The trust and friendships cultivated during my 1982 Fulbright in Syria continued through my return in 1996 as a diplomat at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus.
In 1982, I was one of a few American researchers in Syria. I aimed to understand Syrian society via Syrian popular culture. One day, while my “minder-friend” Haider and I waited to leave Damascus Military Airport, a Syrian general strode into the room. Haider leapt to his feet and saluted the officer, while I rose to shake his hands. “How could you board a military plane from Deir az-Zor to Damascus?” he asked. Hoping the general would not seize my camera with priceless shots of the Baathist Vanguard Youth Party Cultural Festival I had just attended in Deir az-Zor, I told him that Rafiq, the Syrian TV newscaster, invited me to hitch a ride home to Damascus, with Rafiq’s reel of film destined for the evening news.
At the festival, Rafiq and every Syrian I met was eager to help me understand Syria’s cultural heritage and pan-Arab leadership. The students presented dances and skits highlighting pan-Arabism through local stories and dances. The Vanguard Cultural Director Dr. Abdullah, who earned a doctorate in Moscow, spoke an elevated classical dialect to demonstrate a unifying single “language” for all Arab countries. The schoolteacher-Vanguard leaders dedicated themselves to a child-centric education; indeed, the Vanguard motto was “Listen to our children and learn from them.” While the children’s plays presented serious themes like feudalism and Palestinian nationalism, they were cast lightly in a child’s everyday play world and they featured colorful folk heroes.
When I returned to Syria in 1996 as Director of Public Diplomacy at the embassy, I visited my friends — who introduced me to such cultural figures as producers of the popular historic teledramas which played 30 day seasons every Ramadan. These Syrian dramas presented important messages, including critiques of terrorism and support of democratic movements, much better than any soft power initiative by western powers. I made sure that Washington was aware of this important cultural phenomenon. One producer, Haytham Haqqi, had toured the U.S. on our International Visitors program. He suggested that I visit a “shoot,” where I met the famous actress Suzanne Nejm ad-Din.
Dr. Abdullah invited me to speak about American Education to Vanguard teachers. When I arrived, he was sitting with a Syrian army general. As we exchanged pleasantries, Dr. Abdullah mentioned I was going to give a lecture. The general’s face registered surprise to meet an American and shock that I was to lecture. As we entered the teachers’ meeting together, Dr. Abdullah’s welcome was boomed over the speakers. My heart skipped a beat as I wondered how I would be introduced. “And our guest the well-known orientalist Dr. Evelyn Early.” Not a whisper of my status as American diplomat! But that is the point of cultural diplomacy and of the Fulbright program: our most effective diplomacy is person to person, cultural and academic.
Evelyn A. Early – Fulbright to Syria 1982