Reading between the lines of an uncertain future

Robert Fisk concludes his series on Syria by seeking out an academic unafraid to speak his mind
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Damascus - Nafez Shamas admits he censored a book in the English department at Damascus University. "I advised the university to ban a book of historical stories because it described Golda Meir as a great leader," he says. "She led her country in an aggressive war and killed my people here. I have no regrets."

But Dr Shamas, senior lecturer in applied linguistics, is no government hack. Indeed, he is not a Baathist but a member of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) whose nationalist - as opposed to pan-Arab - ambitions stretch to a Greater Syria that would include Cyprus as well as Lebanon, Palestine and modern-day Israel. Like many SSNP adherents, he is a Christian.

His 6,000 students have no prohibitions on their reading: King Lear, Hamlet, Twelfth Night and Macbeth are on the English department's syllabus this year, even though the latter might suggest the inevitable downfall of more than one Middle East potentate. Dr Shamas reports the arrival of the first computer in the English department and the appointment of the first departmental secretary with a masters degree in educational studies.

Because of lack of funds - and the lack of signed copyright agreements with Syria - foreign books are photocopied and bound in the university library. And academic life is freer than before. "In 1971, people who applied to be teaching assistants had to be members of the [ruling] Baath party or had to have especially high marks in their subject. It's not in the regulations that you now have to be a Baathist."

Dr Shamas is no moderate when it comes to Israel. The SSNP supported Syrian military intervention in Lebanon in 1976, regarding the operation as a form of resistance to Israel. A publishing company owned by President Assad's minister of defence, Mustapha Tlass, printed The Rise of Nations, the most important work by the SSNP's Christian founder, Antoine Saad.

"Israel was implanted here as a colonial extension," Dr Shamas says. "The Americans haven't changed an inch from their position. And Israel will not stop its aggression unless it is faced with reasonable power. We don't believe in the existence of Israel at all." Which is not exactly the policy of the Baath, whose leadership has been - at least until the Likud election victory in Israel - deeply involved in the "peace process".

Yet it's not difficult to see why folk like Dr Shamas feel free to speak their minds on subjects over which most Syrians would guard their tongues. Born into a farmer's family at Kafrun, a mixed village of Christians and Alawites - the community from which the president comes - Dr Shamas agrees that the question of a succession to Hafez el-Assad is a matter that concerns all his countrymen.

"Every rational citizen in this country should be cautious and a little bit afraid of the consequences of the president passing away one day," he says. "Personally, I hope that the son [Bashar] takes over." President Assad's favourite son Basil died in a car accident in 1994.

Syria's enemies talk of chaos when President Assad dies, suggesting - some might say encouraging - the idea of a conflict between Alawites and the majority Sunni community. Dr Shamas ridicules the idea. "President Assad is a very unique man, a very bright man, the only one who was prepared to stand against the regional leadership of the Baath party in the 1960s [which led to Assad's bloodless coup or 'corrective movement' in 1970].

"I'm more optimistic than apprehensive. Sectarianism is very fragile and superficial - it's not powerful enough to lead Syria into a sectarian or religious war. All my friends are Sunnis or Alawites. And if the state of tension with Israel continues, this will help stability. Because where you have pressure from outside, people tend to be more unified inside a country."

Ironically, the SSNP, which struggled against French colonial rule after the First World War, favours the current French policy of balancing American power in the Middle East.

"Europe now needs economic advancement rather than military occupation here," Dr Shamas says. "Politics have changed."

So, he believes, has education. "I know we were criticised by Unesco and by some Western scholars," he says. "But our people are going to universities in Britain and doing well in higher degrees. In our university, we have chalk available now in our classes. Do you know, when I started teaching, we had to bring our own chalk to write on the blackboard?"