The Young Syrian

The Jerusalem Report / page 24

Ammar Abdulhamid hopes to spark an intellectual renaissance and encourage political reform at home in Damascus.

Yigal Schleifer / Istanbul

SYRIAN PUBLISHER AND author Ammar Abdulhamid doesn’t like to think small scale. The founder of a year-old nonprofit Damascus publishing house, Abdulhamid is embarking on a translation project through which he plans to introduce the Syrian public to the classic literary and philosophical works of the Western canon. 

In Abdulhamid’s vision, cab drivers in Damascus will eventually be discussing the books of Locke and Hume, the city’s café goers debating Thomas Jefferson’s writings. And if that doesn’t seem like a tall enough order, Abdulhamid hopes that his translation project will help push along democratic reform in Syria and spark an intellectual reawakening in the Arab world.

Whether Abdulhamid’s ambitious project will take off remains to be seen, but for now it says some interesting things about Syria, where people like Abdulhamid are testing the boundaries of expression, and about the wider Arab world, where some frank talk is slowly starting to take place about the state of its intellectual life.

While in Istanbul recently for a conference about the Muslim world’s response to global terrorism, Abdulhamid, 38, readily agrees to sit down for an interview with an Israel-based magazine. He’s not sure what the consequences might be, Abdulhamid says, but he’s willing to take his chances.

Dressed in a brown tweed jacket and a burgundy turtleneck, his dark hair pulled back into a shortish ponytail, the youthful Abdulhamid has the look of a graduate student. His English is fluent; he spent eight years in the United States studying history at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

Although today he considers himself an atheist, Abdulhamid says he spent his early 20s as a self-described Islamic “fundamentalist,” even taking two years out of his studies in Madison to serve as an imam in a Los Angeles Islamic center. The introverted only child of one of Syria’s most famous couples — his father, who died two months ago at the age of 73,   was a leading director, his mother is a well-known actress — Abdulhamid says that as a shy youth, he was attracted by the empowering aspects of the religion.

Witnessing the sometimes-bloody acrimony between Sunnis and Shiites, though, started to raise questions in his mind about the strict faith he was adopting. When the controversy over Salman Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses” erupted in the late 80s, Abdulhamid says he found himself unable to defend the severe reaction of many of those around him. He decided to go back to his university studies, and began slowly drifting away from Islam.

It was after returning to Damascus in the mid-90s that he first thought about the impact translation could have on Syrian society. “My first idea was that we don’t understand America,” he says, while sitting in the lobby of Istanbul’s Marmara Hotel. “Even Muslims living in America don’t understand it, so forget about Syrians living in Syria under a socialist government.”

Through his NGO, Dar Emar   (www.daremar.org), Abdulhamid will next summer publish several thousand copies of translated writings of John Locke, the 17th century philosopher father of liberal democracy. With funding he hopes to receive from the U.S. and the Arab world, Abdulhamid plans to expand his offerings of classics the following summer. (In the meantime, as a pragmatic first step, Dar Emar has struck a deal with a Dutch foundation and is publishing a series of translated contemporary Dutch works.)

“When you have an intensive project of translation, it leads to dialogue and questioning and hopefully a renaissance will come out of that,” Abdulhamid explains, adding emphatically that Arab society, intellectually, “is dead.

I hope this will transform us from a dead culture to a living one, from being on the margins of the world to being an active part of it.”

Abdulhamid draws attention to a recent report by the United Nations Development Program to back up his charge. Written by a group of distinguished Arab scholars and opinion leaders, the study, called the “Arab Human Development Report,” took a hard look at the state of the Arab world’s “knowledge society.”

In terms of translation, the study found the situation in the Arab world “static and chaotic.” It reported that throughout the Arab world only 4.4 translated books per million people were published in the first half of the 1980s. The corresponding rate for Spain during that same period was 920 books per million people.

“The truth is that Arab culture has no choice but to engage again in a new global experiment,” the UNDP report states. “It cannot enclose itself, contented with living on history, the past and inherited culture alone in a world whose victorious powers reach into all corners of the earth, dominating all forms of knowledge, behaviour, life, manufactured goods and innovation.”

Alongside talking about an intellectual renaissance in the wider Arab world, Abdulhamid is also very focused on helping push along reform in his home country.

“I am indicative of the possibility for change, if you are willing to speak up,” he says. “Other people are thinking along these lines in Syria, so the limits are being pushed. I have guarded optimism for Syria.”

Recent events would certainly indicate that reform advocates are testing the limits in Damascus. On March 8, a group of some 30 of them held a rare public demonstration at the gates of Parliament, where they unfurled banners criticizing the rule of the Asad government. The protesters were also hoping to present the government with a petition signed by some 7,000 Syrians asking for the end of emergency rule in Syria, which has allowed for the suspension of a wide range of basic human and legal rights. Although the protest was quickly ended by police before the petition could be delivered, observers have remarked on the significance of the fact that the protest took place at all.

Steven Heydemann, a Syria expert at Georgetown University, says that the testing of the boundaries of political expression in Syria has created a sense of uncertainty in the country, on the one hand, but has also increased pressure on the government of Bashar al-Asad to finally deliver on its promises of political and economic reform.

“There is a sense that the government is in a position now that it has to show that it recognizes the need for reform,” Heydemann says. “That is a perception that once people get, it’s hard to tell them you were just kidding and didn’t mean it.”

Abdulhamid, meanwhile, says that any reform efforts will be unsuccessful if the Asad government doesn’t allow Syria’s economic, political and social reformers to take part in the process.

“Greater participation of civil society actors in charting the country’s future, both internally and externally, is the only [way] forward,” he writes in an email from Damascus, continuing the conversation in Istanbul. “The Syrian government cannot insist on keeping all initiative for change in its hands.”

At the same time, Abdulhamid says that U.S. efforts to isolate Syria could harm the country’s prospects for reform. The U.S. is currently contemplating a series of sanctions on Syria, if it doesn’t satisfy various anti-terror demands, as part of the Syria Accountability Act passed by Congress in November, but Abdulhamid believes the sanctions could lead the Syrian regime to become more autocratic.

“If you want positive change in Syria, there is no substitute for positive engagement,” he writes via email. “This is not easy, nor should it be. I think the Bush administration expects too much, too soon out of the Syrian government. In the meantime, the Syrian government, and/or those who are in charge of charting the country’s foreign policy at this stage, are having a hard time adapting to the rapidly changing geopolitical realities of the region and world.”

PERHAPS AS A WAY OF TRYING to create some positive engagement of his own, Abdulhamid has become an ever-more noticeable and outspoken presence at regional conferences and public diplomacy gatherings in the Middle East. As one American academic who has met Abdulhamid puts it, among the usual suspects making the rounds at these gatherings, the Syrian has appeared as an “unusual suspect.”

“He’s almost too good to be true,” says the academic.

Abdulhamid, for his part, describes himself as one of several “anomalies” now working on reform in Syria. Some of them have ended up in jail for speaking out, he says, but so far he has been able to avoid the sting of the government.

“There are a lot of progressive intellectuals out there that can help polish Syria’s image on the international scene, and, more importantly, they can help supply the new vision that the country needs,” he writes. “But ours is still a system of governance and mentality whereby independent intellectual initiatives remain suspect.”

Tackling one of the thorniest questions in Syrian politics — the country’s relations with Israel — Abdulhamid says he believes the Syrian government is genuinely interested in renewing peace talks with Jerusalem, seeing that as a way of reintegrating itself in the “new world order,” as he puts it.

Having met many Israelis throughout his travels over the years, Abdulhamid says he believes there is a large segment of Israeli society willing to engage with their Arab neighbors, either officially or independently, in order to reach peace.

“I am one of those Syrians, and there are many I am sure, though I am only speaking for myself here, who are willing to engage in this kind of dialogue, and I much rather have it as a public dialogue in order to reach out to as many people as possible on all sides,” he writes. “You can call it ‘citizen diplomacy’ if you will. But it can work only if our basic freedoms are respected. Let’s see what happens.”