Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Carwatch Syria 2006

A GMC S.U.V. displaying an artistic rendering of Hafiz al-Asad in Sha'laan, Damascus.

Since Bashar came to power he has fashioned himself an ostensible reformer, but his line has consistently been "economic reform first - political reform later." Since my last visit to Damascus two years ago, I wasn't sure if I believed that he was seriously interested in either type of reform.

A Ford in front of the national museum.
But having returned, it seems that economic changes are actually taking place and beginning to have some effect. New cars of all different makes and models are conspicuous on Damascene streets, from the wealthier areas in the north of the city such as Malki, Abu Roumaneh, and Mezze, and even into the lower-class southern suburbs such as Zahira Jadeeda and the Palestinian neighborhoods (referred to as camps in Arabic, but these have become neighborhoods as much as any other area of town). I have seen Toyota, Honda, Mazda, Kia, and Hyundai in evidence along with the more traditional Peugeot, Fiat, and Suzuki models that were common here before. In fact, there is a new Hyundai dealership on the back (north) side of Jabal Qasioun (Qasioun Mtn.). Most surprising, however, are the American-make automobiles such as Ford, GM, and Chevrolet that were illegal only a few years ago.

A classic Dodge in Baramka. Note the Hizballah/Bashar poster in the back windshield.

Legal changes were purportedly instituted as long ago as 2001 to allow for the importation of foreign automobiles into Syria to help modernize the aging fleet of cars here. An incentive was introduced which dramatically reduces the importation tax to private individuals who are replacing an old, defunct car with a new one. But it has only been within the past few years that these changes have begun to show their fruit in the Syrian street. These new cars now drive alongside the Suzuki minibuses and taxis, the pre-Asad 1950s and 60s classic American cars that have been carefully preserved til now, and the donkey- and horse-driven carts from which vendors sell wares from tomatoes and watermelon to gas and heating oil.

Horse-driven cart outside the military museum.

In addition to these changes, it seems that a small construction boom is occurring here. New shops are being built in the old city with wood paneling and track lighting, a westernized style that is beginning to enjoy favor here. New restaurants have opened in older and lower-to-middle class areas of the city that are more reminiscent of the modernized and westernized stylings found in Jordan than the stale Soviet influences that were prevalent here before. The Four Seasons Hotel Damascus, opened just in the past year, is a dominant part of the city's updating skyline.

The Four Seasons, Damascus.
The proud owners of a new shop in Qaymariyya, Old City, Damascus.

It remains to be seen whether Syria will come to resemble other countries of the Levant such as Lebanon and Jordan that have not been so economically isolated over the past two decades, and also whether Syrians desire to add any particular "Syrian character" to their economic development. Unfortunately, it appears that these developments are only a carrot for the average citizen in front of the big stick of the regime, which still allots the big industries such as cellular technology to members of the family or its extensions.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is surreal to read this. I guess I always assumed that every country no matter their economic conditions had modern cars zooming around everywhere. This was very interesting to me.I found the juxtaposition of horse drawn carts and modern cars together on the street funny. It's neat that you have been around for Damascus' before and after snapshot (even if the reform is in it's infancy)-Stef McKnight

11:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Lindsay,
Thanks for letting us share your experiences. We think of you often. Take care of yourself and we will see you as soon as you are in the states.


7:41 PM  

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