By Dr Shahid Qureshi : – If Indians have given access to the Israelis in the Chinese neighbourhoods in Indian occupied Kashmir and Ladakh Chinese are in the Israeli neighbourhoods and in the Mediterranean.’
It was a very unique and informative experience for me to attend ‘The International Silk Road Festival 2009’ in Syria, organized by the Syrian Ministry of Tourism, from October 9 -15, 2009, as part of British Media Delegation. The colourful official opening ceremony held at Damascus Citadel in Old City which was very much resembling to the old city of Lahore in Pakistan.
I mentioned to the Minister of Tourism Dr. Saadalla Agha al-Qalaa and Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah al-Dardari during a press conference at the Prime Minister House that, ‘though I am a British journalist but I must say that my birth country Pakistan is on the silk route and ‘Silk Road – Karakoram Highway’ is a sign of deep friendship between Pakistan and China’. The Syrians have adopted a different silk route via India?
It seems relationship between Pakistan and Syria have lot of similarities as of between Britain, US and Syria? People say Pakistani governments see Syria with US glasses and Britain probably with Israeli eyes? All need to see for themselves? It is been a very long time since Syrian and Pakistani leaders visited each other on the other hand President Bashar Assad has close familial links with Britain and have visited United Kingdom officially not long ago. He and his wife studied in Britain. I am told his father in law is a consultant in London. Well as far as glasses to see in the night are concerned to monitor Syria-Iraq borders, ‘US has refused to provide due to the sanctions but reportedly directed to Britain to buy who declined under Israeli pressures, said a very high level Syrian official. ‘May be night vision glasses and relations with Israel are more important then lives of the British and US soldiers in Iraq’, said the official.
I did ask the Syrian Deputy Prime Minister during his meeting with journalists, ‘how can Britain assist Syria’? He said something like, ‘Britain is party to many outstanding disputes in the middle east’. That reminded me of the Kashmir dispute too. Dr Al-Dardari said that Syria is working on developing economy and tourism to bolster Syria’s standing on the Silk Road, which represents a point of meeting of cultures of civilizations and a road to peace and security. He further said, ‘Syria is witnessing remarkable and continuing progress in the economic reform process and in integrating Syrian economy into global economy.
Dr Al-Dardari pointed out that Syria’s open relations with the countries of the world, stressing that Syria wants to build solid relations with the countries of the world based on mutual respect in order to achieve mutual benefits. He was of the view that the process of building the Syrian economy aims to make it a connecting point between Europe, Asia and Africa, affirming that Syria will continue working to achieve economic reform, development of infrastructure, and freeing trade exchange and the flow of investments.
Dr Al-Dardari indicated that tourism is an important part of Syrian economy and there is a proposed program for developing government work and general administration, introducing the concept of governance in the economic sector, and improving growth, livelihood and the economic work environment.
Coming back to the Festival which seemingly was designed to projected Syria’s historic significance as an important point where the Silk Road caravans converged in the past, forming a bridge for cooperation and communication between East and West. On this occasion a visitor centre was opened in Palmyra with the cooperation between the Syrian Government and the European Union.
The Silk Road 2009 Festival included various tourist and cultural activities in Damascus, Palmyra, Aleppo and Hama, with the participation of Arab and foreign folklore troupes that reflect the past and the present of the rich heritage of Syria.
Activities included tours of Palmyra and Hama by the caravans participating in the festival on the third and fourth days respectively, with a visit to the historic city of Apamea, Masyaf and Krak des Chevaliers on the fifth day concluding in a visit to Aleppo.
The caravans returned back to Damascus on October 15, 2009 passing through Samaan castle and Maaloula after visiting Christian monasteries. There seems to be a great harmony among all the religions and people are conscious of their religious identities mostly in rural areas.
It is reported that over 200 Arab and foreign journalists from Britain, Qatar, Bahrain, Tunisia, Jordan, Turkey, Czech Republic, Romania, Poland, Russia, Japan, Iran, Turkey, Ukraine, Germany, Spain, Serbia, Brazil and North America participated in the Festival, in addition to more than 30 tourism companies. Turkey, China, India, Russia took part in the festival and Pakistani ambassador to Syria HE Aminullah Khan Raisani also participated in the closing ceremony of the festival in Alepo. It does not sound like that Syrians are isolated in the world as a result of US sanctions?
At the opening of impressive handicraft exhibition one other thing impressed me was the Arabic language skills of Li Jing Fang Senior official of the Chinese embassy in Damascus at the Chinese stall. He was speaking fluently and eloquently with tourism minister like an Arab. Well Chinese are every where in the world if Indians have given access to the Israelis in the Chinese neighbourhoods in Indian occupied Kashmir and Ladakh? Chinese are in the Israeli neighbourhoods and in the Mediterranean? Does this mean that ‘Somali piracy drama’ to control entry points of Suez Canal should end now?
On a lighter note I am still wondering why the Syrians did allocate a guide to the British journalists who was expert in ‘German language’ and not fluent in English? He was treating us like tourists and we were telling him that we are at work. The guide was struggling with us and we were all struggling with him too. We were arriving late on almost all lunches and programs, some times visited same places twice… Syrians have provided us live entertainment in the whole trip…
When I was checking out the guide probably colluded with the reception staff at the hotel in Palmyra who over charged me and also not returned the change in his presence. It was like I will come back and take my cut. I must also mention that a shopkeeper from whom I bought some presents came running looking for me in old Damascus city near tomb of Sultan Saladin Ayubi conquer of Jerusalem’, because I over paid him and returned the money about £1.50p.
Amy Kellogg from Fox News and the writer personally thanked the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister Tourism for the hospitality and invitation to the festival at the press conference. I would also like to thank my colleagues’ Sony Award Winner TV journalist Afshin Rattansi (Press TV), Liana Hosier BBC, Senior TV Producer, Roland Kemp, Travel journalist of The Observer, Gail Simmons, Ruba Jurdi BBC, Ian Blake, The Guardian, for being great company while travelling up and down the silk route, Straight Street, and road to Damascus.
Many hearts beat and meet along the 6000 miles Silk Road of love without caring about the walls, mines and fences because it will disappear in the ruins and nobody will know it ever existed… their shelf life is running out!
(Dr Shahid Qureshi is award wining writer on foreign policy & security based in London)