As a child, I loved my father. We had a good relationship until he retired as a trade inspector in 2000. Up till that point, my father had had a remote positive influence on me. I knew him to be the mighty inspector who had survived 17 assassination attempts throughout a crusade against corruption. He was always very passionate about his job, having grown up with detective novels. Those he read at a little bookstore that my grandfather, Abdo senior, ran.
My father did many jobs, including teaching in the Golan Heights when he was 17. Yet, the inspector career ran “in his blood”, as he once confessed to his brother-in-law. As a result, he turned down my big-shot uncle’s offer to secure a diplomatic post abroad. His detective mania ran in his blood for four decades.
His name is Muhammad Saleem, AKA Abu Abdo, Arabic for ‘Abdo’s father’.
Throughout and even after the union with Egypt’s Nasser between 1958 and 1961, Syria’s bourgeoisie economy entered a wave of nationalization. It was a period of chaos, during which Syria was thought of as “ungovernable”. It was also a period of corruption and mass-theft. It was at this point that my father started his career.
Born in 1939, my old man was in his 20s. He fought corruption head-on and ended up wrongfully imprisoned in 1966. He told me that he was tortured in a solitary cell and his toenails were pulled out. A lawman with the name Haidar al-Aurfi fought for my father’s freedom. There was never any evidence to convict him for any wrongdoings. He was released after more than two years of imprisonment. He came out of this school even more determined to fight.
My father’s career kicked off after President Hafez al-Assad Reformation Movement in 1970. What he did was interesting enough for him to gain a column section for the famous Thawra newspaper. He used an alias, al-Budairi al-Hallak, and published his work under the title A Supply Man’s Diary. My father worked as an inspector for the Supply and Internal Trade Ministry. At some point, he crossed some redlines, so his column was eventually suspended.
The editor who allowed publishing his words lost his job.
One of al-Assad’s reforms was to balance Syria’s economy between private businesses and state-owned ones. Al-Assad ran Syria similarly to how Jeff Bezos runs his businesses. He turned the country into a massive platform for small businesses, just like Amazon. He regulated the market by creating “Consumer Corporations” that provided cheap goods of all kinds, just like the AmazonBasics products. My father’s job was to make sure that the system worked. He tackled any manipulation or overpricing done by the private sector. He also kept an eye on the state-owned institutions who often conspired with the private businesses against the customers and the state.
On the personal level, Saleem was a two-family man.
I was born in central Damascus in 1987, but my mother and I moved to her apartment in Eastern Ghouta when I was four. That was one of the consequences of my father’s second marriage (he’s polygamist), and the birth of my two half-brothers, Shamel and Bashar, to my Syrian-Circassian stepmother. If you ever meet my father, he will tell you that he’s a proud Roman Shiite even before saying hello. Yet, he’s married to two Sunnite women, an Arab and a Russian.
I grew up with my mother in Eastern Ghouta away from my father and his second family. My brothers and their mother lived in a tiny old house very close to the Syrian parliament. We expected dad to spend a day with them and come to us every other day. He came once a week, though, and sometimes once every two weeks. I was still happy to see him, and never demanded more. I never thought that he favored my brothers over me, yet, he’d always had that impression. Only when I was at university, he confessed to me.
“I never spent much time with your brothers either,” he said. “I was always on the road.”
Father spent decades on the road tackling corruption networks across the entire country. When he was sent on a national mission, he was paid double, but he didn’t do it for the money. His ministry provided him with a car, a driver and accommodation wherever he traveled. He lived very much like a nomad and was very good at getting comfortable everywhere he went. Once he bought his first car in 1990 – a 1953 English chassis filled with random Japanese and German car parts – he used it for work.
Sometimes he went on missions around Damascus and took me with him. He always had a tea-kit and a few foldable seats in the trunk. Whenever he found a nice spot in nature, he settled in. He played Um Khalthoum and Farid Atrash cassettes to amuse me at sunsets. I hated the music, but I tolerated it because dad was fun. He had a strange sense of advice though.
“If you hear gunfire, hide under the front seat,” he always told me. “Wherever you go, don’t return using the same way because people could ambush you.”
That wasn’t the scariest part of my childhood, though. My father said those things so casually that I didn’t take them seriously. In fact, both my parents made sure that I was always safe and provided for. They weren’t by any measurement wealthy, yet I had the most toys and the best education in town. My mother’s relatives were all wealthier than us, and some of them were quite rich. Their children, however, didn’t come close to getting what my parents provided for me.
I used to feel embarrassed that my father drove a 1953 piece of junk. My farmer uncles and cousins drove Buicks, Benzes, Mazdas and, at the very bottom, Peugeots. They owned so much land, yet most of them were undereducated. (A few of them were overeducated, ending up working directly with President Hafez al-Assad and later his son Bashar.) Many of them didn’t even make it past sixth grade.
My mother was one of the few educated ones. She studied to become a schoolteacher. My father was an active city boy, so he held four diplomas in various fields, from psychology to management. That didn’t matter to me, though. I didn’t understand why we had to be different from everyone in town. I felt inferior because we were city people living in the countryside.
One of the reasons why we had to live there was that my father was a polygamist, and my mother was unable to tolerate it.
The fighting between my parents was the worst part of my childhood. They both dragged me into it. At one point, I wished if they could just get a divorce, but they never did. They had a good go every now and then, but for the most part, they were always separated.
Things changed in 2000 after I finished elementary school. My mother feared that I would be lost in her undereducated town. My father shared her concerns. They both decided that my mother and I must move back to my father’s house in central Damascus. It was the same period when my father retired from his job with the government.
Nearing his retirement, the old man was losing the battle against corruption. The man who used to be viewed as a hero was now viewed as a troublemaker. A new Supply minister decided to ground my father to an archive position for his last two years of service. That was the worst punishment inflicted on him. The superior simply couldn’t fire a state employee with no grounds. Instead, he fixed my old man to a chair with no desk. Dad sat there daily watching his young colleagues do paperwork.
That experience killed his soul.
The last encounter that I record from my father’s inspector career is connected to the aftermath of his previous investigations. One evening, he received a threat phone call, while I was sitting in the room. That was the first time that I saw him in fear. He was telling the man calling to understand that his oldest son was just 11. I remember the call because I got upset with dad for forgetting how old I was.
I had already turned 12.