– 2012/12/08نشر فى: English
MARTIN MAKINSON : all4syria
“You must forget about this story. Now go and pay for your visa.
We had just had a cup of Turkish coffee in the office of Syria’s chargée d’affaires in France, Shaghaf Kayali, a career diplomat then sent as Syrian ambassador to Jordan. She had spoken hurriedly, with a smile of embarrassment on her face. This was the second time she had received me at the embassy, in the upper class “Septième” district of Paris. I could perceive a slight element of fear in her words, in her brown eyes, behind her rimmed glasses. What had led an educated and apparently kind diplomat, whom I had met because of her interest in archaeology – and European archaeological missions in Syria were then living through a golden age – to express herself in this way ??
December 2006. I am spending the Christmas break in London, where my parents live since my father retired from UNESCO in Paris. The phone rings, and an unknown woman’s voice in broken English asks me, with very little in terms of introducing herself, if I would like to teach at the recently-opened private school in Homs, Al-Hikma (“Wisdom”, a name that reminds customers of its namesake in Ashrafiyyeh, Beirut, where generations of Lebanese were educated).
How on earth had Rasha Faysal gotten my number in London, which is not even where I usually reside? Rasha Faysal, daughter of Lina Faysal, ex-Mayor of Homs, and Rachid Faysal, owner amongst other things of an entire street with upmarket trendy restaurants in this drab city, now the epicentre of Syria’s revolution… In any case, my PhD was unwritten (forget about jobs in research…). I had already committed to working as an archaeological tour guide in Muammar Khaddafi’s Libya for MagicLibya, an operator run by a Syrian based in Belgium, which caters to European agencies like Intermèdes and Nouvelles Frontières.
I therefore replied that I couldn’t be available at short notice (Faysal wanted me for a fortnight later), but I mentioned that I was interested in the possibility of working in the fall of 2007 in a bilingual school (“international” was actually the word used by her).
I then remembered that in 2005 I had vaguely commented to a pharmacy student living in Damascus of my wish to teach in the “new Syria”, to watch how a country was slowly modernizing infrastructure and services, and to witness if or not Syria could pull out of the Stalinist ideological quagmire of Assad’s iron-fisted rule.
Rasha Faysal had also studied pharmacy with that Damascus acquaintance: maybe an explanation for how I was approached.
I had travelled to Syria since 1992, had participated as a student in archaeology to excavations in the remotest areas of what looked back then as the Middle Eastern version of Ceaucescu’s Rumania. Yet I had learnt to love that country. I had been invited to partake in villagers and workers’ meals in the now gone shining alabaster mud-brick houses of Tell Banat, on the Euphrates. I had gazed at Mount Lebanon’s tallest mountains from the Canaanite and Phoenician mound of Tell Kazel, an AUB-sponsored excavation a stone throw away from Lebanon’s northern border. I had cleared the top of a royal tomb with seven chambers going back to 2500 BCE, a grave now rebuilt in the gardens of the Aleppo museum.
I had painstakingly uncovered an Assyrian cuneiform and Aramaic alphabetical archive at a site on the Euphrates, near the border with Turkey, a batch of tablets belonging to an official whose identity was multiple, blended, whose lifestyle revealed how Syria was a cultural mix already 2,700 years ago.
I had previously been residing in the country for three years, between 1999 and 2002, and enjoyed exploring places and receiving smiles, from Kurdish ‘Ain Diwar on the Tigris to Druze Sweida, and from Armenian Kassab near Antakya to Bedouin Abou Kemal…
Whenever I thought about Syria in dark history libraries or while looking at Paris’ grey, rainy skies, I would think of a day of sunshine above Lake Assad, contemplating Jebel ‘Aruda, Syria’s earliest colony, a Sumerian outpost created when the city of Uruk, the world’s earliest city, which needed metals from Anatolia around 3,300 BC.
Or I would remember sunsets from my “cockpit”, from the window-paneled living room of my apartment half-way up the Qassioun mountain: with fascinated eyes, upon the Old City of Damascus when fading to purple, then navy blue, while mosques at prayer call would lighten their minarets in fluorescent neon green.
I should have been more aware, more mistrustful. This school, a pink modern, spacious but tasteless building on Homs’ southern outskirts, had no idea of how I taught. It had no idea of my experience. Its owner knew not if the children I had taught the French curriculum to in Seyyun, in Yemen’s fascinating Hadramawt, in 2005-2006, had learnt efficiently. I was just a “foreigner”. A foreigner who had been spoken of as a “surprise” to parents assembled at a school meeting with the administration, in June 2007.
Homs of the brave, Future Land of the Free
Homs. Not much left of Julia Domna and crackpot Roman Emperor Heliogabalus there. A city Lonely Planet describes in offish, sarcastic terms, emphasizing that “the most refined thing about it is its oil”. A city of perhaps 800,000 people, where a sizeable portion of them share the same famous surnames: Atassi, Jandali and Farqouh. A city which still, despite all odds, retains an old town made of black basalt blocks, a maze of streets that one enters through Souq al-Hamidiya, a market with the same name as the main bazaar of Damascus. A city that has known better days. The old houses have gradually been pulled down, replaced by grey or colourless homes for poorer people (though this process had already started in the 1950s).
Part of the homes that survive have been gradually transformed into restaurants, like Beit al-Agha and Beit Julia, following a pattern which Asma al-Assad, Bashar’s wife, has set in motion from the moment she has become the First Lady: to transform the choicest bits of Syrian urban heritage into boutique hotels and expensive dining places for her elite acquaintances.
The rest was to be demolished by Gulf money and the governor’s decisions. Image, appearance, hiding the grim reality of the “New Syria” behind glamour, behind the smiles and the ahleens of Syria’s “desert roses”: I will come back to that, since this what Bashar’s reforms have partly consisted of, since he has taken power in June 2000. Lebanese cosmopolitan glitz to cover up “New Syria”’s corruption and intimidation. “Make us look good [for foreign investors]” was the motto that had led Omar Abdelaziz Hallaj, an Aleppo architect responsible for the Old City, to leave his job for another in Hadhramawt. But that’s another story…
Yet Homs, which foreigners have usually given a miss or slept in for one night on their way to the Krak des Chevaliers, the world’s most famous Crusader castle, or to the sandstone columns of Palmyra, was bustling not so long ago. A Syrian doctor mentioned that in the early 1960s, seventeen newspapers were published every week in the city. It was the home of a sizeable middle class, now living behind the Karama stadium, the Ghuta (yes, again, a green oasis on the Orontes, like the one surrounding the Barada river of Damascus…), or in the neighbourhoods of Inshaat or al-Waar.
Christians, Alawis near the al-Baath University, and Sunnis all living together peaceful, if somewhat segregated lives.
When I arrived, I discovered an industrial city encircled by a tahweel, a ring-road, whose northern neighbourhoods smelt of industrial alcohol (sugar factories) and whose other parts reeked of burnt rubber when the western winds would blow through the corridor linking the city with the coast (a smell due to al-Masfai, a Soviet-style refinery which is one of Syria’s largest ecological disasters).
The city had already been punished by the Assad regime, perhaps for founding too many political parties after Syria’s independence in 1946, for being too full of intellectuals, doctors, lawyers, engineers, writers who could think and expose their views. For being the city of Syria’s imprisoned president, Noureddine al-Atassi, who had consistently refused to forgive Hafez al-Assad for his November 1970 coup. For being so strategic, in the very centre of the country. Or even for having a dry, sardonic sense of humour. Homsis are subject to jokes all over Syria. But beware, appearances of silliness are deceptive. Especially in this case…
Now Homs has been punished again, relentlessly, Hama 1982-style, because it is the centre of Syria’s Arab spring, it is the place of the fearless, where women, teenagers and men alike took to the streets for freedom, knowing that they might never reappear, aware that the shabiha thugs might drag them from their homes in the middle of the night for having dared to defy the Assad clan and their cronies…
And cronies there are many in Homs, not just the Faysals and Rifai’s, but also the Anbubas, who have a major share of Syriatel. Homs is the city where the regime has been trying to instigate sectarian hatred, like an arson spraying gasoline and then playing the fireman saving the nation.
Back to School
August 14th, 2007. I am visiting Syria (again) with the daughter of a famous poet, who has invited me to her home in Beirut and to her father’s villa in Qassabeen, a village half-way between the Mediterranean and the mountain ridge of the coastal range, the Jebel al-Ansariyeh. Homs is a convenient stop-over, my prospects of earning a living in France are low and the school still wants me to work there, for 2000 US dollars a month and a home.
I visit Al-Hikma, talk to Rasha Faysal, visit a first grade with kind kids spelling “butterfly” in English, like in stories written in manuals about the first day at school. I see a swimming pool in construction behind the classrooms and a green used as a playground between fields. A soothing breeze is blowing despite the summer, and Mt Lebanon above Besharre and Deir al-Ahmar is clearly visible. Why not work there then?
My friend warns me to be more prudent before taking a decision. My plane-ticket to come back is paid for in cash, my return is planned for September 15th, when school starts. This happens after a mock lesson, with a mock plan asked by the “mock” Lebanese headmaster, who had imagined I was travelling with my university diplomas.
A bogus interview, because Rasha Faysal, al-Hikma’s owner, has already made up her mind long ago to hire “the foreigner” into her mock school.
I am back in Homs after a Turkish Airlines nightly flight. Straight into the first bus to Homs. I reach the Duwar Tadmor turnabout, with – again – mock kitschy Palmyra imitation of the ancient city’s tetrapylon. And I go straight to the school, into teaching, with my 20-kg suitcase. I haven’t slept at all. No manuals, they will arrive when the Ministry of Education gives permission (eventually). I improvise.
After a few days in a dreary, dirty hotel behind the stadium where I am put up, I finally move into an apartment in al-Ghuta.
Rasha Faysal’s husband, Mr al-Rifa’i, drives me around town, pays for the apartment in cash. We pass by his home, he opens his car boot, where a pump gun is put away. “To shoot birds, it’s autumn”, he says with a smile…
The rent is paid for until May 31st, the end of the academic year, not in my name (foreigners are an excuse for more money into Bashar’s coffers, umm sorry, tax), but in the name of some school bus driver I know not of.
The year goes by. Winter winds blow through the Homs corridor. The seven-o’clock bus picks me up every day from a roundabout at 7 a.m, we drive towards the looming clouds, down the Damascus highway, to the school.
The children are funny, creative, easy to get on with and in general want to do well and show it. Two second graders, from not-so-wealthy backgrounds, talk to me, want to please and work hard. Their assiduity reflects the efforts of their parents to give them an education. No problem on that front.
I am motivated to see most improve their skills, to make a difference… The parents are mostly encouraging, and see me as an opportunity. If they get too personal, I explain that as a teacher, I have to keep distance and treat everyone the same. But everything stems from good intentions, and they just want to make me feel welcome. “Habab”, as they say in Homs when addressing someone you like…
Yet the higher the form, the grade, the weaker many children are in English. In fourth grade, many eleven-year olds barely know how to read words on the photocopied manual written for UK pupils who speak fluent English at home. What had they learnt the previous three years? Many parents want good grades (“ ‘ilameh”), and to compensate for this, demand private lessons.
As a teacher, I cannot do this. Most also understand that good grades require attention in class and hard work. That you do not assess a school simply by grades, but by what the children really know and how they use it.
Rasha Faysal does not. After a science exam where there are only few good marks, she throws the exam papers to my face, slams the door and walks out turning off the lights, with me, bewildered, still in the classroom. But she can’t afford a resignation, it would look bad on the school, I guess. She calls school buses to find out where I am, to request me to rewrite the exam.
My answer: “as many times as you want, but treat me like this again and I walk straight out”. End of my working relationship with Rasha Faysal. I work, but secluded from the rest of staff, under distant scrutiny…
I am on the black, despite the promise of an iqama, of a residence permit which enables a foreigner to work legally, to buy a car and stay for more than several months: none of that after waiting for weeks and raising the question several times with Faysal.
I then discover that foreign teachers in private schools work on tourist visas, illegally, but of course with full knowledge of the authorities and the Syrian mukhabarat. I also learn that nothing has been done for me to get one in the first place. A cause for frustration…
Why stay in Homs? Why not finish my long delayed PhD? Why not believe in myself, that I am capable of getting a job in archaeology, in research, despite the odds, despite my age. In the process, I have been engaged to a Syrian Christian girl. It starts with Spanish conversation lessons (I am half Argentine) and ends up with an engagement party at the Safir Hotel.
I am silly, I feel silly, not fully in control of events in this traditional society, but I am with a modern, intelligent, intellectually curious and caring lady. I guess I like her, if not more…. And feel protected by a family of 300 people, with ramifications in the Qalamoon region, in Damascus, in the USA, the Emirates, Egypt and Brazil (many Homsis and Qalamoonis have emigrated to South America, they like to sip mate, the Argentinian tea I myself drink to keep awake). Syrian families can make you feel you’ve been adopted as one of their own. Besides, she is a perfect travel companion: she has been with me to snowboard in Faraya, Lebanon, to Istanbul, to Aleppo, to the Euphrates, to Andarine, a Byzantine Pompei of the steppe east of Hama… We have watched spring poppies blossom on the volcanic crater topped by Shamamis castle, a dark shade of basalt built by the Assassins of the Ismaili sect, in the age of Saladin and the Second Crusade… We have walked the steppe in the Byzantine Pomepei of the badia, the Syian desert, at Khirbet al-Andarin, where black and white walls stare at you, where churches bears lintels in Greek reminding one of an Arab Ghassanid Ozymandias.
Later, the Lebanese headmaster gets the sack, after a small argument with Rasha Faysal. Firing is immediate: so much for job security in “socialist” Baathist Syria… A new man, 32-years old, Muhammed Utmeh, is hired from Damascus. He has worked in the Gulf, has ideals, wants to educate the young in a more open atmosphere.
Despite being religiously conservative, he knows very well that the good old basm (learning by rote methods) does not work. He experiments, implements, sometimes relays orders, sorry “instructions”, from Rasha, but generally gets the approval and admiration of most teachers. Apart from a few discussions, we get on well. I just work at the school, have minimal communication with Rasha, and carry on with my job, referring to Utmeh whenever needed.
The exams are approaching. Two of them have to be written for each class, for each subject. During the year, teenagers in ninth grade have been growing restless, often even disruptive. Yelling and banging is common in the corridors.
I then learn how little Mr Utmeh, the headmaster, can do when things have gone far too far in a classroom. No detention. No extra homework. No expulsion from the school. One day, Mr Utmeh disappears. Gone. Where? For an entire week, no one knows.
I then receive a text message on my Syriatel number. “You were entirely right about the school”. Mr Utmeh is in Damascus after a few days in hospital. He had punished a teenager, the son of the owner’s cousin, with push-ups in the playground. The pupil’s father barged into his office after hours, with a bodyguard and a driver. The headmaster was manhandled, thrown to the floor. “We can kill you, we can hurt your wife, your family. Ana malik al-balad, I am the owner of this town”.
Welcome to “Assad’s Syria” on border signposts means “welcome to His Majesty’s private property”: a very effective role model for the rich… Mohammed Utmeh flees to his Damascus suburb, only to be threatened by Rasha Faysal’s brother of being “buried” if he speaks of the school. He later reveals that he had been followed, that during the year he was authorized to give his cell phone number to no school parent, indeed to no one living in Homs…
No one of the staff talks about the matter. I look at teachers who had waxed lyrical about their admiration for Mr Utmeh. One says: “I don’t know whom to believe, his story is not so credible”. A Syrian-American English teacher answers: “let us handle this our own way”. An administrator of the school asks me not to talk about the issue: ahsan lak, “it’s better for you…”; the best comment comes from a Mexican-American teacher from El Paso, who uses the school to handpick pupils for private lessons at her home near the Safir Hotel, in the afternoon: “you are biting the hand that feeds you; my policy is to speak no evil, see no evil and hear no evil…”
Rasha Faysal then barges into the teacher’s room, screaming in Arabic: “we do not beat up people, and whoever spreads this rumour will get the sack. We will have a meeting now with the teaching staff in my office. “Teaching staff” means everybody except me. “Tell us at least your version of events, what happened”, is what I ask. The answer is swift: “I am not talking to you”, and the door is slammed… This is May 17th, 2008. The academic year will be over in two weeks.
This is too much to bear. I leave a class. I walk into an office she is in at that moment, in the early afternoon. I ask: “please do not talk to me in this way” and she smiles, scornfully, then slams the door in my face. I open it again, forcefully, and she falls to the ground. The reaction is just as quick: “Do you know who I am? I can put you in jail; leave this country immediately”. Bus drivers and administrators start kicking me, spitting at me, insulting me in Arabic (the most polite word being oula). The process lasts twenty minutes, and I am pushed out of the school, and left on the Damascus-Homs highway where I hitch-hike a ride to the city in a small truck.
I am still engaged with my Syrian fiancée. She gets a call from the same bus drivers, and they ask her about my whereabouts. They are waiting by my home. In fact, this girl saved me from big trouble. Had she not been there, they would have broken in, thrown everything about, maybe wounded me and expelled me immediately. Without the landlord knowing at all, a landlord who called me in utter surprise, emphasizing that he had not been informed of my expulsion and that I could stay.
I leave for Damascus the same day. The driver, an acquaintance of my fiancée’s family, asks me before driving the 180 km stretch through the steppe: shou jabak la-hone? (“what brought you here in the first place?”)
Two years later, a well-connected but unhappily married American teacher who has lived in Syria for 21 years tells me: “let me find out more about what happened and who are the Faysal’s”.
Two days later: “don’t do anything about this matter. They are connected to the first circle of power. You are a foreigner, this saved your life. Had you been a local, you might have been killed or maimed. These people launder money”.
The French embassy: “do not complain about what happened to you… they will pay people, their bus drivers, to give false testimonies, to say you attacked this woman”.
A French-educated lawyer in Homs: “there’s nothing you can do. They are powerful, and they didn’t give you working papers”. The only thing I got in terms of “help” is being questioned by a mukhabarat officer at my fiancée’s family home on why I had left Homs so suddenly (Europeans residing in Homs: six at the time…)
“No child left behind”
Maybe al-Hikma is an exception. Maybe it’s a bad apple in a decent pile. I had not been planning to work there after the end of the academic year… In April 2008, I had gone through an interview at Choueifat, a Lebanese school with an international curriculum, belonging to a network called SABIS, which prints its own textbooks. I wanted to stay in Syria, despite the rough experience.
Besides, finding a teaching job was easy. A multinational of schools that has spread into Egypt, the Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Jordan and even Iraqi Kurdistan (yes, there is one in Erbil….) cannot be that bad.
I get shown around after a comprehension and grammar exam given by the Australian headmaster, Neil Smooker. Things look serious, I have taught a “social science class” as a demo lesson, and was quite successful in doing so. Or so it appeared…
Serious and spacious and luxurious premises in Sahnaya, beyond Hajar al-Aswad and Nahr ‘Aisha, the hotbeds of the Syrian revolt, slums for the new urban destitute where the regime has massacred hundreds…
The grounds of Choueifat School are huge, spreading around the south Damascus neighbourhood of Sahnaya. A sprawl of buildings, a football stadium, a basket ball field, even a library (not the priority of Syrian private schools…). Wow! Who cares if Rami Makhlouf, cousin of Bashar and money-maker of the “family”, is the owner.
He owns everything in Syria anyway. A current joke in the country speaks of Assad meeting Mubarak in 2006: Mubarak says that he has engaged in khaskhassa, “privatization”; Assad answers that in Syria, it’s a little different, it’s called “Ram-rama”. Another one says that Rami Makhlouf owns only one property in Syria: a stretch that spreads all over from Damascus to Lattakia. Which is untrue: oil companies in the Jazira, the RAMAK duty frees at the airport and on the Jordanian and Lebanese borders are also his. RAMAK: their buses are used to transport schoolchildren to and from Choueifat. Who knows, they might have been used lately for bringing shabiha, the dreaded gangster militia, into the besieged cities of Homs, Hama and Deir ez-Zor…
“So you’re the new social studies teacher. They’re desperate, you know”, says shy-looking Madeleine Babbili, a Syrian 26-year old who spent most of her life in Oxford.
Choueifat turns out to be a short stint. Smooker (the Australian headmaster)’s sermons, become more and more repetitive. An Anglo-Saxon mukhabarat, making sure communication goes up vertically, not horizontally between teachers… Imagine if professors would comment on quasi-physical assault by teenagers, sons of the security elite of the country… the latter “will hang you by the feet if you react” is what I get told by a Lebanese chemistry teacher. No child gets left behind in this kingdom of learning by rote: fail a test, go through a retake. Curse a bus that drives off without you as you exit class, and you end up in Smooker’s office, being lectured on PR, McDonald’s style.
Write the thirty-or-so B45, B36, B13 coded infractions on a paper to the people in charge of discipline when you want detention, who knows, after six months of being abused, you might be successful… And please note that Arabic teachers never talk in the common room, never discuss anything, and never complain… I decided to leave this “kingdom of eternal academic harmony” after three months of grinding, grueling teaching
The Three Sisters
A year later, in 2009. Let’s move higher up. Above Damascus, to where the top brass of the army, mukhabarat and ministries live: Qoura al-Assad. Where the family of the president goes to school. Let’s forget about Hadeel al-Hussein’s “Montessori” institution, her premises for revolutionary teaching. Let’s forget her propaganda, her hairstyle and expressions modeled on the “Rose of the Desert”, “Emma” al-Assad, the celebrated Queen of Syria of Vogue and of Czech Airlines in flight magazines. Let’s go directly to a school with a message: Bashaer. Let’s go to one of the places administered by three “sisters” from old Damascene families. The Kassab-Hassans, the Sukkars amongst them. But who pulls the strings of the school, surprise surprise !
I soon learn how to see beyond the varnish of normality when I teach French. I soon learn that in fact nothing is normal when “handling” classes of three siblings of the Shawkat family who, despite being thirteen, have the literacy proficiency of second graders. I soon learn that exam marks must be written in pencil, because they are subject to “encouraging enhancement”. I soon learn that their papers can be written during exams that can last as long as they need, and that corrections and grades have to be given five minutes after the end. I soon learn that it is normal for children to throw the teacher’s copybook into a dustbin (just a joke, I probably don’t should get a sense of humour…), to enter class systematically twenty minutes late, if at all (after all, the lesson lasts for forty…). I also learn that speaking of classes with colleagues and exchanging information about academic performance is mamnou’a, forbidden. I witness the sacking of an American teacher, her fears of getting beaten by Shawkat’s bodyguards on their way to school following one of his sons’ calls, and the child’s apologies when the Shawkats figure out her abusive husband did business first with Khaddam, then with Maher.
Maher, who sorts out family disputes with Shawkat by pulling out a pistol and pumping bullets into his stomach (Assef Shawkat was flown to Paris then, a pattern that was to be repeated by Boshra’s trips to France for medical treatment…).
I also finally see that these schools are part of a system. They follow the “Cham City center” syndrome. Open a school, open a language centre (less profitable, you can’t charge 6000 US dollars a year for tuition, something well beyond the means of average Syrians…), open a shopping center, in the end it’s all the same. Profits have to be pouring into the pockets of countless Assads and Makhloufs. Get fired and get intimidated if you dare speak about the institutions you worked for in the upper class cafés of Rawda or Abou Rummaneh…
The Bigger Picture
These are anecdotes… But they are also part of a larger image. They are details of what it was to experience Bashar’s “New Syria”, a theatre stage of normality, a hastily set up bootleg of Lebanon post-2005. A laboratory for the reproduction of Syria’s “elites” (a misnomer, but a term I use for lack of other equivalents…). The seven years leading to Syria’s popular uprising were those of pervasive corruption, of the cooptation of some rich families smiling and getting rich while providing an aura of respectability and westernization to a country where “Unity, Freedom and Socialism” became a myth, an ugly signpost at the borders with neighboring countries, welcoming visitors to “Assad’s Syria”.
These were years when Assad (sorry, I mean Wahash, the family’s real name…)’s one party state became nothing more than private property, and when the courageous people from the countryside and Damascus or Aleppo’s grey slums became the ra‘iya, i.e., flocks of cattle…
Buy your perfume at Ramak. Send your kids to a private school. Send the eldest to Qalamoun or Arab International or al-Wadi or any other private “university”. Make Syriatel or MTN calls. Eat at Gemini’s or Sahara with your friends. Buy your clothes at Aishti’s in the Four Seasons Hotel. Fetch a friend at the airport with a Julia Domna taxi, paying 40 US for the 18 km ride, for lack of better choice. And then just check out how much money the Assads, the Makhloufs, the Daabouls, the Hamchos and the Khoulis have made from you. And istaghfer Allah, when you learn how much has been milked by the “armed gangs” (aka these three families), never, never, never complain…