Letter from Damascus: Superhighway to Damascus

BookForum – Jan/Dec 2005 

One of the most significant deficits in the Arab world today—and one which the highly publicized United Nations Arab Human Development Reports have so far failed to mention—is the staggering absence of young voices on the intellectual scene and in the public debate concerning societal and political reform. This is perhaps the starkest manifestation of the “knowledge gap or deficit” referred to in the reports, issued annually by the United Nations Development Program to monitor socioeconomic and political conditions in the Arab states. Arab countries, it seems, have somehow ceased to produce intellectuals—artists, novelists, poets, and political and social analysts—who could navigate new courses and harness popular sentiment to help lift their countries out of the morass in which they are mired. 

Take Syria, which has historically produced more writers and thinkers of great renown than any other Arab state. In contrast to the dozens of figures who emerged on the country’s intellectual scene in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, there is hardly a single figure in Syria today who is capable of galvanizing popular interest. Indeed, no author, poet, or thinker below the age of forty has managed to make a name for him- or herself within the country, much less in the Arab world at large.

In the meantime, the older, familiar voices—Adonis, one of the most daring and creative contemporary Arab poets; Nizar Qabbani, hands down the most popular Arab versifier, inspiring singers throughout the Arab world with his works; Saadallah Wannous, the most prolific Arab dramatist; and Sadiq Jalal al-Azm, the courageous critic of contemporary Arab thought, both religious and political—continue to dominate. And this despite the fact that Qabbani and Wannous are dead, and Adonis and al-Azm are in their seventies, with Adonis living in Paris and al-Azm spending most of his time teaching abroad, in Europe, the United States, and Japan.

What happened? A number of factors are responsible. For one, a climate of fear continues to prevail in Syria, thanks to the severe limits on freedom of expression and assembly still imposed by the Baathist government. Every Syrian below the age of forty was raised under the rule of the Baath Party, which seized control of the country in a bloody coup in 1963. Syrians of this generation have vivid recollections of the dictatorial rule of Hafez al-Assad, father of the current president, and the horrific crackdowns of the late ’70s and early ’80s, as well as the 1992 massacres in the central Syrian city of Hama, where more than fifteen thousand people were killed and buried in unmarked mass graves.

This kind of repression has, naturally, fostered an attitude of political and social apathy among young Syrians and stifled the spirit of free inquiry. Add to this an outmoded educational system that values rote memorization over critical thinking, societal and cultural taboos on the criticism of “traditional values,” and a serious shortage of activities, social clubs, and national programs designed to discover and support talented individuals in the arts, humanities, and social sciences, and the dearth of young intellectuals today should come as little surprise.

The above factors have also contributed to a decrease in exposure to modern philosophy and the intellectual trends of the West, so that even as limits on freedom of speech in the Middle East are now being challenged as a result of the introduction of the Internet and the proliferation of Arab satellite-TV networks, the few young voices in Syria who have managed to emerge (most of them in their late thirties and forties) have often shown a woefully inadequate understanding of contemporary global realities. Instead, they tend to fall back on the dated, nationalistic rhetoric of their predecessors rather than attempting to critique it. Thus the problem of inadequate human resources, which the UN reports identify, seems to affect not only the professional sphere but the intellectual scene as well, a situation true of nearly every Arab country, to varying degrees.

And yet, lifting the limits on freedom of expression and fostering the development of young intellectuals aren’t enough. There is a clear need to bridge the gap in knowledge that separates the Middle East from the rest of the world. This requires broad exposure to modern Western thought—not only academic and cultural exchange programs, involving scholars, students, and artists, but more important, the adoption of a large-scale effort to translate into Arabic works of Western philosophy, the humanities, and the social and political sciences, classical and contemporary alike. According to the 2003 Arab Human Development Report, fewer than 4.4 books per million people are currently translated throughout the Arab world each year, in comparison with 519 in Hungary and 920 in Spain. Given that the total population of the Arab world is around 250 million, the total number of books translated into Arabic each year is around 1,100.

In the past, similar translation efforts have, over time, led to an intellectual and cultural renascence in the societies that have championed them. This was the case in the Arab world in the ninth century, when Arab scholars set about translating Greek and Aramaic works on philosophy and science. There is a strong argument to be made that a serious commitment to translation, in tandem with programs designed to encourage young Arab minds to grapple critically with these texts, could have a similarly beneficial effect today. It is a time-consuming undertaking, to be sure, but then, cultural battles are won only through decades of interaction and introspection. Cultures do not change overnight. Naturally, considering the ambitious scale of such a project, it cannot be entrusted solely to the Arab regimes or independent Arab publishers, who are struggling to get by. Rather, an alliance of state, independent, and international institutions is needed to provide funding and work out a plan adequate for such a vast enterprise.

One major channel for this undertaking is likely to be the Internet, where censorship by Arab states is still fairly lax. In Syria, the website http://www.maaber.org has already managed, in four short years, to establish itself as a vital outlet for young and aspiring minds. The site offers sections on philosophy, nonviolence, psychology, environmental affairs, and literary endeavors, especially poetry and short stories. Although based in Damascus, its contributors and readership come from all over the Arab world, as well as from Arab communities in Europe, the United States, and Australia. Despite its continued political reticence (and its highly sophisticated language, which makes it accessible only to a tiny minority of readers), Maaber nonetheless showcases youthful thinkers who possess exactly the kind of analytical skills and introspection that are sorely needed if Syria, and the rest of the Middle East, are to develop a more realistic and fruitful vision of the future.

Though Maaber is by far the most sophisticated such website, others have joined in the attempt to take advantage of the relative freedom of expression on the Internet, such as Akhbar al-Sharq (www.thisissyria.com), Rezgar (www.rezgar.com), and my own Tharwa Project (www.tharwaproject.com), which focuses on the concerns of ethnic and religious minorities in the Arab world. The proliferation of such websites is an indication of the hunger in Arab states for intellectual initiatives, and comes at a time when access to the Internet and its popularity have become more widespread throughout Syria, despite the relatively high costs involved. But larger and more systematic efforts are needed if the challenge is to be met. Arab states desperately need to empower their young. More to the point, they need to do so in the right way—that is, in a way that makes them feel they are an integral part of the world and more involved in the making of contemporary civilization—rather than pariahs or mere relics of things passed.

Ammar Abdulhamid is currently a visiting fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, where he is working on a monograph on the next generation of Arab intellectuals. He is a Syrian novelist and social analyst based in Damascus and is the coordinator of the Tharwa Project, which seeks to raise awareness of the living conditions of minority groups in the Arab world.