In almost every bookstore in Syria, writes Asser Khattab, one can find an abridged Arabic translation of Mein Kampf. And having spent much of his life in Aleppo and Damascus, Khattab has numerous anecdotes from both his own experiences and those of friends of coming across Nazi memorabilia in shops, or meeting people with the first name Hitler, or encountering expressions of sympathy for the Nazis. He observes:
The first time I remember seeing a swastika was at the all-boys Presbyterian school I attended for twelve years in Aleppo. Al-saleeb al-ma’qouf, the hooked cross, [a literal translation of the German term], was one of many symbols that boys would mindlessly carve into their desks, scribble on the walls of the bathroom, or sketch in textbooks. Most of them, I would learn, didn’t even know what the symbol meant. Those who did, didn’t know much.
In 1939, Hitler and his minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, launched the Radio Berlin Arabic-language program. The program broadcast across the Middle East and North Africa and told Arab listeners that everything they had heard about Hitler hating Arabs and assigning them a low “racial status” was wrong. It even broadcast Quran recitations, in what seemed to have been an attempt to steal listeners from the BBC’s Arabic-language radio service.
We were never taught this. And yet at some point, I began hearing a startling number of Syrians quoting Hitler and discussing his views and political career. Some would mutter the common, and not altogether accurate, claims that Germany “rose from the ashes” of World War I and from the confines of the Treaty of Versailles and that the lives of German citizens greatly improved under Hitler before World War II began in September 1939. . . . Those around me who sported some vague admiration for Hitler almost always supported the Assads, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, or Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan.