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Syrian elections

In Delhi's Vasant Vihar, 750 Syrians line up to vote in an election denounced by critics as a farce

It's a sham designed to provide a figleaf of legitimacy for President Assad, critics claim. But Syrian voters in Delhi beg to disagree.

On Thursday, as India’s new cabinet marked its second day in office, another national election was conducted in Delhi’s neighbourhood of Vasant Vihar. Around 750 Syrians living in India – mainly businessmen and students – streamed into their embassy to participate in an exercise that is being described as their country’s first democratic election.

The walls behind the gates were lined with Syrian flags and large posters of President Bashar Al Assad, who is seeking a third seven-year term in office. The polling took place from 7 am to 7 pm. Voters lined up to cast their ballots in a large plastic bin. Traditional tea, orange juice and pistachio-filled sweets were being distributed.

On the face of it, this was a joyous exercise, as vibrant as India’s recently concluded celebration of democracy. But as the first phase of the Syrian election got underway at 43 embassies around the world, several countries, including France, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, banned Syrians from voting in their territories. They have denounced the elections as a sham that seeks to reinstate Assad as a legitimate state ruler, even as his rivals, aided by foreign powers, are fighting a civil war to remove him from office for using chemical weapons and allegedly committing mass atrocities against civilians.

The United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that the elections were “incompatible” with talks that seek a peaceful political transition in Syria. However, the government in Damascus has said the elections are the best way to ensure a political solution to the conflict, which began three years ago with the demand to end to the autocratic rule of Assad family, which has been in power since 1963.

It's genuine, says authorities

Until now, Syria has held only referendums, with a single candidate on the ballot. Voters had a choice of saying yes or no to this choice. But an amendment to the constitution in 2011 requires the polls to be contested by more than one candidate. As a result, the ballot papers used in Delhi included photographs of three candidates: in addition to Assad, there were images of Hassan el-Nuri and Maher al-Najjar, both little-known MPs.

Despite this, many have dismissed the election as a farce. The rules require candidates to have lived in Syria for the last ten years, thus disqualifying most of the key opposition figures, who live in exile to ensure their security. Besides, polling will also take place only in areas of Syria controlled by the regime, leaving out large territories still under control of rebel groups.

Syria's Ambassador to India, Riad Abbas, told Scroll.in that countries that claim the elections are undemocratic are opposing the will of the Syrian people and curtailing their aspirations. “Those who are not allowing elections, they are showing their real face that they are against democracy,” Abbas said. “Why are they stopping Syrian people from expressing their opinion? They are afraid because they are aware that all the people will be selecting and voting Assad because they want him to be in power and on Syrian ground.’’

India has maintained that any solution for the crisis in Syria needs to come from within the country and has opposed any military intervention.

Assad is crowd favourite

In Vasant Vihar, it was clear that Assad was the overwhelming favourite. “No matter how many candidates stand, we will vote for the one we believe will lead us to victory,” said Betoul Khoja, president of the Syrian Students Union. “And we believe in Assad.”

Fahad Khoudary, a businessman from Aleppo who immigrated to Jordan because of the war, was in India on a three-day trip but found the time to drop by the embassy on Wednesday evening to vote for Assad. “Other countries internationally don’t want Assad but we Syrians want him,” he said. “He will put an end to this fighting. He will bring peace.”

Sentiments like these only seemed to reiterate the fears of the international community that only supporters of the regime would participate in the elections, lending it little credibility.

Groups of students and Assad supporters came to vote wearing t-shirts bearing the President’s image. "Assad is our hero. He will win this war,’’ said the President’s namesake Bshar Bdoor, student of Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi.

Most of these young student voters said the opposition in Syria and the protests were being sponsored by foreign countries that aimed to install a compliant leadership that would allow them to secure Syria’s oil and energy resources. “We don’t want democracy from a country like US which has destroyed Iraq, which attacked Libya and now wants to enter Syria,” said Hasan Awwad student who came from the neighbouring Punjab state to vote for the elections in Delhi.

If Assad is removed from power, the students said, Syria will be divided. Its secular fabric consisting of the ruling minority Alawite sect (which Assad belongs to), Christians, Druze along with Sunni Muslims will be shredded along religious lines. Tamam Mohamad, from the Tartous region, who is now studying Linguistics at the JNU, said that if Assad goes, Syria will become like Iraq and Libya. “We can’t imagine Assad leaving power and throwing open Syria to all these militias,” he said.

Civil war

At present, Assad’s Shia regime is supported by Iran and by Lebanon’s Hezbollah group. Opposing him are various Sunni rebel factions funded, among others, by Saudi Arabia. The war between Shias and Sunnis has turned Syria into a playground for global jihadis groups. Currently, nationals of 38 foreign countries, including Britain, France, Iraq and Morocco, are fighting in Syria. Some of the groups want to turn Syria into a radical Islamic state.

“The most dangerous terrorists are currently fighting in Syria,” said Awwad. “How can we talk about democracy when the country is at war? The priority now is to fight this terror and stop the war. Despite opposition and militants fighting from all sides, we believe in Assad and we want him to remain in power.”

The fight to control Syria has led to deaths of over 162,000 people. It has also resulted in a terrible humanitarian crisis, with over 5,000 civilians fleeing the war-ravaged country every day to seek refuge in neighbouring Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and even in Europe. Until now, more than nine million people have been displaced within the country and over 2.5 million have fled, making this the largest human flight since the Rwanda genocide in 1992.

None of that was evident in Vasant Vihar, as officials packed away the votes in a sealed envelope in the evening, to be counted ahead of the June 3 election. A delegation from Syria is in Delhi to monitor the voting process and will also oversee the counting of votes along with a special election committee formed by the Syrian embassy here and members of the Syrian community in India.

People who had cast their votes said that the election would put Assad in a stronger position to end the war. “We will get rid of all the terrorists,” said Khoja of the students union. "And Assad will bring this victory…This election is one step towards peace."

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“Doctors have it easier than us. Their mistakes get buried, our mistakes will be there for everyone to see”

Celebrated architect Hadi Teherani tells us what luxury in the living space means to him.

Hadi Teherani is best known for designing iconic buildings in Germany including the famous Dockland office in Hamburg and the Kranhaus in Cologne. But he’s also left his mark on the landscape of Abu Dhabi with the Zayed University, and has designed a luxury residence that will soon grace the skyline of Mumbai—Lodha Altamount. We spoke to him about the challenges of designing luxury living spaces in India.

Q. In your opinion, what is the definition of luxury specifically in the area of private residences? Is it a lot of fresh air, space and daylight? Is it the room composition? Or is luxury something completely different?

Hadi Teherani (HT): For me, luxury is first and foremost to have space, not just enough for what you need but enough space to really thrive. And luxury has always been defined that way. If you look at Art Nouveau houses, those rooms have incredible heights. So yes, space is definitely an important factor when it comes to luxury. In Europe people pay attention to every square metre and here in Mumbai it is the same. There are slums where 4 people live in one room and just across the street somebody is living by himself on 1000 square metres. Once you have space, luxury can be in the features, in using certain materials, and there is no limit. Some things, of course, are simply not available here: the luxury of fresh air and a clean sea. No matter how much money you are willing to spend, you cannot get those. Therefore, you are limited to what is available.

Q. Have you incorporated this concept of space into previous projects?

HT: Yes, in different ways, no matter if you are working on government-sponsored housing projects or in the luxury segment. Usually our projects are more in the luxury segment, where space is crucial. We are currently designing a building where luxury can already be sensed at the parking level. You reach with your car and you are already supposed to have the feeling that you’ve arrived at a hotel lobby. This is how far luxury has come. That the arrival in a garage already gives you the feeling as if you are coming to a palace—you get out of your limousine into this stunning lobby and this feeling continues as you go up into the apartment where you have a bathroom that is 20-30 square metres and not just 5-10. The idea of really designing your bathroom or kitchen has not yet reached India. Bathrooms are still rather compact and practical since the idea of spending quality time in your bathroom doesn’t seem to exist yet. Customers definitely do not request a spacious bathroom when we discuss their projects. For me, personally, a great bathroom is extremely important, as it is the first thing you use in the morning. Afterwards you go to work, and you come back home. But I believe the areas that you use most need to have enough space for you to move and thrive in.

Q. Do you have any role model in the field of architecture? Maybe a building or a person?

HT: The Bauhaus is still my role model. Back then they designed products for day-to-day life, affordable for the general population. But those products have become classics today like the lounge chair by Le Corbusier. Those were project works but Bauhaus thought further ahead. The idea was to give people light, air and space, and to free them from elements that were poorly designed and uncomfortable like big stucco ceilings. The focus needs to be light, air and sun. For them, architecture and product design were always very fluent concepts. Le Corbusier, for instance, designed fantastic buildings as well as whole cities, but on the other hand also designed furniture. Gropius had even designed a car once and furniture, too. This school of thinking has influenced me, and once you have all those “tools” and this way of thinking, you get very far. With this “toolbox” of modern design, you can create anything and influence society. The times back then aided this development; everyone was opening up, living in and with nature, not hiding away in little holes. And the world evolved from there. And today you can see they are daring even more spectacular things in Asia than they used to in Old Europe.

Q. You have already gained quite some experience in India. Is there something that you would define as a typical “Indian palate”, and if so, how does it differ from the international projects? You already mentioned the differences in bath and kitchen design, but are there, for instance, taboos like colours you wouldn’t use or something in room composition?

HT: I haven’t encountered anything like that. What I do experience is that many projects are influenced by religious thoughts and by Vaastu, something like Feng shui. So the master bedroom has to be in the south-west and the kitchen has to have a certain location. Those rules need to be followed exactly, no matter if it makes sense for the building or not. Here in Mumbai it’s a little more liberal but in other regions, Hyderabad for instance, every centimetre has to be exact as per Vaastu. Sometimes they want a dedicated room for pujas. All this changes while designing a project, of course. But overall the ground plans are not that different. The families might be bigger so houses and apartments are bigger as well, or they are trying to utilize each and every square metre and avoid hallways, for example.

Those projects are also in the centre of a lot of marketing. We are not used to that in Europe but here in Mumbai or even more in other cities like Bangalore, along the entire highway from the airport into the city you only see 50-metre-high billboards announcing new real estate projects. You don’t see anything else! And it’s very creative marketing with catchy headlines and slogans. That isn’t happening in Germany. One more difference: when designing upper class buildings in India, they require a maid or servant room, maybe a separate entrance from the staircase and so forth. Here, you can still afford having a maid. In Europe you might have someone coming by for three hours once a week but certainly not living in.

Q. Let’s talk about the Lodha Altamount. What was the challenge?

HT: The design of Altamount was strongly influenced by being a Lodha project and by its location. Next to Altamount stands a luxury highlight of architecture, the Ambani tower, the most expensive home in the world. How do you want to top that? The Ambani tower is very structural. It shoots through the air, it combines all sorts of crafts and structural design elements with gaps and open spaces. You can’t top that and definitely not with our type of design. That’s why we decided to hold back and instead develop a dark and sleek building. That type of building doesn’t exist a lot here in India. Usually buildings have many structural elements like beams and balconies. By creating a calm building in the skyline of Mumbai, we will make Altamount stand out. Plus, the top of the building is very unique. Many structures are either simply cut off straight or completed by a dome. We have two geometric pointy tops so that the building is properly completed and doesn’t look as if it could grow further. It has a head and feet and is finished. So for us to hold back was our way to stand out. It doesn’t devalue the building design in anyway. It is meant expressively in the sense of “less is more”. And the interior is of course very luxurious: it is designed through and through, there is the green car parking podium, each balcony has a mini pool. So all those luxury features are present but the architectural design is based on the idea of “less is more”.

Lodha Altamount (Mumbai) designed by Hadi Teherani.
Lodha Altamount (Mumbai) designed by Hadi Teherani.

Q. Luxury can drift into the eccentric, depending on the client. Have there been any projects that were very eccentric which you still accepted or projects that you had to turn down because they were too eccentric?

HT: As architects, we create a space. What happens, of course, is that people buy an apartment in a great contemporary building and then furnish it in a baroque style. But that freedom has to be there, of course, because we can’t also tell the client which curtains to use or clothes to wear. At a certain point our job is done. However, when it comes to public buildings, the public is supposed to benefit from, so I have to be strict and dictate. In private buildings you can leave it up to the individual but publicly I have a responsibility and cannot consider each and every taste. I have to do a clean job so that in the end every individual can find himself or herself in my design. Anyway, taste always stems from a certain upbringing, culture and environment, so I also have the duty to educate and that’s what I do with my projects. When a small child walks by a building, she recognizes when the proportions are right even if she has no idea about architecture. But if the proportions are off, the child will pick that up too, because every building also exudes energy, either of unease or comfort. So we have quite a big responsibility as well. I always say doctors have it easier than us. Their mistakes get buried, but our mistakes will always be there for everyone to see.

With one residence per floor and a host of bespoke luxury services, Lodha Altamount is the epitome of unrestricted luxury. Designed by Hadi Teherani, and a part of the Lodha group’s Luxury Collection that has homes present at only the globe’s most-coveted locations, Lodha Altamount is the last word in luxury in India. For more information about Lodha Altamount, see here.

This article was produced on behalf of Lodha by the Scroll.in marketing team and not by the Scroll.in editorial staff

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