Shadow of exiled hangs over Aleppo souk

Shadow of exiled hangs over Aleppo souk
People walk through the reopened Khan Al-Harir souk in Aleppo. (AFP)
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Updated 08 September 2021

Shadow of exiled hangs over Aleppo souk

Shadow of exiled hangs over Aleppo souk
  • Khan Al-Harir or silk souk attracted thousands of tourists and merchants before the onset of Syria’s conflict in 2011

ALEPPO: The historic Khan Al-Harir souk in war-torn Syria’s erstwhile economic capital of Aleppo has reopened following restoration work, but much of the former workforce that energized it remains exiled.
“Reconstruction works are done and this is great, but it’s not enough,” said Ahmed Al-Shib, a 55-year-old textile merchant who had hoped to pass his business onto his sons.
“What we want is for our sons to return to these stores,” he said during the reopening of the covered market this week, showing pictures he had sent to his eldest who moved to Algeria three years ago to join his brother.
Khan Al-Harir (silk souk) — one of 37 markets surrounding Aleppo’s famed citadel — attracted thousands of tourists and merchants before the onset of Syria’s conflict in 2011.
It was hit hard in fighting between rebels and regime forces that damaged as much as 60 percent of Aleppo’s Old City, according to estimates by the UN’s cultural agency, UNESCO.
The market officially reopened on Sunday — five years after the Syrian government regained control of Aleppo.
Restoration works erased traces of some of the conflict’s most brutal battles but it did little to console traders who have lost much more than just their stores.
In Ahmed’s fabric shop, a portrait of his father — the founder of the family business — adorns a freshly painted wall.
Like many others in Khan Al-Harir, Ahmed fears the family’s store may die with him.
“My children live in Algeria, and the children of other traders are scattered between Egypt, Irbil” in northern Iraq and elsewhere, he said.
“There are a lot of trades that will be threatened if our sons continue to emigrate.”
Syria’s conflict has killed nearly half a million people, forced half of the pre-war population from their homes, and decimated the economy and infrastructure, with more than 80 percent of its residents now living below the poverty line.
As a result, Aleppo, long considered one of Syria’s main commercial hubs, has lost many of the merchants and businessmen who once gave the city its economic edge.
Many have sought business opportunities elsewhere, with neighboring Iraq and Turkey popular destinations.
Ahmed Al-Damlakhi took over a fabric shop in Khan Al-Harir from his brother who emigrated to Turkey with his children several years ago.
Under a freshly renovated arch dotted with white and black stones, the 65-year-old greeted neighbors he hadn’t seen in years.
He started a video call with his brother in Turkey to show the scene in the market, where traders had gathered outside their shops amid a trickle of customers.
“I am optimistic about the reopening of the market ... but we are missing merchants and investors who are now scattered across the Arab world and have established businesses there,” he said.
Although he wished his brother was with him to celebrate the reopening, Damlakhi said the reasons that initially pushed him out had not changed.
“We used to depend on tourists and visitors coming from the countryside and other provinces ... but the economic situation is now very difficult,” he said.
“Western sanctions, meanwhile, create obstacles in relation to imports, exports and overall trade,” Damlakhi added.
“So long as the situation doesn’t change, it will be hard for my brother and his sons to return.”
The vast souks, the oldest of their kind in the world, stretch from the western part of the Old City to the gates of the citadel in the east, covering an area of around 160,000 square meters. For centuries, they were the commercial heart of the ancient city and served as a key trading hub between the East and the West.
Restoration works began two years ago after Syrian authorities signed a partnership agreement with the Aga Khan Foundation in Syria. The renovation of Khan Al-Harir — home to some 60 stores — took around a year to complete, and preparations are underway for two other markets to also be restored.
“The area was a pile of destruction, and today we can say that the market’s infrastructure has been completely rehabilitated,” said Jean Moughamez of the Syria Trust for Development, a government-linked agency overseeing restoration works.
But the exodus of traders poses a challenge, he admitted.
“We’ve had difficulty communicating with shop owners who are outside Syria, especially those who do not have an agent taking care of their shop affairs,” Moughamez said. “We cannot work alone, and we need everyone’s cooperation.”


Displaced Syrians face brutal winter exacerbated by economic collapse, charity warns

Displaced Syrians face brutal winter exacerbated by economic collapse, charity warns
Updated 5 sec ago

Displaced Syrians face brutal winter exacerbated by economic collapse, charity warns

Displaced Syrians face brutal winter exacerbated by economic collapse, charity warns
  • One in three displaced Syrians know someone who has become ill or died because of the cold
  • People will be forced to choose between food and fuel during the winter months, says charity head

LONDON: The majority of displaced Syrians face a bitter winter with inadequate shelter and not enough food, a humanitarian organization working in Syria and Lebanon has warned.

Syria Relief said that the already brutal winter is exacerbated by the country’s economic crisis, which has sent prices of fuel and food skyrocketing.

Only 29 percent of internally displaced people (IDP) in Northern Syria believe that their current accommodation adequately protects them from winter conditions, according to a survey conducted by Syria Relief, which provides lifesaving aid and humanitarian interventions in the war-torn country.

The number is higher, at 52 percent, for Syrian refugees living in informal settlements in Lebanon, according to Syria Relief’s survey of over 1,000 people across Aleppo, Idlib, and Lebanon.

Around one in three respondents in Syria and Lebanon know someone who has either died or developed health conditions due to the cold.

Syria Relief Chief Executive Othman Moqbel told Arab News: “All of us, working on the ground, are very worried about this winter.”

He said: “There is the common misconception that Syria and Lebanon are hot, but in the winter months, especially high up in the mountains where there are many refugee and IDP camps, the temperatures regularly plummet to freezing temperatures. Winter is one of the greatest threats to a Syrian IDP or refugee living in a tent, as temperatures can drop as low as -10 C.”

Syria’s collapsing economy, worsening every year, makes the upcoming winter the toughest yet, Moqbel said.

“Last winter it was estimated by the UN that 80 percent of Syrians lived in poverty. Now, it is estimated at 90 percent. There are 13.4 million Syrians who depend on humanitarian aid to survive.

“To simply survive, millions of Syrians need fuel to keep the stoves they use for warmth fired up. But it’s expensive and the economic situation means fuel is harder than ever to find for many families.

“To afford the fuel they need to stop them freezing to death, most families living in tents have to make sacrifices. Maybe they will go without food, maybe one of their children will go without food, maybe all of them will have to go without food for a few days.”

Moqbel explained that Western countries, such as the UK, could take action that would alleviate the suffering of these Syrians.

“We would like to see the UK in particular not cutting its aid budget and instead ensuring that more money is spent on displaced Syrians who are already some of the most vulnerable people in the world.”


Fire reported at the Iranian parliament, parliamentarians evacuated

Fire reported at the Iranian parliament, parliamentarians evacuated
Updated 2 min 7 sec ago

Fire reported at the Iranian parliament, parliamentarians evacuated

Fire reported at the Iranian parliament, parliamentarians evacuated

Fire reported at the Iranian parliament, parliamentarians evacuated -- Fars 


Iraq’s ‘wasta’ system favors lucky few, frustrates many

Iraq’s ‘wasta’ system favors lucky few, frustrates many
Updated 01 December 2021

Iraq’s ‘wasta’ system favors lucky few, frustrates many

Iraq’s ‘wasta’ system favors lucky few, frustrates many

BAGHDAD: Abu Zeinab says only one of his five adult children has a job, and he only got it through “wasta,” the system of “who you know” that is Iraq’s pervasive scourge.
The practice has fueled frustration, mass anti-government protests and waves of emigration from the oil-rich, war-scarred and poverty-stricken country, say analysts.
“All my children, including my three daughters, have finished their university studies, but only one has been able to find a job,” said Abu Zeinab, a 60-year-old retiree living in Baghdad.
“The others are trying, without success.”
For his 28-year-old son, wasta turned out to be the “joker” that made all the difference, when a relative helped him land a coveted contract job, renewed annually, with a government ministry.
“Poverty pushes people toward wasta,” said the patriarch, with resignation in his voice.
Wasta refers to using one’s family, communal or party connections to obtain jobs and benefits — something that is universal but seen as especially widespread and corrosive in Iraq.
While the lucky few get well-paying and secure jobs with generous pensions, nearly 40 percent of young people are unemployed, with few prospects for their future.
Anger at the patronage, nepotism and cronyism that underpin the system was amid the key grievance expressed by protesters in a wave of mass rallies in late 2019.
It is the hopelessness felt by those who miss out that has fueled the widespread wish to leave Iraq, say analysts.
The latests waves of emigration have seen thousands of Iraqis freeze on the Belarus-Polish border, and some perish when their boat capsized in the icy waters of the Channel.
Some 95 percent of Iraqis say wasta is needed “often or sometimes” to find a job, according to the World Bank’s so-called Arab Barometer Report of 2019.
“All of society agrees that without wasta you cannot achieve anything,” said political scientist Thamer Al-Haimes.
The problem results from a “weakness of the law” which fails to create a level playing field, he said, and “hinders the development of the country” while driving emigration.
Those who fail to benefit often spend all their savings, or take on debt, to attempt the risky journey to Western Europe, dreaming of a better life and the benefits of a welfare state.
Iraq is ranked as one of the world’s most corrupt countries, in 160th place out of 180 in Transparency International’s corruption index.
Even though it has the second largest energy reserves in the Middle East, one third of Iraq’s 40 million people live below the poverty line, says the UN.
Even though wasta is widely regarded as a problem, most people also say they have no choice but to benefit from it if the opportunity arises.
“I tried several times to find a job in any public institution — I applied more than 20 times, without success,” said Omran, a 32-year-old sociology graduate.
He finally got a position in the police force, but only after joining the right political party, he admitted.
Another man interviewed by AFP, Jassem, had a similar experience: he had become a civil servant only two days after a chance meeting with an influential parliamentarian.
Iraq’s bloated public sector is the country’s biggest employer, and the wages it pays are the state’s largest expense.
Between 2003, when a US-led invasion overthrew dictator Saddam Hussein, and 2015, the number of civil servants soared from 900,000 to more than three million.
“The dramatic rise in clientelistic hiring since 2003 has contributed to a ballooning of public sector employment,” says a World Bank report from 2017.
“Employment and promotion in the civil service have become increasingly non-meritocratic, and the sector has come to be viewed as a de facto social safety net,” it says.
It labelled the system “unsustainable,” arguing that only a well-functioning economy with a good business environment and investment climate creates sustainable employment.
Ahmed, 29, a resident of the southeastern town of Kut, said he spent many years looking for work in his poor and marginalized region.
One day, luck smiled on the father-of-two, who has a degree in management and economics, when he met the bodyguard of a senior government official.
This connection landed him a job in education — but only after he paid a fee of one million Iraqi dinars, about $800, financed with a bank loan.
“I feel remorse because I had to pay a bribe to work, but I had to,” he said. “There is no job without wasta.”


Algeria’s FLN narrowly wins local polls

Algeria’s FLN narrowly wins local polls
Updated 30 November 2021

Algeria’s FLN narrowly wins local polls

Algeria’s FLN narrowly wins local polls
  • FNL, which led the country's war of independence from France and was for decades its only party, won 5,978 seats nationwide
  • Saturday's vote was an important test for President Abdelmadjid Tebboune

ALGIERS: Algeria’s long-dominant National Liberation Front has narrowly won local elections, preliminary results showed Tuesday, in a vote seen as key in efforts to turn the page on late president Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s rule.
The FNL, which led the country’s war of independence from France and was for decades its only party, won 5,978 seats nationwide, followed by its traditional ally the Democratic National Rally (RND) with 4,584, electoral board chief Mohamed Charfi said.
Independents came third with 4,430 seats, Charfi told journalists.
Saturday’s vote was an important test for President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, elected in a contentious, widely boycotted 2019 ballot months after Bouteflika stepped down under pressure from the army and the Hirak pro-democracy protest movement.
Bouteflika died in September, aged 84.
In November last year, less than 24 percent of the electorate approved amendments to the constitution, while at parliamentary elections in June, voter participation hit a record low of 23 percent.
Saturday saw 36.6 percent turnout for the local elections and 34.8 percent for regional polls, Cherfi said.
He had previously rejected any comparison with local ballots under Bouteflika, which were marked by widespread fraud.
The FLN won absolute majorities in 124 out of the country’s 1,541 municipalities, but lost majorities in 479 of the 603 it had controlled.
In 552 municipalities it will have to govern alongside its allies, including the RND, which won absolute majorities in 58 city councils.
Opposition veterans the Front of Socialist forces (FFS) won an absolute majority in 47 municipalities, many of them in the restive Kabylie region.


Turkish opposition politician arrested for alleged espionage

Turkish opposition politician arrested for alleged espionage
Updated 01 December 2021

Turkish opposition politician arrested for alleged espionage

Turkish opposition politician arrested for alleged espionage

ANKARA: Turkish authorities have arrested a prominent member of an opposition party over accusations that he engaged in “political and military espionage,” Turkey’s state-run news agency reported.
Anadolu Agency said late Monday that a court in Ankara ordered Metin Gurcan, a retired army officer and founding member of the opposition Democracy and Progress Party, or DEVA, jailed pending the outcome of a trial.
Gurcan, who wrote articles on Turkish foreign policy and defense issues, last year founded the DEVA party together with its leader, Ali Babacan — a former deputy prime minister who broke away from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling party.
The politician and defense analyst is accused of selling alleged secret information to foreign diplomats, according to Hurriyet newspaper and other media reports. Gurcan rejected the accusations during his questioning, the reports said.
A trial date is expected to be set after the court approves a prosecutors’ indictment against Gurcan.
Babacan defended Gurcan in a late night television interview saying the analyst had “no means of accessing confidential information considered to be a state secret because he does not work for the state.”
“(Gurcan’s) studies consist of information compiled from open sources,” Babacan said.