Syria and Turkey commentary

Syria – death of a gentle giant

Yesterday as the Syrian uprising entered its fifth year, I learnt of the death of my dearest Syrian friend. I am still numb from the news. My gentle giant is gone.  Ramzi the Philosopher, his pseudonym in My House In Damascus: An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution, died not in fighting or in a bomb attack, but from brain cancer. A complex operation to remove the tumour was carried out last September, leaving him unable to speak, read or write. His mother and sisters nursed him in their simple Lattakia flat, interpreting his noises, doing their best to comfort him. But in spite of all their efforts, he never regained the power of speech.

Cartoon of Ali Ferzat fighting with his pen against oppression, by Matt Wuerker

I see a terrible symbolism here. Syria’s silent majority is silent due to pragmatism, due to fear of the repercussions of speaking out, and due to a realisation that no one is listening to their voice anyway. But that my wise and eloquent Ramzi should have had silence imposed upon him is the cruellest of fates. With his death, part of Syria has died, the best part, for Syria has lost one of its noblest sons. His deep soft voice will never be heard again and Syria is the poorer for it.

Graves in the village of Anitli (Haho) [DD, May 2014]

Maybe his death is for the best, an end to his horrible suffering – displaced from his home three times by fighting between rival factions, Ramzi’s life had become a nightmare. Twice his village home was looted right down to the window frames. He was never political, never took up arms and hated violence. As the eldest son, when his father died some years ago, he took on the role of breadwinner to support his aging mother and his unmarried sisters through his earnings as a professional tourist guide. All who knew him loved him, and he was the guide of choice inside Syria for the top-quality Martin Randall tour operator. His love of his country was so deep it was tangible, and he conveyed this love to all foreign visitors.

Aleppo's old souk,

When his country descended into civil war and he lost his livelihood, his heart was broken. From having been a healthy hearty man in his forties, he fell victim to cancer. What a waste. He was a silent victim, one of thousands whose deaths will never even appear in the official casualty statistics, yet unquestionably part of the unseen fallout.

All those who have the power to end Syria’s nightmare, wake up! – for the more people like Ramzi die, the harder it will be for the country ever to recover.

Deserted garden Damascus's National Museum [2011, DD]

Deserted garden of Damascus’s National Museum, where I last met Ramzi

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7 thoughts on “Syria – death of a gentle giant

  1. RIP Ramzi. There are times when I badly wish for magic and overnight changes to exist. When i see or read about the war torn Syria and the troubles of its people, I wish for such magic to happen that could change their lives forever. I wish there was magic that could turn all humans on earth into real humans. This morning, I came across a picture of Assad with a vibrant smile and a well-cut suit and it still hangs in my memory haunting. I just don’t understand why he deserves that smile and luxury. Unable to do anything else, I just donate my bit to the UN funds that go for Syria. I just wish the world does more for the country. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    • Thank you so much for your concern. As long as people like you care, then there is always hope. We cannot make Syria have a better past but we can work for a better future. With Ramzi, I spoke to him by phone several times just a few weeks ago during my last trip to Damascus. On my last call to him, just before leaving Syria, I was able to tell him the story of how I finally succeeded in throwing out my rogue ex-lawyer, his Baathist mistress and their new-born child from my house, which they were trying to steal from me with the help of a fake general. He understood every word and was able to make noises conveying his happiness. He knew it was a tiny victory for justice in Syria and I am so glad I could share that tiny victory with him. RIP Ramzi, as you say. Thank you.

  2. John Gaye on said:

    I have just finished your wonderful book ‘My House in Damascus…’ and so reading this news was particularly sad. During my travels in Syria and in Eastern Turkey (thanks to your wonderful guidance in both) I met so many delightful characters and have a deep affection for this region and its people. Your fond descriptions of Ramzi, and your many other friends, has resonated with me whose memories of my time in Damascus (as a lone and independent tourist) happily recall many undemanding friendships and kindnesses from so many parts of society.
    My condolences on losing such a wonderful friend.

  3. heidi44 on said:

    Dear Diana,
    I, too, just finished your book about Damascus and this sad news about Ramzi broke my heart–more than it’s already broken for Syria. I have not had the pleasure yet of visiting there, but I teach some amazingly wonderful Syrian students here in the U.S. and have fallen in love with their hospitality, strength, culture and everything else. One of them, whom I am helping with asylum, etc., has promised to build me a house there someday (he’s from Damascus) and so of course I keep thinking about Bait Bairoudi. With any luck that will happen someday, inshallah, and by then my Arabic will be a lot better. My deepest condolences on the loss of your dear friend and thank for sharing your love of Syria with the world. All the best… ~Gail

    • Dear Gail
      I woke up this morning to find your very touching comment – thank you for caring so much about Syria, and about Ramzi…I have since discovered that his youngest brother, aged 30 and formerly a lawyer, has made it to Germany as an asylum seeker, where I plan to visit him soon. His mother and sisters are staying behind in Syria, distraught with grief that they will probably never see him again.
      Tell your Syrian friends that my ancient courtyard vine in Damascus is growing again – I have the pictures to prove it. It was ineptly cut and ‘its soul went out’, but after four years where it appeared dead, it is now starting to spread over the roof – a sign of better things to come, let us hope.
      With all best wishes to you and your Syrian students, Diana

      • heidi44 on said:

        Dear Diana,
        Thank you for the photo! I sent it to one of my students who’s father’s office used to be in the Old City and where this boy spent his summers as a young teenager, helping with the family textile business. The father’s warehouse has since been bombed, so there is some decision-making going on regarding whether to stay or go. Do you have any photos of Bait Baroudi, or the street/neighborhood where it is located? I would love to show Hashem the location to see if he can pick it out. He has promised (as I told you) to build me a house there someday and fill it with jasmine and vines like yours. He also hopes you can return home soon, insha allah… I hope you are able to make it to Germany to visit Ramzi’s brother. Thank you again for helping me connect more deeply with my students and with Syria.
        Tsba7i alakher… ~Gail

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