Bisher Imam | Ph.D., Prof UC Irvine California
April 17th, 2009

Re: ‘Syria is ...

In my other persona, I deal with numbers, hard facts and computer codes. Yet, once in a while an untested, naïve and highly romantic child-poet finds its way out. These are becoming further apart, and your question of “Syria is” was so powerful and emotional that it awakened that irrational part of me.

Long ago, when I was in 7th grade, our Arabic teacher assigned to us the eternal composition about cooperation and solidarity. My classmates wrote classical solid definitions of the two words and their compositions were filled with historical anecdotes, quotes from Hadith, Quran, poetry, and other sources. That was the first time when my unrefined dreamer woke up. My composition spoke of wolves and villagers, of chickens, sheeps, dogs, and of battles in which both villains and heroes were victorious because they, each with their own, worked together. It suffices to say that I got my first ever F. This essay is written with the same naïve spirit. And an F may be warranted, but I had to get it out.

Syria is my grandmother’s narrow balcony overseeing the Mediterranean, a distant ship waiting to be loaded with Iraqi oil, and a colorless, but colorfully decorated taxi navigating the town’s only roundabout and heading towards the coastal road where it will soon pass the majestic crusader’s fortress as it continues a 5000 years journey that started an hour ago not far from the birthplace of the first alphabet.

She is my own home town, overseen by yet another magnificent fortress, which over the same 5000 years witnessed generals, kings and princes, whose armies gathered in all corners of the known world, and were joined across history with a common goal of acquiring power over this hard to keep jewel. She is where roads, some well cared for, and some in need of repairs, carry caravans that are moving people and goods from all imaginable places to countless destinations. In no other place it is so easy to imagine the modern metal beasts transformed into caravans of living beasts of burden that traveled the same paths for several millennia.

She is the bustling marketplaces, old and new, where languages intermix and tempers flare and subside as bargainers make agreements surrounded by modern and ancient vehicles which co-exist, miraculously, with daring, cautious, and outright risk taking pedestrians.

She is where fields, vineyards, groves, orchards, and hectares upon hectares of wheat, some of which witnessed the earliest successful attempts to cultivate wild grains, continue to do the same, uncaring if they were to be burnt by a foreign general, by lightning, or by their loving peasants to enrich their soil after harvest. It is as if these fields know that many a general and his soldiers have either left in defeat or were eventually absorbed into the ever expanding Syrian fabric as they joined the peasants, merchants, and artisans whom they subjugated, and built cities now cocooned under the hills which intersperse the semi-arid landscape. All is a day’s worth of making a living in a place where the calls to prayers emanating from nearby and distant minarets are as natural and as in place as the angelic harmonies of church bells, the sounds of ancient songs, and the shy taps of dancers.

Syria is a bridge between east and west, north and south, old and new. This is what many of us Syrians think of whatever each of us may chose to confine Syria to. Well, I no longer do, for I no longer confuse a living river with a passive inanimate structure. As a river does, Syria, forced by the gravity of human progress, flows within the confines of its historical landscape, but like the river waters, Syrians, ever since the dawn of civilization, have reshaped history into more fertile, lush, and diverse plains.

Some argue that Syria has never been a single country, and as such, any definition of Syria and Syrians is null and void. But we Syrians know who we are to the core of our being. And over the ages, we have coalesced under a set of overarching unifying traits, chief amongst them are: a deep awareness of the interconnectedness of our complex history, recognition of our ties to all races and creeds, a painfully earned sense of the transience of empires, and a hard earned right; to some a duty, to oppose hegemony, be it cultural, religious, racial, military or economical.

Long before parts of the new world were destined to become a melting pot, we in fact were, and continue to be, the products of the first true melting pot and of the longest cross cultural exchange in history. This is why we are at ease no matter where we settle and this is also why we may appear ambivalent to episodes of upheaval or stagnation. It is not carelessness but understanding that continues to shape us.

The nomad’s house is nowhere, ours is everywhere. We have been subjects as well as citizens of countless empires and by now nothing is new under the light of our collective consciousness. Our essence and role is to incubate, and like any fertile soil, we have, and we will continue to do so for a long time to come.

Roads will be built, forts will be erected, and armies will maneuver over the landscape and in the skies, but we, the peasants, artisans, merchants, and artists, we, the students and teachers of history will continue to hold the amber for the next campfire, around which the new will be molded out of the old, and we will do what we have always done, nurture infant civilizations until they reach adulthood and are ready to go on their own.

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (20 votes, average: 4.75 out of 5)
Loading ... Loading ...

15 Responses to the Article

Alex Says:


This is not bad at all for an engineer : )

I absolutely loved it. Thank you so much for taking the day off and writing this beautiful piece.

Try to spend less time analyzing statistics with your friends at NASA and more time writing.

Mazen Says:


Beautiful writing. But who do you think deserves our nurturing more. Is it the infant civilizations, or it is our own Syria that misses its loving children?

Bisher Imam Says:

It is in our own Syria, where i envision an infant civilization will emerge that we will nurture. But that does not mean that such a civilization will be confined to Syria. The essence of civilizations is to transcend national boundaries through art, science, and philosophy . But in their infancy, they must be nurtured somewhere, and our Syria, had proven a superb nursury.

Syria misses and needs her loving children, and we also miss her, and despite of our ability to be at ease anywhere, we need her. Even third and fourth generation of immingrants, still long to their ancesstoral land.

Mazen Says:

Maybe then an infant state. A rebirth of the old civilization into a new, youthful and stable manifestation, if I read you correctly.

“Syria misses and needs her loving children, and we also miss her”

Amen to that for sure.

abufares Says:

Great Piece of writing Bisher. I thoroughly enjoyed this excellent tour de force.

ayman hakki Says:

by the way Bisher, and as if to validate my point to Shai, the fortess near your home town is-I think-called Zion’s fotress, right? This is an unmentionable tribute to the cultures that swept through Syria without dominating it and a striking metaphore for the mosaic of Syria.

Bisher Imam Says:


The fortress is al Marqab Castle near Banias, my parent’s home town.
Originally it was established by the Arabs, conquered by the Byzantines, and later became one of the Knights Hospitalers main forts on the Syrian coast. It was finally taken by the Mamluke Sultan Qalaoun. My maternal side of the family (Assar), trace their family origin in Banias to Egyptian roots through Shams Eldeen Assaar, whome my late uncle, an historian and amateur archeologist, identified as one of Qalauon’s generals. I was told by my late uncle that this ancestor of mine led the siege to retake the fort. Legends say, (and I am yet to find confirmation) that he used a ski cart like system to lift his troops from the sea shore to the higher ground while remaining out reach of arrows and catapult projectiles, which could not maintain altitude.

A couple of years ago, while in Egypt, I met an 800 years removed Assar cousin. He confirmed that the family, a large family in Egypt, had a long centuries old military tradition and immediately accepted me, with astonishing generosity as a direct cousin.

However, you are absolutely right each and every structure, including the wonderful majestic fort and its lone tower (burj al sabi) is a testament to the cultures that swept Syria only to become part of the incredible mosaic that became us, without dominating it.

This is a theme that is strikingly evident in each of the 8 essays addressing this very profound question. Syria is…….

ayman hakki Says:

You maternal side of the Assars may “trace their family origin to Egyptian roots through Shams Eldeen Assaar, who was one of Qalauon’s generals”. How cool is that, how distinctively Syrian! My maternal side is easily traced back to Dervish Pasha the head of the Othman army during the Crimean war (think Helen Keller) but I too am Syrian Shami first. It’s amazing how our ruins inspire greatness in us, as apposed to Othman ruins that inspire “Huzun” in Turks (read Istanbul by O. Pamuk). That’s because we never wished to rule the world, but we learned something from everyone who conquered us. Today they are a part of our mosaic. Our’s is a culture of inclusion and celebration. We survived all these people. That’s what sets us apart; 10,000 consecutive years of survival. But what about; Kallaat Sahyoon, how did that fortress get its name; Zion! I’d like to know.

Bisher Imam Says:

That was a very interesting observation. I believe that in due time our Turkish relatives (I also have Turkish blood on my father’s maternal side) will learn to view their own accomplishments with Pride instead of “Huzun”. This is one of the points I tried to stress by saying that we Syrians have learned how transient empires are.

Now, back to the issue of Qalaat Sahyoun, which since 1959 has been called Salladin Castle.

“Once known as Sahyoun or Saone, Saladin’s Castle is of ancient origin. It was first built by the Phoenicians, became an important Byzantine stronghold, then was taken in the twelfth century by the Crusaders” (Article by Habeeb Saloum)

I believe that the name Saone can probably be traced to biblical influence on either the Byzantine or the Crusader tenor in the fort. In a very interesting twist, confirming how Syria (greater Syria) absorbed many of her invading generals, the Karam family in Lebanon trace their origin to a French general who ruled the fort Sahyoun during its crusaders days. Their name remained Es-Sahyouni until it was changed to Karam ” The name of “Karam” was not adopted till Bechara Es-Sahyouni’s earned the name “Abu-Karam” due to his phenomenal generosity.”. In Banias as well, Es-Sahyouni family is a prominent family, but I am not sure whether they are relative of the Karams or whether their name derive from the orginal Mount Sahyoun region in Palestine.

Since my last posting, I have been googling further, and I found that the Sultan himself led the siege of Al Marqab, which rules out my ancestor as “the leader” of the siege, but not as a participant in the Sultan’s army, which based on the Egyptian side of the family is very likely. I also am finding that the Ski lift story must be replaced by few tunnels aiming to destabilize the walls by burning wood inside, and l am happy that my cautious side made me refer to the story as a legend. , based an anonymous contemporary narrative of the Fall of Al Marqab. It is also an interesting coincidence that the Marqab siege started, of all days, on April 17, 1285 and ended on May 25 of the same year. Parts of the chapter describing the twist-and-turn siege can be seen on google books by googling “The Fall of Al Marqab”
It is rather sad that my beloved late uncle never sow this manuscript, which resides in Rome. He would have loved it. Although an English translation was published in 1969, and later in 1984 in a book titled Arab Historians of The Crusades.

I want to use this forum here to argue that we need a very directed effort to improve the number of books, scientific, literary, and reference books translated into Arabic as well as to obtain an inventory of old Arabic manuscripts that remain hidden in libraries stretching all over the World.

jad Says:

Dear Dr. Imam.
I enjoyed your (Syria is) beautifully written.
Regarding the Castle, I thought you would like these pictures of Saladin (Sahyoun) Castle by one of the best Syrian photographers you might come cross: Mahmoud Shuairi

ayman hakki Says:

Bisher supplies the info, Jad supplies the photo and I’m a happy camper. Zion Castle mystery solved. One must be blind not to see how cool my fellow Syrians are, as opposed to our Lebanese (My Mom is a Solh) and other neighbors people. The discourse is civil though we have complaints and frustrations our tenor is distinctly Syrian.

The information age came just in time for us to see how great Syria is. I thank you all for your responses. I’m sure you are -like me- very busy, so I appreciate your time and efforts. I also must thank Alex for introducing us to each other. Some of you are even my relatives (who knew!) though I have no clue who some of you are, I love you all


offended Says:

That’s a fine piece of writing, Bisher. Thanks you very much for taking the time. There are an overwhelming sentiments of longing and belonging coming through your words.

As a young Syrian, I’d be lying to you if said I am not anxious for Syria’s future. There are reasons to be apprehensive and there are reasons to be optimistic. One thing I’ve noticed though that made me hopeful, that when everyone puts politics aside, almost all of us (the ones who participated in this ‘questionnaire’, for example) would more or less agree with each other. It’s not out of courtesy that we’re doing this, although I know you all are extremely courteous, it’s that there is a still clear sense of what Syria is.

Bisher Imam Says:

Both photos are beautiful, but the second one is simply “Symphonic”.
Last nights I also scanned through Mahmoud Shuairi’s large collection, thank you for the wonderful treat. I can only agree whole hartedly with Ayman, we are blessed to live in the information age.

Thank you very much

It is rather encouraging that we agree on the most fundamental question of what syria is for it also defines who we are and identifies what we want to bceome. Could it be more political than that?

Humam : ) Says:

Kudos Bisher! I truly enjoyed reading your ilustrative, visionary, historical and above all, romantic rendition of Syria.

P.S. I whole heartedly agree with Alex!

louai Says:


Leave a Reply

« Return to Main Page