A Modernizer Challenges Syria’s Old Order

By Nora Boustany

Going out on a limb almost comes naturally for Ammar Abdulhamid. He grew up in an artsy milieu in Damascus, the only child of a celebrity couple whose daily existence depended on living on the edge of what was acceptable within a rigid political system. His father, Mohammed Shaheen, was a movie director, and his mother, Mona Wasef, is a top Syrian actress. To succeed in their field meant breaking barriers.

At 38, Abdulhamid is one of Syria’s daring modernizers, a member of the country’s budding reform movement that is challenging the old order, at least verbally, and its way of doing things.

Abdulhamid, a well-read scholar and historian concerned with minority and human rights in the Middle East, is founder of DarEmar, a Damascus-based publishing house devoted to raising civic awareness. He is also projects coordinator for DarEmar’s Web-based research forum, Al Tharwa, Arabic for “wealth.” He does not want to scapegoat the Syrian government, he said in an interview, nor does he want to let it off the hook.

People like Abdulhamid are taking their revolutionary ideas not only to new coffeehouses in the Syrian capital — hangouts with names like Oxygen and Alal Bal (“On My Mind”) — but also to global forums and to the Internet. The fact that the authorities are watching has “crossed my mind,” he said nonchalantly. But he said officials are beginning to attend some of the gatherings around town, and Syria’s first lady,Asma Assad, expressed an interest in Al Tharwa and asked to meet with its participants.

At a recent luncheon discussion at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, he lamented the passing of what he called the “Damascus Spring,” the blossoming of hope and lively discussion shortly after the death of Hafez Assad four years ago and the accession of his son, Bashar, to the presidency. Syrian intellectuals began to challenge old platitudes. As a pacifist, Abdulhamid said he called for a kind of national reconciliation that would address Syria’s diversity, which had always fascinated him.

“We need something new. . . . We need to come up with a specific vision, a plan with milestones for gradual openness, a new system of governance and a national pact that addresses the informal diversity of the country more clearly,” he said. “We have an obscurantist regime that controls the military and political process in cooperation with people from all sects. It is a system where no one trusts anybody and everyone is dissembling. It takes a long time to repair cultural damage and the attitude towards minorities.”

But he said his own journey to adulthood — watching his bohemian, celebrity parents from the sidelines as a child — was peculiar, almost tortured.

When he was 18, he spent eight months in Moscow, studying astronomy and learning Russian. But he became moody and depressed. It was during this time, Abdulhamid said, that he turned to religion and fundamentalism. He dropped out of school and returned home with a long beard. His mother panicked and talked him into studying in the United States. He was sent to Britain for a crash course in English and then enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

After his third semester, he again dropped out of school and went to Madison to live with a Syrian friend. He began going to the Islamic Center there, training as an imam and reading books on Islam. In 1988, he said, a Jordanian who worked for Abdullah Azzam, the late mentor of Osama bin Laden, recruited him for duty in Afghanistan. But during a visit to Los Angeles, Abdulhamid met some Afghans who had returned from the front and dissuaded him from going.

Abdulhamid remained a devout Muslim, he said. “It gave my life structure, but it enslaved the hell out of me.”

He started working as an assistant at a mosque in Los Angeles. Then, outrage broke out over Salman Rushdie’s book “The Satanic Verses.” Abdulhamid said that he thought some of the passages were offensive to Muslims but that he found a death edict issued by Iranian Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini excessive and ridiculous. The event changed him.

He now looks at the world differently. He began questioning the fundamentals of religion and the psychological aspect of what made people go toward the unknown.

“Maybe in my case, religion was my drug, my crack. But at least my brain didn’t get fried. It gave me confidence and helped me out of my shyness,” he said.

“In 1993, I realized I am an atheist; now I am an agnostic,” he said.

He returned home in 1994 and taught in a high school for diplomats’ children. He is married and has swapped his long untrimmed beard for a long, curly ponytail.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company