Winter 2005 – Swarthmore College Bulletin |

Swathmore College Bulletin | The Road to DamascusIt is the first night of Ramadan, and from his house in the neighborhood of Al-Italiani in Damascus, Joshua Landis ’79 watches a festive evening unfold. At twilight, when Muslim families prepare to feast, the palm trees, white trucks, and sandy stone walls of apartment buildings become blue silhouettes, illuminated by the green neon of mosque minarets. People are moody and grumpy during the long days of fasting, he says, but deservedly celebratory at night when they fill these streets, strolling and laughing, free of obligation. But he also observes that the grocery next door, owned by a Syrian Christian, is still open for business, with men gathered at tables outside talking until late.

Landis is always thinking about the social and religious divisions in Syrian society that he believes determine Syrian politics. As a 2005 Fulbright Scholar, he is on leave from his position as assistant professor of Middle Eastern studies in the History Department and the School of International and Area Studies at the University of Oklahoma and has been living with his family in Damascus. He’s writing a book about the early years of Syrian democracy, from 1920 to 1949, which will be published next year by Palgrave/MacMillan. But with the dramatic political events of this year—one crisis after another—he has had less time to work on the book.

In February, former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri was assassinated, just 4 months after resigning over objections to the involvement of Damascus in his country. Syrian security officials were quickly implicated in the murder (though the U.N.-led investigation still continues), and Syria was forced to withdraw its forces from Lebanon after a quasi-occupation that lasted 30 years. During this time, Landis posted regular reports, links, and analysis of these events on his blog,, which he started in 2003. With the international media spotlight on Syria, Landis rapidly became one of the most authoritative English-speaking resources on Syrian affairs because of  his vast knowledge of the region’s history, his fluency in Arabic, and his connections with government insiders and opposition leaders.

The Road to Damascu (two page spread)

At the same time, the United States was severely pressuring Syria to crack down on Sunni insurgents flowing across its eastern border into Iraq, and the threat of American sanctions or more extreme interventions became another flashpoint for debate on Landis’ blog. Ongoing controversies involving the dispute with Israel over the Golan territory, the civil liberties expanded or suppressed by Prime Minister Bashar al-Assad’s regime as well as the potential takeover of the government by various factions were also addressed in detail. Landis became a scholar-pundit, called upon by the Western media to interpret political events. In the past year, he has appeared on television many times, given interviews and commentary on National Public Radio, CNN, BBC, and other news outlets; written an op-ed for The New York Times; and given presentations to London’s Royal Institute for International Affairs, the Carnegie Foundation, and at embassies in Damascus and the United States.

The Road to Damascu (two page spread)The blog has not only catapulted Landis into the public domain, but it has also given a voice to the opposition politicians who object to the Assad government. Landis regularly consults with students researching in Damascus and other Syrian Fulbright scholars, many of whom have started writing for “The blog offers one of the only venues for English-language news and commentary—I am finding that the opposition members are actually calling me to be interviewed because I will publish more than just a sound bite from them,” Landis stated.

When foreign journalists from English-language news sources arrive in Damascus, they consult Landis to be briefed on the current situation. Ambassadors say they regularly read the blog, which is updated daily with many posts. And, apparently, the Syrian government also reads it, although this has not yet been a problem, which Landis attributes to the fact that most Syrians do not speak English. But, when he published an op-ed in The New York Times in September, Buthaina Shabaan, minister and spokeswoman for President Assad, was in New York and read the piece. “She went on Al Jazeera and held up my article,” he said, “and she told them, ‘This is the person you should read because he is on the ground.’”

Although he has written critically about many government policies, Landis believes that Shabaan advocated for him because he is ultimately against the Bush administration’s squeeze-until-it-hurts policy toward Syria and completely opposes an American-led regime change. “There is no peaceful solution to regime change,” he said. “The president has wiped out any functioning opposition, so that would only bring chaos. It’s a divided society—multireligious and multi-ethnic—so it would be easy to create a civil war, which would be detrimental to American interests.”

Landis predicts that America will place greater sanctions on Syria, in the hope that there will eventually be a coup. In this situation, the people will just suffer and starve as the economy is shut off like a water tap. He points out that the sanctions on Iraq, Serbia, Cuba, and Iran have not succeeded in overthrowing those regimes. “With more sanctions, we would create another failed state in the Middle East,” he said.

Rather, Landis advises the United States to concentrate on Iraq and engage with Syria in creating stability there, first by opening the Iraqi oil pipeline into Syria that was shut off during the war. On his blog, he wrote, “You don’t try to throw every roadblock in the way of economic growth as we are now doing with sanctions and by pressuring Europe to do the same.” He also urges the United States to, at least, publicly acknowledge the Israeli occupation of the territory in Southern Syria it captured in the 1967 war. “For Syrians, the Golan is the elephant sitting at the table,” he said. “Just for America to say openly [in response to Israeli statements of absolute sovereignty] that Israel will eventually have to give it back—that would be very helpful.”

Amid the book, the blog, and the political chaos, Landis is also trying to enjoy time with his family in the Middle East. Recently married, his wife Manar Kachour is Alawite Syrian (the same sect as the ruling Assads), and they have a son, Kendall Shabaan. He is named both for his grandfather Kendall Landis ’48, who served as vice president for alumni and development at Swarthmore from 1972-1990, and for his other grandfather Shabaan Kachour, who served as a liwa (general) for 10 years and was the second-in-command of the Syrian Navy.

At age 2, young Kendall has just learned to talk—and, for now, knows only Arabic. In Damascus, Landis is often called “Abu Shabaan,” or “father of Shabaan.” When the family returns to Oklahoma, Landis says the family will start speaking English. Kendall’s grandmother, the poet Joan Hutton Landis, “is very upset that she can’t talk to her grandson,” he remarked. But he says it is important that his son retains his mother tongue as he grows up, not only because he is half-Syrian but because Landis also spent several of his childhood years in Lebanon without learning the language, which still rankles. “We lived in a golden ghetto in Beirut, which had a huge foreign community that all spoke English,” he said.

After graduating from Swarthmore, Landis returned to Beirut to teach at a prep school for American University. “The Iranian revolution had just broken out,” he explained, “and I flew standby on Iran Air. There were three passengers on the 747 and posters of Khomeini plastered on the wall!”

He became a master in a dormitory and taught English and European history. Early on during his stay there, one of his late-night study sessions was interrupted by gunfire and scuffling in the street below his window. Darting anxiously out of his room, he launched into a hallway, where the students were sitting calmly against the walls to escape stray bullet fire. “They just looked at me and laughed, some saying, ‘Welcome to Lebanon.’”

He stayed in Beirut for 2 years during the civil war and then went to Damascus to study Arabic more intensely. Later, while studying for a master’s degree at Harvard and a Ph.D. at Princeton, he returned frequently to the Middle East, spending years in Cairo and Istanbul and eventually becoming fluent in many regional dialects of Arabic.

Now that his Fulbright year is coming to a close, Landis must return to his teaching position. But he plans to continue the blog and the media appearances, staying informed through his contacts in Damascus. He admits that he is sad to leave the cosmopolitan capital of Syria. But in comparison with the other cities he has lived in, Landis says that Norman, Okla., can seem “positively exotic!”

NO ONE SPOKE A WORD OF ENGLISH TO BERNADETTE BAIRD-ZARS ’06 when she landed in Damascus, Syria, for the fall 2004 semester. She found herself plunged suddenly into third-grade–level communication in Arabic. It was exactly what she had hoped for.

When Baird-Zars had first approached Foreign Study Adviser Steve Piker earlier that year requesting intensive foreign study in Arabic, she was directed to programs in Cairo, Jordan, Morocco, and Beirut. “The universities there are all excellent, but students speak English to each other,” she explains. “I’ve always dreamed of learning Arabic, but I know my brain is lazy, and I don’t learn a language unless I have to.”

No Swarthmore student had ever studied at the University of Damascus, but Piker mentioned a failed attempt in 1999 to set up an exchange program there in collaboration with several other colleges. “At the time we originally tried, none of the colleges involved, including Swarthmore, were offering Arabic instruction or Middle Eastern studies,” Piker says. “In the interim, however, we had introduced both.”

Foreign study in Syria fits perfectly in the College’s new offerings in Islamic studies. It also promotes President Alfred H. Bloom’s “commitment to develop in students the ability to place themselves in other perspectives and to understand the continuity between their own perspectives and those of people from other cultures.”

“If Swarthmore teaches a foreign language, we want students to have a good opportunity for intensive study in a country where that language is spoken,” Piker explains. “It’s very hard to find good foreign study of that sort in the Arabic-speaking world. There are a handful of foreign-study programs our students have attended, but they are nowhere near as good as Damascus for language learning and cultural immersion.”

Piker contacted American-Mideast Educational and Training Services, a Washington, D.C., organization that arranges foreign study for American students in Damascus and other colleges in the Middle East. Piker visited Syria, as did Assistant Professor of Anthropology Farha Ghannam, who teaches Islamic studies. Visiting Instructor of Arabic Barbara Romaine will do so in December. Together, with the help of Provost Constance Hungerford, they organized semester-abroad study at the University of Damascus—just in time for Baird-Zars to give it a test run.

“Bernadette is smart, personable, mature, very cosmopolitan,” Piker says—in short, the perfect pioneer. She had already taken the new Arabic course and loved the idea of studying in Damascus. Not only would she learn Arabic, it was perfect for her other academic interest: urban planning. “Damascus is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world,” Baird-Zars says. “Personally and from an urban-planning standpoint, it’s a unique place—isolated and interesting.”

“I had no expectations when I went,” Baird-Zars says. In the months leading up to her departure, she had found only one article on Damascus, in The New York Times, and it was about a bombing. In fact, Piker points out, the United Nations rated Damascus the third safest country in the world last spring. “Damascus is very rich culturally, a very traditional city,” he says. “It’s also a very safe place—contrary to the rap it has in this country.”

Back on campus, Baird-Zars has taken to counseling, via e-mail, the three Swarthmore students in Damascus now. One of them, Emily Robbins ’07, plans to stay through the spring semester and is writing a blog about her experience on the College Web site at

“I had a really lovely time there,” Baird-Zars reports. “The people were incredibly generous and friendly, and the food is wonderful. There’s a big soap-opera industry there. It’s not the war-torn Middle East we see in the papers every day.

“It’s a full, rich culture, but there are things to tread lightly around,” she adds. “I operated under the principal that if I acted like a Syrian girl, I could fit into my host family, melt into life there, be happier, and have more room to maneuver. It is possible to wear a tank top, for example—some Syrian women do—but I didn’t. I wore long sleeves and pants. The most important thing there is to look stylish—which is what I had trouble with! You really stick out if your clothes aren’t ironed.”