‘War of Liberation’ A Talk with the Syrian Defense Minister

Mustafa Tlas and Der Spiegel, translated by Edna McCown

Mustafa Tlas, the Syrian minister of defense, has been a friend of the current head of state, President Hafiz al-Assad, since their service together in Egypt. Together with Assad he took part in a conspiracy that at first landed him in jail and then eventually brought his friend to power. Promoted by Assad, Tlas, a tank commander, rose to lieutenant-general and, in 1972, minister of defense. Tlas is fifty-two. He completed general staff training at the Voroshilov Academy in Moscow and is considered an energetic advocate of close ties between Syria and the Soviet Union and of a hard line in the Middle East conflict. He has written treatises on military history and published several volumes of poetry. This interview took place in Damascus with two editors of Der Spiegel.

DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Minister, you are not only a soldier, you are also known in the Arab world as a man of letters—you write about the deadly art of warfare, but also about women and roses. How do you reconcile these very different inclinations?

MUSTAFA TLAS: It is a question of discipline and of organizing one’s time well. I was already a writer when I entered military service. At fifteen, five years prior to my first military training at the military academy, I was already a member of the Baath party. This early training also naturally fostered my literary interests. Likewise, at fifteen, there stirred in me for the first time the desire to write about feminine beauty. I met a very pretty fourteen-year-old, but was unsuccessful in trying to write a poem about her. Very unhappy, I asked my teacher for help. He told me, “Only when you can recite five thousand poems will you write one successfully.”

S: Did you follow his advice?

T: Certainly. I spent my summer vacation, three months, learning these damned poems. But it still didn’t work with the writing. Only as a forty-year-old man did I write my first verses on women’s beauty. By then the pretty girl had been married for a long time. But we have remained friends to this day.

S: Do you still write verse?

T: I will tell you a little secret—when I leave the army, I will publish a small volume that I have dedicated to the nineteen most beautiful women in the world.

S: Is a German woman among them?

T: If one considers the beautiful women of the world, there is really always a German among them. I have written about a breathtaking beauty—her mother is German, her father Arab. She, but also Princess Diana, Caroline of Monaco, Gina Lollobrigida, Georgina Risk, the former Miss Universe, as well as Jeane Manson,* will hopefully read the verses that I have written about them with pleasure.

S: Do you already have a title for your anthology?

T: “The Pillow of Sleeplessness.”

S: A curious title.

T: Jeane Manson inspired it. One day she sent me a pillow with her picture on it and a dedication. I…

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