Syrian neuroscientist and Cambridge academic Dr Talal Al-MayhaniDr Talal Al-Mayhani

“Progress is not an isolated thing on its own,” Dr Talal Al-Mayhani tells me. “You can’t really be on the top on science and research, when politically you are living under a despotic regime with inequality in your society, with the economy crumbling down.”

We are speaking about Talal’s efforts to create Syria’s first cancer research centre, and its closure as civil war spread across the country. Dr Al-Mayhani continues to work as a neurologist, now splitting his time between practice, teaching and research in London and Cambridge. We met last term to discuss his involvements in Syrian politics, and his hopes for the future of his war-torn homeland.

One of the most striking things about Talal is his sheer enthusiasm for his scientific work. He positively beams as he tells me “I really enjoy what I am doing. If I can use a non-scientific word, I really love what I am doing. I love working in neurology. It’s very inspiring every day to face the challenges of difficult cases and see how that progresses, either to utter failure where we can’t help, or where we have the joy of helping.” His work ethic is astounding: “I tend to not take time off. I use my sleep as my time off,” he says, accounting his motivation to his desire to regain the senior level he previously attained in Syria.

“Politics is one of the ways that you can make real change, if you have a chance”

Talal’s scientific work has long been accompanied by what he describes as an “extra-curricular interest” in politics. This interest was piqued by the bitter lessons learnt in the ending of his “promising” endeavour for a cancer research centre. Despite securing premises, advanced medical equipment, and establishing connections with the University, the political climate in Syria consigned the project to failure.

“Now, I can understand why such beautiful projects cannot be sustained because you have to approach the thing in the whole way, in the system,” he explains. “That is actually what made me more interested in politics, because I think it is one of the ways that you can make real change, if you have a chance.”

When pushed, he modestly explains that this means he co-funded and co-founded a revolutionary party in Syria, before he had to leave the country. He recounts his drive in simple terms: “I think it’s very hard to resist speaking out […] When you see your students are arrested by the intelligence services – and one day one of them knocks the door of your house asking for refuge, can you resist? Can you?”

After a heavy silence, he continues. “It’s a moral attitude, it’s a moral stance – you have to take it, although it comes with a heavy price. Although I’m not a revolutionary guy, I do believe that change must happen in Syria.”

“Aleppo will stand up again. Or Damascus. You are talking about cities that were inhabited for thousands and thousands of years”

Reflecting back however, Talal is somewhat disillusioned. “In the beginning we had really high hopes and optimism mixed with sort of being naïve”. He has stepped back from active political engagement as he feels unable to do much to change the situation. He explains, “unfortunately, it’s now something like a proxy war, which big powers are involved in – so one person’s voice will not actually change that much”.

Talal feels that Western governments are not particularly interested in supporting freedom movements in the region, partly out of a fear that democracy in the region will bring Islamist rule – which could become “a worse evil, or at least an evil they are not familiar with”.

Despite this, Talal sees Syria’s future in a broader perspective, declaring he is “absolutely” optimistic about its long-term future. While it may not survive as a political entity (Talal is all-too aware of the constant geopolitical shifts in the region), he firmly believes in Syria’s cultural identity.

“Aleppo will stand up again. Or Damascus. You are talking about cities that were inhabited for thousands and thousands of years. Definitely, we have had worse in the histories. We had the moguls, we had the crusades, we had Aleppo destroyed a couple of times […] Syrians from around the world will come back, and they will build again.”

We are all familiar with the constant images of a destroyed Syria which fill news features, so I am interested to ask Talal about how he would characterise the facets of Syria we don’t see. “I think [Syrian people] are really good businessmen,” he tells me. “They like trading, they may not be a very revolutionary sort of species, but they like to get things done, and to run their businesses peacefully. They are a peaceful people, in general, I think.”

Talal also speaks with great understanding about Syria’s rich history, which he sees as “an accumulation of different civilisations and cultures, that add to the uniqueness of the region.” He is proud of the establishment of the first European consulate outside Europe in Aleppo in the thirteenth century – a little-known fact pointing to a history of international relations “older even than Cambridge”.


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We talk about Syria’s vibrant history as an international trading centre. Talal explains, “you have British people, French people, Italian, Armenian, and you have people from India and China, coming and trading there in Aleppo, or in Damascus. You don’t see the same picture in the streets of London, or the streets of Berlin, or the streets of China, because it’s too far. But everyone is interested to come here and exchange.”

“This has left its mark on the Syrian people,” he continues, “and the locals benefited from that. So if you look at the cuisine, if you look at the accent, if you look at the shapes and morphology of the peoples, you can see a huge difference, people that are fair-skinned, dark-skinned, tall and short. I think if you take genetic screening of the Syrians, you would see a mixture of races and ethnicities, which in itself makes me proud.”

Dr Talal Al-Mayhani spoke in Michaelmas term at the Clare Medical and Veterinary Society