“Just a fug of smug”, said one friend when he heard that I was being dispatched by my organisation to the Davos World Economic Forum in 2015. I guessed he was slightly jealous. From the outside, Davos seemed like an amazing chance to see and perhaps even dine at the top table of global geopolitics, business, arts and glamour.
Things looked different when I actually stepped out of the train onto a midnight station platform high in the Swiss mountains. I hadn’t found a room anywhere near my budget in Davos itself (although I was offered half a villa for 13,500 euros for the week). I only learned later that WEF veterans book months in advance. Here in Klosters, half an hour away from Davos, my bunk bed in a hostel was going to cost $250 a night. I scrambled up an icy road in a freezing gloom and briefly got lost in a moonscape of snow and dark wood-fronted houses. Right then, I’d have been happy with a fug of anything.
The Limits of One Per Cent
I hoped the frozen-out feeling wouldn’t last. I had experienced the all-together-under-one-five-star-hotel-roof embrace of WEF events in Istanbul and Central Asia in the past, in my guise as a discussion-leading expert on Turkey and its hinterland. Back then, I had felt as if I too was included in WEF Founder Klaus Schwab’s hypnotically expansive “we”.
This time I hadn’t been invited. I was a late addition as a folder-carrier for International Crisis Group’s President & CEO Jean-Marie Guéhenno. For non-paying NGOs like ours, however noble, Davos just gives one entry ticket to the group’s president and partner. Even paying corporations struggle for more than a pair of tickets. That’s the magic of the Davos inner circle: it really is very exclusive.
The next morning, the weather cleared and my spirits revived. For all its complicated bunks and cupboard-sized showers down the hall, my hostel was a cosy gem. My train from Klosters to Davos turned out to be included in the room price. The old line looped between soaring mountains and fir forests weighed down with snow.
Still, I had only half an eye on Switzerland’s beauties. The carriage felt like the school train to boarding school, with newbies like me warily checking out confident old-timers. They didn’t look out of the picture windows much, swiping through their electronic calendar schedules, doubtless overflowing with Class A meetings.
Before long, the tracks skirted round a half-frozen lake: Davos could be glimpsed beyond the opposite shore. Suddenly, I had an unexpected first decision to take: does the newcomer alight immediately in Davos Dorf, or proceed to Davos Platz?
I chose Davos Platz. Wrong. Hours of false starts later, I found myself back at Davos Dorf station, in an icy car park front of two portacabins overflowing with reporters, support staff, caterers and drivers. Badges, it turned out, are handed out according to a rigid caste system. In addition to the 2,500 full participants, each year the WEF organisers have to cope with more than 5,000 hangers-on like me.
Badges of Rank
Since everyone was muffled up to the gills, it felt like a ski lift queue without the breathing space afforded by skis. Ironically, opposite us was a real Swiss ski lift, nearly free of skiers because the WEF had crowded out normal holiday makers. And WEF attendees had only eyes for each other, not the smooth slopes shimmering against a blue sky high above. After an hour more waiting, phone calls to headquarters, and messages to and fro, I won my badge.
It was a nice, satisfying, high-quality name tag that made me feel I’d been granted entry into a club. Now that it hung from my neck, people started looking at me as if I had potential. Some grandees might look on over my shoulder after they clocked my first-rung-of-the-ladder colour code, but not all of them. Davos honoured its traditional and probably illusionary reputation of grandly egalitarian etiquette surprisingly often. Still, there were many subtle signals of rank, like curious crampons fixed on black city shoes to crunch across the ice: arrival gifts from the WEF, bestowed upon full participants only.
As a non-participant I could not attend any of the main WEF meetings in the main Congress Centre. But I could do what I was expected to do: meet people connected with my non-profit organisation, be they reporters wanting to interview our president, representatives of governments, donors actual and possible, our partners and our well-wishers. Back offices spend weeks lining up meetings for hardened Davos-goers. “It’s like speed dating,” a veteran Europe media commentator told me. “You wouldn’t believe how it opens the door to meetings afterwards when you can tell the secretary: ‘say that we met at Davos’.”
My calendar began to fill up with new encounters. There was one problem, however: I had to find somewhere to meet them. For the good hotel cafes and bars, I had to have another badge to secure me access; one hotel seemed to be auctioning off places on its lobby sofas. Even inside the Congress Centre itself, participants told me that tiny rooms were available just 15 minutes at a time, with much banging on the door if you over-stayed.
A university student’s instinct for gate-crashing parties was clearly an essential survival skill. After getting our president filmed for the social media fad of 2015 – Vine, the six-second soundbite – an old acquaintance took pity on me and gave me a pass to his organisation’s lounge. (Thank you, Bank of America). This meant that I also had somewhere warm and friendly to go in-between meetings, rather than having to trudge among the many surprisingly unappealing concrete buildings in Davos’s freezing cold streets.
Highlighted on my calendar was a sliding scale of parties I might be able to attend outside the Congress Centre, usually given by Crisis Group’s past, current or possible future benefactors. My lowly status either got me denied, accepted, or told that “Susie will let you in at midnight”. Twinkling chat followed bright-eyed encounter, often, I suspected, with people who were just as much at a loose end as me.
I was made welcome at the Kenya night. I was invited to a Mongolian party. I watched as the understated Canadians staged easily the most impressive reception of all. I would have given them first prize in all WEF categories of good governance and economic prospects. Except that, just as Ottawa’s chief dignitary was about to reach the swelling “invest now” climax of his speech, the lady next to him fainted and thumped to the ballroom floor like a felled Douglas fir. The minister just kept on going, sounding more and more wooden by the second. When shaken by a nearby misfortune, even in Davos, one should definitely be empathetically stirred.
To relax, I sipped cosy drinks with a supporter in the bar of the Berghotel Schatzalp. Built in 1900, the former sanatorium inspired Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, and could easily have been the model for the film The Grand Budapest Hotel, complete with its plug-and-cable phone exchanges, peeling paint, 19th century washbasins and its own funicular railway. Things began to feel like fun.
I jotted down snippets ofDavosian conversation. Something in the mountain air inspired people to breath-taking metaphors:
“The Internet is like the rain forest. You can’t control it. But you can damage or destroy it”, opined a digital magnate from Brazil.
“I’ve met the worst of humankind. I’m used to shaking hands with thugs,” confided a former UN director.
“Geopolitical ‘black swans’ are inevitable. Surprises have got to happen. They follow the same rules that apply to celebrities in Hollywood”, said a comfortable dignitary.
There was not much time for niceties to make an impression. “My Dad was director of Iranian intelligence”, one woman blurted out to her new counterpart from the chair next to me in the Bank of America lounge. “You know, like the KGB”.
“All governments want a back door [to secret encryption programs] to stop criminals, to pursue investigations. But the path to hell is through back doors”, said one wise expert, who had clearly rarely needed one.
My favourite overheard conversation, though, was an angry alpha male American business tycoon berating his harassed PA: “I don’t want to meet just anyone who has time to meet me! Anyone who says they don’t have time, that’s the one you want”.
A Parallel Universe
Davos’s sense of otherworldliness extended to my own area of expertise, Turkey. Its Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was going to address investors at a hotel outside the hallowed Congress Centre. No badge was needed, so I turned up at the appointed 7am to see how this indefatigable optimist would distract his audience from an increasingly cloudy outlook for his country. Twenty tables for eight were weighed down with Swiss plenty. Two or three were half-filled. I introduced myself at one and sat down.
Soon the nearly empty room and my predictions of stormy weather ahead for Turkey began to disturb the lean fund manager sitting next to me. He had boasted of making big profits in the 2000s with his first Turkey investment fund, and was mid-way through another, clearly less propitious cycle. “You’re talking to the wrong people,” he snorted. “You should change the people you talk to.”
If he’d been eavesdropping on the table next door, like I was, he’d have been even more annoyed. An American was telling off the chief of the Istanbul Stock Exchange about the many things he thought Turkey’s government should be doing better.
Meanwhile, Davutoğlu was getting very late. One of the only potential new investors, a well-padded American at my table, got up and left. And a lady from a giant Zurich reinsurance company. Eventually, so did the fund manager too.
Finally, an hour and a half after the scheduled starting time, Davutoğlu appeared. His entourage was surprisingly small, three ministers and a dozen flunkies; a Turkish friend on the delegation had already told me of the trouble they had getting badges. By that time,the audience of interested outsiders was, as far as I could see, basically just me.
No matter: two huge studio TV cameras were on hand to beam Davutoğlu’s buoyant speech about the limitless possibilities of investment in Turkey, live to television viewers back home. He’d been drinking in plenty of the Davos spirit: he saw “stability and order” in the country’s ever-heavier authoritarianism. He talked of a “dynamic Mediterranean spirit”, a concept that would have astonished my Turkish friends, for whom the word ‘Mediterranean’ conjures up lazy hedonism. In another flourish, he reminded his tiny audience that Napoleon had thought “Istanbul should be the capital of a world state”.
Then, wearing the same indelible smile that rarely left his lips, he shook some hands and headed off for his next date, pursued by an Indian businessman who was imploring him to accept an invitation to attend his grandchild’s wedding.
I had nowhere to go and stayed for the discussion, in which the panel nearly outnumbered the guest audience, although the TV cameras kept transmitting. Ali Babacan, Turkey’s upright minister of the economy, did a creditable job in talking up Turkey’s place on a global crossroads. Still, I knew that he knew that Istanbul’s role as a regional hub is hardly a novelty: I myself warmed up this old chestnut for the front page of the Wall Street Journal back in 1997, and obviously Napoleon, not to mention the Byzantine Emperor Constantine, had heard about it too.
Then came a real shock: I recognised the American who had criticised Ankara’s rulers at the table next to me on the panel, and he was now blowing big Davos bubbles. “What you are attempting to do,” he said in the midst of a river of glowing endorsements of Turkey’s economic prospects, “is breathtaking”. No wonder Turkey loves Davos, and invests in it to polish its image every year.
It would be unfair, however, to present Davos as an empty echo chamber. During one lonely interlude in the Bank of America lounge, I listened in on a scientist’s exhilarating discussion of her West African field work on Ebola with an apparent funder. The official participants’ agenda in the Congress Hall was full of fascinating and inspiring-looking lectures on new ideas for helping the blind, artificial intelligence or aid to developing countries.
At a time when civil war was tipping the Syrians further into the abyss, an activist team made a cogent and moving plea for attention and support for Syria’s “white helmet” paramedics. But of all the hundreds of official participants, just a sobering handful made it to the “Saving Syria Roundtable” at the Strozzi’s & Spenglers eatery on Davos Platz’s Promenade.
Far more energy was consumed in a frenetic rush to see everyone and be at the most fashionable parties. I marvelled at servings of Krug champagne and slaked my curiosity about $200 bottles of wine, surprised at how much like a good regular bottle they tasted, but enchanted to find that the person chatting to me as he poured another glass had actually produced it. There seemed no limit to the star quality of people who one might bump into, from George Soros rallying his supporters over dinner, to speakers like Kofi Annan, Helen Clark, Katie Couric, Peter Gabriel and Bill Gates.
The convening power of Klaus Schwab’s World Economic Forum is formidable indeed, even if my high-level Davos networking mostly happened in the back of shared luxury minivans, which ferry WEF denizens from snowbound pavements to snug firesides to concrete conference halls. Everyone who boards these shuttle buses feels morally obliged to chat and exchange cards, including the CEOs of globe-straddling corporations. But chance meetings clearly aren’t everything. Barely five of the one hundred or so people I must have met turned out to need to speak to me again, or I to them.
Finally, after six days of exhausting rush, the carnival-like corporate stands started to pack up their wares. It was Saturday afternoon. I called it a day and asked the way to the Davos ice rink. It is the size of a football pitch and smooth as glass, and it gave me one of my most exhilarating hours in the town, along with the next morning in Klosters, where I managed a couple of hours cross-country skiing past antique wooden farms and horse-drawn sleighs making their way through pristine Swiss mountain countryside.
I doubt I’ll volunteer for Davos any time soon, even if I enjoyed the sheer intensity of it all. I’d love to go again as a participant though, perhaps when I can have a partners’ ticket to all the interesting lectures when my wife achieves her ambition to be a globally famous healer of the spiritual energy of corporations. And, of course, it would be nice to have one more go at tobogganing crazily down the long, unlit, icy mountain road from the extraordinary Berghotel Schatzalp.
Again it has taken a tragedy – this time, the jihadi massacres of Yezidi Kurds on the slopes of northern Iraq’s Mount Sinjar – to focus international attention on the Kurds and on how precarious their lives can be. Yet beyond such drama, recent trips among Turkish, Syrian and Iraqi Kurds have made me conscious of a new surge of self-assurance and intertwining in this once-marginalised and disparate group of peoples, who number perhaps 25-30 million people between Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran.
On a July trip through northern Iraq, the Iraqi Kurds’ Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) looked more prosperous and autonomous than ever, part of a two-decade-long trend of development that has persuaded the U.S. President to tell the New York Times it is “functional the way we would like to see”. And despite the KRG’s real shortcomings – contested territorial ambitions, poor governance and a tendency for its fabled peshmerga fighters to run away to fight another day – the Iraqi Kurds’ relative success is also part of broader new Kurdish ambitions and recognition.
In Syria, whose Kurdish minority was almost invisible to outsiders until a year or two ago, the main Kurdish militia has carved out three relatively autonomous cantons. It has so far held its ground against the jihadists of the Islamic State with little outside aid and – despite some early rivalry with the KRG – helped the Iraqi Kurd peshmerga defend the Yazidis and hit back against the jihadis inside Iraq. In a rarely seen moment of Kurdish solidarity, Turkish Kurd fighters have now also joined the front lines of both Iraqi Kurd peshmerga and Syrian Kurd militia.
More than half of the world’s Kurds live in Turkey, and they are tasting new success there too. After 30 years of fighting the main insurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), top Turkish and PKK officials now say they think it unlikely they can defeat each other militarily, and peace talks are making progress. Even non-PKK Kurds in Diyarbakir now speak glowingly of trying to win the kind of autonomy that the Iraqi Kurds enjoy. And on August 10, an unabashed Turkish Kurd national movement leader won nearly 10 per cent of the overall vote as a presidential candidate in Turkey – sweeping in first in 11 provinces in southeastern Turkey.
There are deep cracks in the foundations of this Kurdish progress: clashes of interest with neighbouring Turkish, Iranian and Arab states, the Kurds’ disconnected mountain geography, their divided tribal societies, and their four main dialects, which are mutually hard to understand. Iraqi Kurds have yet to prove they can prosper without their share of oil income from Baghdad, have occupied territory well beyond what their Arab and other neighbours consider to be fair and have kept a tight rein on KRG media. A foreign security expert resident in the KRG told me there were increasing fears of a domestic backlash against the alleged corruption and concentration of wealth in the ruling elite – epitomised by the ownership of some of Erbil’s grandest building projects. The wounds of internecine strife in the 1990s are still unhealed: inside the KRG’s own territory, I still passed through checkpoints that divide the region up between at least three armed factions.
In Syria, the main Kurdish organisation faces long term liabilities, with threats from jihadists on one side, and continued links with the Syrian regime on the other (for instance, see Crisis Group’s May 2014 report Flight of Icarus: The PYD’s Precarious Rise in Syria). Turkey’s main Kurdish movement is beholden to armed insurgents, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which itself is burdened with a designation as an international terrorist group (more here). And, beyond news of occasional executions, Iran lets slip little information about the situation of its Kurds, two of whose most important leaders were murdered in exile by gunmen linked to Tehran in 1989 and 1992 (a book with rare and compelling reporting on one of these killings can be found here).
Nevertheless, many changes seem almost miraculous. When I first met KRG President Masoud Barzani during the Iran-Iraq war in 1985 – he was then a young guerrilla chief fighting on the Iranian side, and the Iranian army helicoptered us in for a surprise visit to his Loulan camp in a remote mountain corner of northern Iraq – nobody in my group of a dozen journalists had much idea who he or the Kurds really were. When I started visiting Turkey in 1980, few non-Kurds seemed to care that the government was still ordering its officials to deny that the country’s Kurds existed and to call them “Mountain Turks”. In the 1990s, when I tried to pitch a story on the region’s Kurds to the Los Angeles Times, a kindly editor wrote back to advise me “don’t put the word ‘Kurd’ in [your proposal] … To us, it guarantees that we won’t understand the story”.
In 1991, as a reporter I witnessed the stumbling dawn of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government. Back then, travel between major cities took hours on dizzying, broken-down mountain roads. Vehicles were falling apart and smuggled fuel was (and often still is) sold in barrels and plastic jerry cans. All around us villages had been flattened into non-existence, often with not a stone left standing on another, sad evidence of Saddam Hussein’s genocidal scorched-earth policies.
Two decades later, a Kurdistan has emerged, even if its legal status remains something of an elastic envelope. Iraqi Kurds seem to be able to use their growing international recognition and support to keep on pushing out, waiting, and pushing out again. Entering the KRG no longer needs a ride on a tin-tub speedboat across the Tigris River or shadowy permits from Syrian intelligence: there are now direct international flights to Erbil airport and its sleek tubular arches, and KRG border police stamp a welcome into many country’s passports without demanding a visa. To go on to Baghdad, however, a proper Iraqi visa is needed.
Not surprisingly for a people for whom smuggling between neighbouring states has long been a way of life, the American dollar is as good a currency as the Iraqi dinar. The newest computers, top-of-the-line cameras and surveillance equipment are carted off to the rest of Iraq, Iran and Turkey from Erbil’s bustling electronics district, which charges lower prices than New York, partly because nothing seems to be taxed. Things don’t always work out. Because Baghdad insists all Iraqi oil must be marketed through the central government [corrected: see below], two tankers full of the Iraqi Kurds’ first oil shipments that used an Iraqi pipeline through Turkey were kept floating off the U.S. coast for weeks in a legal limbo this summer. But some Kurdish oil is finding buyers.
Growing assertiveness is showing in Kurdish languages and cultures. When I traveled to Iraqi Kurdistan in the 1990s and early 2000s, outsiders mostly used Iraq’s national language of Arabic for work. When the Kurdish zone expanded anew during the 2003 war, I moved with Kurdish fighters into territory formerly held by the deposed Saddam Hussein regime — once again into Kurdish towns with shop signs only in Arabic. Domestically, a main concern for Masoud Barzani’s region-wide television station has been to coin a new kind of high Kurdish as a language that would be understood through the whole territory. This is still a work in progress: a refugee Syrian Kurdish schoolteacher in Erbil told me in July that after nearly a year here he still couldn’t fully understand the Iraqi Kurds’ main east-central Sorani dialect. Arabic, however, was much less known to those educated after 1991. “Learn Kurdish!” the two young men who drove me across the country ended up yelling in frustration as our conversation reached another dead end. It was true: anybody seeking to operate effectively outside the English-speakers in Iraqi Kurdistan’s elite now needs to do just that.
The city of Erbil, now the KRG capital, is still dominated by its ‘castle’, an oval of fortifications and brick mansions on the site of an ancient settlement or ‘tel’ that through history has risen 50 meters over the plains around. The castle is being restored and the city is in the throes of a rapid transformation. Concentric ring roads are expanding like ripples in what has become a concrete sea. Wide highways are well-paved and busy with new-looking, sometimes expensive cars. One of the biggest buildings in the city used to be the Saddam-era regional parliament building; now it’s hard to spot. At the same time, large parks have been laid out that attract crowds after the heat of the day.
In old parts of Erbil a few old low-rise brick houses (above left) can still be found. But they are giving way to 20-story luxury mall-and-residence complexes. New-build housing estates now extend far into the surrounding plains (above right) and hills to the north.
Several new glittering malls (like the Royal Mall, above left) compete for attention from the elites. Construction is under way to rebuild the more popular Kayseri Market in the city center (above right), where straw-coloured brick vaults now frame bazaar shops that sell everything from Kurdish cradles and carpets to dried vegetables, gold and mountain honey. Soon there will be nothing left of the old corrugated iron roofs riddled with holes, a continued legacy of the malevolent neglect of Saddam Hussein’s rule.
A new sense of Kurdish pride can be felt, too, from the first ‘Welcome to Kurdistan’ sign in the airport bank ads to the vast flag that now flies over the Erbil castle (above left). After years of Iraqi oppression of Kurdishness, one petrol station (above right) seemed to feel the need to plaster the word ‘Kurd’ everywhere. Back in 1991, just after renewed Western protection gave the Iraqi Kurds their road to more autonomy, if people wanted to fly the sunburst flag of Kurdistan, they had to draw it by hand on pieces of paper.
Between long stretches of empty mountains, there are still storks on the electricity pylons and great herds of sheep and goats. But the places where the roads now turn into the jarring old bone-shakers mostly seem to be where a dam or bridge is being built nearby. The countryside is busy too: towns given over to the production of concrete breeze-blocks, or valleys in which the newly rich find hills and outcrops on which to build their own private villa-castles as summer weekend retreats.
In a sign that KRG President Barzani also remembers the precariousness of the past, however, he prudently keeps his main residence and workplace on a hard-to-attack ridge in the first line of mountain foothills north of Erbil. For sure, the Kurds have a long way to go, and any independent state, for instance, would prove much harder than it looks. Weeks after my visit to Erbil, judged safe for travellers in recent years, the city came under threat of direct attack by the jihadists from the new Islamic State. But, with help from Syrian and Turkish Kurds, its defenses have not crumbled.
Such cooperation, until recently unthinkable, are part of the recent intertwining of the fates of the Iraqi Kurds’ KRG, Turkish Kurds and Syrian Kurds. This could be seen not just in the operations to save the Yezidis and others but also somewhere as remote as the PKK headquarters, at times attacked and often only grudgingly tolerated by the KRG in the remote Qandil Valley. The KRG authorities have now extended a new line of electricity poles, cellphone service and a good main road to the small Iraqi Kurdish villages there. Villagers live in apparent harmony with PKK checkpoints and the presence of hundreds, if not thousands, of Turkish Kurd insurgents camped out in the mountains above. Another powerfully revived link is between Syrian and Turkish Kurds, with perhaps 250,000 Syrian Kurds fleeing to Kurdish areas of Turkey in the past year (described in my Crisis Group blog here) and Turkish Kurds giving military and humanitarian aid to their cousins in Syria.
Alongside Qandil’s well-built Iraqi Kurdish village houses, squabbling ducks in the water canals and peach orchards heavy with fruit, a number of buildings lie flattened after attacks on the PKK by the Turkish Air Force in recent years. But even here, there is hope of change and peace after 30 years of a war that has killed at least 30,000 people on both sides. The PKK is becoming more open too, and won some of its first positive press in the West for their role in defending the Yezidi Kurds in Sinjar from jihadi attack (for instance, in Prospect Magazine and the Daily Beast).
Long journeys from little-known places by determined, well-organized people can sometimes reach their goal: Qandil is not far as the crow flies from Loulan, where I first met Barzani earlier in his Kurdish struggle 30 years ago. Passing the last PKK checkpoint on my way home, I asked one of the Turkish Kurd insurgents about what lay behind his dedication to a cause and an organisation that required him to live indefinitely without pay, without holidays, without families, and without a love life. He laughed wryly and took the long view of a true believer.
“I guess you could say we’re like a dervish lodge”, said the man in his 30s. “And we’ll keep at it until we win the rights we want for the Kurds.”
All photographs copyright by Hugh Pope
This version of the article article has removed an incorrect reference to sales of Iraqi Kurdish oil having to be directed through Baghdad according to U.S. and international law.
Syria was the first country in the Middle East I got to know well more than three decades ago. I loved much about it. But my experiences – retold in the first chapter of Dining with al-Qaeda – seem fully part of the continuum being acted out today.
For instance, on my first visit in March-April 1980, I was trapped in the northern city of Aleppo when Syrian troops ringed the town and started searching for regime opponents quarter by quarter, house by house. For three days gunfire echoed through the night and in the mornings truckloads of frightened citizens, sometimes still wearing their pyjamas, could be seen crowded helplessly in open trucks on their way to impromptu interrogation and torture centres in half-finished buildings on the outskirts of town (Dining with al-Qaeda, pp 1-10).
Then followed the Assad crushing of the Hama in 1982 with some 10,000 dead; Lebanon’s problems from the Syrian occupation of part of that country; and finally the controversy over Syrian links to the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Given the impunity Syria mostly enjoyed, I’m not surprised that the Assad family thinks it hasn’t used up its nine lives yet, even if I remain amazed at how Syria has for so long seemed to live all its many lives simultaneously.
The way time stands chaotically still in Syrian matters reminds me of the early 2000s, when I was a reporter who kept trying to find a story that would illustrate the idea (then thought possible) that Syria might be turning the corner towards a more open, pluralistic society. One possible subject for the story was Ali Farzat, a notable caricaturist in Damascus. The story didn’t work out – nothing much was going forwards in Syria. But ten years later, I was shocked see that this same turbulent stasis had sucked in Farzat, when thugs beat him for perceived disrespect for President Bashar al-Assad. Luckily he mostly recovered, as CNN tells here.
Here’s how the Syrian world of Ali Farzat appeared to me – by turns tragi-comic, brutal and charming – in some excerpts from Dining with al-Qaeda’s Chapter 13: REGAL REPUBLIC, DEMOCRATIC KINGS: Syria, Jordan and the dimensions of dictatorship. (pp 202-210).
I was back in Syria a year later, in 2001, keen to update Journal readers on the fate of the Damascus Spring. Dr. Bashar had closed a notorious desert jail and released six hundred political prisoners. He had allowed a first private school to open. Parliament had passed new laws to introduce private banks and to protect banking secrecy. Steps were being taken to liberalize the currency and customs regulations that had choked Syrian business for so long. Satellite television dishes spread thickly across the Damascus skyline.
One symbol of this era was a caricature-filled weekly magazine called al-Dumari, the Lamplighter. When it appeared in 2001, it outsold the entire print run of the three turgid state-run daily newspapers in an hour. Syrians had seen nothing like it since thirty-eight years before, when private newspapers were banned.
“Aren’t you scared to be stocking this?” I asked at a newsstand, looking over my shoulder.
“There’s no fear anymore. We want to see criticism, something good at last,” the newspaper seller said. “I ordered one hundred copies this week, but I’ve asked for five hundred for next week!”
Even though the colorful Lamplighter’s satire was light, and mainly directed against obvious corruption, the idea of a publication entirely outside state control seemed unbelievable. I tracked down the magazine’s offices to a well-off middle-class neighborhood. The owner, publisher, and chief editor, Ali Farzat, had a full beard, neatly pressed jeans, and a taste for big Cuban cigars.
Farzat said he’d been encouraged to found the weekly by Dr. Bashar seven years before, but even though Dr. Bashar was then the president’s son and had now been president for a year, the press laws had only just changed.
“I rang up Dr. Bashar after the first edition hit the streets. He was very happy,” Farzat said. “He loves this kind of thing.”
“But Syria is still ruled by fear!” I insisted.
Farzat hunkered down in his chair with his head under his arms as if protecting himself from being beaten, then laughed.
“There is a new period that has started. Bashar loves initiative, he respects it. He loves arts and sciences. He is young. He has a map in his head and he’s implementing it step by step. Reform is something that imposes itself, like the need for oxygen.”
Three months after Dr. Bashar took power in June 2000, ninety-nine opinion leaders wrote to him asking for more civil liberties. The following January, one thousand politicians and reformists went farther and demanded an end to four decades of martial law during which they said “society was desecrated, its wealth plundered, and its destiny commandeered by tyrants and corrupt people.” It seemed like something was on the move in Syria. But the more I looked into what had re- ally changed, the less I found.
The state nipped in the bud a movement of left-leaning intellectual home discussion groups. Dr. Bashar, who had given a green light for these National Dialogue Forums, now suddenly criticized them as “futile intellectual exercises,” telling an Arab newspaper that Syrians should “avoid the possibility that the process of advancement is exploited by seekers of leadership. It is more important for development to be stable and effective than to be rapid.” When a society lady was caught distributing by e-mail a caricature of the Syrian leader in unseemly union with the president of Lebanon, she was detained. In the first issue of Lamplighter, Farzat suggested that there might be a cabinet reshuffle, which, in Syria, is discreet code for getting rid of corrupt old guard ministers. In private, Farzat told me these people were “profiting from the state of fear, like thieves after an earthquake.” Still, his next issue’s front page was more careful: an article on coeducation in a distant province on the Euphrates River.
“Does that count as self-censorship?” I asked.
On the cover of the latest issue in front of us was his drawing of a man walking down a darkened street, looking nervously over his shoulder and worriedly realizing that the armed secret service agent on his tail was his own shadow.
“None of our stories have been stopped. But there are conditions for the newspaper. There can be no opposition to the army, no personal attacks. Like everywhere, there are red lines, like state secrets,” he said.
Just then, a Lebanese man in uniform with a thick black beard put his head around the door. I registered that he had a pistol tucked into his belt. He kissed Farzat on both cheeks and they chatted like old friends until it turned out he was looking for someone next door.
“Who was that?” I asked.
“No idea!” Farzat laughed. “But this is exactly the kind of thing the magazine is about. What we are representing is the street, the Syrian street. We criticize things about the traditions of our society. Like when you get a guest who stays for three days and you don’t ask why, and you don’t know why. You can’t spend your time that way. The oppression we suffer is within our society itself, not the government.”
Farzat was constantly being oppressed by the telephone—as in many Syrian offices, there was no secretary—as was his brother, who was on the line to the state printing house. Although everything had been paid up front, the printers had stopped the presses. He wheedled and negotiated. A big tip was promised. The presses started rolling again.
Another guest was one of his young contributors who had traveled for hours by bus just to pick up a pay packet of $15. The man would talk to me only while out- side and on the move. So we strolled through a jasmine-scented district whose confident curved houses dated back to the first flush of Syria’s 1944 independence from France.
“Syria is waking up culturally. But we are still frightened,” the contributor said, looking around to see if his shadow was a policeman. “For intellectuals, the Lamp-lighter is as light as a soap bubble. It’s a symbol of how the government is talking a lot but doing nothing.”
For sure, the censors at the Ministry of Information didn’t feel much of a threat. Their office was on a high floor of an aging office block known as the Palace of the Baath. Work on a new façade had been proceeding for years, and renovations were in fitful progress inside. Wires dangled loose in the corridors and the false ceiling was missing slats. Metal filing cabinet doors hung open. Stacks of dusty files on top of cupboards were tied together with string.
“Some tea?” one censor asked me from behind one of half a dozen desks piled high with papers and magazines.
Everyone in the room had studied somewhere in the former Soviet bloc, and all welcomed a chance to chat and communicate their convictions about the Zionist-Israeli-American plot to hold Syria back. The families of two of them lost homes in the Six-Day War when Israel captured the Golan Heights, a significant chunk of Syria that Israel still occupies southwest of Damascus. One had taken part in the latest demonstration outside the U.S. embassy.
“The only problem was that we couldn’t find any stones to throw!” he said, but confided, “I hope the Lamplighter strengthens into something special. But right now, it looks a bit weak.”
The censors knew that the magazine, just like Syrian business franchises, was not exercising any right. Farzat had merely won an individual and temporary favor granted by their ruler. Everyone seemed to know his or her place. Syria’s few legal political parties, locked in a “front” with the Baath Party for decades, had been allowed to start publishing their newspapers too. But they seemed to be fighting the same battles as before they were all closed down in 1963. An editorial in the new organ of the Communist Party was a didactic exposé of class war under the Rip Van Winkle–esqe motto “Workers of the World Unite.” Even more amazing was the reappearance of the Unionist—a relic of Syria’s short-lived political union with Egypt in the early 1960s—featuring a front-page news photograph of legendary Egyptian leader Jamal Abd al-Nasser. He died in 1970.
No wonder they gave censors little trouble. Real opponents fared much worse, men like Riad Seif, Syria’s most outspoken opposition politician. That spring of 2001, we could still meet in his modern office. He was bright eyed then, a maverick who had just dared to challenge the Assad family’s control of lucrative cell phone licenses.
“It’s dangerous. They bankrupted me!” he said. “Who’s they?” “The Baathists! There’s no competition, no vitality, no ideology with which to defend themselves. The Baathists in the 1950s were all idealists. Now they are opportunists. Their brains have calcified. They believe their own lies.”
“There’s been a drought for two years, farmers cannot pay back their loans, there are no jobs in the provinces, and unemployment is a huge problem. Against all that, the Lamplighter is just an aspirin,” Seif told me. “There is still no basis for fighting the roots of corruption, there are no popular organizations, no real unions, no opposition parties, no separation of powers, no free press.”
“What’s happened to you for speaking like this?”
“They put the knife on the neck and leave it there. My supporters are very silent people. Nobody likes to take a risk. Some friends don’t phone me anymore. I became isolated. It doesn’t mean I’m not supported. The intellectuals are determined to go on. These months of breathing some freedoms, expressing ourselves by getting rid of some taboos—we enjoyed it. It’s difficult to go back to being humble. It’s not 1980. There’s the Internet, satellite TV stations. The Syrians are just playing at being sheep.”
But Seif was wrong that the Syrians would rise up in any significant way. Perhaps they were wise to act cautiously, given the country’s forty-year absence of political experience. The subsequent example of Iraq showed the danger of knocking out a dictatorship when a population had no idea how to exercise freedom. In any event, it was clear that the Syrian regime had no intention of anything more than minimal change. Bill Spindle and I discussed my week’s reporting and decided that there was too little change to justify publishing anything in the Journal.
Back in Syria in the spring of 2002, two years after Dr. Bashar’s takeover, Damascus felt better. Shops seemed fuller of imported goods, restaurants were more brightly lit, people were better informed, and even the ancient columns and street of the main Souk al-Hamidiyeh were undergoing a sensitive restoration. Government officials insisted that if everyone would only be patient, change was now really on its way. In his State of the Union address in January 2002, President Bush had categorized Syria as part of an “axis of evil.” I felt this was wrong. I went back to Ali Farzat’s office to see whether his magazine’s slow struggle might now epitomize a possible reawakening in Syria.
When I sat down with Farzat, however, he waved a piece of paper in front of me. It informed him that the government had decided that the Lamplighter could sell no more then 14,420 copies. And all had to go through the government distribution system.
“To cover our expenses I have to sell thirty-five thousand copies! There should be rules to allow us to work as a private press. They issued this with no warning, no discussion. They just say: We have to distribute it. And they want to take a forty percent cut. It’s as if we, the private sector, are producing for the state. Then they have ordered all ads to go through the government’s Arab Advertising Organization, which takes a twenty-seven percent cut. They do absolutely nothing, and the state gives me no advertising at all!”
“Can’t you complain? What about Dr. Bashar?”
“Even the minister of information refuses to see me or to talk on the phone.”
“I know how that feels.”
“What can I tell you? Our research affects people, hits those responsible. People who fear their interests will be damaged find ways to fight innovation. We need to find a new way to push our civilization forward. The newspaper isn’t a success just for us, but for the country itself. It is a symbol of development. It should have gone farther.”
I continued on my rounds, reluctant to give up. I learned that six months before, Riad Seif, the brave opposition politician, had organized a meeting of a few hundred democracy activists. He was thrown into jail, where he would remain for more than four years. An American diplomat told me the regime was no longer about the Big Man, but the Big Lie: Outwardly the most stable place in the world, inwardly scrambling to save itself every day.
Of course, like all the oil-fueled dictatorships of the Middle East, one reason for the lack of change was that oil supplied 70 percent of Syria’s export income. The situation was similar in Iran: As long as the regime had enough money to bankroll its support base, it could survive. Leaders tolerated corruption because, in the absence of popular legitimacy, corrupt ministers could be relied on to be loyal. As in the Soviet Union, which had a similar resource-based source of funds for the regime, dissidents could be tolerated as long as they mounted no direct challenge. On the other hand, a country like Turkey, with few natural resources, is forced to be more pluralistic, open, and democratic, since it has to borrow money every week from domestic and international markets.
I paid a call on Haitham Maleh, an elderly lawyer who still insisted on holding the regime to account from an old colonial-era apartment building in the heart of Damascus. It was a feature of Syria’s dictatorship that few young people bothered fighting for human rights. In the absence of domestic publicity, Maleh pursued his cause meeting with diplomats and Arab and international correspondents. He sent Dr. Bashar letters pointing out the contradictions between Syria’s constitution and its emergency laws. He waved a copy of a secret ordinance showing that civil servants could be brought to account only if their superiors permitted it. Sitting under a piece of elaborate embroidery he had done in jail, Maleh laughed at the idea that the United States would ever really help someone like him promote democracy in Syria or elsewhere in the Middle East.
“All our Arab dictators are made in the USA. It’s because the U.S. just wants one person to talk to, to get their business done. Here they’ve made us a very strong, fascist dictator. What can we do about it?” he asked.
Indeed, in the months after September 11, the rhetoric from the United States toward Syria had grown threatening once again. I passed by a shop that sold elaborately woven Damascus fabrics, which I used to visit often as a student, and from which I bought the sparkling turquoise silk that my wife used to make her wedding gown. I remembered in 1980 how the bolts of cloth formed a rippling wall of golds, silvers, and scarlets. Now just a few rolls remained, and the Kurdish owner complained that his business was nearly dead. Tour agencies minimized their stays in difficult, corrupt Syria and the tourists no longer had time to shop.
By 2009, the opposition gadfly Riad Seif was still not being allowed out of the country to have his prostate cancer treated. Instead, he was sent back to jail. The 1963 state of emergency was still in force and hundreds of political prisoners remained confined, including many who came to prominence in the stillborn Damascus Spring. The three years of difficulties of the Lamplighter, which collapsed under all the pressure in 2003, might have made a story in another newspaper. But the Journal did not think that Americans wanted to dwell on failure as usual. The editors preferred upbeat narratives.
“Let’s just drop the Syria story, Hugh. It’s not happening. It’s not your fault,” Bill Spindle said after we’d talked through another wasted week of interviews. “Syria hasn’t changed, so we just won’t write a story about it.”
In February 2003, three years after the great change that never was, I was once again passing through Syria. I was going to Iraq and had to report to the border base of the mukhabarat, Syrian Intelligence, that apparent oxymoron that wagging tongues savor all over the Middle East. My driver dropped me at the end of a long series of barricades leading to a compound sealed off by high concrete walls. I had no idea which of Syria’s many secret services this actually housed. At the guard hut, I explained my mission to a Syrian plainclothes agent with a Kalashnikov rifle on his shoulder. When I was a student in Damascus, such guards stood outside the houses of the elite, and at night sometimes suspiciously trained the barrel of the gun on me as I walked by.
“Do you know the way?” he asked me, taking another sip on a brass straw of South American maté, beloved of Syrian minorities like Alawis and Druze. Their communities had picked up the taste after migrations there to escape from past poverty and persecution by the Sunni Muslim majority and now consumed it as a badge of empowerment.
“Of course not!” I said.
He gave some peremptory directions and sent me off alone into the intelligence compound. I wandered through overgrown streets of what in French colonial days must have been a delightful row of villas. The buildings were in various stages of collapse, and vegetation was running riot. The nondescript one-story house pointed out to me had the same tumbledown appearance. In front, water overflowed from the bowl of a fountain with dirty green tiles. The outside wings of the villa were falling down and had many missing windows, but toward the center of the building I saw signs of renovation.
Next to where I stood were three Russian military trucks alongside a white van that had collapsed with a broken axle. I felt that I was visiting the commander of a rebel unit that had just captured some far-flung third-world outpost, not the executive arm of a working government. The idea that such a tumbledown country should ever trouble the strategic vision of the United States seemed absurd.
Somebody was trying to attract my attention from the top of the steps. Inside, two rooms had been fixed up for the man I had to see, Colonel Suleyman. He sported a loud blue-checked jacket and a very soft handshake. Two teenage boys sat on a sofa to one side, one of them his son, playing annoyingly with a Samsung mobile phone that produced irregular, loud bursts of reverberant music. The colonel looked on indulgently. He called for coffee as we began to go through the paperwork. He happily volunteered that I was in a Military Intelligence base.
He also made clear that he was a Christian, a Syriac Orthodox. I knew the ancient center of this faith in nearby Turkey well, and I was struck by a paradox. Syria was Washington’s enemy, mainly because of its below-the-belt kicks at Israel and the West, and partly because of its dictatorship. Turkey was America’s friend, for all kinds of reasons including its democracy and its cooperation with Israel. But it struck me suddenly that no Christian, like this man in Syria, would ever be allowed into a position of authority in Turkey. In fact, there were hardly any Syriacs left in the country thanks to Ankara’s century-long drive for ethnoreligious purity. Taking the paradox one step farther, the Christian colonel believed he owed his luck to the secular Arab nationalist ideology of Syria’s ruling Baath Party, the target of so much U.S. criticism. Syria and its surviving ethnic mosaic could seem the society that had remained truest to the old ways of the Middle East. Indeed, when I first lived in Aleppo, I used to pass by the shop of a middle-aged Armenian who still made that symbol of Ottoman times, the red and tasseled fez, a brimless hat pressed in heavy metal molds.
Since I was going to Iraq, which was ruled by another Baath Party and which the United States was about to invade, I asked Colonel Suleyman what the difference was between a Syrian and an Iraqi Baathist.
“Oh, very different!” he said, as if we were talking about Nigeria and Switzerland. “They’re rightist. We’re leftist. We’re more open-minded. And our leader is Dr. Bashar!’
We filled in more papers. We savored the paradox of my mother’s apparently male name. We worried about his son’s education. He took time off for a phone call in which he only picked up the receiver, listened, and replaced it. I waited deferentially to be released from my penance. Time stood still.
My eyes drifted back to the television on the ornamental display case in front of a bookshelf with no books in it. Syrian state TV had gone live to parliament, where Dr. Bashar was addressing the deputies and the people. We all watched him launch into a series of off-the-cuff remarks, his trademark I’m-one-of-the-people style that seems to show him to be a radical patriot, or potential populist.
Normally, Syrian posters of the British-trained eye doctor showed him striking the Hamlet-like pose of a man deeply pained by the state of the world, angry at the injustice of it, and possibly, or just as possibly not, gearing up to take revenge. On his wall, Colonel Suleyman preferred an unusual picture of Dr. Bashar in a cruel tyrant pose: black suit, dark glasses, unflinching expression. Elsewhere, people who were unsatisfied by Bashar’s to-be-or-not-to-be ambivalence added a picture of his father Hafez al-Assad, who looked undeniably tough and decisive, even if dead, or a militaristic pose struck by Hafez’s first heir apparent, his son Basil, also dead, killed long before in a car accident while speeding to the airport to catch a plane. With this spooky triumvirate, Syria’s father, son, and holy ghost, the regime wanted to maintain the illusion of being led by the toughest thugs on the block, a warning to any who might plot to take on their tribe or their country.
“Look at Dr. Bashar,” said Colonel Suleyman, admiringly pointing at the TV. “He’s speaking without a written speech. That shows he’s really got brains.”
I thought that Dr. Bashar was a prisoner, a bit like everyone in Syria, but politely said nothing. The Syrians, even Colonel Suleyman as he cheerily waved me off, still wanted to believe that the change from the old Assad to the new Assad meant that something better was on the way in their politically blighted lives. But it was surely going to take a terribly long time.
P.S. The maté straw plays an enigmatic role here in this spoof video example of black, deadpan Syrian humor, mocking the failure of Arab monitors to spot the tanks whose shelling was part of the awful violence in Homs. When activists hacked into Dr. Bashar’s email account, they found that the Syrian president had forwarded the skit to an aide.