Syria: conversations in a pariah state

John Casey
6 June 2008

The image of Syria and Israel as inveterate enemies made the revelation on 21 May 2008 that the two states had been conducting negotiations for the past year - with Turkey acting as intermediary - all the more surprising. The news serves to refocus attention too on Syria itself, more often subject by foreign observers to broad-brush characterisation than close observation that attends to the country's internal complexities. Whether or not the talks with Israel develop into something substantial, the world needs to know more about Syria. This article is a modest contribution to that end.

John Casey is lecturer in English at the University of Cambridge and a fellow of Gonville and Caius College. He writes and reviews frequently in newspapers and journals. Among his books are Pagan Virtue: An Essay in Ethics (Clarendon Press, 1990)

For many years Syria has had the dangerous honour (long shared with Saddam Hussein's neighbour Iraq when that country was ruled by another branch of the Ba'ath party) of being a hardline Arab "rejectionist" state in its refusal to recognise Israel. This refusal was based on politics rather than religion. The late dictator Hafez al-Assad was determined that Syria would not make peace until the symbolically and strategically valuable Golan heights, seized by Israel after the 1967 war, were returned.

The prevailing sense of two states frozen in a posture of total hostility was reinforced by Israel's bombing of an alleged nuclear site in Syria in September 2007. This reinforced the deep-rooted and widely shared impression that peace between Syria and the Jewish state is one of the middle east's more unlikely possibilities - and indeed that another war, rather than a move towards peace, seemed the more likely prospect.

Yet agreement with Israel has come tantalisingly close before. During the Hafez al-Assad era - ended by his death in June 2000, when Syria's political leadership passed to his son Bashar - there was very nearly a settlement over the Golan heights; but the Syrians in the end rejected the whole deal because Israel was determined to hold on to a tiny but important strip of land that controls a flow of water into Lake Tiberias.

Syria, again like Saddam's Iraq, is a nominally socialist, nationalist secular regime whose rulers struggle to control a country in which the religious majority is fundamentally opposed to them. If there were a free election in Syria, Sunni conservatives would probably win. The curious result is that a regime which the Americans see as virtually an honorary member of the "axis of evil" is committed, for its own survival, to promoting "liberal" Islam. The case for now treating Syria as a normal state is stronger as a result.

During a number of visits to Syria since the late 1990s, I have always made a point of talking about religion to the clerics of the many religions represented in Syria. Religion matters in Syria because it is really the only locus of non-state politics that has been able to organise and develop. (A minor indication of the social effects of this presence is that a year or so after its release, Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ was playing to packed houses with mixed Muslim-Christian audiences).

I have returned to the notes I made of these visits to Syria - especially one in 2005 - to extract these fragments of conversation about religion and politics, many of which turn into conversations about Judaism and Israel. In light of the talks mediated by Turkey - tentative and distanced though they may be - the picture painted by these fragments seems to acquire a fresh relevance.

* "What's this book?''

* Shi'a and Sunni in the Umayyad mosque

* The Syriac patriarch

* Haitham Maleh, human-rights lawyer

* Sheikh Ahmad Kuftaro - liberal Islam

* Alawites and power

* Damascus table-talk

* The minister for education

* Timewarp

* The Catholic vice-patriarch

* What transition?

* The civic spirit of Aleppo

* L'hopital Psychiatrique

* Hamam hooligans

* Capitalism comes to Aleppo

* Monsignor Yohanna Ibrahim, Syrian Orthodox archbishop

* The mufti of Aleppo, Ahmad Hassoun


* "What's this book?''

I had paid a first, short visit to Syria in the mid-1990s, and my first impressions had been disconcerting. I landed in Aleppo, which is the best gateway to Syria. In fact one of its unforgettable features is a gate - the stupendous entrance to the citadel, which you approach by a pathway dramatically suspended on archways over a chasm. I had just come through immigration at Aleppo airport, and while I sat waiting for the rest of my party, I read a few pages of Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians. Two mustachioed, over-muscled toughies in jeans and t-shirts approached me and sat down on either side. It was obvious that they were security agents.

The first appropriated my book: "What's this book you are reading, Mister?" "It is an historical work." "What's this picture, Mister?" (It represented General Gordon being stabbed to death by soldiers of the Mahdi at the top of a staircase in Khartoum.) "It is an English general being murdered by Muslims." The other toughie picked up my passport and began leafing through it: "You been to Israel, Mister?" "No." "You hate Israel, Mister?" "Um - I am...neutral. But surely it is not your government's policy to hate Israel. Your president is carrying on peace talks." "We want it back." "Well, when you get a peace treaty you will have the Golan heights back." "We want it all back."

They were emblematic of many people's image of Syria - an irreconcilable "pariah state", a breeding-ground of terrorism, a country that (in the opinion of the George W Bush administration) "took the wrong side in the war against terror." Yet in the early days of the regime of Hafez al-Assad's son and successor, Bashar al-Assad, the offices of Hizbollah and the Palestinians were closed down. This did not satisfy the Americans - and Syria has undoubtedly wanted to keep its options open and its alliances intact. But the war on Iraq sent a tremor through the Syrian regime. Simple self-preservation convinced Syria that it is not wise to provoke its two powerful external enemies, the United States and Israel.

With Bashar al-Assad, there did seem something of an opportunity for constructive engagement. Bashar is a qualified eye-surgeon who received his advanced training in London, known to be an Anglophile, and with a Sunni Muslim wife who was born and brought up in England and is bilingual in English and Arabic. As one diplomat put it to me: "What would the French do to exploit such an opportunity?" At the outset of Bashar's rule, he was generally well-liked and credited with wanting to relax the rigours of the regime. Although some of the early optimism has faded, most Syrians do not think that all the gains have been lost. There is still a measurably more relaxed atmosphere; the police behave a bit more politely towards the population; there is still some sense that civil society has revived. Bashar al-Assad has continued to put his own men into the security apparatus - although whether that will just turn into a means of bolstering his personal rule is yet to be seen.

Syria is becoming more of a tourist destination than it was when I first visited. Then, in Palmyra - the haunting, ruined desert town of Queen Zenobia, with its great temple of Baal - there were six visitors. In Bosra I had the magnificent, perfectly preserved Roman theatre to myself. In that gem of Islamic architecture in Damascus, the Umayyad mosque, I was often the only European. By 2007-08, despite the latest Israeli attack and the spill-over effects of the war in Iraq, Syrian hopes of a tourist influx are rising. Indeed, Syria has as much to offer the visitor in the way of historic sites and fine architecture as any country in the region except Egypt. Syrians are friendly and exceptionally courteous. The country is safe - you can walk about any part of Damascus day or night without fear of crime or the least unpleasantness.

But the American description of Syria as a "terrorist" state has tainted it. Its having a Ba'athist regime associates it in most people's minds with Saddam Hussein - although the Iraqi and Syrian Ba'athists (who quaintly call themselves the "correctionist tendency") loathed each other.

Syria, moreover, was ruled for nearly thirty years, from 1970, by the enigmatic, cunning and ruthless Ba'athist, Hafez al-Assad. Al-Assad was not a killer in the Saddam mode - that is to say, he was not a paranoiac, which also means he was brutally violent to actual enemies. But many of these enemies came from the Sunni Muslim majority of Syria. Al-Assad's regime - especially the army and security forces - was made up overwhelmingly of Alawites, a minority sect (15% of the population) regarded as heretics by the orthodox Muslim majority. In 1982 a campaign of assassination and terror by the Muslim Brotherhood, directed especially at the Alawites, culminated in a mass Islamist uprising in the town of Hama. Al-Assad sent in the tanks, and in the bloodbath that followed, anything between ten and twenty thousand were killed. It is unlikely that Hama has forgotten this.

To understand politics in modern Syria you cannot ignore religion, any more than you can in the Lebanon, Iran or Israel. Yet there is much more to Syria than its most recent history.

* Shi'a and Sunni in the Umayyad mosque

My first day in Damascus began with one of the earliest of the great Islamic buildings of the world - the Umayyad mosque - and ended in the Street Called Straight, where St Paul regained his sight after his Damascene conversion. The mosque itself gives you a sense of Syrian complexity. It dates from the 8th century; before that there had been a Christian basilica. For some time after the Muslim conquest of Syria, the building was shared by Christians and Muslims. Before that it had been a temple of Jupiter, and in the 9th century BCE a shrine to the god, Hadad. There are two shrines in the mosque. One said to contain the head of Hussein, grandson of Mohammed, revered saint of Shi'a Muslims; the other, the head of John the Baptist.

My visit happened to be on the eve of the Muslim festival of the night journey, which commemorates the Prophet Mohammed's miraculous journey in which he was transported to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, and was thence lifted to the seventh heaven where he had a vision of God. I was given a vivid introduction to the religious variety of Syria. The mosque was - unusually - full of Shi'a pilgrims.

The procession approached the shrine, the men giving heavy thumps to their chests with their open palms, which made a terrifically reverberant sound in the enclosed space. With each beat of the breast came the rhythmic, plangent chant for their martyr: "Ya Hussein!" (The women simply touched their breasts.) At the height of such Shi'a ceremonies in Iran and around the holy cities of Najaf and Kerbala in Iraq they beat themselves so heavily - sometimes with chains - that blood flows abundantly.

Inside the small room a group of men were shuffling around holding hands in a circle, almost a dance, with the same thunderous chant, and breast-beating: "Ya Hussein!" Then they sat down for a sermon. The preacher had a fine histrionic gift. First he had them weeping - tears streaming especially down the cheeks of the older men. Then he cracked some jokes - and they all roared with laughter. Then he had them laughing and weeping at the same time. The Sunni, normal users of the mosque, had pressed back respectfully - even a little nervously - as the sonorous procession wove past. Now they were pressing up to the windows of the room in curiosity to observe the spectacle.

Also on Syria and the region in openDemocracy:

Roger Scruton, "Lebanon before and after Syria" (9 March 2005)

Hazem Saghieh, "Syria and Lebanon: keeping it in the family" (14 December 2005)

Anoushka Marashlian, "Syria cracks down on dissent" (19 June 2006)

Abigail Fielding-Smith, "Out of cold peace" (13 September 2006)

Carsten Wieland, "Syria's quagmire, al-Assad's tunnel" (9 November 2006)

Carsten Wieland, "The Syrian conundrum" (16 April 2007)

Robert G Rabil, "Lebanon, Syria, Iran: lessons of Sharm el-Sheikh" (11 May 2007)

Avi Shlaim, "Israel at 60: the ‘iron wall' revisited" (8 May 2008)

Robert G Rabil, "Hizbollah and Lebanon: the curse of a state" (21 May 2008)

Carsten Wieland, "The Syria-Israel talks: old themes, new setting" (27 May 20* The Syriac patriarch

Christians in the middle east feel that Arab Muslim hostility to Israel has somehow rubbed off on them. They feel they are seen as foreigners in their own ancient lands.

The patriarch of Antioch is the senior Christian cleric in the world. The apostolic patriarchate of Antioch was the first to be established, followed by those of Rome, Jerusalem and Alexandria. When the patriarch paid an ecumenical visit to the Pope John Paul II, the pope with exquisite courtesy said: "The first of the second church welcomes the first of the first church." Sensible of the honour of meeting such a personage, we made sure that we arrived ten minutes early. Standing outside the patriarchate, my companion took the opportunity for a leisurely smoke. The door of the patriarchate was open and a gentle old priest stood there - obviously one of the patriarch's assistants - patiently waiting for us to approach. The cigarette finished, we went to the door. He greeted us. It was the patriarch himself.

Inside, the patriarch apologised that he could not offer us tea - he was entirely on his own that afternoon. While this informality and humbleness was moving, I could not help also having a sense of departed greatness, of the disparity between a glorious title and present straitened circumstances. And this - or, at any rate, the decline of the Christian presence in the middle east - became a topic of our conversation. The patriarch was concerned to express Christianity's continuous historic existence in countries where it is in danger of sinking into oblivion: "Palestine is our Lord's country, the country of the gospel. But we hardly hear about Bethlehem now. And Damascus is not only a great capital - it is the place of the conversion of St Paul, and hence one of the origins of the Christian faith. The fact that we began right here and have existed continually here is part of our raison d'être. Yet no one speaks any more of us Christians as part of the fundamental structure of this area.

"But of the three elements of this area, the Christians are of the first importance historically. Moses was never in Palestine; nor was Mohammed. Christianity is the only religion of which the founder was a Palestinian. We are not a foreign something - but this is less and less taken into consideration.''

I was conscious all the time that I was myself encountering a living reality - the occupant of the most ancient patriarchate in Christendom, one which, like all the other apostolic patriatrchates but one, had fallen into straitened circumstances. I alluded to that one: "How are your relations with Rome now?" "Oh - they are good. The old enmities are past." I had in fact noticed what I began to discover is virtually a status symbol of every religious leader I met - a photograph of the patriarch standing next to John Paul II. (Another thing I realised is that because of the ease of travel, they now all know each other.) I asked him about the meeting: "Everybody there was struck by the sanctity that emanated from this man."

* Haitham Maleh, human-rights lawyer

The huge presidential palace built by Hafez al-Assad broods over Damascus from the top of a mountain outside the city. I found it sinister - nothing like the residence of a king at the heart of his capital, but something part-fortress, part unsleeping eye watching beadily over its domain. I do not think I have ever seen so blatant a symbol of untouchable power.

Haitham Maleh comes from a very distinguished Damascus family that has produced academics, doctors and writers. He received me in his office where he and two assistants spend their time monitoring abuses within Syria, and pressing for the rule of law. Given the immensely repressive history of the Ba'athist regime, this takes great courage. He was imprisoned under Hafez al-Assad. His analysis was gloomy in the extreme:

"We have had a state of emergency for forty years - since 8 March 1963 when the Ba'ath first took power. Essentially we have been living under military rule for forty years."

Maleh saw western plotting in the creation of Israel. After the first world war, Greater Syria (or "natural Syria" as many prefer to call it) - which had consisted of present Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine - was divided between the British and the French, the British taking Jordan and Palestine (along with Iraq) and the French Lebanon and present Syria. "The purpose in dividing Greater Syria was to create Israel. The British army then contributed to the hatreds that arose - for the first time in this country - between Jews and Arabs. They gave arms only to the Jews, not to the Arabs."

Maleh launched into a passionate denunciation of the Ba'ath regime: "Hafez Assad was a very dangerous man - the worst man to rule Syria from the first world war until now. In order to gain power he created organisations which set out actually to destroy the human personality, and to set up a huge system of corruption. The Ba'athists destroyed everything - they destroyed civil society. Assad set up secret organisations that children had to join at the ages of 7, 8, 9 - they were forced into the Ba'ath party."

"He got the idea of this from, of all people, Kim Il Sung. He visited North Korea several times, and from there got the idea - perfected by Kim Il Sung - of making primary schoolchildren believe Assad was like their father, or more important than their father, to be obeyed without questioning."

"Students all had to inform upon each other - each student had to write a formal report about his friends. If they were obedient - if they were in with the power, then even if they had hopeless exam results the power would get them into medical school, law school and so on. And then they were guaranteed a good degree from a good university however little work they had done. It was all a deliberate system of corruption."

We talked of that unmentionable subject - the power of the Alawites in the regime. Were there any signs that the successor president, Bashar al-Assad, was trying to make the regime a little more representative? "How can the Alawites cooperate with the Sunni? The officer corps in the army, the security forces are stuffed with Alawites. Sunni have been kept out of all positions of command in the army. 70% of national income is spent on arms. Yet Assad deliberately gave up the Golan heights in 1967."

In the six-day war with Israel, al-Assad, as minister of defence, withdrew forces from the Golan to defend Damascus against enemies of the regime. This now feeds into the widespread feeling that the Alawites are not real Syrian patriots, because they are not real Muslims. They can be seen as too accommodating to the Jews or, alternatively, the Christians. And it is precisely that popular suspicion that might make it hard for the regime to reach an agreement with Israel - they are afraid of being accused of selling out Syria's national interests.

* Sheikh Ahmad Kuftaro - liberal Islam

There is no doubt that the regime promotes a liberal version of Islam. The (government-sponsored) official leaders of the Sunni majority whom I met all denounced the "fanaticism" of the Islamists. Salah Kuftaro, the son of the former grand Mufti of Syria, Sheikh Ahmad Kuftaro (who died in September 2004) could hardly have been more explicit: "The fanatics may claim to be religious, but actually they sever themselves from the great religions. In Syria we have deleted political Islam from the equation. Some Islamists have mad hopes of ruling as the Prophet ruled in Medina. But that was his mission from God - it is not a possible mission for political Islamists. I stand for a secular state with freedom of belief..."

Mohammed Habash, one of the six members of the president's council, runs a foundation dedicated to the "renewal of Islam". Again the message was plain: the conservative Islamists are supported mostly by the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia. "Our liberal movement is open to renewal in the understanding of doctrine. But there has been this clash between conservatives and those open to renewal throughout Islamic history."

The government even promotes Sufism as a way of countering the literal-minded, legalistic Islam of the Muslim Brotherhood. I spoke to some Sufis in Aleppo, after they had finished their chanting, jumping and whirling in a small sweat-filled room. They enthusiastically promoted the government line: "Sufism is concerned to bring happiness back into religion. In early Islam there were fanatics who worshipped the letter of the sacred text, who were legalistic and puritanical. Sufism is about the joy of Islam." Incidentally, these Sufis were keen to see Mecca and Medina taken away from the Saudi Wahhabis and restored to the Hashemites.

* Alawites and power

Everywhere the question of the Alawites comes up. A teacher I met began a litany of complaints: "Damascus used to be a much more civilized city before the Alawites moved in. They have not the same standards of manners nor of morals. They steal. They do not know how to live properly in a great city. They came to Damascus to be close to the regime, and now there is huge resentment against them."

The Alawites, originally from Syria's coastal mountain-range, are officially classed as a sect of Shi'a Islam. But conservative Sunni Muslims will often denounce them as infidels, not real Muslims at all. They have been suspected of cloaking their actual beliefs, and they are said to practice taqiya, a "prudent duplicity" that masks their real convictions. Some accuse them of being half-Christian, others of being semi-Jews. Or you will be told that they are descendants of the Crusaders who conformed to Islam merely outwardly.

What is certain is that for centuries they were a marginalised minority. They were hill-farmers. Their daughters were often sent into domestic service in Damascus where they were often sexually exploited. Many are said to have become prostitutes.

Their great chance came when Hafez al-Assad, himself an Alawite, was consolidating the Ba'athist regime. Unlike the Christians and Sunni, who tend to shun the military, the Alawites enthusiastically enrolled in the army and the intelligence services - and in the Ba'ath party. They became the mainstay of the regime - and an object of suspicion and hostility to many Sunni.

But it is precisely this that has led the regime to insist on secularism, on religious equality for the minorities, and to try to promote a moderate version of Sunni Islam. The authorities hate it if you raise the subject of Alawite power - quite reasonably, because there is always the possibility that if the present regime falls, it will be replaced by the religious conservatives who up to now have been ruthlessly put down.

The policy of the Bush administration has allegedly been to promote democracy in the middle east, where previously they supported oligarchies. Most secular Syrians would prefer to let the new president loosen the screws without precipitating the catastrophe of a takeover by the Islamists.

* Damascus table-talk

The Syrians are great talkers. Plenty of conversation revolved around the Ba'athist regime; Israel; and the Jews. Here are some snatches of dinner-party conversation:

"Hafez Assad was not a killer - more a Machiavel." "The Ba'ath set Syria back decades. It has been a regime of institutionalised corruption." "We have been invaded so many times, and survived. Our mentality is now to say to any new regime 'Welcome - please don't stay too long.' But we never resist. Our attitude is: 'Whoever marries my mother is my father.'"

"Israel is a thorn in our back - whenever we move we feel it." "I was once sitting in a railway station in Stockholm. Two Israelis approached me and spoke to me in Hebrew. I replied in English that I was not an Israeli - and invited them to guess where I was from. They mentioned Germany, France, Spain, Latin America. Eventually I said: 'Syria.' They abruptly walked away from me without a word. A few minutes later they came back, extremely aggressive - I was frightened - I thought they might be going to hit me. All they said was: 'You will see how strong we are, don't mess with us, we will destroy you.'"

I asked someone a question: could Israel be useful to the region as a source of high tech industry, a cradle of ideas and general modernisation? "No - they want us to be hewers of wood and drawers of water."

"When the Jews were being expelled from Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella and killed - we rescued them, we offered them asylum. Has everyone forgotten that? Europe may feel guilt about the way it treated its Jews - but we have no reason to be ashamed."

"Protect us from all fundamentalist fanatics - Muslim, Jewish, the [American] Christian right."

* The minister for education

I had the good fortune of meeting the minister of higher education, on account of his friendship with two men I had got to know in Damascus. They were both medical men, and so was the minister. We went to call on him in his office in a building of the ministry.

The appointment of Hani Mourtada (who has since resigned) had marked a new departure, for he was not a Ba'athist, but an independent-minded academic. He had been president of the University of Damascus, and is indeed a distinguished medical man. He struck me as very obviously civilised - and it was apparent that my two companions were delighted that one of their own now occupied this important and powerful office.

I asked him what was new about his policies. "I am determined that no particular group will be favoured. In the past the Ba'athist party decided who would go to university and they controlled appointments within the university. Already, as president of the University of Damascus I had put a stop to that. In academic appointments I did not look to see which of the candidates was a Ba'athist and which a non-Ba'athist. That will now be the policy nationwide. We cannot limit the people to whom we give opportunities - we need all 17 million Syrians to contribute their talents. It is no longer acceptable to limit this to a particular group. Not everyone will want this sort of change - but it is how I see the future."

I said: "If you really do open up higher education simply to the talents, and give up party control over appointments, won't this in the end spell the end of the one-party system?" "The president has already raised the question of our going to a multi-party system. We have already allowed private schools and universities - this shows how we are opening up. Five years ago this was absolutely forbidden. But we are moving into a completely different period."

One of my companions said: "The Berlin wall has fallen?" "Yes." Alas! His resignation only a year later brought this optimism into question.

* Timewarp

The trouble is that Syria is in a timewarp. The Ba'athist and military old guard cannot get out of the language of struggle, the characterisation of Israel as an imperialist colony that has to be fought as part of a world-wide struggle for liberation. They remember and live their past battles. As a diplomat put it: "One outstanding feature of Syrians is their stubbornness."

But the great fact has to be remembered that the Ba'athists are not only a minority government, but a sectarian-based one. They have to tread extremely carefully. Anything interpretable as a "sell-out" would be greeted with the greatest suspicion - "The Alawites are secret Jews/Christians - they are the descendants of the crusaders". I twice heard it claimed that "Assad was a CIA agent." Conspiracy theory is the main mode of political explanation in the Middle East, and the Ba'athists are easy targets for it. It must also be remembered that there really is a sense of vast injustice in Israel's treatment of the Palestinians. The Americans have threatened to impose "accountability" on Syria for harbouring Hamas and Hizbollah. But many Syrians regard these groups - despite the atrocities that Hamas, in particular, has perpetrated against civilians - as resistance fighters. "After all, it is Israel that is occupying Syrian land, not vice-versa.

* The Catholic vice-patriarch

Monsignor Isidore Battikha is a bishop, who was the Vicaire Patriarchale of Damascus, and deputy there to the Greek-Catholic patriarch of Antioch (since February 2006 he has been the Archbishop of Homs). He is a handsome, vigorous, youthful man, humorous and extremely forthright. My couple of hours with him produced a polemical note, rather different from any I had heard so far.

I was taken to see the bishop, in a compound that contains the cathedral and the patriarch's residence, by a young man who had graduated from Cambridge, where he had been a friend and an admirer of the famous high Tory Catholic chaplain to the university, Monsignor Alfred Gilbey - whom I, too, had known. He is also a Knight of Malta.

There was soon a forthright blast from the past. I raised the subject of Christians and Muslims in relation to Israel and the bishop did not hesitate in expressing a mixture of views about Judaism and Israel that would have been common amongst traditional Catholics seventy years ago.

I said: "I am not sure that you are distinguishing between your religious divide from the Jews and your political opposition to Israel." "No, they really are different. We have no hostility to the Jews, nor are we rejectionists in regard to the state of Israel. But it is the Israelis who dishonestly use religion as a political tool. We have no problem in co-existing with Jews - but the religious divide is unbridgeable."

"Then you do not agree with some Muslims I have been talking to who argue that the three religions have their deepest ideas in common?" "They are different. The Jewish religion has no charity. It has equality and respect - but not charity." And Islam? "The Muslim religion also does not have charity - it has humanity, but not charity."

So - will there be a peace with Israel? "The Jews could use their skills - given real peace - to use the cheap labour in all the countries around them, and become the dominant economic power. They could economically colonise the whole of the middle east."

"Syria is the best Muslim state - we are a secular state with a majority Muslim population, that shows respect to Christians and other minorities. America should defend, not defame, this secular state."

I suggested that the secular state had been bought at a cost - the killings in Hama: "We are free from the Sunni fanatics. Yes - it was Hama that stopped them in 1981. I am not defending what went on in Hama - but I know, and we all know, that without Hama we would be a state ruled by the fanatics."

And is Syria going to be free from the fanatics for the foreseeable future? The bishop was darkly pessimistic: "In Syria, now, we are on the threshold of fanaticism. Young Muslims are boiling up with hostility against the Alawites, against the government. They are happy when anything goes wrong for the government. The younger generation want an Islamic state. Israel knows this, and wants this to happen, because it would lead to war and turmoil."

* What transition?

A journalist I spoke to reflected on the changes that the Bashar al-Assad regime was bringing in: "Small changes are no good - you need big, dramatic changes, like Mikhail Gorbachev. We have just seen a new administration formed - but it is the same system. There are some signs of opening up. Syrian intellectuals now criticise the government. They can only get their thoughts published in foreign journals, of course. But at least it is happening."

I asked: "But how could the regime give up power, or allow free elections? Is there not a terrible danger of an explosion - of the Islamists and Hama seeking to wreak their revenge?" "Yes, if there were free elections now, because the only organised parties would be the religious ones and the communists. The only solution I can think of is for the regime to allow absolutely free speech and free association for five years. During that time we could get used to normal politics and other, rational parties could be organised. I don't think that in the end the Syrians will go for the extremists. But you need that period of normalisation and political education. The Ba'athists destroyed civil society - we need time to rebuild it."

"The idea that Israel has something to fear from Syria is ridiculous. They know all about what is going on, and any warlike preparations - which are, anyway, inconceivable given the might of Israel and the present diminished state of the Syrian armed forces. In a corrupt society, anything is for sale - including information. Israel has agents right to the top of the regime."

* The civic spirit of Aleppo

Aleppo is certainly a much more religiously conservative city than Damascus. There, you see very many girls, not all of them Alawites, in short skirts and tight jumpers. In Aleppo the great majority of women wear the hijab, and in the souk most wear the full chador and some even cover their whole face with a veil. In 1982 when the Muslim Brotherhood rose against the regime there were serious disturbances in Aleppo as well as in Hama.

In 2002 the government had inaugurated an annual festival in Aleppo to celebrate the silk road. In earlier times, when the vast caravan bearing the merchandise down the silk road, escorted by soldiers, finally approached Aleppo, there were great festivities. The idea was to recreate something of this. There were many exhibitions, and a stand had been set up directly opposite the citadel where a pageant was to be mounted. On my first day all had been rehearsals of the music, the dancing, the historical commentary. The next day, wandering around the medieval nooks and crannies of the old city, I kept coming upon young people dressing up in period uniform for the performance. Excitement was obviously mounting. Even a small group of young people dressed as soldiers from an early period (I could not tell which) attracted hundreds of onlookers as they waved spears and did pretty ordinary dances.

That even these preliminaries were attracting crowds was interesting, and, I felt, needed to be explained. An Aleppan I became friendly with provided the explanation: "They are excited because they see this festival as a sign that life is, after all these years, at last returning to normal. For years the Ba'athists really did not approve of civic celebrations like this, things that affirmed our special history. They were essentially suspicious of the past and any celebration of the past. It is the new president who has authorised this, allowing us to be proud of the past, of our traditions. So we do feel that things are returning to normal - even though many of us have never experienced that normality."

* L'hopital psychiatrique

Aleppo certainly offers varied experiences. On my earlier visit I had been accosted just below the citadel by a dapper little man with goatee beard, hectic manner and twirling a cane. "Parlez-vous Francais?" He asked me what sights I had seen of Aleppo: "I suppose you have seen the citadel, the grand mosque, the souk. Mais peut-etre vous n'avez pas vu l'hopital psychiatrique d'Aleppe?" I said I had not. "But monsieur, you should. In that hospital are many crazies. They are kept in very small rooms. They do not like this, the crazies, so sometimes they have to be restrained. They like that even less. All the rooms are around little fountains. These strangely calm the crazies - so they even think they are not crazy. But really they still are! Ha, ha! Would you like to see the hopital psychiatrique d'Aleppe?"

I said: "Do you work there, then?" he seemed taken aback: "No - no, I do not work there - but I am often to be found there." I made my excuses.

But the thought of the hospital had remained in my mind, and now I decided to find it. There are, as described, tiny, barred rooms, often in semi-darkness, around little courtyards each with a splashing fountain. There are extremely high, narrow and very dark stone corridors. I understood that the furthest reaches housed the most dangerous inmates. I wandered about rather nervously, and came suddenly upon a courtyard full of young persons in bizarre period dress waving swords at each other.

For one wild moment I thought I had stumbled upon some version of Marat-Sade. But no - it was just people rehearsing their roles in the silk-road exhibition. All the ill had been moved to a modern hospital about twenty years ago.

Reader, I can assure you that L'Hopital Psychiatrique d'Aleppe is a fine building, peaceful, tourist and crazy-free, and well worth seeing.

* Hamam hooligans

I was in a non-touristic hamam (Turkish bath) in the souk when a group of young men - all poor farmers from outside the town - burst boisterously in shouting and chanting. It was the Syrian equivalent of a stag-night, and the young men were giving the bridegroom a good time before his wedding. They had some fruit, bread and soft-drinks. The whole evening would cost them a handful of dollars or euros. It sounded to me that they were chanting football slogans - as they might in England. But when I asked a Syrian what it was all about he said: 'They are shouting "Honour the Prophet, and revere the family of the Prophet."'

* Capitalism comes to Aleppo

A few years ago years ago a "stock exchange" opened in Aleppo. I do not know whether it is officially sanctioned in Ba'athist Syria, but the authorities seem to be turning a blind eye. It is a small sign of liberalisation. Although the locals call it a "stock exchange" it is in fact no more than a room, ten by thirty feet, looking more like a cross between an internet café and a betting shop. There is one television screen with information on stocks and currency movements. Above that is another television carrying the Bloomberg financial and political news. Unfortunately, hardly any of the punters seem even to glance at that, mostly because they cannot easily follow the English. There were about eight of them when I was there, including a retired maths teacher, a hammam keeper, and a money-changer. They are regulars, coming in nearly every day, and plainly obsessed by this new possibility of instant enrichment.

The day after my visit to the "stock-exchange" the money-changer came up to me while I was breakfasting in a nearby café: "Gold is down from 433 to 419. American employment is up by 300,000. Gold will rise to 440. Then the yen will rise. I will be buying yen."

I was impressed by his apparent expertise, and admitted that I did not understand anything about the stock-market myself. He produced from his pocket a piece of paper: "But perhaps you can help me in explaining a few technical terms." "I doubt it - I am sure you know more than I do." "But, excuse me, could you kindly explain a few words? For instance, what is a 'bull-market' exactly? And a 'bear market'? And could you tell me what are 'bidders'? Oh, and what is meant by 'the short-term crowd'?"

I have grave doubts that he will be making his fortune as painlessly as he hopes.

* Monsignor Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim, Syrian Orthodox archbishop

Archbishop Ibrahim had got back from a visit to Libya only in the small hours of that morning. Like the Catholic vice-patriarch in Damascus, he was extremely concerned about two things - the apparently remorseless decline in the Christian population, and the continuing rise of Islamic fundamentalism.

"Fundamentalism is growing in this society, in Aleppo. Vast numbers who used not to go to the mosque now attend. If you go to the big mosques you see these huge numbers - because many worship outside the building - 30, 40, 50 thousand. And fundamentalism is growing in the hearts of the people. Take the hijab [the headscarf]. A few years ago only 10% of Muslim women here wore the hijab. Now at least 80% wear the hijab and the chador."

"The next thing is the use of religion in public life. Even politicians now quote from the Qur'an - in this officially socialist, secular society. Twenty years ago no politicians felt it necessary to quote scripture. Now they do so more or less as they begin their speeches - even Alawite politicians."

"There is great goodwill between us and the Muslims in Aleppo. We will get invited to their wedding parties, for instance. In the old days alcohol was provided for those who wanted it. Now the weddings are dry. And at the tables some would be wearing the hijab, and some not - say, half and half. But now the overwhelming majority wear it. All this is a form of self-protection. You wear the hijab, the chador and you feel protected, part of this vast ocean of like-minded people. You may be part of the marginalised poor - but you can see yourself among others on the streets and think: 'Our numbers are legion'.

No one wants to destroy Israel, not even Hamas and Hizbollah. There is no hidden agenda against Israel - everybody says openly that we are ready for good relations."

"But our fear is that it is Israel that is the obstacle. The mass of the people are convinced that Israel does not want peace. Today they are targeting Syria. Before that it was Egypt, Palestine, Iraq. Each time they choose a new country."

* The Mufti of Aleppo, Ahmad Hassoun

We met the Mufti in his residence just below the citadel. He would not be based there for long; in 2005 he was appointed grand Mufti of all Syria. We sat in his office waiting for him to arrive, and drinking some exceptionally fine aromatic tea. He is a handsome man, in early middle age. In the usual Syrian style, he immediately embarked on a resume of his philosophy of religion and politics:

"The original religion was something common to Islam, Christianity and Judaism. We have to distinguish between what clerics make of religion, and religion itself. But our three faiths are really one - Judaism, Christianity, Islam are one religion, the Abrahamic religion, but with different legislations. It is the clerics of the three religions who do not understand this."

So - what of the desire of the Islamists for an Islamic republic? "Islam does not try to set up a religious state, but a just society, a state embodying justice, where members of all faiths can live together.

"You know, the fundamentalists were really motivated by seeing that the Christians lived more comfortable and better lives. They saw that Christians lived in a hierarchical society, and they thought: 'Islam will give us justice.' The desire for justice is at the basis of the conflicts of this region. Can it be justice when the Palestinians have only 10% of the water in Palestine, and the Israelis have 90%? The injustice towards Muslims spreads wide - Palestine, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Kashmir.

"It is this injustice that is the origin of all fundamentalism. I wrote a letter to Bush. I told him: 'Our country was chosen by God as the origin of all the religions. Christ, Moses, Mohammed, Joseph - all were here. God chose us to be here. It is not a land where blood should be shed. Whoever ends by shedding blood will be in hell - all who shed blood will be burned. I want to plant a flower in our land, a flower of peace, love. You send your children to the fire in Iraq, in Lebanon - a fire that comes from the lack of justice.'

"He answered me: 'You have terrorist groups in Syria and the region. You should dismantle them.' But who founded them? Osama bin Laden was trained by the Americans; so was Hizbollah. The terrorists live in your countries - in England, France. Look at Abu Hamza - he curses England, and lives there. These terrorist fanatics insult Europe, but live there.

"The fundamental error is to think that any religion licenses people to kill. Judaism, Christianity, Islam - none of these faiths orders people to kill other human beings. Prophets prophesy - they do not kill. If God is a killer I will not worship him. It is utterly abhorrent to destroy a church, a synagogue or a mosque. If I pass a Christian or a Jewish cemetery, I pray to God. That is the real Islam. I respect every Christian in the world, and every Jew, living and dead. No true Muslim would set himself up to disrespect the belief of others. When the Taliban destroyed the statues of the Buddha in Afghanistan, I wrote to them to protest.

"The fundamental thing is that we should not take on ourselves the role of God. Clerics may not represent God on earth - all they can do is realise the justice of God on earth. Above all, spiritual values cannot be imposed on people. God could have done this - He could have programmed our minds so that we could not but serve and worship Him. But He did not - He left us this freedom to serve Him or not. This freedom is holy before God."

As our conversation came to its end, Dr Hassoun suddenly looked at me: "I can see from your eyes that we can meet spiritually. I see your parents. I shall pray for your parents, for they are the first university."

He came to the door, to the top of the steps outside the building. He clasped my hands in his and looked earnestly into my eyes: "If we do not meet again in this life, we shall in the next." He stood at the top of the steps, watching until I turned the corner.

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