In Syria, Building a Civil Society Book by Book

The Chronicle of Higher Education

Damascus, Syria 

Leave it to others to devise grand programs for bringing democracy to the Middle East: Ammar Abdulhamid wants to lay the intellectual foundations of citizenship one book at a time.

Two years ago, with a small group of Syrian writers and academics here, Mr. Abdulhamid, a 38-year-old American-educated historian and novelist, founded DarEmar, a nonprofit publishing house dedicated to making canonical works of Western philosophy, social science, and literature available in Arabic. His goal, he says, is to print books that will foster “debate on a broad range of issues pertaining to civil society and democratization.” 

In most of the world, it has been a couple of centuries since publishing a new edition of John Locke could be considered risky or incendiary. But this is Syria, a Baathist dictatorship with tightly controllednews media and a stagnant publishing industry. Mr. Abdulhamid knows he must be careful. His tiny publishing venture, which is seeking support from foundations and other Western donors, just released its first books this fall. It is being watched hopefully by intellectuals within Syria, although some observers wonder whether ordinary Syrians will be interested in the sometimes esoteric writings of long-dead Western philosophers.

Mr. Abdulhamid is an independent social analyst and the author of Menstruation (Al Saqi Books, 2001), a novel that deals with issues of sexuality and repression in his country. He recently spent six months at the Brookings Institution, an independent think tank in Washington, where he wrote about the challenges faced by the newest generation of Arab intellectuals.

He intends to begin his new business by translating and publishing great works of Western philosophy. Eventually he hopes to translate a range of classical and contemporary titles from the humanities and social sciences, as well as a series of books that will explain the U.S. government and legal system to the Arabic reader.

It was while earning a bachelor’s degree in history at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point in the early 1990s, Mr. Abdulhamid says, that he began to wonder why so few of the books that are considered cornerstones of the European enlightenment are available in Arabic.

“Take the Federalist Papers, the works of Descartes, Hume, Kant, Locke,” he says. “As far as I know, only some of Kant’s work has been translated into Arabic, and many of these other philosophers and writers haven’t been translated at all. It’s really ridiculous.”

To students of the publishing industry in the Arab world, that state of affairs does not come as a surprise. Across the region, a combination of low literacy rates and repressive censorship laws keeps the number of foreign books that find their way into Arabic translation very low.

Even for Arabic-language books, print runs are small by international standards; academics and novelists in the region sometimes elect to publish in English or French, rather than Arabic, to reach larger audiences abroad.

The “Arab Human Development Report,” published in 2003 by the United Nations Development Program, found that the number of books translated per year in the entire Arab world — 22 countries — is roughly one-fifth of the number translated each year into Greek alone. The report also lamented the lack of scholarship within the Arab world about other societies and ways of life.

“A form of Arab self-containment hobbles cooperation with international partners in the humanities and social sciences,” it argues. “There is no accumulated tradition of Arab scholarship on the ‘Other.'”

Addressing the practical problems — those of translation and distribution — that inhibit the spread of ideas between the West and the Middle East is a crucial first step in any plan for encouraging a more robust civil society in the region, Mr. Abdulhamid says.

When it comes to the U.S. government’s goal of turning Iraq into a beacon of freedom in the Middle East, he adds, “You’re talking about democracy and modernity and bringing all these good things to the Arab world. But we just don’t have the basic intellectual foundations.”

Hunger for Discussion 

By commissioning fresh, accessible translations of Western philosophers into Arabic, and by making the books available cheaply, accompanied by critical and interpretive essays, Mr. Abdulhamid hopes to attack those problems at their source and improve the quality of political discussion in Syria at the grass-roots level.

He and his colleagues are soliciting start-up financing for DarEmar’s publishing business from nongovernmental organizations and from publishers in the United States and Europe. About $25,500 has beenraised so far, he says. He and his partners have contributed another $12,700.

Thanks to money from the Foundation for the Production and Translation of Dutch Literature, in the Netherlands, Arabic translations of Erasmus and Spinoza are under way, and Mr. Abdulhamid expects tobe able to begin a Locke translation soon.

The Tharwa Project, an online subsidiary of DarEmar that publishes essays and runs a discussion forum on minority rights and democratization, a somewhat edgy proposition in a country given a lot of black marks by human-rights groups, is thriving (

Tharwa means “wealth,” and the Web site, which is in both English and Arabic, is designed to encourage Syrians to see their country’s ethnic and religious diversity as a positive endowment rather than a source of fragmentation and potential problems. Syrians were allowed limited Internet access only as of 2000, but now many Syrians go online at home or in Internet cafes.

DarEmar’s first books, paperbacks that were available in October for $2 to $2.50 at Damascus’s annual book fair, are a series of Dutch novels about the Arab world. They were selected after the Dutch foundation offered DarEmar substantial assistance. Although it is too early to gauge public response to the books — which must be ordered online until Mr. Abdulhamid finds a Syrian distributor — his organization is already attracting attention for its ambitious, aggressive plan for translating important works of Western philosophy. Those titles are due out this summer, he says.

John Borneman, a professor of anthropology at Princeton University who is in Aleppo, Syria, on a Fulbright research fellowship, says he is intrigued by the idea of using cheap printing and explanatory glosses to make books of philosophy appeal to a wide, Arabic-speaking audience.

“This is the hadith tradition, the tradition of reading the Koran together with its interpretive essays,” he says. “It’s true that here there is this tradition of looking outside the text for understanding. Their chief trouble will be finding people talented enough to write these kinds of essays for a general audience.”

Developing a readership for the books will also be difficult, Mr. Borneman says: “There’s a real hunger for political discussion here, since it’s not allowed. But political theory is something else entirely.Finding people who will do this kind of deep reading is difficult anywhere in the world. Here in Syria, I’ve met one or perhaps two people who would be capable of it, and curious enough to buy the books.”

‘Damascus Spring’ 

Nafez A. Shammas, head of the English department at the University of Damascus, says the project is long overdue. “We have been exposed to some Western literature, but what we really need now is politics,philosophy, sociology, and psychology in translation,” he says. The few translated texts in these fields are often significantly out of date, he notes, and important new works are unavailable in Arabic.

Despite the U.N. agency’s bleak assessment of publishing in the region, Mr. Shammas believes that there is a market for such books: “The real problem has always been that we can’t afford” to translateforeign works.

Mr. Shammas praises DarEmar’s plan for translating books on American culture and government: “I’d like to see information about life in America presented in an educated, civilized way. You do us injustice through your lack of knowledge about us, but we also do you injustice through our lack of knowledge about America. You are not all cowboys, and we are not all terrorists.”

When Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, took office in 2000, following the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad, a brief period of openness followed. For a few months, Syrians enjoyed unprecedented freedom of speech and assembly. That period, which became known as the Damascus Spring, was followed by crackdowns in which pro-democracy organizers were arrested.

Most Syrians say they feel freer than they did under the previous regime. But the fear of broaching one of the so-called “red lines” — taboos that include criticizing the president and discussing atheism inthis largely Muslim country — remains very real for ordinary citizens.

Syrian newspapers and magazines are monitored by the state, and all books must be vetted by a government panel before publication. Although literacy rates, at nearly 90 percent for men and 64 percent for women, are rising, books remain a luxury item in a country where average annual income hovers around $1,000.

Bookstores tend to be small, their offerings heavily weighted toward Koranic interpretations and other religious texts. At the popular annual book fair, which drew publishers from all over the Arab world toDamascus, about 50 percent of the exhibiting companies specialized in Islamic texts. Another 25 percent specialized in children’s books.

The fair’s offerings are broadly reflective of Syrian reading habits, says the owner of a bookstore here that specializes in novels, poetry, and academic texts. Syrians are growing steadily more religious, hesays, and books on secular topics don’t sell nearly as well as they did a generation ago. He gestures at the wooden shelves lining his shop, a space too cramped for more than three or four customers at a time, then proudly indicates a glass case holding an array of poetry.

Delighted to have an interested audience, he suddenly winks, goes behind the counter, and produces an Arabic translation of 1984. The man, who at that point asks not to be identified, also shows off his shop’s tiny stock of philosophy texts in Arabic — seven books in all, including several volumes of Rousseau, which were translated as part of a Unesco project in the early 1970s. Interest in those books, he says, is limited mainly to students.

Relevance Among Arabs 

Sadik Jalal al-Azm, who chaired the philosophy department at the University of Damascus for many years and is one of the Middle East’s foremost public intellectuals, says the new Arabic translations ofphilosophy books will be valuable additions to public discourse in Syria. Some philosophical debates that are of primarily historical interest to Western scholars, he notes, have much more immediacy in the Arab world, where they are still open to question.

“For example,” he says, citing writings on the concept of secularism in public life, “some of these writings on the relationship between philosophy and theology are of no interest in the West anymore but remain very relevant here.”

From Mr. Abdulhamid’s perspective, that is exactly the point. “These philosophers have lost a bit of their relevance to the West because their ideas have already been incorporated in the intellectual, social,economic, and political life of the West,” he wrote in an e-mail message. “This is not so in a place like Syria or many other parts of the Arab world, where these ideas are still foreign and can still pose a serious challenge to the traditional value system.”

So even though Mr. Abdulhamid and his partners have obtained a license from the government to run a publishing company, the dangers of discussing civil society and minority affairs — two of the apparent”red lines” in Syria — are never far from their minds.

Although DarEmar’s first philosophy books have yet to be examined by the Department of Censorship (the Dutch novels passed review), Haretha Yousuf, one of the company’s founding partners, says he has been pleasantly surprised so far with how smoothly things have gone.

“We were so nervous at first,” he says. “We kept thinking, ‘Oh, my God, we’re going to go to jail.’ But every time we cross a red line, we find out that nothing happens, that it wasn’t a red line at all.”

Slowly but surely, he says, Syria is becoming more open. But testing the limits of that new freedom requires courage, commitment, and careful planning, he says.

“If you want to establish something, you have to do it slowly,” Mr. Yousuf says. “Civil society is a difficult term. But through all our activities, we’re simply trying to create an open discussion. We believethat it’s possible to prevent conflict if people can learn to talk about themselves and their differences in a free way. We’re teaching people about what it means to be an active citizen.”