The International Reporting (and Life) Adventures of Vivian Salama

“Who Inspires You?” In Syria, the answer may be a surprise

Posted by vmsalama on November 7, 2007

Today I read an interesting article by my friend in Damascus, Sami Moubayed, an author and academic.  Sami is one of the most patriotic Syrians I know and is a writing machine, releasing articles weekly on subjects relating to politics, nationalism and the world.  One in particular that caught my eye this week was entitled Mahatir and Zayed, Nasser and Arafat.  He asked his Syrian students the question: “Who is your Inspiration?”  At the time, war raged between Hezbollah fighters and Israel and so his expectation was that the majority would reply “Hassan Nasrallah,” the leader of Hezbollah who certainly won the hearts and minds of many across the Arab world for his defiance and resilience against Israel.  On the contrary, 60% of his students (most of whom are majors in International Affairs) replied “No one.”  See the full article below:

by Sami Moubayed

Forward Magazine I have always been interested in ‘role models.’ Whenever I conduct a personal interview with famous Syrians, I always wrap up with one question, “Who are your inspirational figures; who are your role models in life?” A role model by definition can be a friend or a family member, a living celebrity, or a long gone iconic figure. Over the years, I have gotten a colorful variety of answers. Most people usually say “My father.” Duraid Lahham, however, said; “My mother!” Ambassador Imad Moustapha said it was his great-grandfather Abdul Rahman Kawakbi, among others, and Maestro Sulhi al-Wadi. The former ambassador and officer Suhayl al-Ashi said it was the late President Shukri al-Quwatli. Expatriate Minister Buthaina Shaaban said it was the late President Hafez al-Assad. Mohammad al-Maghhout said it was Mohammad al-Maghout.If I were asked the same question, my answer would be, in addition to both my mother and father, the late poet Nizar Qabbani and former President Quwatli. As for ‘inspirational figures’ in my life, I would name Munir al-Ajlani, a scholar and politician from the 1930s who introduced me to the world of Syrian history, Professor Samir Seikaley of AUB, who made me love history at large, and my friend Abdulsalam Haykal, who encouraged and helped me write my first book when we were students at t the Faculty of Political Science at AUB; a seemingly crazy task for two 19-year olds.

I once administered a survey to my students, three different classes in two consecutive semesters. These were well-to-Syrians, students at the Faculty of International Relations, born in the mid to late 1980s. I then expanded the same survey to include Syrians, of a different age group and different social strata. One question was, “Who is your inspirational figure in life?” This was shortly after last summer’s war in Lebanon and I expected them to say, “Hasan Nasrallah.” It was a surprise to me when over 60% came out with “None! We don’t have any inspirational figures in our life.” Their parents’ generation would have probably replied, “Gamal Abdul-Nasser.” These young people, however, did not have motivating figures to look up to—nobody to view as a role model. That was a sad reality.

I then asked them to name their favorite former non-Syrian, Arab leader. Sheikh Zayed of the UAE came in first, with 24%. The favorite non-Arab leader was Mahatir Mohammad, who is to Malaysia what Zayed is to the UAE. He got 36%. Lagging way behind were revolutionary leaders like Gamal Abdul-Nasser and Yasser Arafat. These young Syrians were more impressed by a leader who could attract investment, create jobs, and build a success story for his country from scratch, like Malaysia and the UAE, than one who preached revolutionary socialism and promised to defeat the State of Israel. When asked to name their ‘worst’ former non-Syrian Arab leader, Saddam Hussein came in first, with 35%, seconded by Gamal Abdul-Nasser, with 21%. Anwar al-Sadat came in third, with 18%, beating even Bashir Gemayel who got 8%.

Respondents were then asked to name their ‘best political memory.’ 40% said it was the liberation of South Lebanon in 2000. 30% said it was the downfall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. As for ‘worst political memory,’ a high 22% said it was the assassination of Lebanon’s former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Harriri. They dreaded it because it led to a series of negative events that were bad for Syria. One would have imagined the worst political memory to be the Arab-Israeli War of 1967, which led to the occupation of the Golan Heights, the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank, and Jerusalem. That war, however, received 90 votes (18%) and was seconded by the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, which received 70 votes (14%). In a landslide victory, George W. Bush came in as worst foreign leader, with 84%. Coming in second—again with little surprise—was then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair, with 10%. Third was Jacques Chirac of France, with 6% and fourth was German Chancellor Angela Merkel, with 2%.

Respondents were then asked to think hard and come up with a list of people they thought would qualify as inspirational figures, people who they respected and looked up to. The Prophet Mohammad ranked #1. Other names ranged from Hafez al-Assad, Hasan Nasrallah, Antune Saadah, Che Guevara, and Fidel Castro, to Amr Khaled, Saladin, and Omar Ibn al-Khattab. Somewhere in between came people like Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Ghandi, and Karl Marx. The list did not contain a single artist, writer, poet, or woman figure. It also, not surprisingly, did not have a single American icon, not even an entertainment or sports celebrity (although David Beckham was on the list!). Strangely enough, however, and in testimony to how un-secular society was becoming, not a single person wrote, “Kamal Ataturk.”

These results, measured by what I am getting from different interviews with famous Syrians, were surprising and alarming. They bring to mind an old story when Galileo was asked by one of his students: “Unhappy are those who don’t have heroes!”

Galileo replied, “No, unhappy are those who still need heroes!”


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