Most Syrians have either actively embraced or reluctantly engaged in corruption for decades, handing out token bribes to low-level bureaucrats or paying off a police officer to get out of a traffic violation. Graft has been rampant in routine interactions, big and small, in the public and private sectors.
By the time I was a teenager in the mid-1990s in Aleppo, I had seen a number of friends pay roughly $700 for a special permit to drive before the legal age of 18. This privilege barred law enforcement from approaching the document holder on orders from the chief of police. It was, essentially, a license to live beyond the law.
In Assad’s Syria, bribes were even commonplace in schools. My first memorable case of extortion was in the ninth grade. I was looking to transfer from an English-language international school to the Arabic-language Aleppo College. As a private school, it wasn’t all that different in its filthy conditions and heavy Baath party indoctrination from public ones. But at least they provided transportation and had better teachers.
On a hot summer morning my father woke me up (always a battle at that age) and told me to get registered at Aleppo College. So I went, alone, and met the school’s administrator. He said there was a waiting list and I might not be able to get in. I mentioned the name of a mutual friend, which seemed to grease the wheels, but it wasn’t enough. As I was leaving I asked how much the tuition was. I don’t recall the exact figure, but it was slightly less than $140 for the year. I had around 9,000 pounds ($180 back then) and assured my seat by paying on the spot, including a small “sweetener” that would then be periodically demanded of me over the years.
At the time, it didn’t occur to me that I was paying a bribe. It seemed more like an altruistic fee to the less fortunate (in this case, my future principal). My sneakers at the time were worth more than the average monthly salary in Syria, such was the poor state of the economy and its lopsided wealth distribution. But my “donation” came with perks, such as a choice locker and the ability to cut classes. I never needed help with grades but that was clearly for sale too.
Teachers were also looking to boost their incomes, and the only acceptable way to do that was by offering private tutoring. Many teachers were excellent; their private lessons would help problem students earn a passing grade or offer gifted students enrichment beyond the class lectures.
In other cases, students of private tutoring would know which questions were on the exam. They’d often sell or share them with other students, recuperating part or all of their “investment.” Other teachers were greedy and pushy, and would sometimes send messages through surrogates that certain students needed extra lessons when exams came around.
I was able to skirt those pressures because of the protection money I had paid the school’s administrator. But my luck ran out in the eleventh grade.
Our Arabic teacher was notorious for extracting cash from students. His other job was serving as the chief of staff for the head of the Baath party in Aleppo. His boss was more powerful than the state governor, and that allowed him to operate with an air of arrogance unworthy of his intellect and character. Perhaps he picked up on my disdain or wasn’t used to being turned away by teenagers, but after I politely rejected his offer to charge me $400 for a few classes, he started flunking me in Arabic. As a student, it was a disastrous situation that could have held me back one year.
I turned to my father for help. He was incensed by the teacher’s audacity and refused to be part of this shakedown, but he couldn’t watch me fail. So he asked a friend for a favor, and after that my teacher was ordered by the Baath party chief in Aleppo, his boss, to go easy on me. The Arabic teacher approached me in an apologetic yet scolding tone, saying that we had a misunderstanding and that I should’ve alerted him sooner of my family’s connections. He then asked when we could start the lessons, which would be free of charge, of course. I continued to produce the exact same quality of schoolwork, and passed.
The Baath party’s tentacles in schools caused the most pernicious forms of corruption, and the Arabic teacher was an obscene case. Other party apparatchiks had part-time positions at our private school, teaching non-core subjects such as art, philosophy, physical education and Baathist Syrian nationalism (or pan-Arab politics, in kinder terms).
Mohammed Dali, our art teacher, was a delightful low-ranking party official who understood his position in life. He would meekly ask us to draw compositions depicting the victory of the Syrian Arab Military over Israel in the 1973 war (a conflict we actually lost), or translate into art our happiness with President Hafez Al-Assad’s “Corrective Movement” of 1971 (which was really just a coup that installed him in power). There was an unofficial ban on drawing Hafez himself, for fear that it wouldn’t be a flattering image of the absolute leader. My artistic rendition of a dogfight between Syrian and Israeli fighter jets was horrible, but it got a perfect grade.
The art teacher also happily collected our Baath party membership fees. A few extra dollars here and there allowed many students to skip his class and focus on more important activities like playing football or stalking girls.
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Looking back, this all seems trivial compared to the immense suffering in Syria today, and it is. But at some point, when the war ends, Syrians will have to think about the kind of country they want. They’ll have to reflect on rampant corruption and economic inequality, the cumulative effects of decades of mismanagement and the absence of a state that is respected and respectful. There is no society without corruption, but plenty, even poor ones, manages to exist without endless petty bribes. Almost none bring party politics and graft into middle schools.
If Syrians can do that, if we can break the bad habits of the past four decades in which corruption was tethered to survival, perhaps a layer of distrust will be removed and a more equitable society will emerge. A police force that doesn’t institutionalize extortion or an economy that isn’t controlled by a president’s cousin shouldn’t be a distant, unattainable dream. If we can’t transcend the life we’ve known, then we’ll just be repeating our dark past. We’ll be teaching a new generation the intricacies of bribing their art teachers.