Spice Bazaar reopens after a year long hiatus


Spice Bazaar is back again – but with a slight difference.

After a year long break, this site will now attempt to collate some of the most interesting news and writing currently shaping the Middle East.

I hope it will serve as a useful window onto an endlessly fascinating region.

So, what do you think of your husband’s brutal crackdown, Mrs Assad?

Asma al-Assad in a photo from the now-infamous Vogue shoot


Originally published in The Independent, 18 October 2011

Vogue magazine famously called her a “rose in the desert”, while Paris Match proclaimed she was the “element of light in a country full of shadow zones”. But when Syria’s glamorous First Lady invited a group of aid workers to discuss the security situation with her last month, she appeared to have lost her gloss.

During the meeting, British-born Asma al-Assad – who grew up in Acton and attended a Church of England school in west London – came face to face with aid workers who had witnessed at first hand the brutality of her husband’s regime. Yet according to one volunteer who was present, the former investment banker and mother of President Bashar al-Assad’s three children appeared utterly unmoved when she heard about the plight of protesters.

“We told her about the killing of protesters,” said the man, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution. “We told her about the security forces attacking demonstrators. About them taking wounded people from cars and preventing people from getting to hospital … There was no reaction. She didn’t react at all. It was just like I was telling a normal story, something that happens every day.”

Syrians working with aid agencies to try to help the thousands injured as Mr Assad’s security forces unleash tanks, guns and airpower to crush a seven-month uprising against his rule had hoped for a lot more. The First Lady’s office contacted them and said she wanted to hear about the difficulties they faced in the field. She met the humanitarians in Damascus.

“She asked us about the risks of working under the current conditions,” he added. But when she was told about the abuses of power being committed by her husband’s notorious secret police, Mrs Assad’s blank face left them unimpressed. “She sees everything happening here. Everything is all over the news. It’s impossible she doesn’t know,” said the volunteer. Yet even if Mrs Assad does know about the worst of the violence and the 3,000 civilians human rights groups accuse the regime of killing, many people who have met her question what she could possibly do about it.

“Whatever her own views, she is completely hamstrung,” said Chris Doyle, the director of the Council of Arab-British Understanding. “There is no way the regime would allow her any room to voice dissent or leave the country. You can forget it.”

Mrs Assad, who achieved a first class degree in computer science from King’s College University, was brought up in Britain by her Syrian-born parents, who were close friends of Hafez al-Assad, the former President of Syria. She started dating Bashar al-Assad in her twenties, and they eventually married in 2000, when she moved to Syria for the first time.

According to one prominent Western biographer of the Assad family, Bashar chose Asma against the determined opposition of his sister and mother. “He had lots of beautiful girlfriends before her,” said the journalist, who asked not to be named. “He faced opposition when he wanted Asma because she was Sunni and he is Alawite. Here was Bashar al-Assad marrying outside the clan.”

She championed several development initiatives, and delivered genuine change by helping to create NGOs in Syria, as well as highlighting the plight of disabled children and laying the groundwork for plans to rehabilitate dozens of Syria’s ramshackle museums.

For some, she is the modern, made-up face of a former pariah state; to others, an aloof, 21st-century Marie Antoinette. Either way, nothing perhaps crystallised the fate of Syria’s First Lady better than the disastrously-timed interview run by Vogue magazine in its March issue this year.

Amid obsequious descriptions of Chanel jewellery and her matey banter with Brad Pitt during the Hollywood star’s 2009 visit to Syria, the article described how the Assad household was run on “wildly democratic principles”. According to Mrs Assad: “we all vote on what we want, and where.”

Naturally, many outraged Syrians were left asking why the Assads could not extend them the same courtesy.

Fears of civil war in Syria as defectors battle Bashar forces

Syrian troops pulling out of Daraa back in May


Originally published in The Independent, 29 September 2011

Fears are mounting that Syria may be on the verge of civil war as reports emerged yesterday that hundreds of army deserters were battling Bashar al-Assad’s forces in the first major confrontation against the regime.

With an intensification of violence looking increasingly likely, Britain and its EU allies have been forced to drop calls for immediate UN sanctions against Syria after major powers failed to agree upon a suitable course of action.

The UK, along with France, Germany and Portugal, circulated a heavily-diluted draft Security Council resolution condemning the Baathist regime in Damascus.

But calls for immediate sanctions were scrapped in the face of Russian and Chinese opposition. Delegates hoped that the weaker document, which demanded an “immediate end to all violence”, would eventually be approved by the two veto-wielding members.

One Syrian lobbyist, who was in New York yesterday pushing for firmer action, criticised the proposed resolution as “basically useless”. “In reality, it is very weak,” said Wissam Tarif, executive director of the Insan human rights organisation. “It doesn’t mention the International Criminal Court and it doesn’t mention an arms embargo.”

A series of European and US-sponsored sanctions against the Syrian regime are already in place, but no measures have yet been approved at the UN.

The developments in New York came as heavy fighting continued in the central Syrian town of Al-Rastan, an opposition stronghold which has become a bolthole for army deserters. Activists said that at least 1,000 former soldiers and armed citizens were now waging a battle against security forces, who were laying siege to the town backed up by tanks and helicopter gunships.

According to New York-based human rights organisation Avaaz, the Syrian regime was even deploying jets to bomb the town of 40,000 people, a claim that was repeated by at least two activist organisations monitoring the violence.

A third group said the jets had dropped poison gas, though it was impossible to verify either of the claims. Speaking to Avaaz, one witness said: “In Rastan they’re using military jets to shell their own people.”

Elsewhere in the town, there were reports of tanks shelling homes, helicopters strafing neighbourhoods with heavy machine guns, and electricity and water supplies being severed.

Nadim Houry, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch in Beirut, said he had heard reports of jets over Al-Rastan but had received no information about bombs being dropped. If the claim is true, it would mark a serious escalation of the violence. It will also heighten concerns that Syria is slipping into a Lebanese-style conflict that could seriously destabilise the region.

Radwan Ziadeh, a Syrian exile and prominent opposition voice, said the fighting in Al-Rastan highlighted the need for firmer international action.

“This is why we need a no-fly zone,” he said, adding that such a measure would provide a much-needed safe haven for defecting troops.

Britain’s minister for the Middle East, Alistair Burt, said: “If ever there was a stark reminder that the UN must take further action, this is it.”

Although Syria’s protest movement has been largely peaceful since unrest erupted in March, recently there have been numerous reports of mutinous troops cobbling themselves together into rebel groups. The area around Homs, the central Syrian city about 10 miles south of Al-Rastan, has seen the greatest number of desertions. Some of the bloodiest crackdowns on protesters have happened in the region. The battle in Al-Rastan is the first major confrontation between deserters and the regime, though the majority of troops still remain loyal to the army.

Even so, activists have told The Independent that some protesters, in the face of brutal state-sponsored violence, are now looking to arm themselves. “People are looking for contacts and finance,” said one, who asked not to be named. Yesterday’s continuing violence came as Human Rights Watch called for a UN investigation into the decapitation of an 18-year-old Syrian woman.

Zainab al-Hosni, from Homs, was tortured and beheaded before her body was returned to her family. A nuclear engineer was also shot dead in Homs yesterday, according to Syria’s state news agency. Officials blamed “armed terrorists”, but activists said the regime was targeting academics.

Ahmad Biasi: the man who exposed Syrian regime’s lies

Ahmad Biasi risked his life to expose Syrian lies

Originally published in the Independent, 23 May 2011

In most countries it would have been inconsequential. But for Ahmad Biasi, a young man from a small town in north-west Syria, the simple act of filming himself in his home town captivated the Syrian protest movement, made him a symbol of the nationwide insurrection – and may have put his life in danger.

It began when he was filmed in a video uploaded onto YouTube last month. Just days before, another film had been broadcast on news networks around the world, purportedly showing Kalashnikov-waving security forces beating and stamping on prisoners who had been captured in the town of Al-Bayda, close to Banias in north-western Syria. Ahmad Biasi had been among those being beaten and kicked by gun-toting security men in the original video.

The government responded by saying the video had been faked, that the uniforms of the security men were not right, and that the film had probably been shot in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Presumably incensed by the lie, Ahmad Biasi set out to prove that forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad had been as brutal as the video seemed to show. Using a mobile phone, he and his friends shot a long sequence of film which started by driving past the entry sign to Al-Bayda and continued with footage from the clearly recognisable town square where all the prisoners were held and beaten.

In an amazing act of bravery – an act which has amassed him a devoted Facebook following – he finished the video by standing in front of the camera and holding up his national ID card, thus proving to the world that he was the Syrian national in the original video.

But his bravery came at a terrible cost. Earlier this month, Ahmad was arrested by one of Syria’s most feared intelligence units. Human-rights activists – who received reports last week that he had died under torture – told The Independent that had been held in a secret-service headquarters in Damascus.

Before the weekend started, many people in Syria thought that Ahmad Biasi was dead. Human-rights organisations were receiving reports that he had suffered a terrifying final few hours at the hands of Syria’s secret police.

By Saturday night, it transpired he was very much alive and had given an interview to state television offering proof to that effect. “We know he was detained and taken by security,” said Wissam Tarif, executive director of the Syrian human-rights organisation Insan. “He was humiliated in front of other prisoners. They urinated on him and he lost consciousness after being electrocuted. He was very badly tortured. They made him an example to the others and made other prisoners watch as he was being tortured.”

According to Mr Tarif, the types of abuse used by the Air Force Intelligence Directorate – the notorious branch of the secret police believed to have taken Ahmad – include electrocution, nail extraction and genital mutilation. “The level of brutality they are using is just absurd,” Mr Tarif added. “It is so inhuman.”

Other human-rights organisations also received reports of Ahmad’s death. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, residents in Al-Bayda had feared that “Ahmad may have died after being subjected to severe torture”.

Then on Saturday night, possibly under pressure from the growing publicity surrounding his case, Syrian state television dropped a happy bombshell. It ran an interview showing Ahmad Biasi sitting on a leather chair in a blank room expressing his “surprise” at hearing about his own death.

Looking gaunt but otherwise healthy, he said: “I was home when I heard that I had died under torture in a prison. I was very surprised and I felt strange when I saw it on the news. I wondered how they broadcast such fake news. It is humiliating.”

Yet in spite of the dramatic turn of events, news of Ahmad’s fate may turn out to harm the Syrian regime more than it had anticipated when it released the footage. Activists have already accused the secret police of extracting a forced confession, while others are saying that the interview has inadvertently done what Ahmad intended to do in the first place: prove that he was Syrian and that the original video of government abuse did not take place in Iraq.

“He is now a hero of truth for protesters,” said a Syrian journalist from a small town outside Damascus. “The thing is that national television has proved that this video took a place in Syria. They proved how stupid they are.”

His plight is also gaining online attention from growing numbers of people inside and outside Syria who view the activist’s case as something of a cause célèbre – a rallying point for a nation in tumult.

Thousands of people have joined Facebook pages which have been set up in solidarity with Ahmad, while his case has attracted a small but growing following on Twitter.

Despite saying earlier in the year that he thought his country was impervious to the revolts shaking the Arab world, President Bashar al-Assad is now battling to contain a nationwide insurrection which began in the southern city of Deraa and has since spread to other major cities.

On Saturday, at least 11 people were killed in Homs when security forces opened fire on a funeral. The violence came a day after 44 people were killed in demonstrations around the country, according to the Syrian National Organisation for Human Rights. Rights groups say 850 activists have died and many thousands have been arrested and tortured since the uprising began.

The Crusaders’ forgotten foe

Syria played centre stage during the Crusades

Pastry-seller Amir does not know much about the man who is buried in the scruffy tomb behind him.

“I know who he is, but I don’t know anything about his history,” the old man confesses with a resigned shrug of his shoulders.

The tomb lies inside a 12th Century madrassa hidden deep within the heart of the old Damascus souk. Visitors might just be able to catch a glimpse of the mausoleum if they peer through the metal grille which separates it from the chaotic, covered bazaar outside.

Yet most of the shoppers weaving past do not seem particularly interested in the identity of the man lying just a few yards away from them.

Maybe Amir would have better luck selling his fruit-filled breads if Damascenes polished up on their history.

The Nur ad-Din Madrassa in Damascus

For the man in the tomb is Nur ad-Din – The Light of Religion – the soldier who united Syria’s nobles and established the platform from which the Crusaders were routed from Jerusalem in 1187.

If any Syrian deserved a lasting memorial worthy of his achievements, it is him. Nur ad-Din became an Arab folk hero after destroying the Crusader army of Antioch in 1149 (he added a final flourish to his achievement by dispatching the head of the defeated Prince of Antioch to the caliph of Baghdad).

After the triumph he set his sights on the total defeat of the Western Crusader forces, who had been present in the Holy Land ever since the capture of Jerusalem in 1099 during the First Crusade.

Nur ad-Din was a passionate advocate of Sunni orthodoxy, and central to his agenda was the creation of a network of madrassas, or religious schools, to advance his ideology and suppress the perceived heresy of Shia Islam.

He was also the first man to unite the two most important cities in Syria, Damascus and Aleppo, since the first Crusader invasion – an important first step in the ultimate defeat of the Christian armies of Europe.

But mention his name to many people and expect to be met with a blank stare or weary shrug.

You would have more luck asking about his nephew, Salah ad-Din, or Saladin- a man whose reputation as the chivalrous nemesis of Richard the Lionheart resonates  as much with Arabs as it does with many misty-eyed Westerners.

It is a reputation which has been immortalised in bronze, as visitors to Damascus can see from the enormous statue of him standing outside the western walls of the Old City.

Salah ad-Din’s mausoleum lies only a five minute walk away from his uncle’s, yet draws countless more visitors desperate to acknowledge the world-famous military commander.

Perhaps it is understandable, given that Salah ad-Din, a man originally of Kurdish stock (though the Syrian authorities, ever hostile to the aspirations of Kurdish autonomy, don’t often like to acknowledge this) was the man who seized Jerusalem from the Crusaders in 1187.

Yet one can’t help but feel a little sorry for Nur ad-Din, without whom his nephew’s achievements might never have happened.

But perhaps it won’t be too long before he is given a burial place more in-keeping with his legacy.

A shopkeeper near Nur ad-Din’s tomb says his mausoleum is currently being renovated – so maybe the time has come for him to finally emerge from his nephew’s shadow.

Flight 5908

The world's largest mosque, Al-Masjid al-Harām, at Mecca

It is 11pm at Damascus International Airport, and any casual observer might think Real Madrid were in town.

The crowds are at least 200 strong as the giddy masses await the return of flight 5908.

Every now and then pockets of people hold their hands aloft and clap, as if applauding the encore at a sweat-drenched rock concert, while rippling whoops echo around the building like an American Indian war cry.

For most of those here this moment is bigger than any football clash at Madrid’s Bernabéu stadiumSyria’s hajjis are coming home.

And given that the hajj – a pilgrimage to Mecca required of all Muslims – marks the completion of one of the Five Pillars of Islam, it is no surprise that they are welcomed back by hundreds of family members like a winning World Cup side.

As the passengers from the Saudi Arabian Airlines flight make their way through the throng, cries of “Hajji! Hajji!” fill the air and ecstatic children shower them with boiled sweets.

An old man in a white jalabiya kisses his family while girls prance around him like Maypole dancers, clapping and chanting in delight.

As he falters his way through the crowds a young man tracks his emotional return with a shoulder-mounted video camera. He could just as well be working for Al Jazeera – and this is definitely his scoop of the year.

Another elderly woman, all dressed in black, receives kisses from family members as she is pushed through the bustling crowd. Again the cameras are on-hand; a female relative weeps with joy.

The moment is rudely interrupted as airport workers barge through the crowds to catch a man frantically fleeing man out of the arrivals hall.

An opportunist thief perhaps? It doesn’t matter. The hajjis of Syria don’t want anything to spoil the party.

March of the muezzin

An evening view of Damascus from Mount Qassioun

The back pages of the pan-Arab Al-Hayat newspaper are much like those of your average Western rag.

But in among the stories about Mark Weber’s latest Grand Prix victory, or Bayern Munich striker Miroslav Klose’s Euro 2012 ambitions (the German national team are very popular in Syria – a fact which, depending on who you speak to, has everything or nothing to do with Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust), lies a regular feature which you might not find in the New York Times or Daily Mail.

The Mawaaqeet Al-Salaat (Times of Prayer) section appears every day in the bottom right hand corner of the sport’s pages, listing the official starting time of the five Islamic calls to prayer in cities across the Middle East – not to mention London, Berlin, Rome and Athens.

It is all to easy to become inured to the incomparable sound of a Middle Eastern city erupting to the wail of the muezzin – especially if you live next to a mosque which broadcasts the caterwauling of one your neighbourhood’s less talented crooners.

Yet to hear the call from the hardscrabble slopes of Mount Qassioun, the sandstone-coloured peak which looms like an enormous camel hump over the north side of Damascus, is a unique experience – a visceral example, if one were needed, of the sweeping reach of religion and its centrality to everyday life here.

Yesterday’s Al-Maghreb, or sunset call, began to echo around the dimly-lit cityscape at around 7.10pm. The clouds above the hills south of Damascus were a streaky, cinnamon red – a refreshing sight after the months of bone-dry, cloudless heat – and a sign, along with this week’s rainy spells, that the Levantine autumn has finally arrived.

At first, the call is barely audible – a gravelly refrain drifting in amid the velvet gloom of an ancient city. Then another muezzin will join the chorus, his husky tones flaring up from a different corner of the city. As if eager not to feel left out, more mosques flick on their loudspeakers to broadcast their own, crackly cry of Allahu Akbar, until the entire city is pulsing with the chants of a thousand different calls to prayer.

Whisper it to any wide-eyed tourists, but many of the calls these days are recorded. There was even an idea a while ago to synchronise the singing – much like in Cairo, where the government is pressing ahead with a plan to use computerised feeds to put an end to out of time and out of tune muezzin.

The idea is a popular one for some long-suffering Damascus residents. “I think it’s brilliant,” said Aysam, a grinning gap-toothed German language student here. “You should hear the muezzin in the mosque near me. He is awful. How is he allowed to sing?”

And yet it would surely take some of the magic away from this Middle Eastern city if Syria were to follow in Cairo’s footsteps.

Better to let 1,000 flowers bloom, even if some of them do need clipping.

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 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


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.