In the Syria that was
Damascus Diaries, Life Under the Assads by Peter Clark Gilgamesh Publishing, 2015. ISBN: 978-190853135-3
Peter Clark, best known as the founding father of Pickthallian studies, is also a formidable chronicler of the times. While Director of the British Council in Syria from 1992 to 1997, he maintained a long-standing personal discipline,
Apart from a few years in the 1970s I have kept a page-a-day diary since 1960. I usually write it up in the morning, recording events, encounters and conversations of the previous day. Making the entry is as essential a daily ritual as brushing my teeth. I rarely read entries once I have written them.
An outcome are these Damascus Diaries, that reveal much about a place in certain times, but also of British responses, institutional and individual, in a post-Suez world. The Diaries offer insights into the lives and mores of Hafez Asaad’s Baʻathist elite, as well as the struggles of ordinary folks, with humorous and sometimes subversive asides on British officialdom, be it his employers or visiting dignitaries.
Peter Clark shares with Pickthall not only fluency in many languages, but the capacity to strike up sincere friendships with persons in all walks of life, never patronising, and modest to a fault of his own professional achievements and accomplishments. The Diaries are well-grounded and focused on people and events in an understated way, interspersed with vivid descriptions that make poignant reading as Syrian cities burn today,
Saturday, 22 June 
I join the [British] Ambassador in Aleppo at the office of the Governor. I walk from the Baron Hotel, right through the Souk from Antakya Gate to the Citadel. In the early morning a shaft of light coming through the roof of the tunnel-like souk is like a diaphanous column.
After the Governor we call on the Chief of Police. How are things? All is well. No crime in Aleppo. Then to the Party Secretary whose office is the grandest of them all, with fine finished woodwork. 11 pictures of the President and eight of Basil [Hafez Asaad’s son and presumptive heir, died in a car crash in 1994].
Peter Clark’s academic training was as an historian at the University of Keele. After graduation he taught for a while in Turkey, joining the British Council in 1967. He learnt Arabic at the Middle East Centre for Arabic Studies in Lebanon in the early 1970s, and prior to his Syrian posting, completed assignments in the Sudan (1971-1977), Yemen (1980-1984), Tunisia (1984-1988) and in the United Arab Emirates, as Director (1988-1992). Retirement came in 1999, an end to what seems to have been a delightful life of National Day parties, networking, literary dinners and soirées, glamorous encounters (for example with Julie Christie, who visited Syria in 1997), but really also one of much personal stress organising large-scale cultural events, notably a British production of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas in the Roman amphitheatre in Palmyra, and behind-the-scenes self-discipline: ‘outside my British Council duties I read, studied and scribbled’ – what is not said is that these form an immense corpus, not just of diaries like this one, but books and book reviews, translations of Arabic poetry and novels, lectures and obituaries (“It was my ambition when I was at school to write obituaries for The Times”).
The Diaries are of course in chronological sequence, but three themes are distinct. First, what was life like under Hafez al-Assad? Peter Clark’s diary entries convey the way power was exercised and its societal effects. Second, what did he, as a career British Council officer, deem to be the ‘mission’ on such postings? He had to cope with the demands for information from the British Embassy, and also maintain his own sense of the ‘British values’ worth sharing and promoting. Third, how far by the late 1990s had British officialdom adjusted to a post-Suez, post-colonial world? Peter Clark was in a position to observe the workings of the British Council and the Foreign Office, and the conduct of visitors from Britain.
Life in a police state
Peter Clark had one occasion to meet Hafez al-Assad, with the setting and psychological atmosphere acutely captured:
Saturday, 24 December 
At 11 the Embassy Spook calls. “We’re on. Be at the Embassy at 12.” Five of us are to accompany Adrian [Ambassador Sindall]: the Defence Attaché Dick Clarke, the Management Officer, the Commercial Attaché, the Spook and myself. Dick is looking splendid in his Welch Regimental dress, with a sword at his side.
Three cars turn up from the Presidential Office including a vast one for the Ambassador and the Head of Protocol. I go with the Spook and Dick in a second car. Dick is told he cannot carry his sword into the presence of the President. “Only Her Majesty the Queen is permitted to tell me to remove the sword,” he answers – and gets away with it. The front car has Syrian and British flags on it and motorcycle outriders with (gentle) sirens. We go along the Beirut road and sweep up a wide road to the marble palace on the hill. A 50-man guard of chocolate soldiers is inspected by the Ambassador. A band plays the National Anthem (ours) and we proceed into the building, with great views over the city. Then into another large room. President Hafez al-Assad stands on a red carpet facing us. The Ambassador stops before him, flanked by Dick and the Spook, the rest of us neatly bringing up the rear. The Ambassador reads his speech in Arabic (prepared with the help of Imam Abdul Rahim). Assad has cold grey eyes that penetrate and suggest ruthlessness. He stands unmoving, Faruq Sharraʻ, the Foreign Minister at one side, and two other bald men on the other: an all-male occasion. The Ambassador steps forward and introduces each of us. Assad has a very strong handshake. President and Ambassador withdraw to chat.
“Have you read a book by a dissident Israeli intelligence officer who says the Hindawi affair that led to a break in relations between our two countries was hatched up by Mossad?” says Assad. “We were both duped.”
“I want to think of the future of our relations,” replies the Ambassador tactfully.
Meanwhile, the five of us go to another room for a sweet and fruit juice. After half an hour we return to the audience chamber, are photographed with the President, shake hands and depart. On the way down we pass by the medieval castle of Mezze that is a high-grade political prison, a reminder to all who go up to the Palace of the fragility of politics in the country.
We end up at the Ambassador’s Residence and drink a bottle or two of champagne. The Spook and I both have the same observation about the President’s eyes. They seem to be able to look into your soul.
Another entry conveys the abuses of state power,
Saturday, 3 August 
. . . A Lattakia doctor friend drives me back to Damascus. He is full of information. Two sons of Jamil al-Assad, brother of the President, are bullies, rich on trading drugs. They bully people into selling land at rock-bottom prices . . . He tells me of human rights abuses. There have recently been campaigns against the Turkomans. One was killed after being tortured; the police alleged he had hanged himself. A medical colleague, a Turkoman surgeon, was dragged off from the hospital where he worked in front of colleagues and patients. My friend, who has been close to senior Baʻathists went to complain directly to the head of the intelligence department responsible. “Why do you have to humiliate him in front of other people?” There was no answer, but it was clear that the aim was just that – to humiliate him in front of others.
At an Embassy briefing Peter Clark learns that the internal security employed 100,000, “a conservative estimate”. He also picks up the tensions which were to erupt so viciously 20 years later, with forebodings in several entries: “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?”; “the social tensions between Sunnis and Alawites and the seething hatred that does exist”. The climate of State intolerance came to be mirrored within the groups in (hidden) opposition: at a visit to the University of Aleppo, Peter Clark met a one girl who believed that “it was a sin for a man to hear her voice”. He adds, “It was as if the Muslim Brothers are spoiling for a fight”.
Peter Clark was astute in dealing with the Baʻathist hierarchy, “I grovel at the top, nag the middle ranks and “offer incentives” to those lower down. Preparations for the Purcell opera required a bribe for ‘a retired Alawite general’ . In spite of Party misgivings he was able to open the first British Council office in Aleppo.
The British Council’s mission and Peter Clark’s ‘British Values’
The British Council, founded in 1934, and since the 1990s more or less funded by the Foreign Office, remains Britain’s cultural ambassador, with the mission to ‘promote a wider knowledge of the United Kingdom and the English language and to encourage cultural, scientific, technological and educational co-operation between the United Kingdom and other countries’ (annual report, 1996-97) and with a duty to “to export British values to the world” (Baroness Kennedy, chair of the British Council, 1998).
British Council staff serve as sources of information for the local embassy. On his posting to Syria, Peter Clark observed: “the people they [the Embassy staff] meet are roughly from three groups: officials, people who are pro-British because of business or family connections; the haute bourgeoisie. Through education, culture and English I shall reach out to a far greater number of people”. Another entry notes,
Wednesday, 18 August 
I call on the Ambassador at the Residence and stay for two hours. We discuss the visit of my Director General, and I outline how I see things developing in the next year or so. I tell him I shall be staying at the house of an Alawite General next week. He is impressed and asks me to try and find out the answers to two questions. First, is there an Alawite Higher Council? And secondly, what is expected to happen when Assad dies?
While Peter Clark played the game expected of him – with several references in the Diaries to tête-à-têtes with the never-named “Embassy Spook” – there are hints of unease,
Sunday, 12 May 
I am asked by the Embassy Spook to see him. I am taken to a “secure” part of the Embassy and into a conference room, cut off from the rest of the Embassy. A member of the Syrian parliament whom I have met – he is a Communist but calls himself a “market Communist” – wants to meet the spook on “neutral ground”. Could they meet in our garden? I have no objection but draw the line at offering information on a scholarship candidate who has been a political prisoner and whose name has been mentioned by the Communist MP . . .
Tuesday, 28 January 
The Number 2 in the British Embassy calls. He says the Embassy do not know enough Syrians outside business circles and what I call the haute bourgeoisie. Can I help? I say I pick up a lot of political gossip but I do not seek it out. It is not my job . . .
Another British Council man may not have had such reservations, but Peter Clark was of a different mould. He was progressive-minded, not unlike the civil servant Harry St.John (Abdullah) Philby of an earlier generation, who when posted in Iraq in the early 1920s, believed that it was a betrayal of values to engineer the inauguration of a monarchy in place of a democratic, republican system.
For Peter Clark, the laudable role was to offer Syrians coming to the British Council’s classes a venue where they could breathe more freely: “one of my objectives here is to promote the value of an open society”; “We have provided an oasis for freedom of expression. We even offer choices to students!”; “I adapt and comply accordingly [in dealings with the Ministry of Culture], and thereby achieve my objective of promoting the values of an open and plural society”. What also sets him apart were his personal ethics. He was twice offered a posting on increased salary in Saudi Arabia, but declined: “I do not want my professional raison d’être to be a pillar, however small, of enriching arms manufacturers” [entry for 28 September 1994].
Not surprisingly, encounters with the British Council head office in London were sometimes fraught. He chaffed at the demands for reports, the appraisal system and a changing organisational ethos,
Tuesday, 23 July 
I phone my line manager and am reassured that I am not being made redundant. “There was never any danger.” That is what I expected but I am greatly relieved. It ends eight months of anxiety. I am out of sympathy with much of the new British Council. I believe in the practice of global cultural relations, rather than the servicing of an international bourgeoisie.
Thursday, 19 June 
I receive my Line Manager’s assessment of performance. There are six categories: Outstanding, Excellent, Good, Satisfactory, Unsatisfactory, Unacceptable. I am given Good, just above average. I am intrigued and a little demotivated. But basically I cannot be bothered about what other people think of me or my work. I am coming to the end of five wonderful years in Syria.
In Peter Clark the British Council had an Arabist of distinction – the Iraqi playwright Fadil Sultan observing that he had not “met a European who speaks Arabic as well as I do”. When the Moroccan writer Leila Abouzeid, meeting him in 1995, commented on his interest in contemporary Arabic literature, Peter Clark noted laconically, “I tell her I am an endangered species”. Endangered not just in the world of cultural dialogue, but in that circle of Englishmen who remain loyal to their beliefs and values at the risk of the Establishment’s opprobrium.
Dealing with British officialdom & visitors
On arrival in Damascus in June 1992, Peter Clark found this notice in the office of the Embassy’s Security Officer: “Speak only English in this room. If you want to speak any other foreign language go to another room”. In the early months, he was not invited to the weekly ‘prayer meetings’. This soon changed, but it was a surreal atmosphere ripe for a little mischief, happily provided:
Wednesday, 7 October 
I am invited to attend the Ambassador’s weekly staff meeting. Senior people, including me, sit around a table. Junior people, including Jack, the Security Officer, sit on more comfortable chairs behind us. We sit like prefects in the presence of the Headmaster. Ian [Blackley], who is no longer Chargé, sits bolt upright, like the Head Boy. None of us writes, makes notes or even has his – for we are all men – hands on the table. The Ambassador tours the horizon and talks of his call on the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, who will possibly visit Damascus next year.
Wednesday, 15 December
I attend an Embassy “prayer meeting”. I note that only one person spontaneously laughs at my jokes. Everyone else seems to wait for a lead from the Ambassador.
The Diaries offer other examples of the irreverent streak lurking behind a donnish ambience, for example one of the more repeatable ones being: “. . . wandering around the coffee houses of Souk Sarouja . . . We meet some friends and exchange subversive jokes about the regime. My favourite is the Lebanese word for contraceptive – hafiz al-‘air. This can mean “protector of the penis” but could also be read as “Hafez [al-Assad] the prick”. There are also amusing glimpses of how diplomats pass the time. On one occasion, while waiting to see the Governor of Homs, “the Ambassador plays trick-track with his Deputy and teaches it to the Commercial Attaché”.
Peter Clark had to deal with an assortment of official visitors from Britain. He notes how the FCO junior minister, Douglas Hogg, visiting Damascus in 1992, “does not know about the Hama massacres of 1982. . .” Greville Jenner MP, was (in the words of the ubiquitous ‘Embassy Spook’) “Ignorant and uncouth”. In preparing for a visit by the Duke of Kent in 1996, Peter Clark learnt that “you can recognise a Mason by introducing seven into the conversation”. The Diaries provide glimpses of many great and the good from the world of the arts and literature, including forgotten figures such as the Spanish architect (and later Muslim) Fernando de Aranda, who designed the Hejaz railway station.
However, what lingers most in the memory of a reader of the Damascus Diaries is not so much the regime’s repression, demands placed by the Embassy on British Council staff or descriptions of antiquities, but Peter Clark’s warm encounters with so many Syrian people in all walks of life, from literary giants to persons waiting at a bus stop. His sense of bonhomie and antennae for the human experience permeates the book and make it a worthwhile read. He brings to life individuals such as the Palestinian office manager-cum-accountant Ayoub Ghurairi – one of the three people to whom this book is dedicated – a man, “who, in spite of his gentleness, is largely built and can look intimidating”. At an iftar reception at the office, Peter Clark ensures it is alcohol free, “because we wanted Ayoub to attend. But he has to be Acting Imam at his local mosque for the sunset prayer”. It is an example of Peter Clark living by his values of care and consideration of others.
All royalties from the Damascus Diaries go to the Said Foundation Syrian Relief Programme.
From Rumman Ahmed
I read it [the review] with a tinge of sadness and realized how in the Damascus Diaries one can see the seeds of today’s destruction of Syria. One can read so much in between the lines if one is minded to!
My experiences of the British Council in Dhaka’s Fuller Road, amidst the lush green Dhaka University campus, is of my early school days when I was not yet old enough to be issued library borrowing cards on my own but rather had to rely on my mother’s cards to borrow Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five, The Secret Seven and other books like the Diary of Anne Frank. After a year or so when the English lady librarian realized I was a serious enough reader due to my regular weekly visits there she decided to issue tickets in my own name. I think I was in Class 5 at that time (1966). It was one of the happiest days of my life as I now had six library cards. So for a long time I used the British Council library up to passing out my Senior Cambridge exams in 1972. By that time I also graduated to more serious readings like James Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, Abraham Lincoln and such like. I came to England in 1973 to read A Levels. Along with my alma mater St. Joseph’s High School’s mostly American books library stock, the British Council library and my family’s own library all played a crucial role in my growing up, and still living, in a world of books.
The British Council also regularly hosted locally acted plays. I watched the performances of ‘An Inspector Calls’, ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ etc. there first. As I did so many black and white films. It was a very different cultural era and arena, and even as a young teenager I could palpably feel the vibrancy of an intellectual climate enveloping the environs of the then Dhaka British Council. All these definitely helped me to acquire a hinterland which now holds me good in these post-modern and post-truth times of fake news and false narratives! One is certainly able to discern the real McCoy! One hopes and prays that the transition to post-West in humanity’s trajectory will lead to a more enlightened, peaceful and just world. To be an Optimist is a Revolutionary Act!
Shenaz B. from London