Offended | Architect U.A.E.
April 17th, 2009

Re: ‘Syria is ...

Perhaps you’d question the right of an expat to write about Syria while he lives most of his life thousands of miles away. I ask you, my dear readers, to hold your guns until I am finished. For you will realize that the images and connections we expats have with our home country aren’t less vibrant from what they were when we were still there.

One of the very first images that come to mind when I think of Syria is a group of very special and talented people seated in a semi circle formation in a TV studio (I know it was a TV studio because I’ve seen it on TV, ok?) The Show Host was hovering around the middle, managing a 60 minutes conversation with them. Trying his best to allow everyone the chance to speak. For me, the scene was surreal; this group of adolescents couldn’t be more different, more diverse. There were young women with head scarves; young women with plain pants and button-up shirts and coiffed hair. Some wore heavy make-up. There were few bearded guys; the rest were clean-shaven. Some spoke with timid voices; others were outspoken and fluent and hence were naturally given more air-time to speak. (You may tell me that such is the diversity of human beings. Agreed. But if you know a little about Syria you’d know the cultural implications of the scene, but I digress)

What brought these young, bright people together though, is the fact that they were the best of the best, the top twenty achievers in the Baccalaureate exam that year. For both scientific and literary branches. I listened intently. Literally savoring every word. Each one of them was capable of approaching a question from a different angel. Well, no surprise there. They’ve passed the Baccalaureate exam with excellence. They mainly talk about their visions: how do they envisage themselves in the near and far future. And what could be done to maintain their strong faith in their ability to create those visions. Syria has always been about these people, we pride ourselves on a free education that allows everyone not only the chance to learn, but to excel too.

Fast-forward few years; I am in one of Aleppo University’s many dormitories, where me and my friends escape the boring theory classes to play cards. The guy next room shows up at the door, quick introductions are made and I learn he’s from around the mid-region (or Al Mantika Al Wosta). Everyone entitled to accommodation at the dorms is decidedly not from Aleppo. Further enquiries are made and I learn that the guy is majoring in Theatrical Criticism. He leans on the door jamb and has a quick exchange with one of my Trix playmates (or classmates, if you like).

My colleague recounts the details of an encounter he’d had that day. The other guy listens intently and then he gushes into his own vision of how the scene could have been played out in a better way. A playwright in action. I am amazed at this guy. Not only he’s brilliant, he’s totally into his special field of study, and he loves it. I marvel at how this son of Homs country-side had moved 200-odd kilometers to a different city in pursuit of knowledge-based passion.

This is very unlike the common Syrian notion that nothing ‘feeds bread’ but the heavyweight studies like Medicine or Engineering. But it only takes special people to break the common notions, right? And this is why this guy epitomized Syria to me. He’s able to break the rigid social notions, and he couldn’t care less. He could very well have been one of those present in the TV studio, or one of those who were very close to being there. Or one of those who deserved to, if only slightly different metrics were employed. My impression grows firmer every time I’d meet him from then on on the campus (most often with the obligatory click-clack of the high-heeled shoes of one of his many female colleagues trailing along).

Even today, whenever I go home on a vacation, with the Big Chip of a Dubai Expat on my shoulder, I’d have a humbling experience of some sort. An encounter with one or two people who’d prove to me the incessant intellectual quality and clarity of this place. In my deepest and wildest thoughts I realize that GDP per Capita becomes irrelevant at a certain point. While I do hope for my country to be in a better shape economically, I know that whatever is the case, it’s not going to be detrimental to the growth of brains in this land. Fast-forward 20 or 30 years to the future, if fate wishes that I am still in my expat status then, I am quite sure that I’d meet my friend from the Theatrical Criticism class again. Or maybe one of his many metamorphosis and renditions. Probably the click-clack would have ebbed a little. But not the glimmer of the brilliant minds. One way or the other, scenes and events would be registered, analyzed and then recreated. Of this I’m certain, and because of this I’m hopeful.

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8 Responses to the Article

Shai Says:

Dearest Offended,

As I read your wonderful story, you cannot imagine how much I wished I could have watched it being reported on Israeli TV. Why is it we know so little of one another? What is obstructing our ability to see just how human we both are? Syria obviously has so many talents and so many wonderful people. And so does Israel. It’s time we found out about one another!

Thank you for sharing your story with us, as usual, in your great personal kind of way.

ayman hakki Says:

Cool story and a very smart use of a past incident. I’m from a bread earning family (Doctors and Engineers only) but I’m an artist at heart. Most of my fellow medical students didn’t even want to be Doctors. My Baccalaureate grades were OK, but I applied to the Institute Des Beaux Art de Milan. I took an exam at the Vatican Embassy and I ranked 22nd out of 2000 without any art training according to the Monignor. They took only twenty and the Monsignor consoled me by saying; maybe two will break a leg…or something, which I thought was very unchristian of him. I did get into Aleppo Medical School and loved the student scene there. Our students are really bright and very artsy, Shai is correct; if Israelis only knew Syrian better they would open their borders and give us back the Golan without any precondition, but it won’t happen. So, may the best culture win.

abufares Says:

You’re right about it all.
Money becomes irrelevent, especially in this time and age, as an accurate indication of achievement in Syria. A superb essay indeed.

After I returned from the States, with a master’s degree no less, it took me a while to find my place again in my homeland. I befriended, among others, an old illeterate man who lived off his small piece of land by the sea. He owned an orange AM transistor radio and listened to every news broadcast of the Arabic BBC during his waking hours. I would go and visit with him on Fridays. We would talk about hunting, about the land and about the sea. But when the familiar sound of Big Ben at the top of the hour chimed on the radio, he would listen intently for the duration of the broadcast. Then I would get my lesson in real politics as it can only be told by a master.
Abu Ahmad lived poor and died poorer but my education would have never been complete if it were not for his enlightening analysis and commentary on the affairs of Syria and the rest of the world.
This is who we are, doctors, engineers, lawyers, theatrical critics and illeterate men and women with knowledge and wisdom entangled in our collective DNA and forming our unique and eternal identity.

Bisher Imam Says:

What you wrote is beautiful and humbling.

Not a day passes without a subset within the “bread earners” community, including myself, day dreaming even for a fraction of a second, about what might have happened had we really followed our true calling. My solace is that with time, we channel our passion into what we became trained to do. Most try to remain connected to their real passion, and few manage to become true renaissance people in their ability and drive to follow all what they are passionate about.

The true sadness is only when a person never finds what she/he are made off. I am afraid that this is a majority and we can trace the ultimate goal of most utopias as freeing humans from the burdens of need so that each and everyone can search for that answer.

offended Says:

Thank you for your kind words! Indeed, it would have been easier to manage our enmity had we had a better chance to know each other. :)

Thank you for the fascinating story. I know of people who had chosen IT and aeronautic engineering over medical school, or better yet, I know of a guy who dropped out of medical school to pursue his passion in …Chess! Of course, the popular reaction was that his choice was rash and irresponsible; I’d be lying to you if I said he didn’t have to struggle…

Although I had a very artsy imagination when I got into Aleppo School of Architecture, I lacked a corresponding ability for expressing it. And since one-on-one sessions aren’t very popular in our public education system, I had to rely on myself to overcome this … shortcoming.

I did okay, I guess. It was only after I came across self-help books written in English that I realized that I was instinctively following the old rule of ‘things are always created twice: first in the mind, and then in reality’.

offended Says:

Abu Fares,

You hit the nail on the head, my friend. There would be an Abu Ahmad in every town and every neighborhood and every street corner. My grandfather was an avid listener to BBC Arabic, usually through a very old transistor radio encased in green. It’s unfortunate that we don’t have an equally professional and transparent alternative in Arabic radio.

There might be a growing trend of idolizing money in the Syrian society at the moment; the nouveau riche might be wowing some with their cheap ostentatious gimmicks. But rest assured that no one could never earn the respect of the majority of Syrian people unless he/she is a ‘fahman’ person : )

Dear Bisher,

I totally agree with you, your true calling will come out through your work, sometimes even unconsciously. I met architects who design and handle their work like surgeons. Others who present their layouts like true salesmen. And of course there are the other side too, the ones who would have been better off selling watermelons : )

Your last paragraph made me think, I’d love to see people freed from their daily burdens. Of course, we are not suggesting that everyone should become a spoiled brat to be able to dedicate their energy to their true passion. But minimal level of human dignity is quintessential for the intellect to evolve.

Okay, allow me to veer off for a second here and add that the concept of Abundance (even in the economical sense) IMHO is not really materialistic, it’s about paradigm and perspective. This is why I place an emphasis on education in our collective conscience as a nation…….

I thank you Bisher, for helping me saying what I wanted to say in a better way!

Bisher Imam Says:

Dear Offended
You did no “veer off” at all, you just dug deeper. :). Outstanding.

Daedul Says:

Omg you guys,

Seriously, this has to be one of the most moving blogs I have read! Each one of you have added something so special to it.

I love the peace it brings out. I love how our beautiful homeland is discussed. I love the fact that I am able to find people out in the world who love their homeland and have the greatest respect for it and learn from people like 3amo Abu Ahmad, Allah yer7amo.

I too am an expat, jus like many of you and every time I go there people ask me where I am cz of my broken (almost non-existant Arabic shame on me) oh and I still get ripped off looool but I love it, to an extent!!

I love being there because I know I AM where I belong. I don’t care when I am labelled, because it’s jus another label and screw labels, they tend to die eventually.

I love the intellectuality that’s oozing out here. God bless you guys and Allah ye7mee Syria and her neighbors.

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