HUNDREDS of thousands of mourners made their way this week to the village of Qurdaha in the foothills of north-west Syria, just inland from the Mediterranean, to pay their respects at the grave of Naisa, President Hafez al-Assad's mother, a proud and powerful matriarch who died on Tuesday at the grand age of 97.
For the past 30 years Naisa watched her son transform his weak and chronically unstable country into one of the most formidable players on the Middle East stage. Nowhere are the transformations she witnessed more evident than in her home village of Qurdaha, once a cluster of mud houses at the end of a dirt track, now a mini-metropolis and the very symbol of advancement of the Alawi community to which the Assad family belongs.
The mourners, who included Syrian party leaders, the entire cabinet, foreign ambassadors, the President and Prime Minister of Lebanon (a neighbouring country now in Syria's orbit), and the eldest son of King Hussein of Jordan (a monarch Syria would dearly like to draw into its orbit), came as much to pay tribute to Naiisa's memory as to salute her son. The US Secretary of State, James Baker, on a peace shuttle, had to delay his meeting with the Syrian leader for 48 hours.
Naisa was the second wife of Assad's father, Ali Sulayman al- Assad, a peasant whose courage and physical strength earned him a place as a minor notable in his village community. His promotion was signalled in 1927 by a change in the family's name from Wahhish, 'savage', to Assad, 'lion'. It is said that he so distinguished himself as a pillar of village society that leaders of the four main families came to him and urged, 'You are not a Wahhish, you are an Assad' - a family tradition President Assad has done much to enhance.
Born in 1875, Assad's father, Ali Sulayman, knew Ottoman rule, briefly fought the French when they imposed their inter-war Mandate over Syria, and lived on until 1963, just long enough to witness the Baath Party revolution of that year which brought his son to prominence. He married twice and over three decades fathered 11 children. His first wife, Saada, bore him three sons and two daughters. Then there was a five- year gap separating this set of progeny from the children of his second wife, Naisa, a strong comely girl 20 years his junior, the daughter of Uthman Abbud from the village of Qutilba, a dozen kilometres further up the Alawi mountain from Qurdaha. She bore him a daughter and five sons. Hafez, born in 1930, was the fourth child of this second union.
Hafez al-Assad was born to Naisa in a two-room flat-roofed house of undressed stone giving on to a front yard of beaten earth - a very different building from Assad's grandiose, recently completed, hill-top presidential palace in Damascus.
Naisa is buried in the courtyard of a mosque which Assad, in a gesture of filial piety, built at Qurdaha three years ago and named after her.