|From a demonstration in front of the Syrian Embassy in Washington, D.C. - Early 2011|
Imagine you’re living in your utopian world, surrounded by art and literature, an elite and good life, but, reality of such a life was anything but right and real, instead it was a crippling state of affairs, quite literally. Ammar Abdulhamid was living such a life when he returned from his studies in the USA to Syria and saw abysmal realities which were plaguing the Syrians in the mid-1990s.
Ammar Abdulhamid comes from a family with a regionally famous actress mother and a filmmaker father along with a slew of well-known uncles and aunts also involved in showbiz. He could have chosen the safe life like many of those from the artistic and literary class from the big city of Damascus who maintained a neutral if not begrudgingly accepting stance vis-a-via the ruling Assad regime. But Abdulhamid, after returning from his studies noticed the atrocities and expressed his dissidence through his poetry, but, because he wrote mostly in English while the majority of the country spoke only Arabic, it reached but a small group of people within Damascus’s socioeconomic elite, who were not too inclined to become politically active.
This was just the beginning of the giant leaps and tough times Abdulhamid had coming his way. With the turn of the century, his work grew bolder and more vociferous, and far more critical. He wrote articles in Arabic and English, which started to attract the attention of the security officers. Despite the release of his first novel, Menstruation, he decided he rather put his feet into activism rather than have an opportunity at being famous in the literary world.
He noticed there was a limited window of opportunity to make a difference and hope that it would be enough to stave off the looming implosion of the regime’s mayhem. Abdulhamid pushed all his energy to bring about a democratic change in Syria, as well as the broader Middle East. His ever preoccupied mind for a better Syria led to the birth of two major non-governmental agencies; DarEmar and the Tharwa Foundation which were launched in Syria officially in late 2003. DarEmar was established as a publishing house to avoid strictures imposed on the activities of non-governmental organizations in the country but also operated as a grass-root NGOs. They also tried to foster a virtual dialogue between Syrians and Israelis for the civil society in Syria in the peace process.
Tharwa and DarEmar had remained openly active in Syria until the authorities grew increasingly tired of Abdulhamid in mid-2005 and he was forced to leave the country in September 2005. Once in the U.S., he began working on setting up the Tharwa Foundation to continue the bold work to empower the Syrians with non-violent efforts against authorities positing themselves as the only arbiters and safeguards. These so called protectors of the country’s confessional minorities were in reality unlawful and benefiting profits from enemies of the state. Away from home Abdulhamid redoubled his efforts seeking to promote democracy and human rights in Syria as the civil unrest in the country grew alarmingly.
All the efforts and hard work and protests finally lead to the months that shook the country’s core in 2011, the Syrian Revolution, against president Bashar al-Assad and his government. But it was then that Abdulhamid realised they were dealing with a long term crisis. So began the “I am Syria” initiative with the help of few, in order educate the people and students in US and around the world about the Syrian crisis and ways to help and pitch in. Further efforts were put forward regarding inter-communal harmony and nonviolence which reached many people, despite the efforts the current violence in Syria and the region of Damascus prove, they hadn’t reached enough people.
As chaos and turmoil reigned in Syria, Abdulhamid’s household also came under harsh and disconcerting light, when after being exiled to Abdulhamid decided to take a stand against the crimes of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in front of the American Congress, the President of US and other world leaders. The campaigns of the authorities to stop him began with subtle and silent hassling and interrogation of various family members, including his well-known mother. Though despite all this he says, “I risked appearing selfish, but luckily enough my family members, including my mother understood and held firm.”
With such turmoil brewing in his our country and him in exile, it has been only once that he met his mother since the revolution in 2005, who is still living in the panic embroiled city of Damascus. Living across the world with his wife who has been his partner from the beginning in all his endeavours and children who also have established NGOs to help Syrian children in these trying times. Abdulhamid today feels he has reached a point where the efforts for Syria are making bare minimum changes and is frustrated and tired with the decades long fight. But not for one to give up or be easily satisfied with a short term view and willing to get the best efforts out in the world to aid the Syrian crisis, Abdulhamid has taken a small step back to be an analyst rather than an activist. Other than participating in certain conferences, he has stopped making TV appearances (which he feels are more self-serving rather than cause-serving).
Now-a-days Abdulhamid has taken to his creative side, he says, “In 2014, I published a new book, The Irreverent Activist, a series of brief poetic and philosophical reflections and confessions inspired by my two decades of activism. The book, however, is not meant to be “inspirational” in the tradition of all those works that preach the power of “positive thinking.” Rather, it comes more as a reflection of a continuing struggle to determine what constitutes “right” action and “right” thinking at any giving moment and the uncertainty involved in the process.” Abdulhamid’s straight forward nature makes him humbly express that he wants to find a balance and doesn’t want give up either of the vocations but ideally he says wants to find a way to support the creative types lost within the growing Syrian refugee communities and well as push the limits to his own potential.
This is a man who stood up against his own peers who preached unreasonable radical views. He took a stand against the fatwa released for Salman Rushdie for his book, “The Satanic Verses”. He was bold to stand against numerous threats and hassles, so, this is what a man who jumped right into the dark Syrian turmoil while still keeping his creative calling alive says, “You have to be methodical in your approach. You have to take the time to learn the basics. You cannot take haphazard swings and hope to succeed. This approach might help you once or twice, but it won’t work over the long-haul. Being talented does not guarantee success. Success is more often the product of organization, dedication and teamwork than talent.”
Ammar Abdulhamid is one of the few ones who do stand up when they see something that doesn’t sit right with them. He is one of the few who did not conform under pressure. He is one of the few who is bold and brave to stand out and raise his voice against an autocratic president. Ammar is a true reflection of the fact that our fate lies within us and we have to be brave enough to see it.