Poetic designations like Qalamoun are propelled into international consciousness as new sites of combat and desolation. Because Qalamoun lies strategically on the main route between Damascus and Syria’s northern cities, we learn about it.
I note the enchanting name with a sense of unwanted privilege knowing how, not so long ago, this was a place of pride, promise and enterprise. Barely an hour’s drive from Damascus, a new university named for nearby Mount Al-Qalamoun was home to 6,000 students and pursuing affiliations with centers of education around the world. This week press reports cite it as another killing field, as if nothing more significant happened there. We learn that Kalamoon University, the adjacent town of Deir Attiyah and the mountain have been retaken by Syrian government forces. What is left to retake? I wonder.
Certainly not a thriving center of learning with its handsome outdoor amphitheater, its corridors hung with paintings, its well equipped labs, its campus church and mosque, its teaching hospital, and the landscaped townhouses of modern Deir Attiyah.
I was preparing to teach at Qalamoun. It was 2009, really not long ago. Or was it?
In 2004 Qalamoun opened as the first in a network of private universities licensed by the Syrian government. After 2000, privatization was expanding in all fields, producing a middle class who asked: why enroll our sons and daughters in colleges in Beirut, Grenoble, Houston or Cairo when we can do as well here, and keep our children near us? There was a rush to construct the most modern facilities and find the best professors.
Within five years, enterprising academics, investors and architects joined expatiate Syrians to build seven new universities. Qalamoun was the largest. Located 80 kilometers from Damascus, most students opted to commute from the city. Luxury jumbo buses marked with the university’s distinctive logo ferried faculty and students from the city starting at 6 a.m.
By the time I was meeting with Qalamoun trustees in 2010, the school was facing only educational problems: a drug scandal; Qalamoun’s medical students did poorly in nationwide exams; and too many students needed remedial courses in English. Still, construction of its teaching hospital was underway as well as negotiations to open a humanities department. While facing competition from newer private universities across the country, Qalamoun was still popular.
Today? Qalamoun and Deir Attiyah are battlefronts. We can trace the seeds of conflict there to when the war was just an uprising– just. The degree of killing and deprivation across Syria today was unimaginable in May 2011, but Qalamoun experienced an incident that surely set it on that unhappy course.
Students captivated by public protests in Daara in the south decided to hold a forum to discuss prospects for reform. The debate never took place because one sunny morning the campus was invaded by thugs. “It was very ugly; horrid”, a colleague and professor there told me the next day; she was still trembling from the ordeal. Everyone knew the attackers were government security agents. “They stormed the main building, terrorizing us, bashing bodies and heads and hauling youths away. I myself sheltered several students in a women’s washroom.” She and others witnessed sufficient brutality in that fleeting event to turn them against their government. Scores of families withdrew their children from Qalamoun; students who remained became sullen, and politically polarized.
While the university stumbled on, the terror was repeated at other campuses.
As for the sleepy town of Deir Attiyah, it’s a war zone today too, occupied by rebels, surrounded by tanks. After 1985 this had become a modern, affluent town, rebuilt by inhabitants who’d gone abroad, mainly to Saudi Arabia, worked as engineers, doctors, and teachers, then returned with their savings to invest in their country. Its leading families founded Qalamoun University, nurtured it and had watched its growth with pride.
What does it mean to the abandoned empty classrooms and the uninhabited town today when government troops have driven out the rebels? It’s just one strategic place on the main highway to the capital. How many more to go?
Barbara Nimri Aziz is an anthropologist, author and radio producer at WBAI-NY . Her work can be read and heard at www.RadioTahrir.org.