Thursday, December 20, 2012


A year on from the Arab Spring

By Regal Keane, He has reported from across the Middle East for the BBC. He is a Lonely Planet Magazine regular.

In December 2010, a Tunisian street vendor set himself on fire in protest at having his wares confiscated. His death was the spark that lit revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, war in Libya and uprisings across the Middle East. A year on from the emergence of the Arab Spring, our writers reflect on development in the region.

Why I long to return to Syria

As each day brings news of new deaths and looming chaos, I try to imagine life now in a city I loved on my first encounter. On a far-off July evening, having left war-battered Lebanon, I strolled along the narrow cobbled streets of Old Damascus and thought of the great Syrian poet, Nizar Qabbani, who wrote: ‘I wander in the narrow alleys of Damascus. Behind the windows, honeyed eyes awake And greet me… The stars wear their gold bracelets And greet me…

Qabbani was a writer of vivid, sensual poetry and his verse evoked a Middle East still immersed in the distant past. I loved Beirut for its courage, Cairo for its energy and Jerusalem for its history, but Damascus was the pearl of them all – charming and melancholic, full of decorous manners and golden evening light. In the famed Aldar restaurant, situated in an 18th-century. Ottoman villa, we ate the finest sojok spicy sausage, and drank endless cups of jasmine tea.

The next morning, I walked to the Umayyad Mosque, There is a shrine here to John the Baptist, revered by Muslim people as the prophet Yahya. Nearby is the tomb of the warrior Saladin, who left most of his wealth to the poor. Though often eulogized by Arab dictators, his example is  rarely followed.

Leaving behind the world of the spirit I entered the Souq-al-Hamidiyya, the commercial of old Damascus, and spent hours roaming its covered alleys. Voices beckoned me to their stalls, but never aggressively so. I bought a silver tea set that looked convincingly ancient, and chose to believe that it had indeed adorned the home of an Ottoman grandee.

It is difficult to think of Damascus now as a city of simmering hatreds, the souqs largely empty of foreign visitors, the secret policemen watching and listening. Yet change now defines this city as it does the entire region. And it his come at a rate that few  predicted. The intellectual ferment in this new Middle East is profoundly exciting, and it demands the attention of the independent traveler. There are practical difficulties involved in travelling in Egypt, but these are not insurmountable. In Tunisia, there is a unique opportunity to experience an Arab democracy in its first tentative year. Hopefully, Leptis Magna in Libya and bustling capital Tripoli will soon be safe  to visit.

As for Syria, I am denied entry as a journalist. It seems that tourist visas are increasingly hard to obtain. For those that do make it, the risks of being caught in violence or arrested as a foreign spy are real. Yet change is coming. Before long, Damascus, loveliest of Arab capitals, will surely open its heart once more.

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