In the past year or so, Maamoun Abdulkarim has taken to calling himself "the saddest museum director in the world."
He's said it often enough, in speeches and interviews, that it's become akin to shtick. In fact, he said it to this writer this weekend in Toronto where Sunday afternoon he was scheduled to deliver the second annual Aga Khan Museum Lecture, titled Heritage and Conflict: Syria's Battle to Save Its Past.
Shtick or no, the self-description happens to contain a huge boulder of truth since Dr. Abdulkarim, 49, is the director-general of antiquities and museums for the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
With a staff of 2,500, Dr. Abdulkarim has overseen some 34 national museums and 10,000 heritage sites spread across the country since the then-minister of culture named him to the post in the summer of 2012 – a little more than a year, in other words, after Syria was rent by the civil war that has become only more uncivil in the years since. If there's an end in sight, it requires a very high-powered telescope to see it.
Unsurprisingly, Dr. Abdulkarim said, in the thickly accented English he began to learn only two years ago, that he feels "30 years older than I am. I live in a tragedy and through the tragedy you cannot feel that you are young."
The fate of Aleppo, Syria's largest city, seems to weigh particularly heavy on him as incessant attacks by Syrian and Russian planes have reduced much of it to rubble. "If the war continues, we will lose Aleppo," he said. "It will become like Warsaw in 1944," when the Nazis embarked on an all-out razing of the Polish capital.
Married to a fellow archeologist, father to a 10-year-old daughter and a son, 13, Dr. Abdulkarim is what you might call one of the "good guys" of the Assad regime, whose long-standing pariah status in the West as a torture state has only increased as a result of the civil war.
A secular Muslim of Armenian-Kurdish ancestry, he claims in fact not to be paid directly by the regime but rather through Damascus University where he'd been director of its archeology department and where he still teaches graduate students each Thursday. "My job is free." And this means a high degree of autonomy, he said. "I can be more free in what I say." And "[if] the government doesn't respect my work, I leave my job."
Dr. Abdulkarim is perhaps most famous for his decision in August, 2012, to close all of Syria's museums, then later, as the civil war intensified and the Islamic State appeared on the scene, to remove the 300,000-plus objects they contained to unspecified safe havens. He did not want, he said, a repeat of the looting and destruction of cultural treasures that occurred in Iraq in 2003 with the defeat of Saddam Hussein.
Today, Dr. Abdulkarim says his department saved 99 per cent of Syria's museum collections. Sometimes, this was just by a whisker: The treasures from Palmyra's museum, for instance, were spirited out of that ancient city the evening of May 21, 2015, just three hours ahead of its occupation by IS fighters who three months later would blow up the 2,000-year-old Temple of Bel and, in October, topple the 1,800-year-old Arch of Triumph.
Dr. Abdulkarim also is famous for his willingness to work in government-held and rebel-occupied territories throughout the country to protect and preserve sites from damage and destruction, illicit excavation and export.
"We are brothers. … If you are not with the government, it's not my problem. My problem is, how can we together save the heritage in your area, your city, your village?" he said. "I appeal to all Syrian people: We should work together. Otherwise, we'll be condemned by all future generations. There is not one heritage just for the Assad government and one for the opposition groups. … That heritage, too, belongs to all humanity." Is it any wonder that in the fall of 2014 he was awarded the first Cultural Heritage Resource Prize from UNESCO?
To some, Dr. Abdulkarim may seem like a character in a novel by John Banville, Graham Greene or Brian Moore – the individual who pledges allegiance to what he believes is the greater good while ignoring, playing down or forgiving the failings and crimes of the movement he serves, even as these failings intensify.
Does he see his job as involving such a moral quandary? It seems not. "It's clear for me," he replied. "I was condemned in 2012 by many institutions worldwide because I accepted to work with a public situation depending on the Syrian government. … But how can I help the cultural heritage if I am outside of Syria? Of course, it's a government situation but the government gives me good autonomy to be professional and scientific in my work."
"If we have a problem with the politics," he continued, "it's not up to me. I am not director of humanitarian affairs or human rights etcetera. My duty, my responsibility – how can I save the heritage – is a project of peace. Because I have the power to be possible, to push both sides to work together.
"But what's happened to the Syrian crisis, it's a question – but it's not my question. It's a question for another political man and humanitarian … I am happy with my colleagues that we saved this heritage for the generations. I am happy that my children never can condemn me that I am not a good papa. The knowledge of regimes, governments is nothing for me; the knowledge [that matters] is, Who can help me?"
Yet for all this dedication and focus, Dr. Abdulkarim has not entirely been the willing soldier in the cause of cultural heritage. When the minister of culture, a former university colleague, first asked him to assume the directorship of antiquities, he declined. And even when he did accept, he told his wife it would be for six months, maybe a year. He stayed until 2014, then announced he wished to resign and return to university. However, a new culture minister asked him to remain until Aug. 15, 2016. When that date rolled around, yet another minister, also a friend, was in the portfolio. He agreed to accept Dr. Abdulkarim's resignation but bleated, "How can you leave me?" A compromise followed: Dr. Abdulkarim said he'd stay for just one more year.
In the meantime, the director-general continues to be one of the most-travelled Syrian officials in the West, his stint in Toronto occurring less than two months after an appearance at the Edinburgh International Culture Summit.
At interview's end, Dr. Abdulkarim said his hope, "through all the situations and adversities, Canada will decide to be involved with Syria through UNESCO, through Aga Khan, through any way. But do not leave Syrian heritage alone through this crisis."
A previous version of this article stated Dr. Maamoun Abdulkarim's age as 59. He is 49.