My Aunt Souria, and Syria’s tribulation

(Michael Karam*, The Daily Star) My youngest aunt was named Souria, which was fitting given that for 65 years she was a strident member of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party. The SSNP did, and does, espouse the once intriguing, but ultimately hopeless, ideology of its founder, the Lebanese-Brazilian émigré Antoun Saadeh, who sought to establish a Greater Syria.

Although Souria’s worldview was filtered through a prism of political fantasy, it was, I must stress, founded on a bedrock of deep conviction. I have been thinking about my aunt a great deal in recent weeks, because I cannot help but sense that the SSNP again finds itself on the wrong side of history.

I say “again” because the SSNP supports Syria’s Baath Party (the two were once ideological rivals, but that ended decades ago) in meeting demands for reform in Syria with bullets. Both are sanctioning a massacre. The parties once had us believe that they embodied the most exacting political principles, leading the charge against Zionist oppression and colonialism. But the SSNP has become morally and intellectually bankrupt, indeed has been for a long time, light-years away from its original beliefs, however far-fetched they sounded.

The SSNP’s manifesto was something of a curate’s egg. The secular ideal was arguably ahead of its time. However, its quasi-Nazi paraphernalia, cult of the leader, and advocacy of totalitarianism was ultimately too eccentric for a party with no solid confessional base.

My family are Maronites from the Metn, not the typical catchment for the SSNP, which once tended to attracted members of the Greek Orthodox community, as well as disaffected Druze and Shiites. It was my uncle, Assaf Karam, a much decorated Lebanese army officer, who fell under Saadeh’s spell and who recruited his younger sister into the then-secret party during the mid-1930s.

Saadeh’s career low – or high depending on how you look at it – came in 1949, when, with the help of my uncle, he mounted a coup against the government of Prime Minister Riad al-Solh. The effort failed and the Syrians, ironically, betrayed Saadeh, handing him over to the Lebanese authorities, who executed him after a hasty trial. My uncle, who led the party’s military wing, was killed in a gunbattle with the Lebanese Army just outside the Bekaa town of Mashghara.

What of my aunt? In the late 1930s, she met Ajaj al-Mohtar, a divorced Druze firebrand, a card-carrying SSNP member, and something of a warrior poet. It was apparently love at first sight.

After the 1949 debacle, Ajaj was in and out of jail, while Souria struggled to raise six children in Beirut. Blonde and disarmingly unconventional, she rode a bicycle in tennis shorts to visit her imprisoned husband. Later, she lived through the Israeli invasion of 1982 and was incandescent to discover that the neighborhood idiot on whom for years she had taken pity was in fact an Israeli agent. But the woman who regarded Israel as a sworn enemy was subsequently able to laugh about the incident. She and Ajaj moved to Canada, where Ajaj died in 1990. Souria returned his ashes to Beirut and returned to her Hamra apartment, where she lovingly maintained his library.

When I arrived in Lebanon a year later, I would visit her almost every day. Dinner was served at 5 p.m., when the apartment became something of a salon for earnest party intellectuals. They would enter, declare “Tahiya Souria,” or Long Live Syria, the party salutation, kiss “Comrade Souria,” put aside their manuscripts and sit down to eat what was probably the only good meal they’d had all day.

Pride of place on the sitting room wall was reserved for a vast wooden zawba’a, the swastika-inspired emblem of the SSNP. Nearby was a photo of Sana Mhaidli, the 17-year-old party member who in 1985 achieved the dubious distinction of being Lebanon’s first suicide bomber, after she drove a car packed with explosives into an Israeli checkpoint. My aunt would sleep on an old iron bed under an enormous map of old Palestine, “so that it is close to my heart.”

Souria spent her last years in Cairo, where she died in 2000. When she heard that South Lebanon had been liberated, she refused her medication, saying she could now die a happy woman.

I often wonder what my aunt would have made of the SSNP’s shameful behavior on the streets of Beirut in May 2008. Or indeed, how she would have reconciled herself with the current situation in Syria. She probably would have dismissed the March 14 coalition as a pro-American, pro-Israeli construct; while the Syrian opposition she likely would have viewed as awash with religious radicals hell-bent on destroying the secularism to which she had devoted her life.

Any attempts to point out to her that another radical religious party is running Lebanon would probably have been batted away with a remark that at least it is dedicated to crushing Zionism. Fighting Israel represented a powerful absolution. Nothing else mattered.

And yet, Saadeh, according to his followers, claimed to seek out the truth to a better life through the highest moral values. But in Syria, the country he saw as the epicenter of a brave new Arab world, the party bearing his legacy is backing a regime that has chosen the path of bloody repression. His ideal is as elusive now as it ever was.

* Michael Karam, the former managing editor of Executive magazine, is author of “Wines of Lebanon” (Saqi), which won the 2005 Gourmand Award for Best New World Wine Book.