Hassan Abbas Passes, Leaving Syrians Feeling Deserted

Syrian academic Hassan Abbas will be greatly missed for his contributions to Arabic culture and language, writes Wael Sawah for The Syrian Observer.

There is no right time for death, but it sometimes comes at the worst and most inopportune of times, bringing about nothing but tragedy. 

Hassan Abbas is gone. 

He left at a time when we, the Syrians, desperately needed him and left behind many pressing issues that need to be addressed and resolved.

I will miss three facets of Hassan Abbas. The first is the intellectual and academic critic who has never been stingy in sharing his knowledge with others. Academically, Hassan taught non-Arab generations the Arabic language and Arab culture at the Institute for French Studies, instilling in them a love and attachment to Syria. I met dozens of people in Europe who studied under him, who loved and respected him and still held him in high regard. He penned a large number of books on criticism, the last of which was published just days before his departure, The Body in the Novel of the Syrian War. In his criticism, he tackled the text from strange, bold, and revolutionary angles.

He used the French Institute as a platform, turning it into a lecture hall for educational activities for Syrians. He also founded the Film Club and the Cultural Forum. Hassan believed that it was essential to structure the idea of ​​citizenship and the rebuilding of civil society, as the cornerstone of building democracy. There is no democracy without the principle of citizenship and without a civil society that monitors the work of governments, parties, and politicians and corrects their mistakes as they occur.

I will miss Hassan, the unrelenting activist. I will miss his determination. Since his return from Paris, he engaged in civic activity to spread the importance of the idea of ​​citizenship among Syrians, and at the turn of the millennium, ninety-nine Syrian intellectuals paved the way for other intellectuals and politicians to work publicly, by signing what would be known in contemporary Syrian history as the Manifesto of the Ninety-Nine. Hassan was one of four who oversaw the collection of signatures, at a time when the Internet was not in use in Syria, meaning that he had to move from one cafe to another and go from door to door to collect the signature of this writer or that director.

After the start of the Arab Spring, Hassan was like a machine that did not catch a break, trying to investigate the possibility of transferring the movement to Syria. On Feb. 5, 2011, we were about a hundred men and women walking in the funeral of late film director, Omar Amiralay, when Hassan approached me and said, “You know, this could be the entire Syrian opposition?” After we lowered Omar into the ground, Hassan threw in a small flag of pre-Baath Syria, which would quickly become the flag and symbol of the Syrian revolution. Hassan participated in most of the protests in Damascus with other intellectuals. In one of the demonstrations, he was severely beaten by an intelligence officer, who broke his leg, before shouting at him sarcastically, “Run, doctor, run! Do you not know how to run?”

In early 2012, Hassan undertook one of his most important civil-political activities; establishing the Syrian League for Citizenship. We, his closest friends and comrades, participated in the founding. Among us was Sabah al-Hallaq, the late Maha Jadid — who passed away just a few months before Hassan — lawyer Wissam Jalahej, yours truly, and others who are still in Syria, whose names I fail to remember. The League for Citizenship was a revolution within a revolution. It worked on different and overlapping levels, training Syrians and contributing to raising awareness in areas such as citizenship, gender, equality, human rights, and transitional justice. The League published several book series in the aforementioned fields, which allowed Hassan to incorporate knowledge into daily activity.

The one I will miss most, though, is Hassan the friend, Hassan whom I, and all of his companions, used to turn to, day and night, if we needed anything, if we got anxious, or felt overwhelmed. Hassan left us one week before the tenth anniversary of the Syrian revolution, in which he played a distinguished role, a star-studded role characterized by wisdom, level-headedness, and a rejection of extremism and militarism. He is gone now, and we are in desperate need of his sensibility, his composed, knowledgeable discourse, and his ability to contain and control delinquency in all of its forms.

Hassan, an Alawite, married a Sunni woman, revolted against the sectarian dictatorship, stood against Islamization, militarism, and empty slogans, and tried to harness the power of knowledge for the sake of the revolution, and thus pave the way for a knowledge revolution, which we desperately need.

Goodbye, Hassan Abbas.

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