DAMASCUS: The Damascus bookshops and publishing houses that once stood as beacons of Syria’s intellectual life are being replaced with shoe shops and money changers, as culture falls casualty to crisis.
Syria is home to some of the Arab world’s literary giants, and Damascus boasted an abundance of busy bookshops and publishing houses printing and distributing original and translated works. But the city’s literary flare has faded.
A decade-old civil war, a chronic economic crisis and a creative brain drain that has deprived Syria of some of its best writers and many of their readers, have compounded worldwide problems facing the industry, such as the growing popularity of e-books. “People can’t afford to read and bookstores can’t cover the expenses of staying open,” said Muhammad Salem Al-Nouri, 71, who inherited one of the capital’s oldest bookshops from his father.
Last month, the iconic Nobel bookshop in Damascus, founded in 1970, closed its doors.
The Al-Yaqza bookshop, founded in 1939, shut seven years ago, with a shoe store now taking its place.
A money exchange office has replaced the Maysalun bookshop which was open for four decades.
The Al-Nouri bookstore, founded in 1930, is at risk of meeting the same fate.
“We wanted it to remain for our children and grandchildren,” Nouri told AFP. “But the Al-Nouri bookshop is threatened with closure, as are other bookstores.”
The Nouri family currently runs two bookshops in central Damascus.
Three years ago, the family was forced to close a third bookshop they had opened in the capital in 2000 because of poor sales and growing costs.
Its stock remains in place, gathering dust on fully stacked shelves.
On a wooden desk, old photos of celebrity customers, including politicians, artists and poets, are placed on display.
For Sami Hamdan, 40, the cultural heyday of the 1950s and 1960s is long gone. “The war has destroyed what was left” of a cultural scene that was already in retreat, said the former owner of the Al-Yaqza bookstore.
With 90 percent of the population living below the poverty line and prices skyrocketing in the face of the plummeting value of the Syrian pound, “no one is going to invest in a bookshop during conflict,” Hamdan told AFP.
For Khalil Haddad of the Dar Oussama publishing house, books have become a “luxury” for Syrians.
Surging printing costs and logistical difficulties linked to power cuts have combined to make books too expensive for most, the 70-year-old told AFP.
“People’s priorities are food and housing,” he said.
UN warned its credibility is at stake over the Palestinian question
General Assembly President Abdulla Shahid reiterated that a two-state solution is the only way forward and said ‘we cannot give up hope’
His comments came days after the 74 th anniversary of Resolution 181, which called for the partition of Palestine into Arab and Jewish states
Updated 02 December 2021
NEW YORK: There is more at stake in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than peace and security in the Middle East, according to Abdulla Shahid, the president of the UN General Assembly.
The reputation of the global community and its ability to work together to resolve international disputes, in keeping with the founding vision of the UN, is also on the line, he warned.
“That is why we cannot give up hope,” said Shahid as he called on member states to make every effort to join forces to resolve the conflict in line with international human rights and humanitarian laws, and the UN charter.
“We must maintain the credibility of this great institution and push for positive dialogue and engagement between the parties involved.”
Speaking on Wednesday during a plenary meeting of the General Assembly to discuss the Palestinian question and the situation in the wider Middle East, Shahid described as “disheartening” the lack of progress on an issue that has been on the UN agenda since the organization’s earliest years.
The situations in Palestine and the wider region are “deeply intertwined,” he said.
“We have seen time and time again how the spillover effects of the Palestinian-Israeli dispute undermine the stability of the broader region,” he added.
“As long as the Palestinian people are deprived of statehood, as long as illegal settlements continue to be built on land that Palestinians are justly entitled to, as long as Palestinian families are forced to flee the violence and injustices against them and they cannot return home, anger and bitterness will fester.
“This will contribute to a cycle of violence that has gone on for far, far too long.”
The plenary session came days after the 74th anniversary of resolution 181, which was passed by the General Assembly on Nov. 29, 1947. It called for the partition of Palestine into Arab and Jewish states, with the city of Jerusalem a separate entity to be governed by an international regime.
Facilitating a two-state solution based on pre-1967 borders is the “most important thing” the world can do to help resolve the conflict, said Shahid, who called for an acceleration of the multilateral political process to find a just and peaceful settlement.
Turning to key issues affecting Palestinians, he said it is time for the international community to back its words with actions in terms of humanitarian assistance, support for efforts to resolve the conflict, and upholding the dignity of Palestinians.
“Year after year we speak of the appalling humanitarian crisis in Palestine, especially the Gaza strip,” Shahid said. “But words are insufficient. Words cannot substitute for the lack of running water, electricity, proper sanitation, and decent living conditions that millions of Palestinians endure.
“Words can express how COVID-19 has exacerbated these challenges but they cannot resolve them. Words cannot save Palestinian people suffering from decades of occupation, arbitrary arrests and the use of excessive force against them. Words cannot restore their demolished homes or halt the proliferation of illegal settlements on their land.”
More than half of the five million Palestinians in the Occupied Territories are dependent on humanitarian assistance to survive. That number rises to 80 percent in Gaza, where residents “cry out for access to even basic amenities and services,” Shahid said.
The many Palestinian refugees across the Middle East are also in jeopardy, he added, highlighting the large shortfall in funding for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. He called on the international community to ensure it provides enough financial support to maintain the life-saving work of the agency.
“Let us all come together as an international community and reiterate our commitment to protect the rights of the Palestinian people,” said Shahid.
“Let us grant them what they have been justly demanding for so long: dignity, statehood and respect.”
The photographer who chronicled the UAE’s history with a camera
The UAE’s National Day, celebrated on Dec. 2 each year, marks the unification of the emirates into a federation
Ramesh Shukla documented the UAE’s evolution from disparate sheikhdoms into an ambitious, modern nation
Updated 02 December 2021
DUBAI: Veteran photographer Ramesh Shukla has lived in the UAE for the best part of five decades. He arrived from his native India just as the former Trucial States were approaching independence from Britain and embarking on a remarkable journey of nation building.
Now 84 years old, he witnessed firsthand the UAE’s evolution from a collection of disparate desert sheikhdoms and fishing villages into a global business hub synonymous with entrepreneurial dynamism, cosmopolitan cities and incredible skylines.
It is a transformation whose story he has diligently documented with his camera through the decades.
His attachment to the country began by accident following a rather uncomfortable boat journey from Mumbai in 1965. At the time, Shukla was working for the Times of India newspaper, but the lure of exploration proved too great to resist.
Packing his most cherished possession, a Rolleicord camera, and as many rolls of film as he could carry, the young man, then in his twenties, set off on what would be a life-changing adventure.
“This is my camera,” Shukla told Arab News at Dubai’s Etihad Museum more than half a century later, carefully cradling his now-vintage Rolleicord.
“When I was 15, my father asked me: ‘What birthday gift do you want?’ And I said: ‘Papa, please give me a camera.’”
Despite his desire to see the world, Shukla, it transpired, was not well suited to sea travel. Shortly after his ship, the Dwarka, set sail from Mumbai he began to feel horribly seasick.
Desperate to escape the incessant rocking of the waves, he disembarked at Sharjah, one of the Trucial States that at the time collectively were an informal protectorate of the British Empire.
Here he found lodgings with a local, who urged the young visitor to go to the Sharjah camel racetrack where a big event was taking place at the time. Eager to witness the authentic sights and sounds of Arabia, Shukla duly went along, camera in hand.
There, squatting on the ground alongside the racetrack, he spotted a group of men who would go on to found the UAE. Among them was Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan, who would soon become the new country’s first president, a position he held until his death on Nov. 2, 2004.
Shukla took 12 photographs of Sheikh Zayed watching the races, and returned the following day to present him with one of his portraits. The ruler of Abu Dhabi, now commonly referred to as the “Father of the Nation,” was so impressed, he signed the print and gave Shukla his pen as a gift.
“That’s when the first connection took place,” Shukla’s son Neel, an art director, told Arab News. “That was the first time he met his highness. From that point on, Sheikh Zayed said: ‘Don’t leave this region. Stay.’”
Determined to remain, Shukla brought his wife and their son to live with him in his adopted country, during its formative years.
“I was with him all the time,” said Neel. “Before taking a picture, he would take my picture to make sure the lighting was accurate and then he would take the shot.”
Entirely self-taught, Shukla developed a signature style of photography, capturing scenes of everyday life on black-and-white film, highlighting the simplicity of nomadic life in the country prior to unification and the oil boom.
Recurring subjects of his early work included hardworking Bedouin, herds of camels, traditional abra boats on Dubai Creek and Deira’s clock tower, photographed from above. He also documented the early days of Dubai’s first commercial airport and the city’s first museum.
“This was life in the UAE; there was nothing. There was no light and no water in my house,” Shukla said, highlighting the contrast between the limited amenities available then and the advanced infrastructure in the country now. Even the water he needed to develop his photos had to be drawn from a nearby well.
Though his lifestyle was modest, Shukla built a strong rapport with the UAE’s leaders, earning the informal title of “royal photographer.” His prized access to the royal courts meant that his photographs were much sought after, especially by the Indian news media.
Much of Shukla’s collection has been preserved for posterity thanks to his wife, Tarulatta, who carefully archived her husband’s negatives, protecting them from the humidity and dust, at their modest home in Deira, which consisted of a dark room, a kitchen and a bedroom. The archive offers a compelling account of the UAE’s 50-year journey as a nation.
“He kept documenting history,” said Neel. “We are very careful about the collection. We don’t commercialize it — this is history. This is why he is loved more than anything else, because he’s keeping history sacred and close to him.”
Shukla’s business card features a miniature print of a photograph of which he is especially proud. On Dec. 2, 1971, he attended the historic ceremony during which the rulers of Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, Ajman, Fujairah and Umm Al-Quwain came together to mark their independence from Britain and the establishment of their own unified country. Ras Al-Khaimah would join the union the following month.
It was here that Shukla captured on film what would become an iconic image of the sheikhs standing under the national flag of their new country. The flagpole stands to this day in Dubai’s Jumeirah district.
“There was great happiness,” said Shukla, recalling the day, half a century ago, he took the photograph under the same flagpole. “With one family, the UAE started.”
Union House, where the agreement that created the UAE was signed, is nearby. Shukla was there, of course, to capture on camera the historic moment when Sheikh Zayed added his signature to the document. His photo of the assembled sheikhs became the “Spirit of the Union” logo, which was widely used on the 45th UAE National Day five years ago.
Many of Shukla’s photos are displayed at stations along the Dubai Metro line. More recently, his image of Sheikh Zayed signing the union agreement has featured in the Expo 2020 Dubai passports.
In recognition of his remarkable contribution to the UAE’s national story, the photographer was among the first of Dubai’s creative community to receive a coveted Golden Visa, which grants holders long-term residency rights without the need for a national sponsor, and 100 percent ownership of their own businesses.
Shukla has certainly led an eventful life, documenting the history of a nation from its very inception, including its natural and cultural heritage, its most pivotal and proudest moments, and even the lives of its heads of state.
Yet, he does not believe in retirement despite working so hard for so many years.
Israel, Turkey should restore ambassadorial links: Foreign policy expert
Updated 02 December 2021
ANKARA: Israel and Turkey should restore ambassadorial links as part of efforts to reduce tensions between the two countries, a leading regional foreign policy expert has told Arab News.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently hinted that an impending detente with Israel could be next on his rapprochement agenda with countries in the region, including the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt.
Such a move would reflect a general pattern currently being followed in the Middle East with nations trying to de-escalate tensions and diversify relations.
Dr. Nimrod Goren, president and founder of Mitvim, the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, said the restoration of ambassadorial-level ties was now a feasible foreign policy goal for Israel and Turkey.
“The leaders of both countries should not let this opportunity go by unfulfilled and should seek to translate the positive vibe in relations into tangible actions,” he added.
Earlier this month, an Israeli couple, both bus drivers, were detained for a week in Turkey on political and military espionage charges after being arrested for photographing Erdogan’s residence in Istanbul.
Their release and return to Israel and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s public thanks to Erdogan for his personal involvement in resolving the incident were seen as the extension of an olive branch to prevent an escalation of the crisis.
Goren said: “The positive manner in which the incident of the Israeli couple’s detention in Istanbul ended creates a window of opportunity beyond the window that already opened up when the new Israeli government took office and after the recent call between Erdogan and (new Israeli President Isaac) Herzog.
“The efforts to resolve the incident exemplified that both countries can work together to resolve tensions. It increased mutual trust, strengthened existing channels, and led to initial and much-needed direct communication between Erdogan and Bennett.”
In a recent interview with Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz, Israel’s Foreign Ministry Director General Alon Ushpiz, said: “There is potential for a relative improvement in Israel Turkey ties, more than there was two weeks ago, and I think we need to examine it exhaustively.”
Dr. Selin Nasi, London representative of the Ankara Policy Center and a respected researcher on Turkish Israeli relations, told Arab News: “Turkey and Israel, as two of the three non-Arab countries in the region, have a lot to gain from cooperation in various areas, be it trade relations, intelligence sharing, energy cooperation, or defense.
“Indeed, the two countries have succeeded in compartmentalizing bilateral relations and bilateral trade has continued to grow in the last decade despite political disputes.”
The foreign trade volume between Turkey and Israel was $6.2 billion last year.
The looming threat of Iran becoming armed with nuclear weapons had also incentivized the need for security cooperation, Nasi said.
On Nov. 18, Erdogan had a rare phone call with his Israeli counterpart Herzog and emphasized that continued dialogue between the two nations would be “mutually beneficial.”
Nasi added: “From Ankara’s perspective, anti-Israeli rhetoric might have served its purpose in the domestic political sphere but is no longer deemed useful in mobilizing the constituency.”
Instead, she pointed out that a positive narrative based on “Turkey gaining back its soft power through a number of reconciliatory steps taken to mend broken ties with countries in the region” may prove more useful in the upcoming elections.
She noted that improved relations between Turkey and Israel would pave the way for Ankara to get involved, either directly or indirectly, in the US-backed strategic partnership network that had been increasingly consolidated in the Eastern Mediterranean over the last decade.
“Ankara wants to gain back some of the ground lost to her regional competitors — Greece and Egypt — and therefore aims to repudiate multilateral treaties and redraw maritime boundaries according to her strategic interests,” Nasi said.
Israel, she added, had always been a significant facilitator for friendly ties between Ankara and Washington.
“Maintaining cordial relations with Israel also enables Turkey to play a more active and constructive role in the Palestinian issue, raising living standards for the Palestinians.
“Because of her unique geopolitical position bordering Syria and Iran, along with her being a NATO member, Turkey will remain as an important actor and an ally for Israel. This explains why Israel has left the door open for dialogue with Ankara, and welcomed reconciliatory steps in this regard, despite having reservations,” Nasi said.
Meanwhile, Israel has urged Turkey to close all offices and ban the activities of Hamas in the country after a Nov. 21 terror attack in Jerusalem carried out by a Hamas member affiliated with Turkey.
Nasi pointed out that any progress on the normalization of Turkish Israeli relations would depend on Ankara’s sincerity and consistency in seeking reconciliation with Israel.
“There is potential for cooperation, but building mutual trust is essential in moving forward. And in terms of building resilient bilateral ties, the two countries need to develop cooperation on the basis of shared interests in a pragmatic manner, preventing the Palestinian issue solely dominating the agenda,” she added.
Goren said: “Senior Israeli ministers still expect Turkey to prove its goodwill and positive intentions, especially by limiting Hamas’ activities in Turkey. But a Turkish decision to send an ambassador to Israel, will most likely be welcomed, and will be reciprocated with a similar Israeli move.”
He noted that such an upgrade of ties would enable both countries to launch a strategic dialogue on regional affairs, improve bilateral economic and civilian cooperation, promote Turkish involvement in the Palestinian issue, and increase Israeli engagement with the Muslim world.
“If done within a context of a Turkish rapprochement with Egypt and the UAE, the potential will even be bigger. It will soften tensions in the region, broaden the space for dialogue and cooperation, and lessen Israeli concerns that advancing ties with Turkey might jeopardize other regional alliances,” he added.
Lebanon relaunches support programs for the vulnerable
Beneficiaries will be selected according to transparent criteria ‘to secure the basic requirements for a decent life’
Updated 48 min 51 sec ago
BEIRUT: Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati announced on Wednesday the launch of the ration card platform and the emergency social safety net project.
Funded and supported by the World Bank and the UN, the programs are intended to help the most vulnerable in Lebanon.
The ration card platform had faltered after it was announced by Hassan Diab’s resigned government on Sept. 9 due to funding issues and objections by the World Bank.
The platform was supposed to be up before subsidies on fuel were lifted to limit protests.
In his announcement, Mikati addressed the obstruction of Cabinet sessions since Oct. 12: “If some people have the right to revolt in the street and get angry, then those who were and still are in power have no right to shirk responsibility and blame those who are currently trying to fight to save the country.”
He noted that during the diplomatic meetings he held in the country and overseas, one expression was constantly repeated: “Help yourselves, and we will help you.” If anything, this indicates the extent of the responsibility of all Lebanese officials and leaders to cooperate for Lebanon to move forward, he explained.
Mikati noted: “The beneficiaries of the two projects will be selected according to transparent criteria to secure the basic requirements for a decent life. The two-month registration phase will be closely monitored to prevent any exploitation, after which the payment process will begin early next year with a retroactive effect from January 2022.”
According to the Ministry of Social Affairs, 25 percent of Lebanese suffer from extreme poverty, while 70 percent are struggling to make ends meet, with the middle class almost becoming extinct amid Lebanon’s economic and financial collapse.
The ministry is currently assisting 36,000 families suffering from extreme poverty by giving them a $25 food card and a further $15 for each family member. The children of these families are enrolled in public schools and receive free primary healthcare, thanks to EU funding. The ministry aims to start supporting 75,000 families.
“In the first phase, we will start implementing the social safety net program, which covers 150,000 Lebanese families and 87,000 children enrolled in public schools,” said Minister of Social Affairs Hector Hajjar.
He added: “These programs are not the solution; they are rather temporary support to help citizens survive until economic recovery is initiated.”
Mikati said that he had issued a decision “to form a technical committee to review the security and cyber aspects of the IMPACT platform and its subsidiary webpages, headed by the minister of interior, to prevent any data manipulation and ensure user privacy.”
Hajjar expected around 20,000 people to register on the platform daily.
More families are falling under the poverty line in Lebanon, a World Bank report revealed.
The share of the Lebanese population under the international poverty line is estimated to have risen by 13 percentage points in 2020 and is expected to further increase by as much as 28 percentage points by the end of 2021; amounting to 1.5 million Lebanese.
Meanwhile, 780,000 Syrian refugees are under the poverty line, and their share is estimated to have risen by 39 percentage points in 2020 and 52 percentage points in 2021.
The report also tackled the successive financial crises that have afflicted Lebanon, noting that “the Lebanese government’s hands are tied in terms of providing social assistance to citizens and residents alike.”
International institutions fear further repercussions as Lebanon is being assailed by compounded crises for the third year in a row, which may lead to widespread chaos and disturb the fragile security stability, especially in light of the significant rise in the prices of goods, fuel, transportation, medicine, electricity from generators, and other daily life necessities.
“Radical reforms are essential to achieve recovery and social protection programs are very helpful in mitigating the impact of multiple crises,” the World Bank said.
Lebanon reintroduces some COVID-19 prevention measures
Mandatory vaccinations for all civil servants and workers in the health, education, tourism and public transport sectors
Updated 01 December 2021
BEIRUT: Lebanon will impose a night-time curfew starting Dec. 17 on non-vaccinated people for three weeks.
And full vaccination will be made mandatory for all workers in several sectors due to concerns over the spread of coronavirus, the COVID-19 committee said on Wednesday.
Vaccination will be mandatory for all civil servants and workers in the health, education, tourism and public transport sectors as of Jan. 10, the committee said.
A new coronavirus variant found in South Africa and detected in several countries was determined as a variant of concern by the World Health Organization last week and has led to strengthening COVID-19-related restrictions around the world.