Robert Fisk: All change in the Temple of Truth

Amid quotes from Blake, he would explain Baathist teachings with a roll of the eyes
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The Independent Online

We used to call it the Temple of Truth. The 10-storey cube of brown and cream marble on the Mezze Boulevard in Damascus had vast, sand-covered windows that were never cleaned, a set of four battered silver elevators that took up to 15 minutes to reach the dreaded top floor and a bust of President Hafez el-Assad which appeared to be made of dark yellow margarine. Herein sat the cigarette-smoking priests of the temple whose sullen fate was to ensure that foreign journalists - alas for them, Fisk among this number - understood the avuncular, humanist, Arab nationalist values of Baathism.

In the days of Old Syria, this was a harsh task for any attendant lord. Iskander Ahmed Iskander was the minister of information when I first arrived in Damascus, a slim, moustachioed helmsman whose title belied his proximity to the Great Man. He ruled from an office with a heavily bolted security door in a building which housed the Syrian Arab News Agency; its indigestible dispatches filled the pages of each day's Syria Times, a tabloid-sized journal invariably recording the completion of five-year industrial plans and telegrams from delirious agricultural workers congratulating the president on the anniversary of his corrective revolution.

Iskander it was whose task in 1982 was to berate me for daring to enter the forbidden city of Hama where the legions of Rifaat el-Assad - brother of the Great Man and now quietly enjoying forced retirement in the European Union (that scourge of war criminals) - butchered thousands of Islamist rebels. This occurred without a squeak of complaint from the same Americans who are currently trying to liquidate an equal number of insurgents in Iraq. Damascus Radio (one of Iskander's pets) had already denounced me as a "liar" for claiming to have wormed my way into Hama even though I had penetrated the burning city by offering a lift to two of Rifaat's officers and spent more than 10 minutes watching one of his tanks shelling the city's oldest mosque.

Yet when he received me in the spring of 1982, Iskander was anxious to preserve good relations with my then employer, The Times. First he insisted I had not been to Hama - a charitable suggestion I swiftly disposed of - and then that he knew nothing of Damascus Radio's claim that I had lied. I had no doubt that Iskander had approved this very broadcast. But he beamed at me, thrust a cigar in my direction and said: "Only true friends could have this argument."

Years later, Iskander would go for cancer surgery in London where part of his brain was removed. When I asked him what it was like to wake up after the operation, he replied: "Part of me did not exist." Tough folk, Baathists. These were also difficult days for Zuhair, Syria's "director (sic) of foreign press" whose genial, kindly ability to wangle visas for ungrateful journalists - and whose "minders" shadowed all of them - was rarely rewarded. Zuhair was eventually appointed press officer at his country's London embassy, a post swiftly abandoned when the Brits discovered that the would-be bomber of an El Al airliner had been hidden by Syrian diplomats - not Zuhair - in London. Back in Damascus, he approved a visa to an American journalist who failed to tell Zuhair that he was also an Israeli and who filed a number of reports to his paper in Tel Aviv.

Zuhair was dispatched to the lower floors of the Temple of Truth, protected only by a new minister of information, Mohamed Salman, a shrewd Baathist whose fall from grace was inevitable after he unveiled yet another bust of the Great Leader outside the Temple of Truth. The following morning, a squad of workmen were seen dismantling the statue. Next time I saw Mohamed he was under house arrest, freighted to a Baath Party Congress to vote for the leadership of Assad's son Bashar in 2000, nervously sipping coffee in a corner of the room while his Baathist colleagues showed their fear of contamination by creating a 20ft radiation zone around him. Along with a colleague, I broke the radiation belt by approaching Mohamed to ask after his health. His look of relief was palpable. A few hitherto craven Baathists then followed our example.

I liked Ahmed, translator and "minder" to Zuhair's successor. His chain-smoking detracted from his ascetic, cynical, literary approach to the world. Amid quotations from William Blake, Ahmed - who suffered from a weak heart - would explain Baathist teachings with a roll of the eyes and often prefaced his remarks with the words: "You promise me, Robert, you will never repeat what I say." There would then follow a transparently honest account of life under Hafez el-Assad and - once - a description of how his colleagues would behave on the day the Great Leader passed away. "In my native Tadmor, the people will go to the mass graves of political prisoners and throw rose petals on the sand," he said. "And in our offices at what you call the Temple of Truth, we will sit with cigarettes in our mouths, each watching our comrades from the corner of our eyes to observe their reactions to the death of the Great Leader."

On that day, the denizens of the Temple of Truth behaved in exactly this manner - there were, unfortunately, no rose petals on the graves of Tadmor - but, once Bashar settled into office, a carefully modulated Baathist breeze stirred along the corridors of the temple. When I joked about the previous "iron rule", there would be much back-slapping and praise for Bashar. Why only this week, the new minister, a cheerful, intellectual surgeon called Mohsen Bilal, recounted how he had often discussed my reports with General Ghazi Kenaan, the interior minister who last year unhappily blew his brains out at the height of the UN inquiry into the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri.

To my shock, I found that both Adel and Ahmed had died of heart attacks in recent years. Iskander is long dead. Mohamed Salman currently "lives at home", though no longer under house arrest, while Zuhair, whose neck was saved by Salman, now edits a newspaper about horses. Horses, I asked at the temple? Horses? "Yes, his paper's called The Thoroughbred." Big circulation? "The people of Damascus, Mr Robert, do not all talk about horses." Indeed. The Syria Times has gone broadsheet and is as boring as ever. "Cabinet Stresses National Unity" was one of this week's headlines. But other papers are reporting Lebanese accusations that Syria was behind Hariri's murder. My hotel displays magazines recording the repression of Syrian Kurds. The windows are still covered in sand and the lift still takes 15 minutes to reach the 10th floor. But this is New Syria and life has changed in the Temple of Truth.

And they call this place, I keep reminding myself, the Axis of Evil.