My father, Omar Rabbat, passed away in November 2013, before the revolution that became a civil war in Syria had completed its third year. He died outside his beloved country and was buried in a small village in Lebanon, less than 20 miles from the Syrian border. Toward the end of his life, his anguish had become more poignant, and he expressed it in ever more desperate ways. The stroke that finally killed him paralyzed half his body and slurred his speech. “What is hurting you most?” a visiting cardiologist asked him at one point. “The crisis in Syria,” he replied, in a faint voice.
My father, who was almost 90 years old, was one of the last survivors of a Syrian generation that witnessed independence but never managed to complete the project of state-building. He was born to a mercantile family in Damascus in 1924, four years after the French occupied the country, and grew up under colonial rule.
In his teens, as a tall, well-built, and exceedingly daring young man, he often participated in demonstrations against the French and sometimes did more than protest. In our attic back home, there used to be an old, rusty helmet with a hole on its side. When I asked him about it, he told me that he had taken it from a French soldier in a demonstration in the late 1930s, when he wasn’t yet 15 years old. But he never elaborated on how he grabbed it and what happened to its owner. He always spoke about the struggle against colonial rule as the harbinger of national aspirations for those who inherited a truncated Syria after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. He also recalled the enthusiasm with which he and his friends at al-Tajhiz, his high school in Damascus, shared in and worked toward these national goals.
Independence came in 1946, when my father was about to enter the University of Damascus. The new government began building the administration and the army as the two bastions of national sovereignty. But the 1948 war in Palestine, which Syria participated in, interrupted the project and uncovered its structural and ideological weaknesses.
The university students nonetheless rushed to defend Palestine. My father and his comrades, who were known for their crew cuts, which earned them the sobriquet al-mahaliq (“the crew-cut men”), joined the Arab Liberation Army led by Fawzi al-Qawuqji, the Lebanese military organizer and Arab nationalist. They ultimately witnessed the stunning defeat of the combined Arab armies in Palestine against the so-called “Zionist gangs” and their humiliating retreat beyond the borders of the United Nations partition map. The mahaliq returned to Syria as transformed young men, convinced that Arab regimes had to change after their shameful failure to defend Palestine. What they and countless other young Arabs concluded is that salvation would only come from the unification of the great Arab nation, fragmented as it was into small and powerless states by the colonial scheming of Britain and France.
The fifties were the decade of political activism for my father’s generation. Many of the young and educated joined the parties teeming on the national stage: established and bourgeois parties such as the People’s Party and the National Bloc, along with new and ideological parties such as the Baath Party, the Communist Party, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party. … (Read more at TheAtlantic.com)
Omar Rabbat in military uniform in 1953. (Nasser Rabbat)
Nasser’s parents, Omar and Nihad, in 1955. (Nasser Rabbat)
Omar and Nasser in Palmyra, Syria, in 1961. (Nasser Rabbat)
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