Syria Ten Years On: A Chronicle of Tragedy

On the tenth anniversary of the Syrian Uprising, I shared selections of previous posts that I wrote from 2012 onwards, documenting and sharing thoughts and insights on what I believe to be one of the greatest human tragedies in recent history. Much of what I wrote went against my Syrian survivalist instincts, and often against the protests of concerned friends and family members. But I was, and so remain, a believer in the principle once articulated by Audre Lorde: “Your silence will not protect you.”


I still regard it to have been an honour of the highest degree to have grown up surrounded by Damascene reformers. Men and women who had mastered that impossible equation of trying to do something meaningful in a country where no change can be introduced without the prior approval of the security apparatus. Some of them were relatives, and others close family friends. Lawyers, western-educated doctors, Azhar-educated religious scholars, economists, engineers, and teachers. I have memory upon memory of listening to them, observing them and, above all, noticing over time the changes, subtle yet significant, that they were remarkably able to introduce. It has been a year since the Uprising began, and I often find myself wondering what it is like to be one of those reformers today. The fortunate have already departed, but what about their legacy? What about those who associated themselves with them, who built their lives on the basis of the changes introduced by them?


Long before the Syrian Uprising, the Ghuta home of Ahmad Kaftaru, the Grand Mufti of Syria and the late master of the Naqishbandi order in Damascus, was a place where numerous ecumenical stories were written. It was also where pigeons in large numbers would gather, as though attracted by the serenity of the place. Representatives of various sects and denominations, from both Syria and other countries, would meet in Kaftaru’s home and have warm and friendly conversations in the presence of the Grand Mufti. At times, I would attend some of these fascinating events, from lunch with Cardinal Martini, to a dinner with Robert Schuller, and spiritual meditation at dawn with Muhammad Ali. It was quite natural to see Alawite religious figures visit Kaftaru, often with their children, as one would visit an old friend. Attracted by the serenity of the place, pigeons, in surprising numbers, sat on the terrace and the grass outside of the house. It all seemed as though it would never change. Nine years after his death in 2004, and not too far from where his home once stood, chemical weapons were used against innocent civilians. Children died during their sleep, but the pigeons had long departed.


On the eve of the third anniversary of the Syrian Uprising, it is indeed a daunting intellectual exercise to reflect on the various dynamics that were suddenly and unexpectedly suspended in March 2011. The story of this Uprising, along with its major subcategories, is largely known and documented. But underneath these main headings are fragments that are yet to be unearthed and shared. The story of how the Syrian Uprising changed, and ultimately stopped various aspects of life in Damascus is one such fragment. The first student protest at the Arab International University was held in October 2011. The response came the next day, and it was quickly repeated at other campuses whenever student protests took place. The shabihah would suddenly arrive at these protests. Shabihah is the name for the armed thugs who would carry out security duties. The word literally means ‘ghosts’. They would walk into classrooms to the disbelief of professors and would call out the names of students who had clearly been reported by other students or security officers on campus. Then, they would disappear.


Almost every major event from March 2011 until today was initially regarded as pointing in one direction, only for an overwhelmingly different redefinition to take place. Scenes of peaceful protesters sharing flowers and water with army soldiers around Damascus are replaced with scenes of armed ‘moderate’ fighters, which are subsequently replaced by scenes of radical fighters, who are in turn eclipsed by the rise of ISIS with scenes out of a medieval horror story. Scenes of officials trying to speak to peaceful protesters are replaced by scenes of triumphant soldiers from the Syrian army, which are systematically replaced by scenes of members of Shi’ite militias proudly proclaiming victories over the ‘enemies of the Prophet’s family’. Again ‘indefinitely’ seems to be the key word with regards to how many times events in Syria can mutate into something else, something not initially expected, something invariably worse.


You might think that the Syrian regime’s talk of a cosmic conspiracy against it is a fascinating new product of a Machiavellian mind. Not in the least! The Syrian regime simply adopted an ancient tradition, one that I remember well from my teenage years in Damascus. A grand conspiracy of cosmic proportions is responsible for the break-up of the Ottoman empire, the borders dividing the Arabs, the regimes that rule above them, their scientific and economic backwardness and, last but not least, Israel and everything related to Israel. To be ignorant of this conspiracy is a sin that can be forgiven. Denying it, on the other hand, or daring to point out that even a fragment of it may not hold up to critical analysis, is a cardinal sin for which no atonement is possible. After all, what exactly would you be proposing? That we, Syrians and Arabs, are responsible for these tragic realities? Or that we are capable of changing them, yet choose otherwise?


Yesterday, a man armed with a hammer was arrested after attacking a police officer in Paris. As he carried out his attack, he shouted, “This is for Syria!” This scene, along with other similar scenes from London Bridge to Saint Petersburg, converge in my head like a surreal mosaic no scholar can succeed in interpreting.

How does killing an eight-year-old girl at a concert in Manchester help my wounded country heal? How does it help the young women and men of Syria who marched for freedom and dignity attain these objectives? How does it help the displaced, the refugees, those dying in the basements of security offices, or those living in fear of being stoned or amputated? I visualize myself interviewing some of these men and women. Perhaps the three women who attacked the nursery school worker in Hermon Hill have the answers. Perhaps they can help me understand how stabbing an innocent woman who works for Little Diamonds nursery will help the families of the hundreds of thousands who were killed in Syria; or how will it stop the regime’s barrel bombs or the indiscriminate shelling of those fighting the regime?


As we approach the seventh anniversary of the Syrian Uprising, I am reminded of a story I once heard from my late Damascene Sufi teacher, Shaikh Bashir al-Bani (1911–2008). The story is about a man who was trying to concentrate on his tawaf (circumambulation of the Ka’ba) during the Hajj pilgrimage. As is required from men during this ritual, he wore only two white towels, one around his waist, another around his shoulders, and a special leather belt with a pouch attached in which he kept his valuables. As he walked around this ancient monument of Islam, a child suddenly shoved him from his right side. Mindful that he should control his anger during Hajj, the man continued his tawaf in silence. Yet, with each time he circulated the Ka’ba this rude and abrupt act was repeated, filling him with anger and totally distracting him from his spiritual experience. His eyes were fixated on his right side in the hope that he could somehow avoid the child when he made his next sudden move. After a while, the exhausted man decided to take a rest. When his hand reached for his belt, he realized that the pouch, situated on his left side, had been cleverly cut off by another accomplice as he was being shoved from the right by the child. Al-Bani would end the story with this line:

“When you are shoved from the right, look to the left… the real story isn’t where the noise is, and dramatic events are rarely what they initially seem to be…”

The way in which the Syrian Uprising is interacted with today is far more about ISIS, the PYD, and Turkish or Iranian geopolitical concerns than it is about Syrians suffering. This ultimate distraction, the intrusive child of al-Bani’s story, has successfully distracted all the major players, and most interested observers, from the daily killing, from those still imprisoned and tortured, from the homeless and the refugees and, perhaps most importantly, from the maimed and psychologically traumatized new generation of Syrians being constantly manufactured amidst the rubble and refugee camps.


Case: Colvin et al v. Syrian Arab Republic

Civil Action №: 2016–1423

Judge: Amy Berman Jackson

Decision: February 1, 2019

Funeral expenses: $11,836

Solatium damages: $2.5 million

Punitive damages: 300,000 million

Total: $302,511,836

Marie Catherine Colvin was born in Astoria, Queens. She died in Baba ‘Amr, Homs.

On the 1st of February 2019, Amy Berman Jackson, a District Judge for the District of Columbia, ruled that “… the Syrian Arab Republic engaged in an act of extrajudicial killing of a United States national by planning and executing an attack on the Baba Amr Media Center, and is liable to plaintiffs for the resulting injuries.” Marie Colvin’s family were awarded a total of $302,511,836.

I read carefully document number 59, constituting “the redacted public second amended memorandum opinion” by Judge Jackson. Thirty-six pages that cover everything from the arrival of the Arab Spring in Syria to whether or not Marie planned on retiring by age 65. Thirty-six pages that aimed at calculating the price of the most precious of all human experiences: Life.

How does one go about calculating the price of life? How much would it take, for example, to compensate for the loss of Ghiath Matar? Ghiath, only 26 and a father-to-be, was known for giving out flowers and water to soldiers who were attacking peaceful protesters in early 2011. Do we have a figure for Mohamed Abyad, the Syrian doctor working for Doctors Without Borders who was only 28 when he was abducted and killed? Or perhaps we have one for Razan Zaitouneh, the human rights lawyer and civil society activist and recipient of the International Women of Courage Award who was abducted in 2013 and has not been seen since. Do we have special figures for children? Like Ru’a Ismail, an 11-year-old girl who was killed by an explosion in Salamiyeh; or Hamza Al-Khateeb, the 13-year old who was tortured to death. Do we have figures for mass killings? Families killed in Zara’a, Houla, Aqrab, and Darayya? All of those killed had names, though we may only be able to document the identity of some. But all, like Marie, had family, friends, and loved ones. Some died reciting a prayer, others died suddenly and unexpectedly. Some died while being tortured, others drowned as they attempted to escape a country that had become a factory of death.


A March 2020 update by WFP reminds us that 11.1 million people in Syria are in need of humanitarian assistance; 6.1 million people are internally displaced; 7.9 million people are food insecure; and 1.9 million people are at risk of food insecurity. A 2019 WHO report confirms outbreaks “of measles, acute bloody diarrhoea, typhoid fever and leishmaniasis … in various areas of the country throughout the year.” The report also states that 10.2 million Syrians live in areas effected by explosive hazards. Perhaps most striking is the fact that attacks on health facilities “have rendered 46 per cent of hospitals and primary health facilities in Syria as either partially functional or not functional, while in some areas humanitarian partners have been unable to secure sustained and predictable access to populations in need.”

Notwithstanding these critical indicators, all one really has to do to capture the gravity of the current situation is reflect on the contrast: If Western officials can be seriously concerned about the collapse of their healthcare systems as a result of this COVID-19 crisis, how does one expect a country like Syria, where so many hospitals were destroyed, and where medical equipment and supplies were not able to address the medical needs of its citizens long before the coronavirus was even heard of, to have even a remote chance of protecting vulnerable citizens from the effects of this pandemic? In my mind at least, the lesson here is profoundly simple: Syria’s tragedy should never have been ignored or normalised by the international community. Tragedies on this scale only get worse, and the arrival of the coronavirus in Syria provides ample proof of this reality. There is, now more than ever, a moral responsibility to protect Syria’s already vulnerable population, who are now likely to be the victims of a vicious virus unless adequate medical assistance is urgently provided. Failing to do so is to only add material to the syllabus of The Nonsense and the Absurd.


Of all accounts I have read about forgiveness, my favourite story is that of Kemal Pervanic, a survivor of the notorious Omarska concentration camp, set up by Bosnian Serb forces. Kemal eloquently summarizes the essential foundation of forgiveness when he states:

I didn’t decide not to hate because I’m a good person. I decided not to hate because hating would have finished the job they’d started so successfully.

Kemal had reached the conclusion that as long as we act in a manner consistent with the pain we suffered, we empower the narrative of those who have committed acts of violence against us. And yet, even Kemal could not have forgiven a person who stubbornly and arrogantly continues to degrade, wound and kill. Even Kemal required a genuine apology before his forgiveness could be extended.

In Syria, ten years after this tragedy began, no one is willing, or ready, to apologize.

Originally published in: Centre for Syrian Studies (CSS)

Manuscripts of my Imady Ancestors

‘Imad al-Din Ibn ‘Imad al-Din al-Hanafi (1530-1578), my 12th great grandfather

Click on the image to access the manuscript

Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz

نسخة غير كاملة – مكتبة الملك عبد الله بن عبد العزيز (مكة)

An incomplete version – King Abd Allah ibn Abd al-Aziz Library (Mecca)

تذكرة العماد جامعها بفضائل دمشق وجامعها

The Reminder of al-Imad, the Compiler of this Treatise, of the Merits of Damascus and its Mosque

Click on the image to access the manuscript

Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz

عشرة ابحات من عشرة علوم

Ten Treatises on Ten Fields of Knowledge

To Be My Father’s Son

Dr Muhammad Imady (31 August 1930 – 29 June 2022)

It has never been easy to be the son of Dr. Muhammad Imady. I discovered this early on when I would be stopped by passers-by who would want to speak to me about my father – how he had once taught them, or employed them, or helped them through various government processes that had been obstructed by others. At times, they would speak to me at great length about what my father had done for his country, how he had returned from Kuwait to work with those who were adamant at preventing him from achieving reform of any type, however minor or insignificant. I would be obliged to listen to story after story, though I was well aware of the minute details of each of them. Their words would invariably end with an ardent petition for me to emulate my father’s example. But I knew then, as I know now, that I lacked the essential characteristic that had qualified my father in the first place to be the man he was.

My father’s secret does not lie in the fact that he was highly educated, extremely talented, and a man of noble character, despite how rare each of these qualities were. His secret, rather, lay in the fact that he was able to bring all of this to a world which was almost organically at odds with everything for which he stood. This, plus his capacity to remain loyal to such a world for over half a century.

I have many memories of sitting in my father’s office, watching him interact with gentleness and wisdom with people who were neither willing nor capable of understanding the ideas he was trying to explain. I was aware of the fact that my father was carrying the banner of reform in a world that was waiting for him to commit just one mistake – intentionally or otherwise – so that it may turn against him.

Reform is both easy and impossible. Easy because you are, in essence, asked to place what would benefit people first. And impossible because you are incapable of placing what benefits people first unless you are willing to interact with anything else as nothing other than foam that will sooner or later dissipate. Yes, there were those with whom my father enjoyed working; men and women who believed, as he did, in the imperative of striving to elevate the status of their country, but they were like scattered trees in an ever-expanding desert.

My father’s secret also lies in the fact that he did not regard himself as having another option, though in actuality he had many. Those who loved him would often speak to him of the possibilities of other places or positions which he could, if he wished, depart to away from a world that was causing him constant headaches, pain, and even fear from the threat of various types of enemies. In response, he would smile and change the subject, as though to say: I was created to be here, and I will serve my country to the very end.

My dear father, you have finally departed to a world which recognizes who you are, and what you were trying every day to achieve. I have entrusted you to the Most Gentle, the Ever Aware, the One with Whom all trusts are protected.

History as Identity

An excerpt from An Inside Story of Modern Syria: The Unauthorised Biography of a Damascene Reformer [published 30 Jan 2023]

History, as Mahmoud el-Kati, my professor at Macalester College, once taught me, is primarily concerned with the manufacturing of an identity [i]. In his mind, all the talk one hears and reads about history being useful for learning lessons from the past—for avoiding the repetition of past mistakes and identifying how and why things turned out the way they did—is essentially rubbish! History is a factory of identity; the art of using past events to legitimize a specific narrative. The Nation of Islam, for example, as el-Kati would explain, succeeded in attracting followers not because it provided them with a factual history. It succeeded, rather, because it provided African Americans with a historical narrative that empowered them with an alternate identity; an identity they could be proud of, an identity that made the experience of slavery a catalyst rather than a burden.

To grow up in the family of al-‘Imadi (henceforth Imady) was to know that it had its own version of history, and, in turn, a distinct sense of identity. Stories upon stories of who my ancestors were and all the values they allegedly upheld were shared with me throughout my childhood, often for no apparent reason. And whether it was my elderly aunt who was sharing these stories in her organic, fluid manner, or my father who had a far more sophisticated and formal way of articulating them, the impact on me was the same: because of all this, I was different, my father was different, in fact, all Imadys were different. We carried this distinct sense of identity with us everywhere.

Our Friday trips to Zabadani, a summer resort town around forty kilometres from Damascus, could not take place without pointing out pieces of land or even an entire village that the Imady family allegedly once owned; a gift from an Ottoman sultan to one of the Imady religious scholars or part of a trust that had found its way through marriages and inheritance into our family. A visit to a mosque could easily unleash stories of Imady grand muftis, all forty of them (I would later learn they were, in actuality, only seven). And a random encounter with a Damascene woman could remind my aunt of the fact that this woman’s family were once recipients of the Imady family’s charitable gift to Damascus: Waqf al-Qadi Muhibb al-Din al-‘Imadi, the charitable trust of Judge Muhibb al-Din Imady. And while some of these stories had no basis in actual history, there was, in fact, a solid historical foundation for the Imady sense of identity; a foundation which was as old as the Ottoman conquest of Damascus.

The main outline of the Imady family history is not difficult to identify. Who were the main players? When were they primarily active? When and why did they become less prominent? All these questions are fairly easy to answer. What is difficult is trying to go beyond what was obvious, and, later, trying to solve the ‘glitches’, or historical anomalies, that even now remain resistant to my extensive attempts to unravel them. But as el-Kati would remind me, what you know and what you don’t know about your past are both equally important when it comes to how your sense of identity is ultimately shaped.

[i] Mahmoud El-Kati is Professor Emeritus of History at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. In recognition of his scholarly and community work, Macalester College has established the Mahmoud El-Kati Distinguished Lectureship in American Studies. For his biography, see the entry on his official website.