Syrian 'scholar at risk' speaks of loss, hope, culture
Pacific University welcomed a Syrian writer and director to its campus Thursday, March 16, as part of an international program called Scholars at Risk.
Riad Ismat, an award-winning novelist, playwright and director, read excerpts from his work and spoke about his time in Syria, where he served under President Bashar al-Assad as ambassador to Pakistan, ambassador to Qatar and finally, from October 2010 to June 2012, minister of culture.
"Thank God that I came to America before the travel ban," Ismat said, smiling, as he greeted a room full of students and staff.
Pacific joined Scholars At Risk in August, becoming the first university in Oregon to do so, said Katharine Loevy, an assistant professor of philosophy and the campus representative for Scholars At Risk.
The program's hundreds of participating universities around the globe support scholars displaced by war and political persecution by hosting them for talks or as guest professors.
In addition to Thursday's talk by Ismat, Pacific hosted talks earlier this school year by Sayed Hassan Akhlaq, a philosophy professor from Afghanistan, and Naila al-Atrash, an acclaimed theatre director from Syria.
Ismat has published 35 books, written seven television series, directed 15 stage productions — especially works by Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams — and adapted "All my Sons" by Arthur Miller, setting it during the Iraq war.
"I come from a country devastated by war," Ismat said Thursday, adding that Syria used to stand out as one of the safer countries in the world.
That safe image changed drastically in April 2011, when Ismat remembers being awakened in his family's condo near downtown Damascus by a strange sound. He listened in the otherwise quiet early morning and recognized it — from his mandatory Syrian military service — as heavy artillery, realizing villages were being shelled.
As minister of culture, Ismat said, he and his staff tried to sponsor cultural events that focused on the diversity of Syria's population in a positive way and promoted the idea of people with different viewpoints listening to each other.
By 2012, fearing for his family as the violence escalated, "I decided I had to leave," said Ismat, who initially fled to Paris, then found a safe haven in the U.S. with help from the Institute of International Education and was hired as a visiting scholar by Northwestern University in Illinois.
It was difficult to leave Damascus, Ismat said. In a novel he wrote while in Paris, Ismat describes Damascus as "the heart of a body named Syria," and notes that some people consider it "the oldest continuously-inhabited city in the history of mankind."
Damascus has a fascinating mix of ancient and modern features, he said, and has traditionally opened its arms to refugees, which Ismat finds ironic now, given how so many Syrian refugees are struggling to find shelter in countries around the globe.
Among Ismat's readings Thursday were a couple short parables reflecting on the destruction of his country, including one that featured a Thanksgiving turkey who was pardoned — only to find his old barn laid waste and family members slaughtered when he returned home. Another featured an aging St. George, called out of retirement to slay a new, multi-headed dragon — only to find the dragon keeps growing heads back every time he chops one off.
With such seemingly insurmountable destruction and danger in his homeland, "my only hope is the children," Ismat said. "Because who is going to rebuild the country that has become ashes — not just the homes but the spirit."
In particular, Ismat spoke about Aleppo, which he called "a wonderful city" with both ancient and modern elements, like Damascus. As minister of culture, he once spent a day there hosting American actor Martin Sheen, who was "stunned" by the beauty of the city and his hotel and planned to return, Ismat said. Since then, Aleppo has been bombed to rubble.
"It's really very sad," he said. "When I remember it I have tears in my eyes."