Fouad Fouad enrolled in medical school at Aleppo University in 1978, around the same time as the remaining social, cultural and political student movements were disappearing.
At the end of the 1970s, signs of political turmoil were rising, and there were a series of assassinations carried out by the Muslim Brotherhood, targeting individuals connected with the regime, including university professors.
“The turmoil began as a series of individual incidents,” says Fouad, “then these slowly multiplied. There were mass arrests of students at the university, who were jailed temporarily, for a few months, then released. In 1979, there was a massacre at the Aleppo Artillery School, when one of the officers on duty executed a number of Alawite officers and cadets. This was a pivotal event that marked the beginning of a full-scale regime crackdown on all political activity across Syria. All exams were canceled at the university and there was suddenly an armed presence on campus, and stringent security measures were taken against the students.”
The turbulent political atmosphere had a huge effect on life at the university: the right to free speech was curbed and people became increasingly fearful of expressing their opinions. By then, Fouad was already known as a poet, and, along with some friends, had organized the Aleppo University Meeting, where students would gather to discuss, albeit indirectly, their opinions and ideas. This activity was tolerated to a certain extent, says Fouad, but as the political situation deteriorated further between 1980 and 1982, the regime’s noose around student expression squeezed even tighter.
Fouad graduated from university in 1984, coinciding with the period when President Hafez al-Assad issued a presidential decree that a large number of travel permits and scholarships would be made available to university graduates wishing to continue their studies in countries in Eastern Europe and the USSR, provided they returned to take up teaching positions in Syrian universities.
“The apparent goal of those travel permits, according to the decree, was to bridge the gap of knowledge that existed between us and the Israeli enemy. But the real reason was really out of a fear of any student movements at the universities. It was a way to completely overhaul the university’s makeup, replacing all the teaching staff who were part of the 1960s and 70s generations with a new one whose loyalties were entirely with the Arab Socialist Baath Party and the ruling regime.”
Fouad applied for one of these scholarships but was refused, as he was not a member of the Baath Party. He decided to continue his medical specialization at Aleppo University.
“During my first year as a surgical resident,” says Fouad, “they were looking to recruit a number of teachers at the Health Institute. I submitted an application and was accepted.
But at the end of the first year, they refused to pay me any of the salary I was owed, saying I hadn’t gotten approval from the security forces before beginning work. And so I lost an entire year’s salary just like that, without any compensation.”
Fouad did his residency specialization at the Canadian Hospital in Aleppo at the end of the 1980s, a time marked by political instability, and a noticeable deterioration of the economy amidst an acute shortage of consumer goods and foodstuffs. “The 1980s were a very difficult period for the youth,” says Fouad, “who lost hope in playing any role that might lead to change. There was a huge wave of migration away from the country that began at the time. Of my graduating class, about half left, just like so many others, heading for Europe or the US or other places, a massive brain drain of Syrian talent and capability.”
From the 1970s all the way until the mid-1990s, there was a proliferation of cafes in Aleppo where intellectuals would meet and talk, such as Al-Qasr and Al-Mawid and others. They were among the few spaces where people could talk and debate things, to find a way to cope and adapt to what Fouad describes as, a whole country closing in on them.
Fouad remembers some of the exchanges that took place at the university during the decade of the 1990s and the one following. Hafez al-Assad had taken political measures to ensure that university spaces would lose all their potential energy and vitality by changing the entire teaching staff and replacing them with people who were blindly loyal to the regime. Free speech was stifled. Although those two decades witnessed a slightly larger measure of openness than the decade of the 1980s, the deliberate change in the general atmosphere at the universities, transforming them into spaces unable to foster free or creative thought, led to the crippling of student movements as a whole.
“I think universities changed completely from what they had been during the 1980s,” says Fouad. “They lost the effective and vital role they had once played when they were taken over by the Baath Party. The university became completely cut off from society and was no longer a space of cultural production or political thought. There was a slight improvement at the end of the year 2000, with some relatively non-partisan professors who had studied in Europe coming back to teach. I pursued my own personal activities through other platforms, such as the Arab Writer’s Union and other organizations, and continued to frequent the cafes where I could meet with other like-minded people. In the 1990s, I began to write and publish outside of Syria, in some Arab newspapers and publications. And I also had some involvement with the French Cultural Office, which had branches in Aleppo and Damascus. It had been established as part of Hafez al-Assad’s efforts to seem more liberal and open to more cultural activity in the country, in preparation of handing power over to his son Basel, which then of course went to his son Bashar after the former was killed.”
Fouad pauses to reflect on the reasons for the systemic weakness in the whole university structure. “The big problem with the university wasn’t in the teaching itself,” he says, “but the institutionalized lack of regard for creative educational methods. There was a dependence instead on rote memorization and a complete disregard for even the idea of scientific research. University professors also had to first get permission from the security forces and Party authorities to be employed, and it was so difficult to get promoted within the university without someone connection to the regime or loyalty to it.”