Mark Twain once said of Syria's capital, "To Damascus, years are only moments, decades are only flitting trifles of time. She measures time not by days and months and years, but by the empires she has seen rise and prosper and crumble to ruin. She is a type of immortality."
It's been more seconds, minutes and hours over recent times, as Damascus, along with the rest of Syria, has lived through one of the worst conflicts of recent times. Though Damascus has escaped the utter desolation that has befallen Aleppo and Homs, it is still suffering.
Yet life finds a way. Perhaps improbably, Santa Claus still visits schools. More prosaic, but equally as important, the musicians who make upWamda have been bringing their flashmob-style gigs to the city's busiest streets over the last few weeks. Next month, another gathering will attempt to address the country's massive economic problem. Syria's first Startup Weekend is taking place in Damascus from February 18th to the 20th.
The conflict in Syria has not only claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and caused over two million refugees to flee the country. It has also created an economic black hole, which is one of the reasons why the weekend is taking place.
"The Syrian economy needed around 200,000 jobs every year according to a UN report. That was published in 2011 - before the crisis" says Ahmad Sufian Bayram, one of the event's organizers. "Factories and companies have closed. The infrastructure here has been destroyed. By 2015, we will probably need (to create) four to five million jobs."
Startup Weekend is just one manifestation of the growing interest in entrepreneurship and technology in Damascus. There are already software and hardware startups operating in the city as well as a thriving hackerspace which hosts events, courses, girl geek dinners and much more. All of this is aimed at fostering collaboration among developers, designers and others in the city who are looking to technology as a way of redeveloping their country's economy over the coming years. More importantly, none of this is policitical - particularly important given the tensions throughout the country.
Muhammad Al-Syrwan is the co-founder of Ideasstorm, a company that was founded in 2011 and is already profitable. "We've worked with the UNDP to build a collaborative issue reporting and feedback management platform (named sharek e-portal) for the ministry of telecommunication as a part of the Syrian e-Government project. Now we're launching our new product Sfkat - a p2p deals sharing platform."
On the hardware side of things, Atadiat's Shamduino has attracted the attention of the international open source hardware community. The Shamduino is an Arduino inspired board made largely from locally sourced materials. One of the main reasons it came into being is the fact that the economic sanctions levied against Syria means it's almost impossible to import or use many basic products and services - including Arduinos.
"I was excited after reading about Open Hardware, DIY and the revolution of personal fabrication. In Atadiat, we are inspired by companies like Sparkfun, Adafruit, Seedstudio and others" said the company's co-founder, Yahya Tawil. They're currently supplying local engineers, students and hobbyists, but are hoping to scale up and support hardware innovation across the Arab world over the coming months and years.
Running a startup in Damascus is, unsurprisingly, not without its problems. There are the usual issues - lack of access to funding and Government support, finding the right talent and more. However, starting up in the shadow of a major conflict adds a layer of issues few of us will ever have to deal with.
Muhammad Al-Syrwan has to deal with these on a day-to-day basis - including sanctions - saying, "many sites are blocked - including Google Code, SourceForge, Oracle Services, Unity3D and many others. There's no support for e-payments as a result. Software and hardware is very expensive for the average Syrian. Many people work three or four months to get $1,000 now. You also have to think about your safety if you're not working at home." Add frequent power cuts and Internet outages to the mix and you can begin to understand the scale of the challenge.
We talk a lot about disruption, innovation, hustle and tenacity when we talk about technology and startups. The last of those is one that's particularly applicable in this instance. Yahya Tawil sums it up well, "Syria will need huge efforts and patience to startup but I believe that this will not make us lazy people. This will give start-ups in Syria have a special flavor,"
February's Startup Weekend is just part one of a plan for fostering collaboration, startups and entrepreneurial talent in Damascus. The goal, according to Ahmad Sufian Bayram is "to have a lot of startups running after this event...we need to ensure people's ideas go long - we want people to start a startup, to scale that company and maybe get to the Fortune 500 in a few years..."
If you want to be part of it - as a participant with visions of the Fortune 500, or as a mentor (for obvious reasons, most of the mentors will be taking part via Skype), you can register your interest here.