‘Armstrong of the Arab World’: Syria’s first astronaut Mohammad Faris dies in exile

Mohammad Faris, known as the “Armstrong of the Arab World” and Syria’s only astronaut, died at the age of 72 in exile in the Turkish city of Gaziantep on Friday, from complications of a heart attack he suffered a month ago, according to a close friend who spoke to CNN over the phone.

In 1987, Faris, a pilot in the Syrian Air Force, spent eight days in space with the Soviet Union’s Interkosmos spaceflight program. Faris flew with a Soviet crew to Mir space station becoming the first and only Syrian astronaut and second Arab to make it to space.

Syrians gathered to watch the moment when the former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, father of current President Bashar, spoke with Faris during a phone call broadcast live on state TV, while Faris was in space, and asked him what he could see. Faris responded, “I see my beloved country, I see it wonderful and beautiful as it truly is.” These words, though seemingly innocuous, marked the beginning of his downfall.

In a 2023 documentary aired on news network Al Jazeera, Faris revealed he had chosen not to read a pre-written speech during the live phone call and ad-libbed instead, irking the Syrian dictator who was not used to sharing the limelight with another Syrian.

Upon his return to Syria, Faris was celebrated as a national hero by tens of thousands of Syrians. However, Hafez al-Assad took a different view. During a medal ceremony, where the protocol was for the president to hang the medal around the recipient’s neck, Faris was instead handed the medal in a box.

Faris said in an interview in his later years that he had asked the president to fund a national space program to help educate more Syrians to follow his footsteps into space, but Assad refused because – according to Faris – he was not interested in helping his countrymen to develop themselves.

Faris said the “curtain fell” in his dealings with Hafez al- Assad during their last meeting attended by Saudi astronaut Prince Sultan bin Salman. Assad reminded Faris of a moment during takeoff when he exclaimed “Ya Allah”, which literally translates as “Oh God” but in colloquial Arabic is akin to saying, “let’s go,” which Assad claimed was offensive to the Russians. Faris countered, “The Russians were not upset; it was a normal thing for them.”

Faris lived a quiet life in Aleppo following his return to Earth. Following Hafez’s death and the ascension of his son Bashar al-Assad to the presidency, Faris was supportive of the Syrian revolution that started in 2011. Faris decided in 2012 to defect and publicly oppose the Syrian regime, putting his family and himself in life-threatening danger.

“When we decided to leave Syria, I scattered my children in different neighborhoods of Aleppo to meet at a particular point. We left in a car with the person who helped us escape,” Faris told Al Jazeera in 2023.

“There was a helicopter overhead, but as soon as we entered a town where the Free Syrian Army had machine guns, they withdrew,” Faris added.

Days later, Faris moved to Turkey to live as a refugee. He became very popular among the Syrian refugee community in Istanbul. In 2020, Faris was granted Turkish citizenship, as reported by the Turkish state broadcaster TRT.

Faris, who had lived in Russia between 1985-1987 for training in the closed Star City in the Moscow region ahead of his space journey and was later awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union, was critical of Russia’s support of the Syrian regime. In a March 2016 interview with AP, Faris said he regretted Moscow propping up the dictatorship in Syria, saying: “I am very sorry about the Russian interference, which has stood on the side of dictator Bashar al-Assad, and has begun to kill the Syrian people with their planes.”

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