Rula Rakbi: A Syrian Citizen Dreams of Democracy

Rakbi spent two years in Paris and decided to return because "I cannot live outside Damascus," as she put it. (Photo: Al-Akhbar)

By: Khalil Sweileh

Published Sunday, February 26, 2012

Rula Rakbi holds a huge cigar and sports a constant smile while sitting among young intellectuals in the glass-covered street-side café of the Fardoss Tower Hotel. She listens carefully as they discuss their aspirations. This generation has been caught up in a fierce storm and it engages in public affairs with the zeal and energy of youth.

Since becoming manager, Rakbi has turned the hotel into a forum for intellectuals and a permanent venue for cultural activities in the Syrian capital.

She opened the first jazz club in Damascus at the same hotel. One of the bars was turned into the "Bottom Line," a venue managed by poet Lukman Dirki, where weekly poetry readings were held. "Wednesday Evening" was a monthly event hosting writers, intellectuals, and artists who engaged in often heated debates.

But these events have been discontinued due to current conditions in the country.

Rakbi was surprised at the suggestion she be interviewed and profiled by Al-Akhbar. She said she had nothing to say, and was not in a position to relate her biography. But a small espresso prompted her to start to reminisce. She gave glimpses of her life in sporadic fragments – as her filmmaker friend, Hala al-Abdallah, did in her documentary "I Carry the Flowers to My Grave."

Rakbi was one of the Syrian women who appeared in that film. They spoke about their experiences and broken dreams, and the difficulties and ordeals they faced – some in prison – because of their links to opposition political groups.

"I never entered a prison, but I was always on the side of the civil movements in the country," Rakbi said.

She spoke about her father's role in interesting her in public affairs. Faisal Rakbi was a founding member of the ruling Baath Party, until the comrades toppled him. "Throughout his political life, my father was either hounded or imprisoned," she said.

Two major influences on her upbringing were the shelves of her father's bookstore in Hama, and her aunt, Mufida Rakbi, who established Syria’s first women's organization to fight illiteracy in the 1950s. "I accompanied her on her tours to the villages, helping her teach, although I was less than 10 years old," she recalled.

Rakbi’s secular and pan-Arab nationalist views were in part the legacy of her father, who had a different story. He had been preparing to go on a scholarship to specialize in medicine in 1947, but used the scholarship money to buy medicine and volunteered in the Arab Salvation Army in Palestine.

She would always remember something her father told her that changed her professional life. "I wanted to study journalism, and when I told this to my father, he calmly replied: 'Journalism needs freedom. In this country, you will be a mere employee in the regime's agencies.’"

Instead, Rakbi studied French literature at Damascus University, and later went to Paris to study history at the Sorbonne. Her objective at the time was to document the history of Hama, "the city that was subjected to a massacre in the 1980s."

"I was thinking of writing the history of the period of Akram al-Hourani and his socialist comrades. It was a unique experience in Syrian life, which was later aborted under the pressure of military coups," Rakbi said.

Hourani was instrumental in forming a broad populist, nationalist movement in Syria that contributed to the rise of the Baath Party.

While attending university, Rakbi met Samir Kassir, the outspoken journalist who was assassinated in Lebanon in 2005, and the Syrian filmmaker and activist Omar Amiralay, who died early last year. "He was one of the greatest acquaintances of my life. He left an imprint on my personality that will never be erased," she said, adding, “He’s who I miss most today amid what we are experiencing."

Rakbi spent two years in Paris and decided to return because "I cannot live outside Damascus," as she put it. She also came back because of her "fantasies for change, before discovering the difficulty of achieving this dream. I am a mere spectator of the big games."

Challenging Repression

In the early 1990s, Rakbi began working for the public relations department at the Fardoos Tower. Her varied encounters with people in a place where faces change daily influenced her outlook.

"Previously, I was not drawn much to women’s issues, because I was convinced that women and men were equally oppressed," she said.

"But I came to see that where women are concerned, serious action is needed to change the entrenched attitudes imposed by a strict, male-dominated society. I hadn’t had to live up-close with these before," Rakbi added.

Despite her civil activism, Rakbi is uninterested in joining any political party, saying she is convinced that individuals’ efforts can help bring change to their respective surroundings.

Her signature has featured on many petitions related to the status of women, freedom of expression, or against violence and repression in Syria.

"My objective is to break the dilemma of repression, my desire is to live in a free society, regardless of the obstacles," she said.

Rakbi became animated when speaking of her feelings about contemporary Syria. "I felt like a different creature. My priorities changed. I made new friends. The Syrian uprising changed so many concepts in my life," she said.

"It never occurred to me I could go to my hometown, Hama, to take part in a demonstration. For the first time, I felt like a full citizen, that the homeland has become a public affair in a city that rose from the ruins of a massacre. Here it is again, chanting for freedom," Rakbi adds.

Rakbi does not object to joining demonstrations that set out from mosques, saying: "I'm secular, and never imagined going out in a demonstration from a mosque. But what other options are there? Should I go out on a demonstration from a night club?"

Reading not writing

Asked how she spends her time, now that the cultural activities she organized at the hotel have stopped, Rakbi said reading was enough for her. "The book has been my only shelter throughout my life. My father's huge bookstore saved me from boredom," she said.

Had she ever considered writing? With a laugh, she replied: "I wrote short stories a very long time ago, and published some of them. But a small incident stopped me there and made me lose confidence in what I was writing."

Recalling the “incident,” Rakbi explained that one of her father's friends, a Baath party poet, once praised a story she had written. "His admiration confirmed to me, beyond any doubt, the shallowness of my writing," she said, adding, "Coming from a poet who was only fluent in cheering and praise, this was certain evidence that my compass was pointing in the wrong direction. This is what made me stop writing without regret."

She continued on, saying: "the most important accomplishment in my life has been my daughter, Jude, who works as a cinematographer."

After a pause, Rakbi said what her dream was for Syria: "I dream that the ordeal we are living in Syria will unfold into a democracy that has space for all shades under the banner of freedom...It makes no sense to reach 50 under the banner of the same regime."

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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