A daughter of Damascus and her quest for cultural diplomacy
Beirut - Nadia von Maltzahn’s book The Syria-Iran Axis, recently released in paperback, has gained relevance in the three years since it was first published. Her research into cultural diplomacy between the Islamic Republic and Ba’athist Syria — dubbed “the odd couple” by Israeli academic Yair Hirschfeld — offers insights into an enduring alliance. Different readers will draw different conclusions.
“Things have become much more polarised since I finalised the manuscript in 2012, although the nature of Syrian-Iranian cultural diplomacy hasn’t actually changed,” said von Maltzahn, a research associate at the Orient-Institut Beirut.
“I decided not to write a new introduction for the paperback edition because I think the book gives a good idea about the nature of the relationship without needing to be explicit.”
Cultural diplomacy was defined by Joseph Nye, an American political science professor, as a means for governments “to communicate with and attract the publics of other countries”. Von Maltzahn, who was born in Damascus and studied Arabic literature and history at Cambridge University, was attracted to exploring cultural diplomacy between Iran and Syria while studying Arabic in Damascus in 2003-04.
Living behind the Umayyad mosque, near the shrine of Sayyida Ruqayya, daughter of Imam Hussein, von Maltzahn was soon struck by the number of Iranian pilgrims and more slowly by their limited interaction with Syrians.
When her father became Germany’s ambassador in Iran in 2003, von Maltzahn went to visit. Being in Tehran drew her further into the Syria-Iran relationship, which became the subject of her doctoral thesis at St Antony’s College, Oxford, researched in both countries.
Cultural relations between Iran and Syria date to a 1953 treaty when they depended on what von Maltzahn calls “enthused individuals” and were restricted by the shah’s worries over Pan-Arabism. Especially after Hafez Assad seized power in a 1971 military coup in Syria, she writes in the book: “Syrian foreign policy was more concerned with hard power than propagating ideas.”
With the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979, Iran’s policy towards Syria was based not on seeking close ties with the main Sunni Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood, but with a state led by the avowedly “secular” Ba’ath party.
Assad already had links with Iran’s revolutionaries, partly through Lebanese cleric Musa al-Sadr, who in 1973 had judged the Alawite to be Shia — so helping legitimise Assad, an Alawite, in a presidency reserved for Muslims. Assad shared the Islamic Republic’s antipathy to Saddam Hussein, who invaded Iran in 1980, while both sides stressed support for the Palestinians.
These factors were more important for the alliance than any relationship between mainly Shia Iran and the Alawites, who make up about 12% of the Syrian population.
Iran opened a cultural centre in Damascus in 1983, first in Mazzeh close to the embassy, and later, writes von Maltzahn, “right next to Martyr Square and in walking distance to the shrines of Sayyida Ruqayya and the Umayyad Mosque… [where its] central location makes it very accessible to anyone”.
The centre encouraged Syrians to learn about “Islamic Iran”. Its journal, Islamic Culture, published in 1985-2006, covered law, philosophy, poetry and literature and “women and family affairs”. The centre has organised cultural weeks, film festivals and conferences.
The centre also promoted Persian, cooperating with state universities in Damascus, Aleppo, Latakia and Homs. During her research, von Maltzahn interviewed Muhammad al-Tounji, who studied in Tehran and, until retirement in the 1990s, taught Arabic literature and Persian in Damascus and Aleppo.
Tounji became disillusioned after 1979, she writes, because “in his view it soon emerged… that the Islamic Republic wanted to teach Persian not to those who liked literature but to those who had an inclination to Shi’ism”.
Compared to Iran, Syria has shown little desire to propagate its culture abroad, while Iranians already commonly studied Arabic. The Syrian-Arab culture centre in Tehran did not open until 2005. “Arab nationalism was at the roots of Syrian policy,” writes von Maltzahn. “Promoting one’s national culture abroad would act against this particular Pan-Arab vision… the Syrian cultural centres focused on the themes of resistance and anti-imperialism.”
The most popular aspect of the relationship remained Iranian religious tourism: 330,000 of 360,000 Iranians visiting Syria in 2008 were such tourists. But these pilgrims, writes von Maltzahn, “created an impression among Syrians that all Iranians were… religious, of modest background and conservative, which did not persuade many Syrians to visit Iran.”
Syria’s most visited Shia shrine is Sayyida Zaynab, in south-west Damascus, but there are many others, some of which Iran renovated, often in a distinct style. Among them were two in Raqqa destroyed in 2014 by the Islamic State.
Again, readers may draw their own conclusions. “Of course, issues such as student exchange and religious tourism might seem irrelevant in the face of all the destruction and suffering experienced in Syria today,” said von Maltzahn, “but they give us a good idea about the long-term relationship.”
The Syria-Iran Axis: Cultural Diplomacy and International Relations in the Middle East, by Nadia von Maltzahn, IB Tauris, 272 pages, $24.