Imad Saboni, Syrian Telecom Minister
According to Sada Souria, Syrian Telecom Minister, Imad Saboni, said in a recent lecture at Tishreen University that he personally believes that “effectively raising awareness of the dangers of the internet is the answer, not blocking websites.” Saboni alluded to the ban on GPS devices in Syria that was reversed lately after being in effect for so long. He said that GPS is finally allowed after endless controversy and that it’s now actually used on Civic Administration motor-vehicles. Of course the Minister did not miss the opportunity to launch in ill-informed statement saying that all countries block websites. While that might apply to a few dozen countries, the vast majority of the world does not censor the internet.
The latest statements reflect a conflict between the old guard and more pragmatic officials who see that the censorship policy simply does not work, that the pros of allowing new technologies has a greater positive impact on development than any imagined negative effects that might have on the stability of the political system in the country. It’s worth mentioning that in the early days of internet in Syria you had to have a police or intelligence officer look over your shoulder while you surfed the web at Al Assad Library in the heart of Damascus. Before that, satellite TV was banned as well. I remember laughing when my high school history teacher told us that radios were banned in Yemen for fear of foreign influence. Well, I’m not laughing now.
The Minister was clear that what he said was his own personal views, and that the current policies are in effect because it’s perceived that the internet is more of a danger than phone and mobile networks. I don’t want to read much into what he said, but there are hints of a change of policy that might be coming, just like with every other technology that was blocked partially or fully in the country.
Syria currently blocks dozens of websites including some major blogging platforms and social networks, along with humanitarian and political websites. However, circumvention has become common knowledge for a large swath of the tech savvy youth and thus is available to a majority of users. The government is aware of this, but the sporadic nature of online censorship means that very few websites were ever unlocked in Syria due to having too many parties involved in the process. Will other websites soon be free just like Wikipedia Arabic that was blocked for a while and then unblocked? One can only hope.
Finally on the train to Marrakesh. Everybody insists on talking to me in French, even after I point out that I don’t speak a word of it. I only walked the block around the Casablanca Voyageurs train-station and I don’t like it one bit. I wonder what the city is really like. I want to enjoy Morocco, but it looks like it’s going to be a chore, especially with a budget like mine. The weather certainly isn’t helping. It’s dreary, cold, and wet outside and makes me want to hide in my hotel room for the three days I have in Marrakesh.
Looking out the train window the scenery isn’t that different from Syria, similar vegetation, similar run down towns in the middle of nowhere. For a few seconds I felt like I was back home. The square minarets shake me out of my willful illusion screaming “this is not the land you long for.” But that is another story for another time. Maybe that time will never come.
Feeling desperate for an internet connection. I’m wondering if my last-minute couch surfing requests sent from the airport received a reply. I’m tired and haven’t eaten all day. It’s 2 PM now. I’m torn between checking in at the first hotel I see, or looking for somewhere to get online and maybe with some luck crash on a total stranger’s bed. The clouds are breaking, and sun light makes a brief appearance before getting blocked behind ominous clouds again.
I’m sharing this small space, this 6 passenger compartment, with three other riders. A French middle-aged man and woman, and a younger Moroccan woman who seems to be in her late twenties. I formed my own little francophobic island. My fellow passengers are kind enough to use English or Arabic when attempting to communicate something to me. A T-shirt that says “Je ne parle pas Français” would have been a great idea. Hindsight is 20/20.
Another stop. This compartment might get crowded. I’m crossing my fingers that we won’t have to share this compartment with a young man who thinks it’s a good idea to use his cell phone as a boombox on board the train. A couple of minutes of anticipation then a sigh of relief. My colony on wheels is not accommodating yet another conqueror. Heavy rains now encompass my fortress of solitude. The heat is broken. So much for first class. I could have saved 50 Dirhams and huddled for warmth with passengers in the second class, but then I wouldn’t be writing this. Time to get some shut-eye.
P.S. This post is part of a series of posts I’m writing about a visit to Morocco. I have already left the country. Expect more to come soon.