The Reda Computer center in Thawra Street is launching a revolution of its own to raise computer-literate Syrian children and adults ... with the help of the country's heir apparent Bashar al-Assad.
And director Hani al-Khoury cannot get over it yet.
Last month Khoury met Bashar, an information technology buff who heads Syria's computer society, at a trade fair and spoke to him about printing a local computer magazine.
"Yesterday I got a call from Hassan Nuri, the minister of administrative development, who told me that the day President Hafez al-Assad died, Doctor Bashar sent him a report I had submitted to him on the project," he said.
Now Khoury has an appointment with Nuri to discuss the magazine.
This shows the "high level" of concern Bashar has for steering Syria into the third millennium and the age of the Internet, which he has solemnly promised to introduce to every Syrian household, Khoury said.
"Doctor Bashar has gone on the record saying that we need change and that we need it now and that he believes in the principle that every individual should be allowed to see everything," Khoury said.
"The more we see, the more we develop," Khoury said picking one of his favourite Bashar quotes.
Around 5,000 students graduate each year from the four computer centers that Khoury runs along with administrative director Raef Falluh and an army of young computer teachers in Damascus -- home to around 70 other such schools.
Students include children as young as eight, and civil servants employed in several government ministries, including industry, economy and power, oil firms and banks.
Bashar's passion for computers has been the engine behind a series of steps taken over the past six years to put Syria on the technology map and narrow the gap with other Arab countries.
Industry sources credit Bashar for pushing laws to introduce the computer to school curricula and to make it a compulsory course in universities since 1997.
They even think he was instrumental in paving the way for computer magazines to be sold in newspaper kiosks rather than get them only through mail-order memberships.
Unofficial estimates put the number of computers nation-wide at a mere 300,000 and say there are around 10,000 Internet users in Syria compared to 400,000 in the United Arab Emirates, 250,000 in Lebanon and 300,000 in Saudi Arabia.
Amal Buqari, 29, recently spent 8,000 Syrian pounds (160 dollars) to get a Pentium 450 computer -- three times the minimum monthly salary of 60 dollars. A new one would have cost her 500 dollars, with an extra 100 dollars for a printer.
But Buqari, who teaches small children to use the computer, is not connected to the Internet because she cannot afford it.
Despite Bashar's goodwill, there is very limited Internet service in Syria and those who are connected subscribe through a Lebanese-based provider for about 100 dollars subscription and four cents a minute.
The state runs only one Internet cafe and students can have access to it at the Hafez al-Assad library on Ommayyad Square or in some universities, although not all the sites are available yet, another user said.
Samer, a merchant in his mid-50s, said he learned to manipulate the computer and surf the web through trial and error.
Private and public sectors are connected and the government has plans to expand the network of around 3,000 "legal" subscribers to 50,000 within a year.
"We should have the Internet in every home, like the telephone," said Buqari.
Nine-year-old Odette Darwish is taking her second computer course at the Reda -- 16 sessions costing 1,500 Syrian pounds (33 dollars) -- where she learns about Windows but at home she plays a Barbie CD for fun.
Unlike kids her age in the West or even those across the border in Lebanon and Jordan, she does not know what the Internet is but Hamza, 14, knows it is a "necessary learning tool that will help bring us to the level of Europeans."
Sanaa, another Reda teacher, is not surprised that kids are ignorant about the Internet. "How can you blame them when even the adults are still coming to terms with it," she said.
Maha Kumari, a mother of four and self-employed chemist, describes herself as one of the "ignorant" adults.
"Last year a law was issued forcing pharmacists to install air conditioning units. Now Doctor Bashar should issue a decree to put a computer in every clinic and every drug store and in all the elementary schools," she said -- DAMASCUS (AFP)
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)