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Time off in Syria

MAY 1, 2000

When I set off from the southern Turkish town of Antakya for a fifteen-day tour through Syria I was expecting a short reprieve from my constant hunts for Internet access. I've been traveling round the globe since December of '99 editing a small Web magazine, logging-on everywhere from homes in Pakistan to side street alleys in Nepal to savvy Internet cafes in Turkey where you can order up a pint of Guinness and type away as it settles down.

Syria has been one of the most closed off countries in the Arab region (along with Libya) for the past decade. I had heard rumors that Damascus had the only computer terminal in the country at its Al-Assad National Library where you could pay 20$ per half hour while a lovely fellow holding a machine gun perched behind you to monitor your browsing. With this in mind I shut down my laptop and decided that I'd do things the old fashioned way: I'd put pen to paper.

When I arrived in Allepo I didn't even bother asking about for Internet cafes. But when I was huddled around the television in the lounge of my hotel getting a strong dose of world news a tall figure in all black came in, sat down and began discussing his job as a computer consultant in Syria, I had to nose in.

"I didn't think there were too many computers around these parts."

"Everyday there are more and more. I'm always going on trips to different parts of the country working on systems." This led me to wonder where he'd acquired his programming abilities. Images of the little motorbike mechanic stands, greasy and black, flashed into my head.

"There are training centers in Damascus now but I learned in Lebanon. I go to Lebanon quite often to see the newest things and use the Internet."

Thinking he did this because a) there weren't more than a handful of Internet connections in Syria and b) his probable dislike for loaded guns next to his ear, I asked him about the censorship on the Syrian Web. I was surprised to find out that there aren't many. "Don't think that there won't be more when more people have access, " he added. "Things move slowly in Syria and all that information open at once would be like injecting a large syringe of caffeine right into the culture; people would flip out."

The more we talked the more questions I had concerning the direction Syria as a whole was taking. "I can't say too much about that. I'm doing well and things are only going to get better."

And it looks like he may be right. This past week in Damascus a large computer festival was held in downtown next to the university. Representatives from many major computer companies attended and there was even a little booth where you could hop on the Internet, if you had the patience to sit in a queue for four hours as the line of would-be surfers poured out of the complex and down the street.

I walked by several times admiring the stamina of those in line and never did manage to find any armed guards within direct sight of the Internet terminal. So much for that rumor.

And, as I typed away at one of the handful of Internet offices in Damascus for 3$ an hour surrounded, not by soldiers, but enthusiastic young Syrians, I could only laugh and think, So much for my vacation.

-Sarah Reed Bargren
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