In the fall of 1977, while waiting for admission at the University of Southwestern Louisiana, I enrolled at the College of Fine Arts in Damascus University. I knew that my tenure was only temporary, and that I would leave as soon as the paperwork was completed and my visa issued. Yet, the four months I spent there, from September till December of that year, make up for one of the most spirited periods in my life.
It was a time when Fine Arts students were reputed to be the Bohemians of the Damascene academic realm. For all I know, it may still be the case today, assuming there remains any semblance of academia amid the mayhem and destruction. University students had not yet succumbed to the systematic eradication of individuality, which ultimately defaced younger generations into mere bricks in the wall. The cafeteria on the roof of the building was city-renowned for its avant-garde atmosphere. We were the envy of Medical, Engineering, Law and every school out there. Green with jealousy, the brainy nerds consoled themselves with the conviction that nothing good would come out of us, libidinous art students. We were indeed good for nothing bums, but who needed purpose, when we had all the fun.
I lived at my aunt's in Azbakieh, at the end of Baghdad Street, (about a mile off to the right, in the photo above). I remember waking up early in the morning and walking to college, clumsily carrying my supplies and tools with a lit cigarette dangling between my lips. I also remember being among the last to leave in the evening when Saber, the doorman, had to lock the place down. The Fine Arts building was the center of my universe, and I spent every waking moment there, either in class or on that unforgettable roof.
Although those were endearing times, I haven't thought about them in years. I lost contact with everyone, and I have no idea what had become of my friends. I remember Majed, Mona, Haifa and Maha as my closest buddies. I remember Salma, the gorgeous petite, and the way she played with her ponytail, as I sweet-talked her in vain. I remember the doorman whom we called Ammo Saber; some of the teachers, pretentious and sincere; but I mostly remember Master Helmi Habbab.
For scholars and historians, interested in the Art of Calligraphy, Helmi Habbab is a household name. An astute observer can find the artist’s great work in many parts of Damascus, among which is the sublime calligraphy at the Othman Mosque and the uncounted official placards and signs on public buildings and institutes. I was first introduced to his work years before I had the honor of meeting him in person. In the early 1960’s, Syrian Television started its daily programming at 5:30 PM with the National Anthem, followed by fifteen minutes of Quran reciting. The heavenly voice belonged to Sheikh Abdul Baset Abdul Samad of Egypt. The calligraphy on every cascading tile was always signed in Arabic, at the bottom left corner with a dot-less Helmi.
I was an apprentice in 1933 when I was commissioned to calligraph the giant sign on the main facade of the Khoumassieh Company building. I used a special wooden pen with a long thin handle and a 40 cm (16”) round tip. While propped on a scaffold, I looked down and saw a group of French dignitaries standing in silence and observing. Although I didn’t appreciate people looking over my shoulder as I worked, I wasn’t exactly sitting at a desk in the privacy of my study. Eventually, I climbed down and was immediately surrounded by the Frenchmen and their Syrian interpreter.
“Mais monsieur, vous êtes un artiste!” exclaimed the fat one, as he vigorously shook my hand. The interpreter faithfully translated the short statement, uttering the word “artiste” in French for lack of a synonym in Arabic.
“You and your mother are the artists, you dirty French Pig.” I yelled back and almost clubbed him with my giant pen. The interpreter and a whole bunch of people, who appeared out of nowhere, had to restrain me until the gendarme arrived. I did attack a French citizen, and this came with at least a jail sentence. It took awhile, and a lot of persuasion, from good-willers to convince the visitors how and why I was so offended and infuriated by being called an “artiste”. After all, for us Arabs in the 1930’s, and up until today, the only artists we know of are the showgirls working in nightclubs and cabarets.
This is how most people would look at you, young boys and girls if you don’t make a name for yourselves. So if you’re not absolutely sure you love the Arts and are ready to make sacrifices, you don’t belong in the College of Fine Arts.
Some time between Christmas and New Year, I saw my professor Helmi Habbab for the last time. He was sixty eight. I was two months short of my 18th birthday. But in the span of a few months, we have become good friends. I had told him about my intention to travel to the United States to study to become a City Planner, something he personally considered as a heroic undertaking on my part. He grew up and lived all of his life in Damascus. Traveling across the ocean tickled an unrealized dream that he buried deep in his heart. He encouraged me and gave me valuable advice. In return, I treated him with utmost respect and reverence. My buddies couldn’t understand how I, known as one of the most jocular kids in college, and Master Habbab, known as the strictest and most serious of professors, could have stricken such a formidable friendship. He thought the world of me and took me for a son. He was a father figure, who taught me that no matter how fatuous I was, I would always honor my teachers and mentors.
In April of 1978, and in response to a letter I sent him from America, Helmi Habbab calligraphed his reply on a sized paper. He used a bamboo pen and Chinese ink to scribe his words of encouragement and wisdom on what became my personal treasure. I don’t think I deserve most of the praise, but I’m honored nevertheless. I owe him a tome of gratitude that would take a lifetime to put down on paper or on a screen. My handwriting, like my calligraphy, are still mediocre, but despite the many ups and downs, I would’ve still made him proud of me. I fared well in America but always kept Syria, the one he taught me, in my heart. Rest in Peace Good Master. When our true history is written, your name will be calligraphed in letters of gold.