My father, Omar Rabbat, passed away in November 2013, before the revolution that became a civil war in Syria had completed its third year. He died outside his beloved country and was buried in a small village in Lebanon, less than 20 miles from the Syrian border. Toward the end of his life, his anguish had become more poignant, and he expressed it in ever more desperate ways. The stroke that finally killed him paralyzed half his body and slurred his speech. “What is hurting you most?” a visiting cardiologist asked him at one point. “The crisis in Syria,” he replied, in a faint voice.
My father, who was almost 90 years old, was one of the last survivors of a Syrian generation that witnessed independence but never managed to complete the project of state-building. He was born to a mercantile family in Damascus in 1924, four years after the French occupied the country, and grew up under colonial rule.
In his teens, as a tall, well-built, and exceedingly daring young man, he often participated in demonstrations against the French and sometimes did more than protest. In our attic back home, there used to be an old, rusty helmet with a hole on its side. When I asked him about it, he told me that he had taken it from a French soldier in a demonstration in the late 1930s, when he wasn’t yet 15 years old. But he never elaborated on how he grabbed it and what happened to its owner. He always spoke about the struggle against colonial rule as the harbinger of national aspirations for those who inherited a truncated Syria after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. He also recalled the enthusiasm with which he and his friends at al-Tajhiz, his high school in Damascus, shared in and worked toward these national goals.