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Not the best article on Syria in a decade

October 27th, 2009 · 5 Comments · Culture

Syria’s eloquent Ambassador to the US, Imad Moustapha has taken offence to an article which I called “the best in a decade“.

In a letter to the author of the National Geographic story, Moustapha has issued a detailed critique of a list of points which he calls inaccurate. Josh Landis at Syria Comment has republished the letter.

The Ambassador says: “This piece, laden with inaccuracies and disinformation, was a misrepresentation of the Syria that I belong to, and the National Geographic that I have read for decades.”

While I agree that the article makes a number of negative points – in effect, laying out the ‘neo-conservative’ criticisms of Syria – it is also very positive in parts, and optimistic for the country’s future under Bashar Al-Assad.

Here is a list of the Ambassador’s complaints:

– the title

– the mafia intro

– pointing out “Iranian pilgrims at the Omayyad Mosque”

– hearing screams from Bab Touma police station

– accusing Syria of having “cosied up” to the USSR

– saying relations with the US were “never good”

– saying Bashar admits Syria’s state of disrepair

– saying “regime officials…flaunting their unfettered power by padding around town in the pajamas”

– calling Syria “ethnically volatile”

– saying Syria’s leaders are like a bunch of “Beverly Hillbillies”

– underplaying the Muslim Brotherhood threat, during the siege of Hama

– talk of corruption, but no talk of the efficient private sector

– cramming Syria’s many improvements into one small paragraph

– using Orientalist terms to describe Aleppo (“a medieval mosh pit of shopkeepers, food vendors, gold merchants, donkey carts, craftsmen, trinket peddlers, beggars, and hustlers of all stripes, moving in a great colorful clanking parade of goat bells and sandaled feet”)

– contradictions in the claims that the Old City of Aleppo was going to be demolished in the 1970s

– the trip to a factory where workers describe losing their fingers

– reducing Syria’s culture to the following sentence: “it’s hard to find a bookstore that isn’t full of communist-era tracts”, and ignoring the progressive literature on sale and events being held

– claiming the Hariri investigation “led to Assad’s doorstep”

– saying there is a “cloud of fear” hanging over Syria, where no one dares “say a word”

The Ambassador’s critique and the original article are both well worth a read.

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5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Findalaawi // Oct 27, 2009 at 1.47 am

    I’ve got to say, Mustapha has a point. I actually don’t fault his vociferous criticism – he is, after all, a mouthpiece, and he is doing his job. I do hold the NG to a higher standard – and while the imagery of the writing is excellent in some places, it’s ham-handed in others (Aleppo is a Mosh Pit? Please. Mosh Pits are so 90’s).

    Most importantly, though, it doesn’t jive with how I feel the place has changed over the past decades. Even if it is politically uptight now, it is NOWHERE as uptight as it was 10 or even 5 years ago. People *do* want to leave – but not because of a lack of political expression. They are far more concerned with the economic suffering most Syrians not in the elite are enduring. I think that the NG article really misses both of these, in a big way, and is sensationalized differently to meet an editorial demand. In short, it feels like it was written for the New York Times Magazine, and not for National Geographic.

  • 2 Qifa Nabki // Oct 27, 2009 at 4.44 pm

    Why am I not surprised? :)

  • 3 Global Voices Online » Syria: The Best or the Worst Article Ever? // Nov 3, 2009 at 3.21 pm

    […] reading all of the criticism, Syria News Wire urged readers to read both the original article and Imad Moustapha's criticisms before making up their minds. […]

  • 4 Ali Khan // Dec 1, 2009 at 9.29 pm

    I have to say that the article itself was really very well written. And it really is very revealing of the true Syrian experience. Not so much in the content it talks about, but more symbolic of how Western expectations of Syria become defunct when they live and breathe this country. Personally, I have been here for three months now and, although I out of fair fortune don’t share these sentiments, I do understand how somebody expecting to experience and brag about their travels through the badlands, or shadowolands, may have their initial shock to expectations, that we all may share when we get here, bridged into disappointment at how easy it is to live, breathe, and just operate – in amongst an air of truly charming culture. This would inevitably lead such a prospecteering traveler to turn towards their imaginations, as to what happens in that police station at bab touma for example.

    I imagine a good Syrian friend of mine coming to London, with all the preconcieved expectations that his superlative love and education on Shakespeare, Coleridge and Wordsworth might have created. On arriving at Trafalagar Square a group of topless 14 year old boys trample over these expectations by means of empty White Ace cans and cigarette butts, their breath stinking of linguistic vulgarity. Nevertheless, I would wager that shock may turn to disappointment which in turn would force him to turn back to his imagination’s reasoning behind visiting Britain. And, instead, he writes back home with information about the tube, the Times and the fact that if he was to walk through Trafalgar Square, frequented by foreign visitors and students, late at night, he could sware that he heard the sounds of a Saxophone playing ‘Baker Street’, rather than his expectation’s disappointment in the droning thud of another Soho reveller having had one too many.

    Travelling thrives on expectation. But when a destination has nothing but those expectations provided to a foreigner, it’s only natural to consolidate that plane ticket with a bit of poetic lisence.

    Let’s also bear in mind that it’s Mr. Belt’s job to write a riveting read on a fairly unknown place. It may well have been the best article with the word ‘Syria’ in in a decade, but the patience and slow but careful measure being taken in Syria’s development and modernisation is not something I would ‘expect’ to want to read about whilst sitting in a cramped underground carriage back home returning after another monotonous day at work.

  • 5 Leo // Dec 3, 2009 at 3.38 pm

    Having read Ali Khan’s comment, I can only stand up and applaud. It’s eloquent, brilliantly written, boasts a fine and ironic sense of humour, appeals to the intelligence of the reader… As a matter of fact, I wonder if Ali Khan isn’t actually a writer. A good one, I mean, if I wasn’t clear on this yet.

    PS: Sorry for my english, it’s not my native tongue, and not even my second one.

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