits. And if a bank cannot make money on its deposits, why should they bother aggressively expanding their branch network?”

As of June 2009 there were 414 branches in the country, up from 374 at the end of 2008. While branch penetration is growing, at an estimated one branch per 47,700 people, Syria has far fewer branches per head than its regional neighbours; a figure that is compounded when considering that most branches are concentrated in the major urban centres.

The Central Bank is preparing a new requirement for private banks to increase their paid-up capital to $200m-$300m, up from a current minimum of $30m. While banks will have a three-year window of preparation, some have expressed concern that this measure would place even further pressures on shareholders. Governor Mayaleh, however, explained the move to OBG, stating that, “We are raising minimum capital requirements to encourage bigger banks to operate in the market. We want our banks to be of international size and standards. Bigger banks sustain the economy.”

Overall, while the past 10 years have seen major advances in banking services and infrastructure, the country is still considered under-banked, and there remains much to do before achieving full sector modernisation. Add to this some uncertainty from the banking community over the future direction of government reforms, and banking presents itself as one of the more challenging, if opportunistic, areas of the Syrian market.

Posted in Damascus, economics, Syria | Leave a Comment »

hummus for the Homsis

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on May 17, 2009

Its been a work-weekend for me, and I’m afraid that I have nothing witty or even vaguely interesting to contribute to the blogosphere. On the other hand, I did manage – barely, but still! – to make several key deadlines, which is making me inordinately impressed with myself.

When not work-working, I’ve been working on straightening up my apartment. My parents, Big and Business Diamond, are arriving on Friday, and while they aren’t staying with me, they certainly will not be impressed by the amount of paper debris collecting on my desk, side table, and coffee table. What can I say? I am a paper magnet.

Buried in those paper piles are several old issues of Aramica, which I skimmed before adding to my recycling. Those of you who read Arabic may get a kick out of this issue’s collection of Homsi jokes:

IMG_1159

My understanding is that Aramica’s audience includes Arab New Yorkers from all around the region, although skewing slightly Lebanese in its coverage thanks to the publisher. Evidently the market for Homsi jokes is broad enough to amuse all of them – Egyptian, Yemeni, Palestinian, etc.

The jokes are a little stereotypical for me, but they were certainly a change from everything else I had been doing 🙂 .

Posted in Americans, Arab world, Arabic, humor, Syria | 1 Comment »

security blanketing the Internet, Shami-style

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on May 7, 2009

Last week, I came across an interesting article in Friday’s New York Times, about how people in Iran and other countries known for their aggressive Internet censorship, have connected with various “open net” sites that enable them to surf unrestricted (and with the subjects of their searches unrecorded by their governments – a key fact that the article does not mention). And on Monday I saw a Reuters story about what at least one media tracking organization sees as increasing censorship over the past year:

Syrian authorities have tightened their “mighty grip” on the media and Internet since ties improved with the West last year, the author of a new report on censorship in the Arab country said on Sunday.

“With Syria breaking free from its isolation, the need is greater than ever to ease the mighty censorship and grip over the media, which have only contributed to spreading ignorance and corruption,” Mazen Darwich, head of the Syrian Media Centre, told Reuters …

The report, entitled “Syrian pens fall silent”, said 225 Internet sites were blocked last year, up from 159 in 2007. The sites include several Arab newspapers and portals, Amazon, Facebook and YouTube.

Twenty one percent of the sites banned were Kurdish — Syria has around one million Kurds, including tens of thousands without citizenship — and 15 percent are run by Syrian opposition groups.

Bans on a few sites, such as the Arabic language Wikipedia, were lifted, but the Internet remains under the monitoring of the security apparatus, Darwich said.

“We are a long way away from a free cyberspace, but at least supervision should be in the hands of the government, not security, and subject to a law,” he said …

[Please click on the link above for the remainder of the article.]

In Syria, the government uses a company called Platinum, Inc. to manage the proxy system through which users access the Internet through government servers. Platinum, whose motto is (somewhat oddly, for a company that focuses on Internet access and network computing programs) “Beyond the Network”, offers a proxy service called “ThunderCache“. I can’t quite believe that this is a product designed in Syria, but nothing on either site indicates what company did develop it, or where. (I remember reading a press release some time ago that to me suggested that the company in question is actually a U.S. firm, but I can’t find any current confirmation of this. And I guess I wouldn’t be too quick to advertise if my software were being used to further the censorship goals of the Asad regime, either.) On the other hand,Platinum’s representative to last July’s ICT Security Forum in Damascus was a man named Erik Tetzlaff, which – if you’ll forgive my shameless stereotyping – doesn’t sound all that Syrian to me.

In any case, here’s what Platinum has to say about ThunderCache, or “Tundercache”, as it is spelled on the bottom of ThunderCache’s website:

Speed, Stability, Security and low cost became the main factors in Web World:
That is our promise. Make it real, by using ThunderCache web proxy.

How can you control internal users from inappropriate Web surfing, opening back doors for viruses through Web based email or instant messaging, prevent spyware, or consuming network bandwidth and storage with P2P file sharing and video streaming?

[Hmm. I see a whole host of concerns bundled together in this paragraph: users surfing “inappropriately”; users allowing viruses or spyware to enter the network; and users taxing bandwidth by streaming videos and other high-load content. Wonder which one(s) worry/ies Platinum’s government client more than the others?]

The solution is to use a proxy device-such as the ThunderCache series of high performance proxy appliances Systems-designed specifically to provide visibility and control of all Web communications. Acting on behalf of the user and the application, the ThunderCache does not replace existing perimeter security devices; rather, it complements them by giving organizations the ability to control communications in a number of ways that firewalls and other devices can’t.

[“Acting on behalf of the user” – how nice. And yes, let’s not bother with firewalls – so unhelpful in their strict focus on the dangers of viruses and spyware, rather than on the more insidious dangers of ideas.]

ThunderCache helps organizations make the Web safe and productive for business. ThunderCache proxy appliances provide visibility and control of Web communications to protect against risks from spyware, Web viruses, inappropriate Web surfing, instant messaging (IM), video streaming and peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing while actually improving Web performance.

[I’d like to know more about Platinum’s definition of “Web performance”.]

I’m not a fan of censorship, Internet-filtering or otherwise. And if Syria must police its population, I personally would be much more supportive if its efforts focused on the truly dangerous, soul-destroying, society-weakening sites: those that offer pornography.


Posted in advertising, Arab world, internet, Syria | 1 Comment »

hair, water, and taxis: Syrian triggers in Beirut

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on April 15, 2009

This morning, an article in The National by Rasha Elass caught my eye – and brought back memories. Rasha writes about her reception at a posh Beirut hair salon, when the stylist learns that she is Syrian.

Having lived in Damascus for some time before moving to Beirut, I too learned about the perils of my accent. Unlike Rasha, however, my learning was generally ex post facto. Hence in summer 2005 I was booted from a Beirut service for saying something too shami; and when I moved to Beirut, I avoided saying “water” for months after seeing the looks on waiters’ and shopkeepers’ faces when I asked for “moy” rather than “mai”. And I only learned to stop saying “lissa” one evening when the person to whom I had been speaking drew back from me as if I were diseased.

Ahh, memories.

In any case, my experiences were those of an outsider: someone who had committed the offense of learning Arabic like a Syrian, rather than a Lebanese – and not someone who had committed the evidently graver offense of being Syrian, like Rasha.

Here is her article – enjoy!

The Lebanese hairdresser had a sleight of hand typical to his profession, alternating quickly between his left and right hand as he cut, razored, pulled and tugged the strands of my hair. He came highly recommended by a friend, so I wasn’t worried about the way my hair was going to look when he was done.

But I was worried about him picking up on my Syrian accent, given that I was in an area of Beirut where many hold strong anti-Syrian sentiments.

And then came the inevitable.

“Are you Lebanese?” he asked.

Sometimes I purposely don’t speak Arabic when I venture into anti-Syrian areas in Lebanon. During a road trip to Batroun, a charming small town with a staunchly anti-Syrian community, my Lebanese friend made me promise not to say a single word in Arabic.

“They’ll pick up you’re Syrian from the minute you open your mouth,” she warned.

Though her concern was exaggerated – violence motivated by hatred is extremely rare since the end of the civil war in Lebanon – times were tense, and people might have been rude or snooty towards us if they had found out that I was Syrian.

Your accent in the Arab world is like an identity card. Even the unfamiliar ear can place you in a region, be it the Gulf, the Levant, Egypt or North Africa. The familiar ear can even figure out if you’re an urban or rural Syrian, a Damascene or from Aleppo, a Kurd from northern Iraq or a Shiite from the south, an Algerian or a Moroccan, and whether you grew up locally or abroad.

Accents also often are the butt of political jokes, like the popular favourite for Lebanese and Syrians taking political jabs at each other.

It pokes fun of the words moo and ma, Syrian and Lebanese slang for “right”, as in: “You’re coming to dinner, moo?”

“‘Moo’? What are we? Cows?” goes the joke.

“Better than ‘ma’,” it continues. “‘Ma’ is for sheep.”

Given my propensity to say moo, I couldn’t lie to the hairdresser, so I confessed that I was Syrian.

“Emm,” he muttered, his face visibly annoyed. I briefly worried he might purposely ruin my hair, which would be a disaster given I was to attend a posh Syrio-Lebanese wedding later and needed it to be flawless.

“You’re Syrian from both parents?” he asked.

Here, I thought, could be my way out. I could lie and end the conversation amicably, guaranteeing a good haircut. Or I could keep playing cat and mouse and see where the game took us.

“Umm, no. My mother is American,” I lied.

“Aaah, OK,” he said, looking relieved, as if everything about me finally made sense to him.

The most striking thing when travelling from Syria to Lebanon is how politicised everything is in Lebanon. While Syrians are bashful about discussing domestic politics, the Lebanese think nothing of asking you where you stand on their domestic political spectrum the minute they meet you.

“Are you with or against?” is probably the most common question in Lebanon after “what’s your name?”

I was still at the hairdresser’s watching my transformation in the mirror when I was asked this question.

“Are you with or against the Americans?” the hairdresser said.

Before I could answer, a customer in her mid fifties walked in frazzled, her short blonde-dyed hair brittle and uncombed. According to my friend, this hairdresser is known to the stars and the wives of politicians.

“Je suis en retard,” she announced to the hairdresser, her head appearing in my mirror. She spoke the French typical of Sodeco, a predominantly Christian neighbourhood.

How their conversation moved from “I’m running late” to comparing political affiliation is beyond me. But after exchanging the usual “ça va” and “walaw”, the latter being colloquial for no worries, they vented politics at each other.

“I know you’re a supporter of Aoun,” she told the hairdresser. “But I’m not,” she announced, her head’s reflection still floating in my mirror.

“And that’s why you were late,” he said in French, laughing.

The conversation ended as quickly as it started, and the woman sat herself down in a chair for a shampoo.

Turning his attention back to me, he made a reference to one pro and one anti-Syrian Lebanese politician and asked:

“Are you with or against Aoun? Or do you prefer Geagea?”

I mumbled something about not caring a whole lot for internal politics in Lebanon.

“Ah, mais vous êtes Syrienne. Vous aimez Hariri,” he concluded, half testing if I understood French, another telltale political sign for some Lebanese.

Fortunately, he got distracted and forgot to wait for an answer. When he finished my hair, I paid in US dollars, then thanked him in French. I walked out into the street, and my hair looked fabulous.

Posted in Arab world, Arabic, Beirut, Damascus, Lebanon, neighbors, Syria, vanity, women, words | 6 Comments »

dirty laundry

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on March 30, 2009

You may have noticed that I neglected to post anything yesterday. The truth is: I was hiding.

I took the first part of Edcomm’s Anti-Money-Laundering course after blogging about it on Saturday, planning to post the certificate once I had earned it.

But I didn’t earn it. I failed: I couldn’t get my quiz scores to reach the 80% needed to pass (and get that darn certificate).

I feel lame, and humbled – but I also feel a lot better about the AML program.  I still think that its use in Syria will be restricted to those who are corrupt and anger the regime, rather than for those who are corrupt but docile. But I’m glad at least that the bankers and other finance professionals working on corruption cases will in fact be professionals, with some level of meaningful training.

As for me, I guess this fully rules out any hope of a second-stage career in finance :).

Posted in Syria, vanity | Leave a Comment »

Anti-money-laundering software: from Syria to the world

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on March 28, 2009

This post is for A, who has been on a Syria corruption kick recently.

Yesterday I found this delightfully Alice in Wonderland press release in my Google alert, advertising “anti-money-laundering” training for banking and financial institutions “in any language, for any country”. The software training itself isn’t the Alice in Wonderland part: its the fact that the client highlighted is the country of Syria.

Non-democratic regimes throughout the region, and including Syria, use corruption charges as a way to crack down on disloyal regime figures: they may be as corrupt as they like until the regime tires of them, at which point it becomes a useful political tool. I’m sure that Edcomm’s training is solid and professional, but I suspect that the Anti Money Laundering Commission will use it selectively.

In any case, if you are looking for AML training, happy reading – and if you would like to take the Syria AML course (for which Edcomm will issue a free certificate), click here.

New York, NY, March 26, 2009 — A free tutorial that provides Anti Money Laundering (AML) training for banks and financial institutions located in Syria is now available from Edcomm Banker’s Academy. Focus on Anti Money Laundering for Syria offers a comprehensive overview of the AML laws and regulations that are specific to financial institutions in this Middle Eastern country.

The Government of Syria passed several decrees since 2003 in an attempt to criminalize money laundering and generate an Anti Money Laundering Commission, which was established in 2004. Under Decree 33 (2005), all banks and non-financial institutions are required to file Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) with the Commission, which serves as the Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU). The Commission has the right to conduct an investigation, relinquish bank secrecy on specific accounts and share information with the police and judicial authorities, and lead the police to carry out a criminal investigation.

Focus on Anti Money Laundering, from Edcomm Banker’s Academy, teaches bank employees about AML laws in their country and familiarizes them with their company’s own policies and procedures. Through this interactive course, students learn everything they need to know to detect and prevent money laundering. Focus on Anti Money Laundering can be customized to meet the needs of every Bank, Credit Union, or Money Services Business (MSB). Each course is regularly updated to include changing laws and policies. Recognizing that money laundering can occur anywhere and everywhere, Edcomm Banker’s Academy is prepared to create a course for any country in need.

For more information about multilingual, multicultural training programs, or to find out how The Edcomm Group Banker’s Academy can customize any training program in any language, for any country, log onto www.bankersacademy.com or call 888-433-2666.

Posted in advertising, laundry, Syria | 4 Comments »

Folklore and other adventures in English

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on March 3, 2009

Sometimes I have trouble finding a really good topic for my daily post. Thanks to Naharnet, today was not one of them.

One of Naharnet’s (the English-language, rabidly-March 14 news and commentary website whose more moderate views and charming linguistic gaffes make it much more fun than Now Lebanon) morning leads is a piece on the criticism that Syria’s representative to the Arab League yesterday heaped on the launch of the United Nations-overseen special tribunal, whose mission is to investigate Rafiq Hariri’s and assorted other political assassinations, and – if possible – bring the perpetrators to justice.

I personally have grave doubts that the tribunal will do anything more substantive than waste dozens of millions of dollars, in the way that so many UN projects seem to do. But its been an ongoing bone of contention, particularly since Lebanon’s pro-tribunal folks have made no bones about their desire (and expectation) to see Syrians charged, found guilty, and punished. Forget justice: what they want is an international stamp of approval on their prejudices.

So: that’s the back story, with commentary. And here is the article:

Syria has criticized the March 1 launch of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, describing it as “folklore.” The daily Al Mustaqbal said on Tuesday that an argument erupted between Syrian and Lebanese representatives at a meeting of the Arab League at the level of delegates in Cairo.

It quoted Arab diplomatic sources as saying that the quarrel developed after Syrian ambassador to Cairo Youssef al-Ahmad objected to a “Solidarity with Lebanon” clause which included the phrase “welcomed the establishment of the tribunal” and “Arab confidence in the fairness of the court.”

“No such thing as launch of the court has taken place,” al-Ahmad has reportedly told the meeting that was held in Cairo on Sunday, claiming that the supposed launch of the tribunal was just a facade for the media.

“What has happened was folklore,” Ahmad was quoted by an Arab diplomatic source as saying, in reference to the launch of the tribunal in The Hague on Sunday.

What on earth does that mean? Some of you may be thinking: well, perhaps its just a bad translation. But in fact the “folklore” is used as a transliterated foreign term in Arabic:  فولكلور.

Does Mr. Ahmad mean that there was singing and dancing, rather than a proper launch? Too much debke, too little ribbon-cutting?

Here’s how he sees the tribunal in its non-folkloric guise:

“The international tribunal is still a gymnasium; and the proof is that U.N. Security General Ban Ki-moon has personally said that the court will be launched in 2010 when the courtroom is ready,” he added.

Erm. A gymnasium? Another word that also exists in transliterated form in Arabic: الجمنازيوم ? Or perhaps he means it literally, as in “qa3at riyadiyya” – a sporting hall?

What am I missing here? I think the use of these two terms is nothing short of bizarre, but they must be applicable than I understand. Why? Because rather than responding to al-Ahmad by saying something like: “What on Earth are you trying to say?” the Lebanese representative to the Arab League, Ali Halabi, used the same word:

Lebanon’s representative Ali Halabi hit back, saying “you should not underestimate the launch of the international tribunal.”

“It is a major event in Lebanon’s history. It’s not true that it is mere folklore,” Halabi argued.

So minor events are folkloric; major ones are historic and may involve the launch of a tribunal. As for setting the gymnasium reference in its proper cultural context, I look to all of you for help.

Posted in Arab world, Arabic, Beirut, Lebanon, neighbors, politics, Syria, words | 7 Comments »

flying high in Damascus

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on February 9, 2009

S is the one and only person I know who waxes lyrical about Syrianair, the state-owned Syrian airline. He likes it for reasons that might be considered fairly culture- and person-specific: it is a partner with Olympic, his national airline, which allows him easy bookings and frequent flyer miles. And when he wanted to change a Damascus-Athens return for not one but two weddings, the Syrianair personnel were more than sympathetic. Not only was there no change-of-ticket fee, but they wished the brides and grooms well, and told S “insha’allah 3arees” to boot.

I thought of S yesterday when I read the news that the Obama administration has approved the sale of spare Boeing 747 parts to Syrianair.

Here is CBS’ take on the story, posted by George Baghdadi – who I had thought was not a journalist but a kind of semi-corrupt Godfather. I’ve never met him, but I heard several stories of his having magically obtained visas for journalists who agreed to hire him as a fixer while sympathizing effusively but ineffectually with those who had chosen other fixers’ services and (hence) been denied visas. And now he works for CBS. Go figure.

President Barack Obama has pioneered a route towards Syria that is distinctive from that of his predecessor President Bush, dispatching congressional delegations and signaling a rare authorization to sell Damascus plane parts for repairing two aging Boeing 747s.

Airplane parts are an often-overlooked area of trade, and yet – as was suggested recently at a symposium I attended on Iran, another country with old Boeing planes – they offer a low-cost, low-profile way for hostile countries to engage in “confidence building”. Authorizing this exception to SALSA (the US sanctions on Syria) isn’t particularly glamorous, but to me it is an important gesture. By authorizing the sale of these spare parts, we affirm that we want Syrians to be able to travel easily and in safety – two “freedoms” (of movement and from fear) dear to Americans’ hearts as well.

I do think that we need to think carefully about the impact of any major efforts toward rapprochement – I support partnership, not capitulation. This move to me is a very smart use of political power. It is a gesture that demonstrates our our support for Syrians – who consider themselves as modern as Americans – to continue enjoying the modern convenience of speedy and safe air-travel. (And of course as someone with strong Seattle ties, I support their flying Boeing!)

As for the mysterious George Baghdadi, someone at CBS needs better fact-checking math skills. Count the number of Boeing 747s in the lead paragraph above, and then compare that number to the one that appears later in the same article:

Syrianair, set up in 1946, has only five operating single-aisle Airbus A320s, one aging jumbo Boeing 747, two planes for local flights, and more than 5,000 employees.

If the number dropped from two to one in the course of a few paragraphs, we really need to rush those parts to Cham :).

Posted in Americans, Arab world, economics, politics, Syria, travel | Leave a Comment »