National Geographic : 2009 Nov
rides in the hills around the capital---a marked contrast to Hafez al Assad, who was rarely seen in public. "You only know what people need if you come in contact with them," Bashar said. "We refuse to live inside a bubble. I think that s why people trust us." , , the city of Aleppo in northern Syria has been a crossroads for trade moving along the Fertile Crescent from Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean. Guarded by a towering hilltop Citadel, Aleppo s 900-acre Old City has remained essentially intact since the Middle Ages. Today, entering its covered suq, the largest in the Arab world, is like step- ping across some cobblestone threshold into the 15th century---a medieval mosh pit of shop- keepers, food vendors, gold merchants, donkey carts, cra smen, trinket peddlers, beggars, and hustlers of all stripes, moving in a great color- ful clanking parade of goat bells and sandaled feet. If Aleppo bureaucrats had gotten their way, much of this would be gone. During the 1950s, urban planners in Aleppo began implementing a modern development plan, dissecting the Old City with wide, Western- style streets. In 1977, local residents, led by an Old City architect named Adli Qudsi, fought back and eventually got the government to change its plan. Today the Old City has been preserved and its infrastructure overhauled, with funds from both government and philan- thropic sources. Once considered a crumbling relic, old Aleppo is now cited by Bashar as a prime example of the new mentality he s seek- ing, a model for how Syria s past, its greatest asset, can be retooled and made into a future. "Syria has been a trading nation for millennia, so what we re trying to do is return the coun- try to its entrepreneurial roots," said Dardari. "But it s not going to be easy: 25 percent of the Syrian workforce still draws a government pay- check. We ve inherited an economy that runs on patronage and government money, and we can t keep it up." To see what Dardari and the modernizers are up against, I toured a government cotton-processing plant in Aleppo reminiscent of factories in the Soviet Union, vast and crumbling monuments to rusty machinery. e plant manager rambled on like a good apparatchik about the aging fac- tory s production gures and impeccable safety record---unaware that a group of workers had just told me about the lost ngers, crushed feet, and lung damage they had suffered. When I asked if the factory made a pro t, he looked at me as if I were speaking in tongues. By allowing private investment in state- run industries, starting with cement and oil processing, Bashar and his reformers hope to modernize their operations and run them more e ciently. Many jobs have been lost in the process, and prices, no longer subsidized, have soared. But so many Syrians depend on government-supplied incomes from the cotton industry---a primary source of export revenue--- that it remains mostly state run. In many respects, the Syria that Bashar inher- ited bears all the signs of an antique enterprise, ready for the wrecking ball. Built by the Syr- ian Baath Party in the 1960s, the system of state enterprises and government jobs raised living standards and brought education and health care to rural villages, but its foundation resem- bles the corrupt and moribund Eastern-bloc socialism that collapsed under its own weight in the early 1990s. e Syrian bureaucracy is even older, having been erected from the fallen timbers of Ottoman and French colonial rule. Education reform is also on Bashar s draw- ing board, and not a moment too soon. Syrian schoolchildren are taught by rote memorization from aging textbooks, and judged, even at the university level, by the number of facts they know. In Damascus, once revered as an intellectual WHEN I ASKED IF THE FACTORY MADE A PROFIT, HE LOOKED AT ME AS IF I WERE SPEAKING IN TONGUES.