A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Syrian Embassy vs. National Geographic

Over at Josh Landis' Syria Comment, the go-to blog for all things Syrian, there's a rather interesting response by Syrian Ambassador to the US ‘Imad Moustapha to an article on Syria in the November issue of National Geographic. Generally I don't find National Geographic all that tendentious in their reporting, but not usually guilty of hatchet jobs.

After reading both the article and the Ambassador's response (the two links aboce), I have mixed emotions. I havcn't been in Syria in so long that I'm in no position to discuss the Syria of Bashar al-Asad, but it strikes me that some aspects of the article (especially the title, "Shadowland") may be overly loaded, and that the article shifts about halfway through from moderately positive to generally negative. On the other hand, while I take many of the Ambassador's points, some seem a little overdrawn, such as his defense of the proper behavior in Syrian police stations. (Not that Syria is much different then other Middle Eastern countries on that score. I would not want to be taken in to a police station anywhere: the Arab world, Israel, Turkey or Iran all included.)

Mostly, though, I thought it was an interesting exchange; the Ambassador's coming to his country's defense is predictable, but a fight between an Embassy and National Geographic is more unusual. Those who know Syria should read both and judge for themselves.


al-Farabi said...

I have to say as an American who just got back from Damascus at the end of August (probably around the same time as the Nat'l Georgraphic writer was researching his piece), I disagree with much of his portrayal.

What struck me most as being off was his description of Bab Touma (for those who don't know it is part of the old city of Damascus). I spent numerous days walking around the city on my own and in a small group of friends (2-3 people). We didn't just take the typical walk through the street called straight or soukh hamadiya. I often purposely went off the beaten track down random alleyways. On several occasions I would be invited into the homes of Syrians for tea, who were surely surprised to find an American by himself walking around. Never once did I feel a watchful eye of the mukhabarat. Frankly, I was shocked how willingly a stranger I just met would talk to me about nearly any subject. I didn't feel as if they were overtly concerned about who was watching/listening.

I want to drive home a point that is often lost on westerners who have never been to Syria. Authoritarian rule does not necessarily mean the people reject their ruler. Based on personal conversations I had, I do believe there is strong support for Bashar al-Assad. Many Syrians are outwardly proud of their culture and their leader. That's not to say there isn't dissent that is suppressed, but old and young Syrians view him as a leader who seeks change, perhaps cautiously, but change nonetheless.

Michael Collins Dunn said...

I certainly agree with Al-Farabi that authoritarian rule does not automatically mean government are unpopular. Especially given the role of state patronage in providing jobs, etc., I think many ruling parties might actually win free elections if they were brave enough to hold them.

Although my knowledge of Syria is long outdated, I always found it a friendly place, the people relaxed and welcoming. On the other hand, my one brief visit to Saddam's Iraq was totally different: there was a tangible sense of fear.