Syrian Boy Scouts parading through Damascus on Syria's 10th Independence Day in 1956.

Tough, permanent, and immutable

Ali Bin Abi Taleb, the fourth Muslim Caliph, once said that there are three things that a man should not disclose: dahabak (your gold), zahabak (your whereabouts), mazhabak (your sect). Wise words from a wise man—completely absent in the world we live in.

Last week during the Catholic Easter, I heard all kinds of jokes from my Greek Orthodox friends, because it did not rain on Good Friday, claiming that it undoubtedly would rain on the Orthodox holiday, which falls on April 23. Not only did it not rain on March 21, the weather took a U-turn and it became exceptionally hot in Damascus!

That day I called up a friend to wish her the best on Easter and joked, “Are you Catholic or Orthodox?” She replied, “I hate that question and I refuse to answer it!” I was belittled by my own silly question and was ashamed of myself for asking. This petty sectarianism is even more magnified when it comes to Shiites and Sunnis in the Muslim faith.

The Sunnis of the Muslim World, this time thanks to Western media and its side-affects on the Arab press, are starting to refer to Shiites as if they were a different religion—coming from a different planet. Just look at the news coming from Iraq: “Omar, a Sunni barber, was gunned down by Ali, a Shiite car mechanic, in al-Mansour, a mixed Shiite-Sunni neighborhood of Baghdad!”

These are values worth revisiting as we celebrate 62 years of our Independence Day on April 17, 2008. Tough, permanent, and immutable; these three words best describe Syria during the 26-long years of the French Mandate. The people of Syria worked together, shoulder-to-shoulder, to end the Mandate, sacrificing their wealth, health, and youth for the sake of independence. They did not differentiate between Catholic or Orthodox, Sunni or Shiite, Muslim or Christian.

During an air raid on Damascus in 1925, the French High Commissioner Maurice Sarrail ordered his troops to evacuate the Christian quarters, thinking that they would be invaded and plundered by Muslim rebels, thus igniting a civil war that would break the Syrian Revolt. The rebel leader Hasan al-Kharrat, a night watchman in the Shaghour, dashed to the Qassa neighborhood and went into a Church, where he was confronted by a Priest. “We came to protect you, Father” said Kharrat. Enraged, the priest snapped back, “Protest us? From whom? The day that Syrian Christians need protection to be in Damascus has not come, my son. Go out and you will find all the young men in al-Qassa and Bab Touma. All are tough and reliable patriots. Pick and take with you to the Syrian Revolt. All of us are at the service of Syria!”

It must be noted that when the French invaded in 1920, the High Commissioner Henri Gouraud famously visited the tomb of Saladin and said, “We are back O’ Saladin. My presence here marks the victory of the Cross over the Crescent!” While he was uttering these words, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch Gregarious Haddad was selling Church jewels to finance the revolt of Ibrahim Hananu in northern Syria. Gouraud did not represent the Cross; he represented the ambitions of an imperial power wanting to conquer new territory. The Syrians of those times produced a Christian prime minister nicknamed ‘Mohammad’ Fares al-Khoury, a man who vigorously defended Islam from the pulpit of the Ottoman, and later Syrian Parliament.

On Independence Day in 1946, the celebrations started with church bells and mosques simultaneously calling out “Allahu Akbar” (God is Great). 21 shots were fired into the Syrian skies, from all the castles surrounding Damascus, announcing that the French had left. The President of the Republic paraded through the capital in a convertible, waving to cheering crowds as the band played the new National Anthem.

A spectacular military parade was held on Beirut Street, which started with seven soldiers, holding seven Arab flags (Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Iraq, and Palestine). Then came Syrian knights on white horses while the Iraqi Air Force hovered above, on behalf of the Syrian Army, writing the word “SYRIA” in smoke, throughout the skies of Damascus. Then came Syrian Police, followed by the Syrian Boy Scouts and veteran warriors from the Revolt of 1925, dressed in traditional garb.

Schoolgirls in white came up to the podium and presented the guests with Damascene flowers, followed by representatives of each Syrian province, giving the President a small silk sack, filled with the soil of each Syrian city. Collectively the guests raised the Flag of Syria. These grand celebrations were discontinued during the union years with Egypt where instead of celebrating April 17 we were forced to rejoice on July 23—the date of the Egyptian Revolution.

On the 10th anniversary of independence, in 1956, an event called Arms Week was set up to raise enough money to buy new weapons for the Syrian Army, so that it could protect its independence. At the event, which was held at Damascus University, a total of 25 million SP (what equals 12 billion SP in today’s currency) was raised by an enthusiastic audience.

Running the show were Nasuh Babil, publisher of the Damascus daily al-Ayyam, Defense Minister Rashad Barmada, the nationalist leaders Fakhri al-Barudi and Lutfi al-Haffar, the scholar Ali al-Tintawi, and the Grand Mufti, Abu al-Yisir Abidin. President Shukri al-Quwatli and ex-Prime Minister Fares al-Khoury each donated a 9-month salary. The Egyptian government pitched in with 500,000 Egyptian pounds.

A Damascene notable, who remained anonymous until after his death (the famous Abdul-Hadi al-Rabbat) gave 50,000 SP, as did Abdul-Hamid Shuman, the Palestinian founder of the Arab Bank. Farid Kahaleh, a Syrian expatriate, wire transferred 30,000 SP. Children walked up to the committee and gave their petty allowances to the Army. The female students at the Faculty of Nursing each donated 10 SP. Two women came up and gave the committee ownership documents to two houses in Damascus. A day laborer from Homs called Abu Sham stood up and said that he had worked for 40-years to save 40,000 SP. He donated them in-cash to the Syrian Army. Leading nationalist enterprise like the Cement Company, the Ain al-Fijja Company, and the Khumasiya, came through with 200,000 SP each. Simply put, Syrians had faith in Syria.

We belong to a different generation that cannot but learn from April 17, 1946. We belong to a generation that has no fond political memories—just heartache. We belong to a generation that asks on Easter, “Are you Catholic or Orthodox?” and reads daily stories from Iraq about the Sunni barber Omar and the Shiite mechanic Ali. In order to rise up from this, we must learn from long-gone wise men like Ali Bin Abi Taleb, and contemporary ones like ‘Mohammad’ Fares al-Khoury. However, we still have faith in Syria. Once “tough, permanent, and immutable” always “tough, permanent, and immutable!”

Forward Magazine, April 2008