Syrian diplomat in US blogs on life, culture

"It is not an easy job. Sometimes I almost feel depressed," writes Damascus' ambassador in Washington, Imad Moustapha.

jp.services2 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
His job is managing Syria's stormy relations with the United States, but still finds time to blog, writing about everything from art and music to diaper changes for his newborn daughter. Imad Moustapha's blog, full of personal musings and photos, even one of his wife in the hospital after their baby's birth, is unusual for any diplomat. But it's even more surprising for an official from Syria, where the government is among the most tight-lipped in the Middle East. "You have to remember that I belong to a, generally speaking, younger generation of Arab politicians ... We are by nature more open than the older generation," the 47-year-old Moustapha told The Associated Press during a recent vacation in Damascus. "I have a very, very difficult post and you need an outlet, a way of escape," he said of the blog, which he began in 2005. Moustapha's fans say his English-language blog is more than a diversion. "It does a lot toward changing the perception of Syria and what a Syrian diplomat would be like," said Sami Moubayed, a Syrian political analyst in Damascus. "The blog has art, paintings, cultural stories ... it does Syria a great service." The US Embassy in Damascus could not be reached for comment. But among Americans, Syria can use all the favorable publicity it can get. Syrian-US relations have been icy at best the past few years, particularly since the time Moustapha took up his Washington job in 2004. Relations plummeted after the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which many blamed on Damascus. The US pulled out its ambassador to Syria and clamped a diplomatic boycott on the country, accusing it of destabilizing Lebanon, sending insurgents to Iraq and supporting Hizbullah and Hamas. Syria, which has for years been on a US State Department list of nations that support terror, denies involvement in Hariri's assassination and calls the groups it supports legitimate resistance movements. "It is not an easy job. Sometimes I almost feel depressed," Moustapha wrote of his job at one point. That's about as close as he comes to discussing politics in the blog. "My blog is my personal sphere. If I want to write about politics, which I do, I would publish it in the mainstream media," he said. Moustapha said he does not think Syrian President Bashar Assad is aware of his blog. "I never told the president about it," he said. Moustapha, who holds a doctorate in computer science from the University of Surrey in England, says he opposes the tight Internet restrictions in his country, where Web sites critical of the regime are frequently blocked. "I do not believe that imposing restrictions is a good thing ... yet I understand that things need to move gradually," he said. That echoes his government's position, that change in Syria will take place at its own pace. Several Syrian bloggers have been arrested for political writings on the Internet in recent years amid the explosion of blogging across the Mideast. Most bloggers based in Syria now avoid discussing politics. In his blog, Moustapha writes about Syrian artists, his favorite books and the diplomatic hob-knobbing he does on the job. The blog is full of pictures of vacations with his wife, Rafif al-Sayed, to Europe and Santa Fe, New Mexico, and accounts of their new role as parents since the birth of their daughter, Sidra, in January. "Rafif and I have made an agreement regarding Sidra: she was to be in charge for everything that goes into the baby, I will be responsible for every thing that comes out of her. Accordingly, I became fully responsible for changing her diapers and bathing her," Moustapha wrote. He tells of how he put a Web cam in Sidra's nursery so he can check in whenever he misses her. "It is not out of the ordinary nowadays that, for example, while attending a meeting at the embassy with, say, the leaders of the American Jewish pro-peace organizations, I would excuse myself for a couple of minutes, rush to my adjacent office, check my Internet browser, assure myself that Sidra is blissfully asleep and then return to work," he wrote recently. Moustapha said he thinks Syrians are "pleasantly surprised" when they stumble across his blog. He also hopes it changes perceptions of Syria in the United States, citing e-mails he gets from Americans voicing surprise at a different look at his country. "A drop in an ocean, but it's a drop," Moustapha said. "And this makes me happy."