Ayman Hakki | MD/Prof Georgetown U. United States
April 17th, 2009

Re: ‘Syria is ...

Last year, a U.S. news celebrity called Tim Russet passed away at the age of fifty-eight of obesity and some minor co-morbidities of obesity. At that moment, I came to the conclusion that I was sick and tired of being overweight. I feared I would share his fate in a few years. I investigated the issue thoroughly, and after much deliberation I chose to go back to Damascus to have my surgery. The reason for going back home was not an economic choice, because I qualified for Blue Cross and Blue Shield coverage for bypass. The reason was that I did not like the side effects of that particular obesity surgery. It became an issue of trust and I trusted Syria’s surgeons more than I trusted my colleagues in the US with the newer alternatives to gastric bypass surgery; the so called sleeve stomach. I had some concerns about our hospitals, but I must now acknowledge that the treatment I received at Damascus’ Medico-Surgical Hospital was outstanding and very personal. I was born in that same hospital in 1953, so it was ironic that I found myself once again awaiting the rebirth of my skinny new self (see photos).

My uncle Zakai’s name is inscribed on the hospital’s wall as a founding father. I come from a long line of physicians and my grand father Wahid Hakki (also a physician) single-handedly implemented a retirement fund for Syria’s physicians in the forties. I can’t think of a single surgeon in the US who I’d trust with my body and a scope more than my good friend Tarif Aita. The same thing goes for my other colleagues and friends. I would only trust Ibrahim Nejmeh with my eyes, Rashed El Yousef with my hernia, and Imad Rabbat with my ear, nose and throat. Rakan Chatty has unequaled manual dexterity, Huda Bitar is a great dermatologist and that’s just doctors who are my peers. Senior Syrian doctors and surgeons are equally impressive; Mohammad Shami treated me as if I was his own son during my years of working every summer at his hospital and that’s something I’ll never forget. I love all of these men and women dearly.

Why do we have so many great Syrian men and women physicians (in Syria and outside Syria)? I have only one answer; it’s normative. It’s very Syrian to be a doctor. Consider this historic tidbit; Hippocrates was born in the middle fifth century BC in Kos (a Greek Island off of the coast of Turkey) and died in Larissa around 400 BC. What is most interesting to me is that it is rumored that he spent his last years in Damascus, teaching at its “medical school”. This implies that the Father of Medicine worked in Damascus’ medical school. Syria had doctors even before medicine’s father was born.

Today, outstanding Syrian Doctors can be found everywhere on earth. In the US, studies have shown that close to 20% of Syrians living here are doctors. The fact that the president of Syria went to my medical school, where his degree was signed by my father in-law should surprise no one. We are a nation of physicians. Admittedly, the Baath party had something to do with putting out a huge number of us doctors. But Syria was making doctors before the Baath Party, before the United Arab Republic and even before Hippocrates! This brings us back to Damascus and my personal gamble. I was getting fat and about to get sick. Diet and exercise were no longer cutting it. I let Tarif almost painlessly remove most of my stomach with his scope…and it worked. I’m now slender and light. I’m off all the medicines for hyperlipidemia, early diabetes, and hypertension. What’s better, I actually look better (at least my wife -Hiba Mounir Bittar- says so).
Of course, things could have gone differently. I could have had a terrible complication. I could also have had my surgery done in DC, where I am a clinical professor of surgery considering that I live less than a mile from Georgetown. But I didn’t, and I’m very thankful to Dr. Aita, Dr. Nejmeh and Dr. Issam Rabat (Imad’s brother). My brother-in-law Nabil Kalai stayed up all night with me that first night at the hospital. I would like to also thank the doctors, nurses and staff at the hospital who made my stay comfortable. You have to love Syria and its people to trust them with your life. They came through for me, and they will come through for you. Just tell them I sent you.

Dr. Ayman Hakki is a board certified general surgeon who received plastic surgery training at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C.He is one of the leading cosmetic surgeons in the Baltimore, Maryland area and an esteemed member of the team at Chesapeake Plastic Surgery Associates.He is a recognized portrait artist and brings his artistic skill to his work as a cosmetic surgeon.He has written a number of important scientific papers on the subject of cosmetic surgery and has presented these at national meetings.

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13 Responses to the Article

Mazen Says:


El7amdillah 3ala Essalameh. Congratulations on your successful operation and recovery, and on a warm article.

The real question is though, are you going to be there to train the next generation of outstanding Syrian doctors?

A immense amount of wealth, guidance, and love has been poured into the current generation of professionals to make them who they are. Who are we to take it all to ourselves and not give back the country and the people that gave it to us.

What about the next generation of the Hakki physicians? Who’s training them?

abufares Says:

Ah Dr. Ayman…
You’ve always been one of my favorite “distant” relatives. Distance as imposed by the reality of space and time.
Just ask Hiba who’s her favorite Tartoussi cousin :-)

ayman hakki Says:

Dear Abu Fares. You are my favorite blogger, so I just can’t believe it’s you habibi! Your Dad was also one of those senior Syrian surgeons who inspired me.

As for Mazen; you have pointed out a great problem for all Syrians. How can we claim to be proud Syrians when -so many of us- have left Syria behind?

For every Tarif Aita (who stayed to run al-Assad University Hospital and contribute to Syrian surgeon’s continued medical education ) there is a Fares Hakki (who rules the Washington Hospital Center and single handedly does more surgery that any vascular surgeon group on the East Coast of the United States).

Our problem is not confined to doctors: Engineers also have left Syria; of the 15 Hakkis in the US presently (that’s 15 out of 15); half of us are doctors and the other half engineers. My brother Wahid (a civil engineer) is “the Hakki” with most presence and amiability. He has that leadership quality that allowes him to run huge companies; without coercion he seems to inspire everyone to do his bidding.

So, why are we all in the US? Ask and you will find that we are very apolitical, economically secure and well connected. We left in the Eighties when the future seemed uncertain. We all came to work and study here because our 3 fathers were American University of Beirut grads and valued American education over other forms of education. The U.S. has embraced all of us; eight out of eight (100%) of my Hakki cousins are successful; an impressive percentage for immigrants.

Now that the world has changed and the élan of Syria has changed we may start to trickle back into Syria. I’m sorry if my blog post seems so self-centered and self-absorbed. My praise for my friends and relatives is true but looks like it is very over the top. I was just responding to creative Syria’s request that I keep it “personal” and to Western ears it may sound tacky but my point is metaphorical.

Abu Fares, you know what I am saying, because your family is like mine. You too have the engineer/doctor fifty-fifty split, and you too are half-patriots and half-expatriates. The essence of this (long winded) reply can be summed up in a question: How do we make Syria attractive to families like ours? Help me. I know you get my point, but I do not know the answer to this puzzling question.

How did our “cousins”, after being exiled for thousands of years, go back? Why is it that they support their motherland, while we don’t? We Syrian expatriates can start by making all of our dinner conversation begin with a non-sectarian non-denominational prayer; next year in Syria. Our kids may come back and a new generation of Syrians will be born; a new hybrid generation of Syrians that aspires to win, not by war, but by competence. We can do it.

Shai Says:


What a wonderful description. It not only says so much about Syria, but indeed about its people, both at home and abroad. You are not only contributing to the future of your family, but in fact also to the future of Syria. You are de facto an “ambassador” for Syria in the U.S., teaching and showing Americans and non-Americans what real Syrians are all about. Your achievements and those of your family’s are obviously extremely impressive, and will undoubtedly benefit your nation one day.

I must tell you that I often find myself engaged in similar discussions with Israeli expats in the U.S., who are considering returning to Israel after achieving their academic and financial goals abroad. Like you, they too ask me “What can Israel do to make it easier for us, for our children, to return?” Though Israel has much to offer, it also turns many Israelis away. Much has to change within Israel, but I keep responding to my friends’ question with my own question (as is common amongst Jews…): “Why don’t you come back, and help us change?” I know it’s a tough question, and the answer is ever-more complicated. But in the end, it is on the emotional realm that we must also traverse in reaching our decision.

I truly hope that our region can change enough, can be welcoming enough, to bring all of its most wonderful expats back. While the Europeans were building huts out of mud, Algebra and Astronomy were being invented in our region because of talented, hardworking people like yourself. If our region is to ever return to those glorious days, to leading in so many fields, we must have you back!

We have a saying in Hebrew as well (I’m sure you know it): “Next year in Jerusalem”. So I fully understand your own saying “Next year in Syria”. In’shalla Ayman, may your future bring you and your family all the health and happiness you wish for, and may it also take place here.

ayman hakki Says:

Thanks Shai, you are the “cousins” I’m speaking of. Being here I quickly realized how alike we were and how dissimilar I was to other Americans. That’s why I love Jews though I sometimes despise Israelis. But, don’t feel slighted; I despise all people who are from a country that wants to be exclusive. Saudis are just as bad as Israelis-in my view-because they too want a country where religion (not talent) determines the value of its citizen. Syria has faults but at least we never claim to be a democracy of Jews Muslims or Christians: Syria’s everything to everyone. I met a Syrian Jew, Pierre Azad, in DC who cursed the day he was enticed out of Syria by the powers that be.

Shai Says:


Though I’m not a psychologist or psychiatrist, and do not have the training, I do believe Israel is experiencing a certain psychosis that is making her citizens, on the whole, de facto racist. We are still very much in our post-Holocaust trauma, and would rather distrust everyone around us (and of course worse than that, with the Palestinians), than risk “falling asleep at the guard”.

Just last week we celebrated Passover, and our “freedom” out of slavery in Egypt. But the sung mantra repeated endless times throughout the Seder remains the same: “In every generation, they (the nations) rise against us, to annihilate us… And the holy almighty will rescue us (from them).” This is the state of mind. And in such fear and paranoia, how can you NOT expect a people to also become racist. I am of course not trying to justify, only to explain.

I can understand your anger at Israelis. I am also angry at my own countrymen, and I am ashamed of what we have become. And yet, I am here, where I raise my family, because I believe we can change. Justice will not be had for many people in our region, for quite some time. But we must fight this tendency to lead us further down the abyss. I believe it is possible, but the road ahead may be a difficult one, and perhaps not a very peaceful one either. With every day that passes, I pray more that Obama will indeed surprise us all. I must say that so far, his ability to reach out to Iran, Syria, and lately Cuba and Venezuela, is a sign in the right direction. I fully expect him to place the kind of pressure upon Israel that we have not seen since the days of Bush Sr.-Baker.

If only Israelis could see and hear our “real” enemies, things could be different. But at the moment, there are too many forces in existence that have other interests in mind. And yet, I am still hopeful Ayman!

Giving up is something I refuse to do.

Bisher Imam Says:


I am glad your surgery was successful.

Very nice article. and it is very True. In my own immediate family, I am the one engineer among 6 doctors. It seems that the trend is continuing into the next generation. I find it very natural to agree with your answer. It is normative. In my generation, it was probably a combination of passion and social-norms. But that is not the case for my nephews who are very passionate about medicine and are raised to be as free as possible of these social norms. It is very comforting and it brings joy to me when anyone manages to fuse two great passions they way you do in your daily life.

ayman hakki Says:

Shai is a secular humanist like me, and he is fighting the good fight against the forces of dogmatism that want to plunge us towards the abyss. Mazen is one engineer amongst six doctors and that too is impressive, though I personally think engineers are smarter than us MDs. Ask Abufares who’s smarter he or his brother? I know that Wahid (my brother) is smarter than I am; he even got a higher score in his baccalaureate exam…much higher. I wrote something wrong in my post; 20% of Syrians in Germany-not the US-are doctors. Over 7 thousand US MDs are Syrian. Being a doctor or an engineer is not who we are, we are Syrians…we are all small tiles in a rich mosaic.

offended Says:

Dr. Ayman,

First of all, Al Hamdillah 3ala Al Salameh. I had several friends at Aleppo medical school and I know how hard they had to study. And should I one day need them, I can certainly trust them and be lead through any treatment they offer me blindfolded. There was a pediatrician who used to handle me when I was a kid, and while you could almost get the same negative feedback from every kids who’d been to a Doctor; they just don’t like going to the clinic, I, however, loved this Doctor and he almost treated me like a son. There’s the real concern, you know, beyond the professional responsibility, that only a relative would demonstrate toward another. And this is why our medical care system, whether private or public, is much more humanized than I’ve seen else where.

I am also intrigued by the question you’ve asked of Abu Fares, “How do we make Syria attractive to families like ours? ” I’d like to see if this could be a topic for another discussion, as the subject is certainly of an interest to me personally, and i think it’s definitely worthwhile.

abufares Says:

How can we make Syria attractive to families like us? What an awfully difficult question to answer.

When I decided to come back, my initial plan was that it will be temporary and that eventually I shall return to the US. However, time flew by and here I am with children. First, all 3 of them (aged 19, 14 and 9) absolutely refuse to live anywhere else. I used to really entertain the possibility of leaving but their stand was firm. We won’t go anywhere!
I like to think that instilling a sense of belonging is very important and inadvertently perhaps I’ve succeeded with my kids. However, my biggest responsibility toward them has always been about making them aware of the insignificance of the new riches they see all around and the value of education, even if it leads to a poor alternative to what everybody coin as “business”.
I can never accept that any legitimate business has a profit of 100% per year, much more in many instances. These “business” usurpers have significantly damaged the Syrian social fabric in a much more vicious way than the long existing political system. The actions of government can be described as negligent and stupid. However, this new social class has malicious intent all along.
I want my children to realize that these people were, are and will always be worth shit, no more, no less.
If we can reclaim our fathers awareness of the value of education as the first step into the building of character. If we can convince our children that money is GOOD as long as it’s earned the good old fashioned way through work and not through commissions/grafting/embezzlement/monopolies then we would be doing our fair part of insuring a reawakening of a great Syria where families dream of living and staying.

ayman hakki Says:


I agree with you 100%, you may get us all to come back if the rule of law and honest trade became as normative as our social cohesiveness and our love for a “Syrian” life. I am always touched by how sweet and kind some of the same sycophants you describe are. I think that they too are trapped in this corrupt rat race of an existence.

It as if they feel “obliged” to take the bribe, dole out the graft and encourage the illicit take. I know you find the description of these people as “sweet” abhorrent. and I know they must have another side to them, but to me they are just that; sweet! Your other cousin’s husband’s cousin is a great example of this gentle demeanor.

I once wrote an essay called the deconstruction of Syrian Arab Society. In it I called for a reconciliation between the old elites (you and me) and the new elites. It’s the only way that Syria can transform itself into a new society and beat the extremists in our midst. Read P J O’Rourke’s book; Eat the Rich, and you may get my drift.


Hassan Raymond Tahhan Says:

About famous medical individuals: I believe that Ibn Nafis was a Damascene, but I have yet to verify that on Wikipedia, and other references as well, just to keep Wikipedia honest.

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