review of Peter Clark’s Damascus Diaries: Life under the Assads
for an Arabic version of this review see Al-Hayat Arabic daily
During his time as Director of the British Council in Syria in 1992-97, Dr Peter Clark OBE wrote a page-a-day diary. Now London-based Gilgamesh Publishing has published the edited diaries as the 393-page book Damascus Diaries: Life under the Assads.
Clark’s diaries make fascinating, lively and sometimes amusing reading. He was appointed Director of the British Council in Syria at a particularly crucial and sensitive time in relations between the two countries. Diplomatic relations had been restored in autumn 1991 - five years after Britain broke relations because of evidence that the Syrian embassy in London had been involved in Palestinian Nezar Hindawi’s 1986 attempt to blow up an Israeli El Al airliner.
The re-establishment of cultural and educational links via the British Council was a vital part of trying to improve relations between Syria and UK. Damascus Diaries conveys the texture of daily life in Syria as Peter set about restoring British Council activities, starting a programme of English-language teaching and developing educational and cultural exchanges. His diaries give a vivid picture of his many encounters, conversations, meals and parties with members of the artistic, literary, political, academic, and military elite and with “ordinary” Syrians. He also records his extensive travels around Syria on car or by foot.
Peter Clark with his British Council Damascus colleague Motaz Hadaya ©Peter Clark
He dedicates the book to three key colleagues he employed at the British Council in Damascus: Motaz Hadaya, a Damascene; Vanda Harmaneh, a Christian Jordanian; and Ayoub Ghurairi, a Palestinian refugee who had lived in Damascus since 1948.
In his foreword to Damascus Diaries Sir Andrew Green, who became British ambassador in 1991, pays tribute to Clark’s record in Syria. “His achievements were all the greater because the Syrians were, throughout his time in Damascus, in the grip of a ruthless police state whose multiple secret police forces were deeply suspicious of all contact between Syrians and Western embassies.”
Clark had a unique vantage point from which to see some of the last years of Hafez al-Assad’s rule. There was in the 1990s much interest in contacts between Syria and Israel, and whether these would lead to peace negotiations. There was also speculation over the president’s health, and what would happen if he died (he lived in fact until 2000). His “heir apparent”, his eldest son Basil al-Assad, was killed in a car crash in January 1994. Clark wrote in his diary that the next son, Bashar, “lacks personality... it is his sister Bushra who has the personality”. He compared Bashar to British monarch Queen Elizabeth’s youngest son, Prince Edward, while Bushra was like the more forceful Princess Anne.
Peter Clark with Ulfat Idilbi ©Peter Clark
In his diaries Clark has the observant eye of a novelist, but his main creative literary passion is translating Arabic literature. While in Syria he constantly met, and read the works of, Syrian authors such as Abdul Salam al-Ujaili, Hanna Mina and Hani al-Rahib. He translated two novels by Ulfat Idilbi, by then in her eighties, which were published by Quartet Books in London - Sabriya: Damascus Bitter Sweet and Grandfather's Tale. His English translations of Sa’dallah Wannus The Elephant O Lord of Ages and Mamduh Udwan’s The Mask were performed at the Institute of Music and Drama in April 1997.
Clark speaks fluent Arabic, having studied the language at Shemlan, Lebanon, in 1971-72. He had spent 25 years with the British Council, in Jordan, Lebanon, Sudan, Yemen, Tunisia, and the United Arab Emirates before moving to Syria. But Syria has a special place in his heart. “I fell in love with the country on my first visit in 1962”, he says, and he returned there repeatedly.
Even after he left Syria in 1997 he went back several times escorting British and American tour groups. The last time was in early 2011, when the present crisis was in its early days. “Since then the country has imploded, with unspeakable savageries being committed, the displacement of millions of people, and a total disruption to the warm and friendly Syria that I have described.” Clark writes. He has decided to donate all the royalties from the book to the Saïd Foundation’s Syrian Relief Programme which has “been doing outstanding work for Syrians in crisis”.
It is clear from his diaries that Clark needed skill and patience in trying to navigate his plans for British Council activities in education and culture through the maze of the Baath Party, the Assad family and the power of certain Alawites. He often expresses frustration with the Syrian political system, and sometimes with the British embassy and his bosses at the British Council back in London.
One of his major achievements was getting Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas put on in Arabic 1995. The opening performance, at the Ebla Cham Hotel in Damascus was attended by nine Syrian minsters, the chief of staff General Hikmat Shihabi and the Lebanese Minister of Culture. “There is a sense of awe in the audience,” writes Clark. “We are presenting excellence, colour, movement, singing, and most of the performers are Syrian!” The opera was then performed in Palmyra, and at the Roman theatre in Bosra.
Clark is an intensely sociable character, and writes: “I am grateful for the friendship of hundreds of Syrians.” The index to his diaries contains the names of around 800 people, the majority of them Syrians. There are also references to some Britons: for example Bishop Kenneth Cragg who visited Syria in August 1995. Clark took the Bishop to meet the Mufti, Ahmad Kaftaru, and they “are soon talking warmly together... they walk hand in hand to the door.”
Peter Clark with Ahmad Kaftaru and (3rd from left) Bishop Kenneth Cragg © Peter Clark
An extract from Damascus Diaries: Life Under the Assads by Peter Clark
Thursday 19 August 1993
I have lunch with the novelist Hani al-Rahib. He does not think much of Ulfat Idilbi as a writer. I should be translating Ghada Samman. Ulfat is backward-looking and reinforces Western stereotypes. Hmmm. He is wanting to give up teaching – he is a lecturer in English at the University of Kuwait – and start a photography business. We discuss modern literature and Syria.
In the evening I go out to a restaurant in the Barada Valley with Hikmat Shatti, designer, Fitna al-Rayess, niece of the publisher Riyad, and two film directors, Muhammad Malas and Umar Amiralai. Conversation is all in Arabic, but it is searching and exhausting. We return, after much araq, at about half past one.
Saturday 21 August 1993
I work on translating Dimashq Ya Basmati al-Huzn by Ulfat Idilbi, and work out words for different rooms in a house – there are over ten words. I am invited to a “Hawaii” evening at a house of one of the British oil executives. Precious and beautiful people. I wear shorts, the shirt I bought in Carnaby Street in 1968 and a floppy hat. I have a long discussion with the helpful Adam Ereli [a diplomat from the US embassy] He loves suckled pig and is far more aware of Alawite politics than anyone in the British Embassy. He is also aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the Ba’ath Paty. The member of the Party Command in charge of higher education, Wahib Tannous, is an old-style Communist sympathiser.
Monday 23 August 1993
I go to the Embassy and read the Ambassador’s carefully-written paper on what happens to the Peace Process if Hafez al-Assad dies. It is interesting, but suggests that there could be the possibility of a civil war and of Islamic fundamentalists taking over. Of course both are possible scenarios. But a civil war? There are numerous factions and confessions in the country – as in Lebanon – but there has not been the build-up of private armies, with war lords. If there were a civil war, where would the weapons come from? Iraq overland? Libya by sea? Kurds? Before the level of weapons became dangerous there would be ample time to secure the borders. But I think plenty of people are mindful of what happened in Lebanon. There are plenty of forces against a civil war. Similarly there is a coalition against the Muslim fundamentalists, who could claim an alternative legitimacy. Hopes for the Peace Process do rely on the survival of Hafez al-Assad. All that is a sobering thought for our activities. We are getting a hundred enquiries a day about English classes.
Tuesday 24 August 1993
I have dinner with an Embassy colleague. There have been serious electricity power cuts. “After 30 years of the Ba’ath Party, they can’t get the electricity right.” This is saloon-bar political analysis. Syria, like any other place, is an aggregate of individuals. One of my Syrian colleagues tells me that her mother-in-law, who comes from a village in the north, was married when she was 11 and screamed as she was raped on her bridal night. In her older age she now hates men, all men.
Wednesday 25 August 1993
Salah Jadid, one of the rivals of Hafez al-Assad 25 years ago, has died.
At five in the afternoon I set out north and drive to Tartous. I buy some chocolates for my hosts and go the labyrinth of roads in the hills, asking my way to the village of Qarqifta. The Alawite villages are full of people walking out in the evening - men, women, girls, courting couples. I reach Qarqifta and a young man shows me the way to [General Dr] Mahmud Zughaiby's house. After a shower, Mahmud takes me off to a beach caféne near Baniyas where there is a party full of young people. It is 1am before I get to bed.
book extract published with the kind permission of Peter Clark and Gilgamesh Publishing