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    Syria moves beyond authoritarian shadow

    by Cihan Çelik
    02.04.2009 - 00:00 | Son Güncelleme:

    DAMASCUS -After years of tight isolation, Syria is eager to turn the page on the policies of the past that made the country unreachable as it seeks to improve its ties with the West. While many welcome the new direction of an old regime enthusiastically, others are more cautious.

    It was just two years ago when the streets of Syrian capital Damascus were draped in the flags of Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, along with the posters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and also Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It was the simplest and most certain way for ordinary Syrians to show their support for the Lebanese people and their anger against the West during the Second Lebanon War between Israel and Hezbollah.

    But within the span of a couple years, things seem to be changing, albeit unhurriedly, with the advertisement of new brands, which are still unfamiliar to locals, or the posters of Turkish soap opera actors, like Kıvanç Tatlıtuğ, who has been dubbed "the Brad Pitt of the Middle East" by Western media, but still known as "Mohammed" for Syrians, replacing the flags of anti-Western figures. After years of tight isolation, Syria is eager to turn the page on the policies of the past that made the country more unreachable and is seeking to improve its relations with the West. While many, especially the youth, welcome the new direction of an old regime enthusiastically, others are more cautious.

    "For long years, we lived behind an Iron Curtain that isolated us from the rest of the world. We were not unhappy, but we were not aware of even cell phones or different household products," said Mihran Bertizilyan, a city guide. "But the tight secrecy has been relaxed recently. In the past decade, foreign investment Ğ particularly from Arab Gulf countries Ğ rediscovered Syria as many foreign banks or shopping malls opened in the country. That is an excellent opportunity for us, but at the same time, we are confused due to the new situation."

    As Syria is warily taking steps in a new direction, Turkey is becoming a more crucial intermediary for its long journey. Not only young Syrians, but also elders are constantly watching Turkish televisions, mostly soap operas, following the latest political and cultural developments and creating a new pop culture, which in some cases turns into a problem because of traditions and family ties.

    "In recent years, there has been a boom in Turkish-made television series in Syria. Many series have been broadcast by Arab televisions with Arabic names and they are becoming increasingly popular. But, sometimes, the Turkish series create problems for families. For instance, a woman who is much moved by them may want to separate from her husband," complained a taxi driver, speaking on condition of anonymity.

    While the youth go crazy about Turkish actors such as Tatlıtuğ, the country last week hosted a fashion show by Turkish designer, Rabia Yalçın. A parade, titled: "Attention, Baby on World" and organized for the traumatized children of the war-torn Gaza Strip, sought to unveil Syria’s "changing face," according to the organizers.

    "The fashion show was continuation of a campaign which was launched by Turkish First Lady Emine Erdoğan in January with other first ladies from the region such as Syrian First Lady Asma al-Assad, Queen Raina of Jordan and Sheikha Mozah bin Nasser Al-Missned of Qatar," said Yalçın, after the fashion event. "The Syrian Businesswomen Association proposed it to Mrs. Assad, and then she decided to take the parade in her personal campaign for the children of Gaza. Therefore the costumes were sold for Gaza’s children as aid." While Syria is edging along a path of change, it also has a wealth of history that combines different faiths and beliefs. Muslims and Christians live side by side in Damascus, one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world.

    Voices of old city

    As the flood of people drags us through the narrow streets of the old capital, the Umayyad Mosque emerges at the spot where once stood the temple of Hadad in the Aramaean era, later temple of Jupiter in the Roman era, then a Christian church dedicated to John the Baptist in the Byzantine era.

    The church was purchased from the Christians before being demolished under the Umayyad caliph, Al-Walid I, and between 706 and 715, the current mosque was built in its place. It is holy for both Muslims and Christians, because it holds a shrine, which is said to contain the head of John the Baptist, or Yahya, honored as a prophet by both religions.

    There are also many important landmarks within the mosque for the Shiites; among them is the place where the head of Husayn, the son of Caliph Ali and grandson of Muhammad, was kept on display by Caliph Yazid of Umayyad. There is also the tomb of Sultan Saladin of Egypt and Syria, which stands in a small garden adjoining the north wall of the mosque.

    In 2001, Pope John Paul II visited the mosque, retracing the footsteps of the Apostle Paul or Paul of Tarsus. According to the Acts of the Apostles, St. Paul’s conversion took place on the road to Damascus, where he experienced a vision of the resurrected Jesus, after which he was temporarily blinded. But soon after, he was forced to flee the city under the cover of night. He was lowered down from a window in Bab Kisan Ğ one of the seven ancient city-gates of Damascus Ğ fled towards Jerusalem.

    One of the mosque’s gates opens to the heritage of Jupiter temple, and later al-Hamidiyah Souq which is the largest and the central souk Ğ a commercial quarter in Arab cities Ğ in Damascus. Walking through to the dozens of tiny shops, one finally arrives in the heart of the city and with a little hike may see its "shelter:" Kassioun Mountain, where Cain, the first son of Adam, is said to have committed the first murder of human being by killing his brother Abel, the second son of Adam.
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