All the Things That Stopped
The Arab International University (AIU) lies 35 km south of Damascus on the highway that leads to the Jordanian border. It was established in 2004, and at its height was home to seven thousand students studying in various fields. The AIU campus was very impressive, boasting a massive circular meeting hall that converged into the administrative building. For a period of two years, 2008-2010, I served on the University’s Board of Directors. During this time, I was also working as the dean of an American university in Amman, but since AIU meetings were held on weekends and my weekends were always spent in Damascus, the arrangement worked well.
I remember clearly repeated invitations to leave my job in Amman for a position at AIU. I also remember how easy it was to decline these invitations. My decision wasn’t so much motivated by specific reasons as much as by a deep feeling that I should not return to live in Syria, at least not for the time being. Today, the AIU is confined to offices and classrooms in central Damascus. The campus, in which more than $250 million was invested, is now abandoned, as are other campuses that were established on the same highway. These include: Yarmouk, the Syrian International University, and the International University for Science and Technology (IUST), all established between 2004 and 2007.
The AIU was not the first private university to be established in Syria. The University of Kalamoon, based in Dayr ‘Atiyyah, was granted official status a year earlier and was known to be the only non-public university authorised to teach medicine. Kalamoon is owned and managed by Salim Da‘bul, the son of the infamous Abu Salim (Mohammad Dib Da‘bul) who served for a long time as the head of the office of President Hafiz al-Asad, a position he continued to hold under Bashar al-Asad. Kalamoon was initially more fortunate than other private universities around Damascus because of its location 88 km north of Damascus on the main highway leading to Homs. It survived the brief kidnapping of its founder back in July 2012, but then found itself at the heart of the present battle over the area of al-Qalamun. And so, like AIU, Kalamoon too retreated to central Damascus. It was not only universities that were affected in this way. The same pattern is found with private schools that were set up around the same period. Schools like al-Wataniyyah in Saboura, The Little Village in Sahnaya, where two of my children once went, and the Modern Syrian School in the Ghuta, the green belt around Damascus destined to be the site of chemical weapons use against civilians. These were co-ed schools which, in addition to teaching the mandatory government curriculum, also taught various subjects in English. The largest of these schools was Little Village, which has today been reduced to a few classrooms in the Mezzeh neighborhood.
On the eve of the third anniversary of the Syrian Uprising, it is indeed a daunting intellectual exercise to reflect on the various dynamics that were suddenly and unexpectedly suspended in March 2011. The story of this Uprising, along with its major subcategories, is largely known and documented. But underneath these main headings are fragments that are yet to be unearthed and shared. The story of how the Syrian Uprising changed, and ultimately stopped, various aspects of life in Damascus is one such fragment. The first student protest at AIU was held in October 2011. The response came the next day, and it was quickly repeated at other campuses whenever student protests took place. Shabihah, or armed thugs, would suddenly arrive. They would walk into classrooms to the disbelief of professors and would call out the names of students who had clearly been reported by other students or security officers on campus. A vivid account of how this took place in Kalamoon was shared with me by my Damascene dentist who taught there at the time. As his various instruments drilled and poked into my teeth, he talked nonstop of how faculty members were humiliated by these thugs. What was surprising at first later became a pattern, which in turn became an established practice.
I also recall the sudden disappearance of young foreign women and men who had moved to Damascus to study Arabic. Until the 1990s, Cairo was far more popular as a destination for those seeking to advance their knowledge of Arabic. However, the Centre for Teaching Arabic to Foreigners at the University of Damascus was slowly being discovered. By 2010, hundreds of foreign students were learning Arabic at this centre. Their presence in the city added something special to the coffee shops they were known to visit, like Nawfara, Beit Jabri and Narenj. Another dynamic that was suspended was the weekly influx of families from rural Damascus to attend lessons given by popular Damascene religious teachers. On Fridays, the Abu al-Nur mosque, for example, in the neighborhood of Rukn al-Din, would normally be surrounded by buses that had arrived from Jawbar, Duma, ‘Irbin and other nearby towns. However, the Uprising would eventually cut these towns off from Damascus, and the buses that were once famous for blocking the roads were suddenly gone.
And then of course, there was the change that affected my lifestyle the most. When I decided to stop working for the UN back in 2004 and search instead for an academic position, my decision to join New York Institute of Technology (NYIT) in Amman rather than a university in the West was almost entirely based on my desire to remain close to Damascus. And so, for the next eight years, I would get in my car on Thursday evenings, tired from a long working week but eager to visit my family, and cross the 200 km of largely desert terrain. The most uncomfortable part was crossing the border, and all that the processes that entailed: From the passport stamping to the ‘voluntary’ payment of one hundred Syrian pounds to the customs officer so he would be willing to process the entry of my car into Syria. After March 2011, I stopped traveling in my car and opted instead to use a reliable Damascene taxi service. Traveling the road alone had become too dangerous and unpredictable. My Damascene driver, with his various connections along the road, knew which detours to take and which checkpoints to avoid. The trip morphed into a tragic experience, a time when I would be updated by my driver on who had been killed, injured or arrested. I kept this up until early 2012, but then even my driver began to advise me to simply stay in Amman and travel if I must by plane to Beirut and from there by car to Damascus.
It was almost as though all of this was taking place in some type of insulated space that provided the illusion of permanence and continuity. Thousands upon thousands of people invested their time and energy into lifestyles that they never dreamed were as vulnerable as they proved to be beyond March 2011. None of this clearly compares, not by far, to the stories of death and destruction that Syria is so permeated with today. Yet, if there is a moral to this story, it is perhaps found in a Damascene proverb shared by my taxi driver during one of our eventful trips to Damascus: Dab al-talj au ban al-marj — the snow has melted, and the (true) field has appeared.
*/Dr. Omar Imady was born in Damascus. He is presently a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Syrian Studies at the University of St Andrews.
The views & information contained in these posts & articles are strictly those of their authors who are solely responsible for their accuracy and should not be regarded as representing the Centre for Syrian Studies or the University of St Andrews.