The “Founding Father” is broken, but still has everything to give Syria

SOFIA LORENA | 03/11/2013 – 00:00

Below is a rough English translation made using Google. The Portuguese original can be found here:

He is 47 years old and tired. No. He is broken. But he will endure. Ammar Abdulhamid is a leading Syrian dissident, a fact that means less now than when he became one of the most important Syrian dissidents. Now there are many dissenters, and though many of them will die or give up as this period of accelerated self-destruction continues, there will always be enough at the end of the road to start again. This was not the case back in 2001.

Ammar is a Syrian, a husband, a son and a father. The only son of Muna Wassef, the best known actress of Syria and one of the highest paid in the Arab world, and Muhammad Shahin, a movie director. Ammar’s parents were a “celebrity couple.” The father is now deceased and the mother still lives in Damascus. “My mother says ‘my country is sick and I cannot just leave her like that.’” Ammar’s mother did not see him since 2005, the year he was forced to leave the country and became an exile in the United States.[i] Ammar is married to Khawla and is father to Oula, a daughter of 27 years, and Mouhanad, a son of 23. The four live in Washington, but in the last year, they spent more time in South Turkey than the U.S. “My hasn’t been back 9to Washington] in about six months,” said Ammar us in a Gaziantep hotel where we found the couple and their daughter, Oula. The parents came to train activists from Syria, and the daughter for filming a documentary about refugee children who are forced to work to make a living. Some of these kids, six and eight years of age, came to dine with them, and to say goodbye before the family flew back to Washington on the following day.

Ammar is said to be a “true liberal,” independent, agnostic as well as “autistic” (a recent discovery “that explains so much.) He loves science fiction (“everything is there, which is why I perceive the world as I do”). He grew up listening to “Ammar, you have to dedicate yourself to something.” He did, knowing well ahead of others around him that his dedication will take the form of an obsessive and potentially self-destructive devotion. He was right. At one point, Khawla appeared on the scene and the two launched their publishing house, DarEmar, together. The Tharwa Project was born in Syria two years later in 2001 as an extension of that. Soon it morphed into the Tharwa Foundation, a “community” that wants to “conduct a dialogue between majority and minority communities in the Greater Middle East and North Africa region,” in order to help “create new bridges of trust and understanding between the different communities. Yes, this happened before September 11, and before Condoleezza Rice and her Greater Middle East project.

Ammar had to leave Syria and start again in the USA where he had studied History and Astronomy. He became the first Syrian to testify in the U.S. Congress about the Syrian dictatorship, he met with presidents including George W. Bush with whom he was photographed. For several years, his foundation and projects received funding from American think tanks Americans connected to the Republican Party. He’s always an outsider, even though “some accused me of having been too close to the Bush Administration, as if it’s not obvious that I had to talk to whoever was in power… I don’t really understand what it means to be a communist, a nationalist, a socialist, or anything that finishes with an ‘ist.’” Now he is still a renegade living in the U.S. with devastating critic of President Obama and his administration and their handling of the “Syrian crisis.”

In May 2005, the magazine Newsweek chose Ammar as one of 43 people who would make a difference in the Arab world. In that year, Ammar wrote various papers that were, in effect, blueprints for the “Jasmine Revolution,” which, he knew, was to come. But before that, Ammar was one of 219 Syrians) to vote “no” in the last presidential referendum of the late Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father and the undisputed leader until his death in 2000 (nine million took part in the vote, which was, of course, not secret). He even gave an interview to an Israeli newspaper – no Syrian living in Syria had done so before. But before the foundation and the publishing house that sought to “change the Middle East, one book at a time,” there was a period of entrenchment in the sayings of Prophet Muhammad, and s stint as an Imam in Los Angeles. Then he stopped being religious.

In 2009, the American academic Joshua Muravchik published a book in the U.S. with a chapter dedicated to Ammar, Khawla and the activities of Tharwa.  The book, called The Next Founders, told the story of a founding father from each country in the Middle East. Ammar was the Syrian.

But Ammar is tired. I almost did not recognize him when he came to meet me at the bar of the magnificent Sirehan Hotel in Gaziantep. He went there several times since the beginning of the revolution in March 2011. He had lost some teeth and took time before he replaced them with implants, and you can see signs of sagging on his face. He was like a different man, disheveled, with a hairstyle less neatly arranged than when he used to appear on TV. But when we started talking there was Ammar, the indefatigable man I first interviewed, almost by chance, in 2004, when I was writing on the “victimization of Arabs” and the book “Being Arab” by Samir Kassir, the Lebanese journalist and a critic of the Assad regime who was murdered in 2005 in Beirut. Nearly broke, Ammar survives and is persevere like all Syrians who refuse to give up on Syria. It will have to be one day at a time.

[i] Actually, my mother was allowed to visit me for three weeks in October 2010. She brought an offer of amnesty directly from Bashar Al-Assad, whom she met him before her departure, which I rejected. A month later, the spark for the Arab Spring took place in Tunisia with the self-immolation of Bouazizi.