Evanston scholar dies from COVID-19, was former culture minister of Syria
In Dec. 2010, a government inspector confiscated the wares of a Tunisian street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi, overturning the cart from which he sold fruit and confiscating his scales. Shortly afterwards, after trying and failing to lodge an appeal and while declaring “How do you expect me to make a living?,” Bouazizi set himself aflame in the street.
Thus was born a people’s revolution in Tunisia and beyond, igniting what came to be known as the Arab Spring, a movement against poverty and oppression that roiled several ancient nations.
In Syria, this led to a protest against Bashar al-Assad, the country’s long-standing president, and, thereafter, a brutal civil war. It also eventually brought about the exile of a remarkable, daring, free-thinking man named Mohammad Riad Hussain Ismat, a playwright, cultural critic, Shakespearean scholar, director and, perhaps most interesting of all, a powerful former minister of culture within the Syrian government.
Ismat, who had been living with his wife, Azzah, and his family in an Evanston apartment, caught coronavirus in recent weeks, as did several other members of his family. On Wednesday, May 13, one of the holiest days in the Muslim calendar, Ismat’s condition took an unexpected turn for the worse and he died at the Glenbrook Hospital in Glenview.
His death at age 73 has set off an outpouring of grief among Syrian exiles and international diplomats, as well as academics and students at a variety of educational institutions in the Chicago area, including Northwestern University, Columbia College and North Central College in Naperville.
For many of these mourners, Ismat was a figure not unlike the late Vaclav Havel, a fellow playwright and the former president of the Czech Republic.
He was a symbol of political freedom, and of the intellectual, artistic and humanistic potential of a nation long in crisis.
How did this man coming to be living quietly in Evanston and teaching as a visiting scholar and adjunct professor at so many local universities?
He’d been placed here by an organization called Scholars at Risk, an international group dedicated to human rights and academic freedoms and known for finding homes for people speaking out against oppression.
“My dad just wanted to be a free-thinker,” said Ismat’s son, Sami, “who had to leave behind everything he owned. We’ve been surprised by all the outpouring after his death, especially in the Arab press. You wouldn’t expect it about someone who has been gone for eight years. But my dad has been very much in the news in Syria. It has helped us understand how impactful he was.”
Ismat was prolific — he penned 35 books and directed more than a dozen major theatrical productions, all while (once) running Syria’s state radio and television, serving as Syrian ambassador to Pakistan and Qatar and then serving as its Minister of Culture, a powerful position close to a president with whom he parted ways.
It is easy to lose yourself in Ismat’s writing. He refused to call himself a politician, preferring to be known as a dramatist who wrote about politics. “My strong conviction,” he told an interviewer shortly after his arrival in Evanston, “is that culture exists to unify a nation, not to divide it. During my tenure as minister, I emphasized the role culture should play in promoting values of tolerance, diversity, pluralism, democracy, and freedom of expression.”
But as Syria became embroiled in conflict, Ismat found himself trying to stake out a humanist position distinct from both of the warring sides.
He clearly found Bashar al-Assad’s authoritarian actions unacceptable: “It is the duty of any humanitarian writer or artist to disapprove of violence,” Ismat said, also in a published interview. “Therefore, I was against the so-called military/security solution, which was used instead of engaging in a political dialogue in response to the demands of demonstrators for tangible and quick reform.”
But although he supported the people’s movement, he also stood firm against terrorism: “Many of the artists and writers I met in the opposition believe in secularism, reform, and democracy,” he said, “not in terrorism and dismantling the state.”
Perhaps most moving of all, Ismat saw a crucial role for the arts in the future of a free Syria, cognizant of its own illustrious past. In his writings, Ismat constantly referenced the once-thriving cultural scene in Damascus, populated by daring artists with their ears listening to the concerns on the street.
“For over half a century,” Ismat wrote in one of his books, “several leaders in the Middle East did not heed those daring writers and artists who warned, implicitly or explicitly, of the coming catastrophe. Instead, they relied on the reports, which were often falsified to satisfy the leaders’ ego and maintain the status of some high-rank officers.”
Ismat understood something important about how difficult it can be for artists sounding alarms to get through to political leaders, who usually marginalize them as either mere entertainers or dangerous dissidents.
“Riad understood the power of connecting people through art and culture,” said Jamil Khoury, the founding artistic director of Silk Road Rising in Chicago and a fellow Syrian emigre. “And he knew that quintessentially American drama by Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams could be translated into Arabic and then be understood as Syrian stories.”
Sami, his son, said that his father had come to love living in Evanston, giving talks on “Shakespeare and the Middle East” at the Evanston Public Library, or comparing acting to diplomacy for small groups in Naperville, all while leading the life of a quiet but very persistent scholar. He was just the kind of man Syria needs the most. Still.
Shortly before he died, Ismat had received word that his son, Karim, had been accepted to the doctoral program in neurobiology at Boston University. Sami, meanwhile, has just graduated with a master’s degree from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He is an artist working in the footsteps, he said, of his father.
“We have the same values,” Sami said, “and exactly the same love of Syria and what that country could be.”
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.