In the Circles of Kings - A personal sequel
Encouraged by colleagues, I unwisely add a personal sequel to my last post, “In the Circles of Kings.” I refrained from adding these stories in my previous post not only because it’s always easier to talk about what others experience, but also because I felt my own stories are far too petty in significance to warrant inclusion. It appears that at least on the level of comedy, my colleagues think otherwise. So here they are uncensored.
My father had very strong feelings regarding shielding me, and my sisters, from the small world of Syria’s political elite. And so even though my father was a minister for far too long — 30 years in total (1971–2001) with a short (though important) interruption as the president of the Arab Fund — and even though he had known Hafiz al-Asad since the mid-60s and even taught him, and many other generals, economics and planning, I do not have any memory of meeting important officials, or sons of important officials for that matter. All of this changed, however, on one spring day in April 2000. Forty-five days before Hafiz al-Asad died, when his son was still the Head of the Syrian Informatics Society, I was asked by my father’s secretary to attend an event at the Asad library. ‘Your father is not feeling well, and he would be very pleased if you attended,’ were the words of my father’s secretary, who was really far more than a mere secretary, and a man who had the talent of making you feel very guilty for not going along with his proposals.
A driver arrived at my UNDP office in Abu Rummaneh with the invitation card, but since it was walking distance, I decided to walk on that Tuesday morning. As I got closer to the library, I noticed that the security presence was heavier than normal. But in those days it was easy to dismiss such signs. I kept walking until I reached the library, climbed up the marble steps and walked into the auditorium where the event was to take place. Now it is important here to note that I am by nature introverted, an INFP to use MBTI language, and for those who know anything about INFPs it is not difficult to understand why I would automatically head to the back in search of a seat in some neglected corner where I could observe the event from a distance and leave if I felt it was not my kind of event, as I already suspected it would be. My attempt to head to the back of the auditorium, however, was abruptly stopped by a young woman with a very serious look. She asked to see my invitation card, and I shared it (big mistake) and she then asked me to follow her, which I did (an even worse mistake). You see this young woman was leading me to where my father was supposed to sit. And as she walked towards the front row, I tried repeatedly to explain that this was not where I should be sitting. Finally, she reached her destination — the middle of the front row. She pointed at a seat and said, or rather commanded, ‘Sit here.’ One final time, I tried to explain, but she interrupted, “I can only allow you to sit where your card says you should sit.” And she walked away, leaving me contemplating an empty chair in the still, as of yet, empty front row.
There is something about growing up in Syria that facilitates obedience even when you know what you are being asked to do makes no sense at all. And so, I sat. Don’t ask me for how long; it may have been only for seconds. But suddenly men approached the front row, one of whom was very tall. They all shook my hand and sat down. The tall man, now sitting to my right, was Bashar al-Asad. I glanced to the back and noticed the important men of his circle, men who would soon become ministers and ambassadors, men who were probably wondering who on earth this young man sitting next to their king-in-waiting was. I felt I had to say something, something that could explain what I was doing in this chair before a security guard was asked to escort me out. And so, I turned to him and whispered something unintelligible about who I was and why I was here. He smiled, though I probably left him even more confused as to the identity of the impostor sitting next to him. And of course, there were numerous photographers taking numerous pictures, adding, in the process, to how surreal it all felt. At the very first intermission, I quietly walked out, and rushed back to my office, promising myself that from now on I would completely ignore the requests of my father’s secretary.
The next day, pictures of the event were published everywhere, and for weeks I had to explain to acquaintances and, often, complete strangers, why and how I ended up sitting next to Bashar al-Asad. Needless to say, the story I have just shared was regarded as pure fiction. In the minds of the vast majority of those who witnessed this event, my presence meant I was being groomed for something far more important than words could share.
A far more pleasant experience took place shortly after the death of Hafiz al-Asad. The heads of state and various dignitaries who flooded Damascus to offer their condolences were assigned to various ministers. My father was asked to accompany President Muhammad Khatami (president of Iran from 1997–2005). I knew Khatami well through stories I had heard from my Sufi teacher, Bashir al-Bani. Al-Bani knew Khatami from the time he had been Iran’s Minister of Culture, and they both shared a deep interest in philosophy and spirituality. My favourite story was when al-Bani arrived at a mosque in Damascus for the Eid prayer. Khatami, who by then was president, noticed him and insisted on breaking all protocol and walked towards al-Bani even as he held Hafiz al-Asad’s hand. Al-Bani tried to walk away, but Khatami caught up with him and for a few very awkward seconds, Khatami was holding on to both al-Bani and Asad. “I survived only by the lutf (grace) of God,” al-Bani would conclude his story, as his students and I laughed. So, against this background, when I learned from my father that he was with Khatami at the Merdian hotel, I raced in my Peugeot 505 from my home in Mazzeh, arriving at the Merdian in a matter of minutes. As I walked in, I tried to think of what I would say, and how difficult it would be to speak to a man who was the very president of the Islamic Republic of Iran. When I reached the floor where my father had asked me to meet him, I found a very unexpected scene awaiting me. Khatami was surrounded by the hotel’s workers, waiters, janitors, and others, all taking turns to have their picture taken with the ever-smiling president. I had expected spiritual depth, as al-Bani had often emphasized, but I was not expecting this level of humility. When I reached him, my father, who was standing next to him, introduced me. “So you are this kind man’s son,” he said. I smiled and replied, “I am also the student of your friend, Bashir al-Bani”. He immediately embraced me, and said, “You are, then, doubly-connected.”
No encounter was as inspiring, however, as meeting HRH Prince Hassan bin Talal at a special event held at the University of St Andrews in November 2018. Listening to a Hashemite prince speak so eloquently, with an Oxfordian accent, about what he described as the crisis of ‘human warming’ and the need for a new global approach to human suffering and injustice had a profound effect on me. Memories of my elder family members sharing with me stories of the Kingdom of Syria and all the hopes that were crushed when King Faisal was forced to leave came back to me. Here I was, now sitting near the great nephew of King Faisal, wishing only that my father was here too, to experience a very different type of royalty; one sadly that is as rare as desert rain.
I can add to these the many encounters that I aborted before they could materialise, but they are, in my mind at least, as boring as the pseudo-kings they involved. With only three actual encounters to my name, I think I can credibly claim to have faithfully lived the advice I shared in my previous post: to never, ever enter the circles of kings!
*/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.