Mustafa al-Shaykh Fattouh graduated from the Teacher’s Institute in the city of Homs in 1989. The educational system at the time required new teachers to first put in two or more years of teaching in remote areas, where most inhabitants didn’t hold higher degrees. Mustafa was assigned to the village of Hasrat in the rural area surrounding the city of Al-Bukamal in Deir ez-Zor Province.
Hasrat was an agricultural village on the banks of the Euphrates River and located about 20 kilometres away from the Iraqi border, and its community could be described as tribal in nature.
Mustafa remembers the day he arrived in the village, accompanied by three colleagues from Homs who had also been assigned to the same place. They were hosted by the mayor, a tribal chieftain. “The mayor welcomed us warmly,” says Mustafa, “and he was accompanied by a number of tribal elders. He invited us to a sumptuous dinner of rice and meat dishes in honor of our presence in the village. The atmosphere was friendly and we exchanged greetings and conversation with everyone present.”
During that period, a number of new teachers from different provinces, such as Homs, Tartus and others, were also assigned to the same school.
Mustafa built strong ties with the local community and built a large circle of friends and acquaintances, who visited one another often. Soon, he was appointed headmaster of another school in the same village.
A local homeowner, who had a large house in the village and worked in one of the Arabian Gulf countries, volunteered his home so that Mustafa could live there rent-free instead of living in the special teachers’ housing adjacent to the school. Mustafa moved to his new house along with a few of his colleagues.
“There were a number of us living together,” says Mustafa, “all teachers from different areas, from Homs and Tartus, as well as Deir ez-Zor Province. We were of different religions and sects. Among us were Sunnis, Alawites, Christians and Turkmen, and relations were warm and good between us.”
Mustafa worked for one year in Hasrat, then left the village for a period of two and half years to complete his obligatory military service. When he finished, he wished to continue teaching in the same village because he had a good relationship with the community there, and he was able to do so thanks to a connection with someone higher up.
“I went back to teaching in Hasrat,” says Mustafa, “thanks to support from someone I knew in the security forces. The political and security system in Syria was set up so that someone who had ties to one of the officers or authorities in charge could get whatever he wanted through nepotism and bribery, taking into account that those from the Alawite sect enjoyed some extra advantages that the rest of us didn’t have access to. As a Sunni Muslim, my chances of submitting any request through the state departments were weaker than those of an Alawite, and so resorting to nepotism and bribery was unavoidable in order for things to proceed.”
Mustafa describes the social environment he grew up in in Al-Qaysar in rural Homs, where the general feeling toward the ruling regime in Damascus was one of loathing. At the same time, however, they were forced to deal with the regime as a cold, hard fact imposed upon them. “I lived and dealt with people from all religions and sects,” says Mustafa, “but at the same time I was always cautious, because there were certain topics you couldn’t just talk about with people of particular sects for fear of any reprisals, given that we were living under a dictatorial regime.”
After Mustafa finished his teaching term in rural eastern Syria, he went back to Homs. He continued teaching but also took on other jobs to supplement his income, and to be able to afford married life. Teachers’ salaries at the time were barely enough to live on says Mustafa, and he sees this as a deliberate tactic on the part of the regime in order to keep citizens busy just trying to make ends meet so that they wouldn’t be able to rebel against it.
Mustafa worked in agricultural production, he owned a few agricultural tools for reaping harvests and offered his services to farmers in return for some money.
“When the year 2000 came around,” says Mustafa, “the economic situation for Syrians began to improve and a middle class began to emerge, which always indicates the beginning of a period of sufficiency and development and overcoming poverty.”