Follow the Heart


One of my students at the University of Kalamoon recently approached me, seeking advice regarding a job offer he had just received at the general headquarters of the United Nations in New York. It would give him both great exposure and experience. His mind was telling him to grab the opportunity, but his heart was holding him back, due to his emotional attachment to Damascus. Usually, in critical decisions most people advise others to follow the mind, because the heart misleads.

I told him to follow the heart.

The heart, after all, sometimes lets us do strange things, like fall in love with an old city, or think-twice before accepting a job offer in New York.

Had I followed my mind years ago, I would not have studied political science at the American University of Beirut (AUB), leaving behind a long heritage in the mercantile community of Damascus and a business that has been in the family for five generations. I would not have returned to Syria in 2000 and turned down lucrative job offers in the Arab Gulf and Europe. I decided to follow my heart, and it brought me back to Damascus. I don’t have a single regret because the city, and its people, have given me a wonderful life.

Sometimes, relying on the mind and only the mind, can be unwise. I told my student that had Nizar Qabbani, the legend of Syrian poetry, followed the mind, then he would have spent his life selling sweets at his father’s shop in the old bazaars of Damascus. Had Duraid Lahham, the legend of Syrian satire, followed his mind, he would have been no more than a chemistry instructor at the Syrian University. Asmahan, the legend of Syrian music, would have only been an obscure housewife in the Arab Mountain, while Gandhi would have been—at best—a successful attorney in London. Likewise, Che Guevara and George Habash would have ended up as practicing doctors, while Yasser Arafat would have been a mediocre engineer in Kuwait.

All of them followed the heart—and none of them regretted it.

My student, however, might go to New York, love it, and return to Syria, a finer and stronger man. Over the many years, I have heard many promising young Syrians say that. Very few of them returned. All of them, however—with no exception—left their hearts back in Damascus. Millions of young Syrians share the same problems with this young man, most of which can be solved once he settles in the West. He needs to complete his education, find a job, start making money, buy a car, own a house, and get married. All of these are becoming increasingly difficult in Damascus, explaining why New York would be an attractive offer for a 22-year old Syrian.

The generation of my parents, those born in the 1930s, originally did not have these problems. They only began to leave Syria—and follow the mind—when socialist measures started in the 1960s, coinciding with the oil boom in the Gulf. In many cases, it would have been madness to stay behind. Many did, however, and followed the heart. Before that, a young Syrian could study in Syria and find a decent job. He could make enough money to grow up, grow old, get married, have children, and die in Syria.

Our generation is not like that. They have to look abroad for a good education. They have to travel to evade military service—and learn English. They have to go to the Gulf to save enough money to get married or start a small business. This is when young people start following the mind—rather than the heart—in order to achieve these most basic of needs. The heart, however, always brings them back to Damascus.

Enough with the mushiness. Lets go back to the mind. That is where the money is, after all. My student said: “Look around you!” We were in a old downtown café in Damascus. “I don’t want to be like them.” He was a rebel—just like I was when I was his age—who believed in smashing existing norms, and the freedom to live, love, and think with dignity. No matter how strong or rebellious one is, I told him, he will find it very difficult to swim against social currents, because someday, society overpowers. If he follows the heart, he will get disappointed and defeated—often many times a day—but he who has a strong heart will come out stronger, with a firm determination to be different, and to make a change in society. To be a rebel, one has to have a strong sense of purpose and belonging. One has to have a strong heart. True. It is courageous to detach, pack up, and leave.

It is more courageous, however, to face the music, and stay.

Forward Magazine, February 2007