“When I think of Hassan, I always see his mustachioed smile and tolerant attitude. He was serious in his work, but also had humor and always hope,” says Ziad Majed, a political researcher and university professor, describing his old-time friend and colleague Hassan Abbas.
Abbas, a veteran Syrian opposition and civil society figure, who died at age 66 on March 7, 2021, one week before the 10th anniversary of the Syrian revolution, was an intellectual and academic critic whose teachings had a deep impact on the lives of many Syrian youth.
Holder of a Ph.D. in literature and literary criticism from the New Sorbonne University in Paris, Abbas was at the time of his death director of Culture as Resistance program at the Asfari Institute for Civil Society and Citizenship, a research center affiliated with the American University of Beirut.
Early in his career he taught non-Arab generations the Arabic language and Arab culture at the Institute for French Studies in Damascus, which he also used as a platform for educational activities for Syrians.
Abbas was among the most active intellectuals during the so-called “Damascus Spring,” a period of intense political and social debate in Syria following the death of former President Hafez al-Assad in June 2000. The activities and intellectuals associated with it were later suppressed by the government. (See a related article, “Syria’s Lost Generation.”)
“It was at that time that I met Hassan,” Majed said. “I was then writing an academic paper about the role of Syrian intellectuals in the forums. We met a year later when he wanted to create a discussion group of Lebanese and Syrian youth and civil society activists to discuss Lebanese-Syrian relations, challenges and tensions.”
“The group met several times during which misconceptions were exposed and friendships were made between Lebanese and Syrian youth.”
Citizenship: A Concept Close to His Heart
After the start of the Arab Spring in 2011, Abbas participated in most of the protests in Damascus with other intellectuals. In one demonstration, he was severely beaten by an intelligence officer.
In 2012, after leaving Syria, Abbas undertook one of his most important civil-political activities by establishing the Syrian League for Citizenship.
“The subject of citizenship was the closest to his heart. The League for Citizenship worked on training Syrians and raising awareness about the notion of citizenship, which is terribly lacking in Arab contexts, especially in Syria where people are treated as subjects and followers.”Ziad Majed
ِA political researcher and university professor
“The subject of citizenship was the closest to his heart,” Majed recalls. “The League for Citizenship worked on training Syrians and raising awareness about the notion of citizenship, which is terribly lacking in Arab contexts, especially in Syria where people are treated as subjects and followers.”
“Deconstructing that and showing that citizenship is about participation, political rights, gender equality and separation of powers, transitional justice, accountability and transparency—all these subjects were very dear to Hassan.”
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Abbas’s role was extremely important in offering Syrian youth different perspectives and appreciating different dynamics and political ideas, Majed said. “He remained true to himself in that respect to the end.”
Hope for a Knowledge Revolution
Abbas, an Alawite married to a Sunni, was a rebel against the sectarian dictatorship in Syria.
“He 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 Syrians desperately needed,” wrote Syrian researcher and Abbas’s friend Wael Sawah.
“He 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 Syrians desperately needed.”Wael Sawah
A Syrian researcher and Abbas’s friend
Abbas penned a large number of books on citizenship, on criticism, as well as Syrian traditional music, culture and intangible heritage. He did a cultural map of Syria, and his last book, The Body in the Novel of the Syrian War, was published days before his death. He also founded a film club and cultural forum. (See a related article, “Syrian Art Thrives, Defying Violence.”)
The unrelenting and determined activist strongly engaged in civic activity to spread the importance of the idea of citizenship among Syrians, and in 2000, he was among 99 Syrian intellectuals who paved the way for other intellectuals and politicians to work publicly, by signing what would be known as the “Manifesto of the Ninety-Nine.”
“I enjoyed the work he did on music, cuisine and cultural questions related to heritage, identity. It was yet another important contribution he made to Syria and the region,” Majed said.
He added: “It is a big loss especially at this time when people especially in Syria needed him the most. He died before seeing any of his aspirations, which he worked hard on, being achieved.”