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Mother With Mission

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Wife of Syrian Envoy Is Former University Professor, New Mother

Fafif Al-Sayed Moustapha, wife of Syrian Ambassador Imad Moustapha, says that being the mother of their new baby girl is the most rewarding experience she’s ever had. Nevertheless, this former university lecturer and intellectual is also very clear that in addition to motherhood, her role in Washington is to share with Americans the fresh and true face of her country.

“I want to enjoy my motherhood—it is so rewarding,” she told The Washington Diplomat shortly before heading to Dulles International Airport with her husband and Sidra, their four-month-old daughter, for the 24-hour trip home to Damascus.

But Rafif also knows that along with raising the couple’s first child, she has another important job here. “I want Americans to know about our country. We know more about America than you know about us. For instance, Damascus is the oldest continuously inhabited capital city in the whole wide world [almost 7,000 years old]—most other major cities in the area are barely 1,200 years old,” Rafif said.

“We have great people and cultural diversity,” she continued. “Our society is so diverse. We have a long heritage of Christians, Muslims and people of different backgrounds living together in harmony. Our culture is so vibrant and colorful because of all these different influences. And everyone cherishes the cultural heritage and traditions of the other communities. We are really proud of our heritage.”

Fluent in English, French and her native Arabic, Rafif holds a doctorate in computer science from the University of Surrey in England. Her area of research is “artificial intelligence” and “knowledge management and engineering,” and she has been published numerous times, including several journal papers and an encyclopedia entry. Additionally, Rafif has translated a number of computer science textbooks from English to Arabic.

“I realized that with the exponential increase in our dependence on knowledge sources in our present-day society, the real challenge is how to maximize creating, dissemination and sharing knowledge,” she explained. “In other words, how to send the right information to the right people at the right time automatically.”

Upon earning her degree, Rafif spent several years lecturing at the University of Surrey’s School of Electronics and Physical Sciences. Before that, she taught at the University of Damascus in Syria, where she had earned her undergraduate degree and where she and Imad Moustapha first met.

A few years her senior, Imad already held his doctorate in computer science and had extensive experience in the field. Prior to his term at the University of Damascus, he served as secretary-general of the Arab School for Science and Technology and co-founded the Network of Syrian Scientists, Technologists and Innovators Abroad (NOSSTIA).

But, as fate would have it, in the year 2000, Imad was a professor and dean of the information technology faculty at the University of Damascus, where graduate student Rafif was also a lecturer. “We began to see each other but then I thought it was time for me to continue my Ph.D. in London. Soon after that, he was assigned to Washington as ambassador.

“On his way to the United States in 2002, he stopped in London and proposed to me. We were married but I stayed in London. We had a different and special marriage, a commuter marriage,” she said.

But it was a challenge. “I remember one time when I was working very hard writing to meet a scientific deadline and he called and said, ‘You have to be here.’ I said, ‘No I can’t, my mind is completely consumed with something else.’ But he insisted, saying, ‘I have to go present my credentials to President Bush and I want you with me.’

“So I flew to Washington, stayed overnight and flew back the next day right after the White House ceremony. I was under tremendous pressure and had to work on the plane both ways,” she recalled.

“My friends asked me, ‘Where have you been? When I casually responded that I was at the White House meeting with President Bush, they thought I was teasing them. Then, my husband and I lived in completely different worlds. I lived a student life, didn’t dress up, and didn’t go to impressive places like the White House.”

Now she manages being a new mother and an ambassador’s wife, although she admits that it’s not easy. “My daughter is the youngest socialite in D.C. I never want to leave home without her. I think it is very important at this age for the mother and the baby to be close for the bonding that is necessary. I am very careful when I plan my schedule and try to have her with me most of the time.”

Those who saw the recent exhibit and live performance “Art from Syria: A Journey through Half a Century of Creativity” at American University’s Katzen Arts Center in June may have also caught a glimpse of baby Sidra with her nanny Amra in tow. “Sidra was with us for opening night. We have a wonderful nanny from Sri Lanka and she helps me,” Rafif noted, adding, “I spent the last seven months working on that exhibit and the live performance that followed the opening reception.”

That performance combined live music with painting and thrilled the audience with its dazzling innovation. Rafif came up with the idea for the exhibit, which was on display in mid-June, as a way of reaching out to Washingtonians through culture. In fact, she plans many such events: “Culture is the international language and helps all of us from different nations, cultures, languages, religions and regions of the world understand and appreciate each other more,” she said.

The task of collecting the artwork for the exhibit and bringing it to the United States, which itself was considerable, was made all the more difficult because it overlapped with the birth of the couple’s first child and their efforts to adapt to life with a new baby at home.

“My mother came over for my delivery,” said Rafif, the second daughter in a family of three girls and one boy. Both of Rafif’s parents were highly educated and emphasized the importance of higher education upon their children as they were growing up. “My father was a dean of education and served as minister of education and culture, and my mother was a real pioneer—one of the first female lawyers in Syria,” Rafif said.

“In Syria, we have lots of women in important positions—for example, the vice president in Syria is a woman … and I love strong women and I am a firm believer in the empowerment of women, especially those with high moral standards and gracious social skills.”

She added: “I am so happy to have a girl. We are looking forward to lots of festivities on our summer trip home. Sidra is the first baby girl in my husband’s family.”

Amidst all this personal happiness, Rafif is troubled by the negative perceptions many Americans have about her homeland. “In London, where I lived the last four years, they know more about us, our ancient civilization, and have fewer negative feelings.”

With more than 500,000 Syrian-Americans mostly in Detroit, Los Angeles, Houston and New Jersey, Rafif and her husband feel a bond between the two countries despite the political tensions.

“We have more in common than not,” Rafif said. “Here, I spend all my time defending my country…. We need to develop more programs for our common good. America is one of the greatest countries. You have such prosperity for your people. You have the lead in science, medicine, education and so many other fields. But America could be another leader, playing an even bigger, more important role in creating peace.”

About the Author

Gail Scott is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat and lifestyle columnist for the Diplomatic Pouch.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999