The Philosopher: On exile, justifying murder and today’s ‘cartoonish dictators

Dr. Ahmad Barqawi speaks of Damascus with the voice of exile, “a refugee twice over,” as he puts it.

Born in 1950 in the countryside outside the Syrian capital, the philosophy professor eventually taught at the University of Damascus for 30 years. Barqawi authored texts that explored the origins of totalitarianism, the perpetuation of authoritarianism and the oppression of the individual in Arab society, among other topics.

Rather than silence himself at the behest of the regime’s security officials, Barqawi chose to flee Syria in 2013, parting ways with the city that had been a fixture in his life and inspiration in his work. 

Barqawi now lives in Dubai and works as an academic director for the Orient Research Centre, a think tank based in the United Arab Emirates.

In the second installment of this two-part interview, Barqawi speaks to the nature of dictatorships and their connection between killing and the enjoyment of the act.

“Inside the letter of the law that prohibits killing, there is space reserved for the ideology of killing ‘for the sake of,’” Barqawi tells Syria Direct’s Ghardinia Ashour.

Part 1 of Syria Direct’s interview with philosopher Ahmad Barqawi here.

Q: You’ve previously spoken about your parents and, at one point, remarked, “My father was a religion teacher who didn’t teach me how to pray.” Could you speak about the role that your parents had in your intellectual upbringing?

My father is a religion teacher. He was not the patriarchal authority [associated with] Eastern cultures. The man did not interfere in our decision making. He had no opinion about the future we chose for ourselves. He had his thoughts on issues of life, death, existence, God and Islam, but he did not force them on us. He did provide us with a rationalistic method for thinking. In this sense, he taught us to be free, independent people who respected others.

My mother, meanwhile, was more radical in her stances. She was a strong source of enlightenment for us, and would never compromise that enlightenment. There is no doubt that our love of the Arabic language and poetry are due to her.

She traced a road for my future, though neither she nor I realized it.

Q: Your parents were expelled from Palestine in 1948 during the Nakba. You have roots in Palestine, but you became who you are in Damascus. Do you feel a sense of belonging to one place more than the other? How can the pain of exodus—whether from Palestine or Syria—be a source of inspiration rather than desolation?

Without a doubt, I cannot make a distinction between my Syrian-ness and my Palestinian-ness. I cannot say which of the two Nakbas was the harshest, or to which I feel more belonging.

[Ed.: The term Nakba, or “catastrophe,” traditionally refers the 1948 Palestine war in which 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes. Barqawi uses the terms to refer to both Palestine in 1948 and massive ongoing displacement in Syria.]

I was born a refugee in al-Hameh [a town in the Damascus countryside] and I lived as a refugee, with everything that entailed.

When I left Damascus, I become a refugee twice over, perpetually outside time and place. Here I am in a temporary time and place, away from Palestine, away from Syria and far away from Damascus.

Q: Returning to the topic of Damascus, you have a clear affinity for the Syrian capital. One could say that Damascus and Barqawi are tethered together. Why did you leave? Could you speak to what your life is like now that you are separated from the capital?

I am a son of Damascus, and Damascus was the world where I was formed.

I walked along the city’s streets and sidewalks, its houses, high schools, university, the a-Zahiriyah Library, love, dreams, pubs, history, the Barada River, a-Rabweh, days spent writing, life’s rituals, people, relationships, habit, popular religion, memory, bookstores, cafes, friends, Sheikh Muhyi a-Din, the camp, Mezzeh, the philosopher’s hut in al-Hamidiyah, al-Bab a-Sharqi, Bab Touma, the Ummayed­­ Mosque, Al-Hadaf Magazine, the Palestinian revolution,  discussions, the street hawkers, the novelist, the poets, the artists, the colleagues, the students at Bayt al-Qasid, patience, sarcasm, fear, oppression, hope, and those departed. 

Damascus, with all its treasures, is my life. It is where I store my knowledge, my morality and my emotions.

Damascus is like a language. Who can abandon his language and make a home in another language? The moment you board a plane to depart, you do not know where your wanderings will bring you. You flee with your pen, your language and your hopes. Damascus, my Damascus, fled from me.

The patrolmen and informants turned to murderers. The murderers perfected their murderous rituals and propagated them. When standing before a mob, the university no longer means that you are respected.

Who am I? I am a pen and paper, a voice and an audience. Silence, of the pen and of the voice, kills.

If I say goodbye to Damascus, it is in the hope of meeting again.

At a late age, it is tortuous to leave one’s place. However, philosophy gives life a logical nature. You are living in your language—your original home—which is both liberated and liberating. Through it, you try to take hold of your existence with your mind and with beauty, through philosophy and poetry.

 The University of Damascus from above. Photo courtesy of Syrian Art Treasures.

Q: In one essay you posted online, you wrote “the ego of the human has not yet been born in Arab culture.” How has this contributed to the authoritarian power in the Arab world where regimes do away with individuality and creativity? How does this sort of environment—one without a sense of the individual—allow for mass murder, detention and torture?

In one chapter of The Ego, I speak about the ideology of killing and I point to the core of matter.

‘Do not kill.’ This is commanded by all proscriptions, whether religious or secular, from Hammurabi to Islam.  However, inside the letter of this law that prohibits killing, there is a space reserved for killing: the ideology of killing ‘for the sake of.’

I kill ‘for the sake of’ is the justification for a murderous ideology. Killing grounded in a murderous ideology is the most dangerous sort, because it gives the killer the right to kill. Murder is legitimized in the name of values that are placed higher than human beings.

The most dangerous thing about the ideology of killing is that it conceals its lowly motivations behind grand goals. The dictator does not say that he is killing in order retain his power, but instead that he kills for the homeland.

It is a baffling paradox: a regime that kills the nation’s sons to protect the nation, or a religious fundamentalist who says that he kills God’s creations for God.

The murderous instruments of authoritarianism tore out Qashoush’s throat and threw his body in the al-Assi River.

[Ed.: Ibrahim Qashoush is credited as the author of the popular protest song “Yalla, Irhal, Ya Bashar,” or “Come on, get out, Bashar.” The singer was allegedly killed by regime security forces in July 2011, his body found in Orontes, or al-Assi, River with his throat slit.]

The murderous ideology met his voice with the sword. In the space between his throat and the sword pressed against it, the concept of self-defense is born.

A fanatical ideology is one that rejects the Other. There is just one step between denying the Other and killing him.

In the book The Comedy of Human Existence, I spoke about the pleasure of committing evil, and I gave the example of torture in prison, presenting stories from Tadmur Prison.

[Ed.: The military prison in Tadmur, or Palmyra, has a notorious reputation for systematic torture and inhumane living conditions. Amnesty International extensively documented prisoner abuse in a September 2001 report entitled “Syria: Torture, Despair and Dehumanisation in Tadmur Military Prison.”]

So, if you combine the ideology of killing with the enjoyment of committing evil, the basis for incomprehensible violence carried out by those in power becomes clear.

Q: Is the idea of forever, the dream of eternity (for example, eternal power) behind absolute good and evil? Is it the cause of madness and brutality? When someone lives their life in search of eternity, do they know deep down that they are killing?

A study of the behaviors of a number of dictators—Stalin, Mao Zedong, Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, Abdul Nasser—shows that they are aiming to realize totalitarian [Ed.: see previous note on the term “totalitarian”] ideology.

A popular movement stood behind each one of them at one point in time: Communism behind Stalin, Nazism behind Hitler, fascism behind Mussolini, liberalism and Arab nationalism behind Jamal Abdul Nasser.

In this way, the figure of the dictators is implanted in the mind of the people as a liberator, and piece by piece, a deity.

These dictators and their security apparatuses, in all of their brutality, would go so far as to kill.

They looked at their respective countries through the lens of strength. Stalin is associated with Soviet manufacturing, and Hitler with Germany’s technological advancement. In Egypt, Jamal Abdul Nasser achieved agricultural reform, nationalized the Suez Canal, erected the Aswan Dam and built iron and steel factories.

Dictators, without a doubt, leave societal, humanitarian and cultural destruction in their wake, even after their death. Historically speaking though, these dictators have a totalitarian ideology behind their strength.

All tyrannical, ideological dictators like the ones that I have mentioned, renounce everything aside from political power.

However, moving to those dictators that we can think of these days, all around the world, I consider them cartoonish. They have no totalitarian ideologies, and the only thing they do is steal slaves and countries, and appeal to the criminal trash of all sects. They take their strength that they exert on their peoples from foreign armies, and they drop bombs on the villages and cities of the country. They surround themselves with a group of criminals convinced of the dictator’s sincerity.

Every dictatorship is certainly evil, but this [current-day] mold of dictatorship is ridiculous. It’s not any old evil; it is historical filth that spreads an epidemic of absolute evil, destroying all life.

Ghardinia Ashour

Ghardinia Ashour is from Moadamiyat a-Sham neighborhood in Outer Damascus. She graduated from Damascus University with a degree in translation. Ghardinia moved from Syria to Lebanon in 2012 and then to Jordan in 2013. She worked as an English teacher in Moadamiyat a-Sham before leaving Syria.

Tariq Adely

Tariq Adely graduated from Brown University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in comparative literature and translation. He continued his studies at the Qasid Institute and the Institute for Critical Thought in Amman, Jordan.