FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Empty Classrooms of Qalamoun

by BARBARA NIMRI AZIZ

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.

Barbara Nimri Aziz is a New York based anthropologist and journalist. Find her work at www.RadioTahrir.org. She was a longtime producer at Pacifica-WBAI Radio in NY.

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

February 27, 2017
Anthony DiMaggio
Media Ban! Making Sense of the War Between Trump and the Press
Dave Lindorff
Resume Inflation at the NSC: Lt. General McMaster’s Silver Star Was Essentially Earned for Target Practice
Conn Hallinan
Is Trump Moderating US Foreign Policy? Hardly
Norman Pollack
Political Castration of State: Militarization of Government
Kenneth Surin
Inside Dharavi, a Mumbai Slum
Lawrence Davidson
Truth vs. Trump
Binoy Kampmark
The Extradition Saga of Kim Dotcom
Robert Fisk
Why a Victory Over ISIS in Mosul Might Spell Defeat in Deir Ezzor
David Swanson
Open Guantanamo!
Ted Rall
The Republicans May Impeach Trump
Lawrence Wittner
Why Should Trump―or Anyone―Be Able to Launch a Nuclear War?
Andrew Stewart
Down with Obamacare, Up with Single Payer!
Colin Todhunter
Message to John Beddington and the Oxford Martin Commission
David Macaray
UFOs: The Myth That Won’t Die?
Weekend Edition
February 24, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Exxon’s End Game Theory
Pierre M. Sprey - Franklin “Chuck” Spinney
Sleepwalking Into a Nuclear Arms Race with Russia
Paul Street
Liberal Hypocrisy, “Late-Shaming,” and Russia-Blaming in the Age of Trump
Ajamu Baraka
Malcolm X and Human Rights in the Time of Trumpism: Transcending the Master’s Tools
John Laforge
Did Obama Pave the Way for More Torture?
Mike Whitney
McMaster Takes Charge: Trump Relinquishes Control of Foreign Policy 
Patrick Cockburn
The Coming Decline of US and UK Power
Louisa Willcox
The Endangered Species Act: a Critical Safety Net Now Threatened by Congress and Trump
Vijay Prashad
A Foreign Policy of Cruel Populism
John Chuckman
Israel’s Terrible Problem: Two States or One?
Matthew Stevenson
The Parallax View of Donald Trump
Norman Pollack
Drumbeat of Fascism: Find, Arrest, Deport
Stan Cox
Can the Climate Survive Electoral Democracy? Maybe. Can It Survive Capitalism? No.
Ramzy Baroud
The Trump-Netanyahu Circus: Now, No One Can Save Israel from Itself
Edward Hunt
The United States of Permanent War
David Morgan
Trump and the Left: a Case of Mass Hysteria?
Pete Dolack
The Bait and Switch of Public-Private Partnerships
Mike Miller
What Kind of Movement Moment Are We In? 
Elliot Sperber
Why Resistance is Insufficient
Brian Cloughley
What are You Going to Do About Afghanistan, President Trump?
Binoy Kampmark
Warring in the Oncology Ward
Yves Engler
Remembering the Coup in Ghana
Jeremy Brecher
“Climate Kids” v. Trump: Trial of the Century Pits Trump Climate Denialism Against Right to a Climate System Capable of Sustaining Human Life”
Jonathan Taylor
Hate Trump? You Should Have Voted for Ron Paul
Franklin Lamb
Another Small Step for Syrian Refugee Children in Beirut’s “Aleppo Park”
Ron Jacobs
The Realist: Irreverence Was Their Only Sacred Cow
Andre Vltchek
Lock up England in Jail or an Insane Asylum!
Rev. William Alberts
Grandiose Marketing of Spirituality
Paul DeRienzo
Three Years Since the Kitty Litter Disaster at Waste Isolation Pilot Plant
Eric Sommer
Organize Workers Immigrant Defense Committees!
Steve Cooper
A Progressive Agenda
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail