Meeting Syria's only astronaut

Andrew Hopkins writes for TRT World about meeting renowned Syrian astronaut Muhammed Faris in Istanbul, following up on a chance encounter in Syria before the war there began

I first met Muhammed Faris in 2010 – before the war started. I went to Syria on holiday and a friend-of-a-friend took me to a play that was being staged at the British Council.

It was about space – I can’t remember its name – and Muhammed was the guest of honour.

My companion told me he was the only Syrian to travel into space, and that he was a national hero. For me, I didn’t know that Syria had ever produced an astronaut. But Mohammed had gone up in 1987 as part of the Soviet space programme. I shook his hand, said "Nice to meet you" and that was it.

A couple of years later, after the war had started, I heard he had defected to the opposition – although I didn’t know exactly where he had gone to. In the meantime, he had risen to become a high-ranking officer in the Syrian Air Force.

Muhammed Faris (center) ready for space [TRTWorld]

It was only later after I came to work for TRT World in Istanbul that I found out what had happened to him. A former colleague posted a story about him on Facebook, which said that he was now a refugee living in Istanbul. I decided to try and track him down, which I was able to thanks to TRT World producer Kubilay Cakir.

Muhammed has been doing some work for Eyup Municipal Council in Istanbul, talking to children about science and space. We met him at the Ali Kuscu Space House, which is named after a famous astronomer from the Ottoman Empire of the 15th century.

It’s an impressive, purpose-built building in the middle of a park in Eyup, where children from Istanbul and further afield come to learn about the solar system.

Before we did the interview, I explained in broken Arabic that we had met before. He couldn’t remember the occasion, let alone meeting me. But at least his son remembered the play.

Muhammed Faris (left) inside the space craft. [TRTWorld]

He said he had wanted to join the air force when he was a boy: 

"The air academy was next to my house back in Aleppo and my dream started when I saw the planes flying over our house."

Later the opportunity to take part in the Soviet Space programme came up: 

"I was selected among more than 50 Fighter pilots, because it was proven that fighter pilots are the most capable at adjusting to space.

"I was so happy to be chosen from that big group. In Space I had a mission to preform 13 scientific experiments, seven medical experiments, as well photographing Syria from space.”

When he returned to Syria, he said the reception was like a "national wedding." And by the time the war started, he was a major general managing the whole of the air force, although he wasn’t directly involved in military operations.

When I asked him if he was ordered to do anything bad to the Syrian people, he replied, "No one ordered me to do anything. I was a major general in the Syrian Air Force!"

The atrocities that the Syrian regime carried out convinced him to defect:

"They must take what they deserve, this criminal regime that killed a million, displaced 12 million and wounded people by the millions. It must be punished in front of the international community and God."

Author: Andrew Hopkins