Disabled and Arab – a double barrier?

The Syrian Arab Army Band perform at the Special Olympics Opening Ceremony.

It is hard getting to the Olympics when your team lives under occupation.

According to members of the Palestinian delegation to this year’s Middle East Special Olympics in Damascus, some of the squad met for the first time only when they arrived in Syria.

Because a number live in the Gaza Strip and others are based in the occupied West Bank, they have been separated all their lives by restrictions on travel between the two territories.

The Palestinians were among the 23 squads invited to the 7th SOMENA (Special Olympics Middle East and North Africa) Regional Games taking place in Damascus this week.

Among the others who attended a fever-pitch Opening Ceremony in the 10,000-seater Tishreen Stadium over the weekend were Iran (not traditionally a “Middle Eastern” nation, but that seems to have been overlooked), UAE (whose squad looked somewhat incongruous parading around the stadium in their distinctly un-athletic jalabiyas and headscarves), and Somalia (who had a total of four athletes during the opening – because people in Somalia “don’t care much about the disabled”, according to one volunteer)

Attitudes towards the disabled in Syria and across the Middle East have long fallen short of what might be called “Western standards”.

Speak to many Syrians and they will tell you how disabled youngsters are often given the “Mrs Rochester” treatment – hidden away inside the house out of a sense of shame or embarrassment. This is backed up by a UNESCO Education for All report last year, which highlighted “negative attitudes towards the disabled” across the Middle East as having an effect on the self-confidence of children with learning disabilities.

But organisers of this year’s Special Olympics want to change all that. One of the Syrian athletes, a swimmer with Down’s Syndrome called Alaa al-Zaybak has even become something of a national poster boy, starring in a TV series about the disabled during Ramadan and being billed as a star by the Syrian newspapers.

There is a long way to go, but these Olympics seem to be doing their bit in the fight against hidebound ignorance.

The waiting game

Posters in a Syrian refugee camp of the assassinated Hamas militant Mahmoud al-Mabhouh

Rahr’s eyes briefly mist over as he stares at the bare, white wall in front of him.

“Every nation, even the strong ones, eventually become weak,” he says.

The 25-year-old is one of more than 450,000 Palestinian refugees now living in Syria.

His father was just two when the family fled their home in the West Bank town of Ramallah after the state of Israel was created in 1948.

Now, under UN rules which grant refugee status to any descendants of the 1948 Palestinian exodus, he has become one of Syria’s many men-in-waiting.

“We will have a nation,” insists Rahr, a chemist who makes drugs for vetinary surgeries.

“Israel will be defeated when the Arab nations join together.”

It sounds like the kind of discredited Arab nationalist rhetoric once espoused by the Egyptian demagogue Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Rahr talks of the Palestinians eventually achieving istaqlaal, or independence, and overcoming the oppression of the Israeli occupation.

Yet one wonders how many Palestinians here would choose to go back if they had the opportunity. The majority were born in Syria and have never touched foot on the soil they want to call home.

Although, as in other Arab countries, Palestinians here are not eligible for citizenship (a result of a pan-Arab 1965 agreement to preserve the identity of refugees), they are granted full access to government services, possess travel documents, have the same educational rights as Syrian citizens and can work as government employees.

In contrast, refugees in Lebanon were only granted the right to work last month – and even then they are barred from professional jobs like law and medicine and are forbidden from buying property.

One Palestinian friend said he would be surprised if many refugees ever did take up their right of return.

“They are brought up to think like this,” he once said. “It’s what they are supposed to say. But why would you go back to an undeveloped Palestinian state when you have a successful life in Syria?”

Just ask Rahr. He is a patient man, and takes a long-term view of the Palestinian waiting game.

“Look at America. They were once strong, and now they are becoming weak. Soon Israel will be defeated.”

Family affairs

Rifaat al-Assad, brother of former Syrian president, Hafez.

Nice piece from Robert Fisk – an interview with the son of Rifaat al-Assad, brother of the former Syrian president, Hafez. According to this article Rifaat is now living in London – not that Fisk is holding out much hope of an interview.

The driver

A service taxi driver negotiates the streets of Damascus

Our driver today has a moustache which could sweep a conference hall.

Its greying bristles twitch in the wind as he heaves his van through the streets of Damascus, ferrying passengers along a route he has probably driven a thousand times.

The journey starts near the upper slopes of Mount Qassioun on the northern edge of the Syrian capital and winds its way down through the teeming streets to the Christian Quarter in the east of the Old City.

His service taxi, which like most of the others can hold about 12 people – a couple more if you don’t mind squatting without a seat – is a great leveller. Businessmen or students; ageing housewives hauling their shopping bags or young girls on their way to a night out in a coffee shop or bar; the driver takes all-comers.

And he is by no means alone. There are other men who work this road – and countless more who growl through the Syrian capital on separate routes which criss-cross Damascus like the circuits of a microchip.

For 10 Syrian pounds (around 12 pence) it is possible to get from one side of the city the other. Or a simple shout of al yameen lau samaht (on the right please) will see you dropped off at any point along the way.

The driver rarely turns round to meet the eyes of his passengers. As every 10 pound coin is passed through up to three sets of hands to the front of the van, he bends his right arm back as if he were a pallbearer then drops the fare into his money box on the dashboard.

One wonders whether he keeps track of every passenger’s contribution or simply relies on an assumption of goodwill among those on board.  It’s probably best not to try and hoodwink him though – he’s been around the block a few times after all.

Memories of a war

Explosions rock Baghdad as the 2003 invasion begins

There is one thing Ru’a remembers very clearly about the night of March 20, 2003 – the wail of Baghdad’s air raid sirens.

“It was the first thing I heard when the invasion started”, she said. “Even now, I hate that sound.”

The 21-year-old joined millions of other Iraqis when she fled the murderous chaos of her country four years ago for the sanctuary of neighbouring Syria.

Just 13 when George Bush launched the war which would remould the Middle East, she now lives with her family in Damascus and is enrolled as a dentistry student in the city.

Although keen to return home, Ru’a is pessimistic about the future of her country.

Sitting down in her cream and blue hijab with an ankle-length black, cotton jacket and Adidas trainers, she said: “When the American invasion began, they said Iraq would become just like an American state. But this is not the case.”

As for the argument that her country is a better place without Saddam Hussein, Ru’a doesn’t buy it.

“I was young so I don’t remember him much. But my parents lived there for 50 years and even they preferred him to the Americans.”

Another casualty of war; another life living in the limbo of post-invasionIraq.

Mountain People

Bludan

Bludan in the late afternoon sun

A short 45-minute hop from Damascus is Bludan, the gettaway town nestled in the scraggy mountains between Syria and Lebanon.

Beloved of affluent Damascene families and summer break Saudis alike, the village is a magnet for those wanting to escape the firey Syrian sun and breathe in some fresh, pine-scented mountain air.

There isn’t a whole lot to do and come early September and the place begins

Arcade

The kids of Bludan getting their kicks

to close down for the winter. Bar the occasional keffiyeh-clad tourist or the pot-bellied street hawker buying-up unwanted Emirati currency, Bludan is slowly sliding to a halt.

Not that the kids scurrying around the ramshackle arcade near the top of the village would know. Shooting pucks on the air hockey tables amid a fairground chirrup of beeps and ringing, they seem determined to defy the dying rays of Bludan’s summer.

And over at the  “Moses Cave” – a network of mine tunnels which were recently converted into a bizarre visitor experience complete with wall carvings, grotto restaurants and a murky, cave-floor boat ride – huddles of tourists wander around the catacombs chattering like restless ferrets.

But the waiter in one of the classically Syrian open-plan restaurants nearby confirms the lingering feeling which is beginning to settle here – the party is coming to a close.

The skewered shish taouk kebab is one of the only options available, he says. The management is not buying any more food in – Bludan will be forgotten once the sun begins to set.