Inspired by the Browser interview concerning my five favourite books on Israel-Palestine, I’ve come up with a list of five on Syria. These are all books available in English, so my selection is inevitably skewed. I’ll name them, then talk at length about the first on the list, the Batatu book.
1. Hanna Batatu. “Syria’s Peasantry, the Descendants of its Lesser Rural Notables, and Their Politics.”
2. Patrick Seale. “Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East.”
As essential for understanding power machinations in the US, the USSR, Palestine, Israel and Lebanon as in Syria, this is a biography of Syria’s ruthless, inscrutable, masterful dictator, Hafez al-Asad. Nation builder or gangster, as you will, but surely the most important Syrian of the 20th century.
3. Samuel Lyde. “The Asian Mystery Illustrated in the History, Religion, and Present State of the Ansaireeh or Nusairis of Syria.”
Lyde was an Anglican missionary who went to the Alawi mountains in the 1850s intending to reap souls for Christ. He didn’t convert one Syrian, but he did write a fascinating account of the Lattakia region, “one of the least cared for portions of the Turkish dominions, with a fierce and ignorant population.” The text has its inevitable prejudices, and certainly shouldn’t be read as a comprehensive Alawi theology (Batatu points out the great range of belief amongst the Alawis), but it’s fascinating. In its portrait of relentlessly feuding villages, clans and sects, it also shows the great distance Syria has come in the last hundred and fifty years.
4. Rafik Schami. “The Dark Side of Love” (reviewed here).
Ignore the orientalising title, this novel is an essential dramatisation of Syria’s social texture and sexual, religious, clan and political dramas from 1907 to 1970. For a fuller taste of Syrian literature, the poets Nizar Qabbani and Muhammad al-Maghut, both translated into English, are also highly recommended, as is the playwright Sa’adullah Wannus.
5. Ross Burns. The Monuments of Syria.
An indispensable gazetteer of Syria’s Sumerian, Babylonian, Assyrian, Hittite, Greek, Macedonian, Roman, Persian, Ummayad, Abbasi, Crusader and Ottoman historical sites, the book I carried with me on my travels around Syria.
Hanna Batatu’s book cost me over 50 pounds. I hesitated for a long while before parting with the money, but I don’t regret doing so. It’s an excellent work of scholarship, as evidenced and detailed as any academic could wish yet elegantly written and free of academic jargon. Here are some repetitions and extrapolations from the book.
Batatu’s sympathy and prime interest lies with the peasants. A large and traditionally impoverished group, for most of their history Syria’s peasants held little or no political power, divided as they were into ‘peasant-gardeners’ and ‘agricultural peasants’, ‘warrior’ and ‘pacific’ groups, and by economic position, sect, region and clan. Batatu examines staging posts along the way to peasant political participation and national consciousness, including the ‘Ammiyah or General Uprising of 1889 – 90, a redistributive rebellion amongst the Druze peasants of the Hawran which also demanded political representation, the northern Syrian rural revolt of 1919 to 1921, and the Great Syrian Uprising against the French in 1925 – 27.
A key figure in peasant politics and post-independence Syrian history in general is Akram Hawrani. A descendant of the 15th century Hawrani shaikh who established the Rifa’i Sufi order in the Hama region, and a son of a shaikh in the same order, Hawrani grew up bearing bitterness towards the aristocratic Zawaat in the town, the big landlords, the owners who called themselves “the flower of God’s elect.” Batatu writes,
“Hawrani recalled reading in one of the manuscripts in his father’s library that in the eighteenth century the men of the people, their patience being exhausted, rose against the house of Qarnaas, which held Hama in fief and lived by abuses, and crushed down all of its members in blood.”
The Hamah and Masyaf regions in Hawrani’s youth had three equivalents of the Qarnaas. The Barazi family – Arabs, ‘men of the sword’ in Ottoman times who held the title of Agha – owned 49 villages. The ’Azms – a family of Turkish origin which provided several city governers in the 18th century, and took the title ‘bek’ – owned 25 villages. The Kaylanis – of Gilan in Persia, whose men became ulama and Qadiri shaikhs – owned 24.
Batatu relates an anecdote first reported to Gertrude Bell. The story goes that the ’Azms attempted to purchase their neighbour’s vineyard in Hama, but were turned down. So the family murdered one of their own servants, then buried him shallow in the desired vineyard, and called in the police to make a search. After a trial, their neighbour was ordered to pay them the vineyard as blood money. This is a Syrian parable.
Hawrani’s anti-zawwat sentiments were fuelled by such abuses. His nationalism burned from 1915 when his friend the pan-Arabist Ali al-Armanaazi was hanged by the Turks in Beirut’s main square. Hawrani fought to expel the French garrison from Hama in 1945, and commanded perhaps the greater portion of Syrian raids on Zionist forces in Palestine in 1948. He blamed the defeat in Palestine on social backwardness and “feudalism”. He held that, given the peasants were a majority of Arabs, peasant emancipation was a prerequisite of Arab unity.
Hawrani was the prime mover in the Arab Socialist Party, which had strong grassroots cross-sectarian support. In 1950 40,000 mobilised by the ASP attended Syria’s first peasant congress.
A famous ASP slogan was ‘Hatu al-Quffah wal-kreik lin’ash al-agha wal-beik’, or (in my nearly rhyming translation) ‘Bring shovel and brush to bury lord and boss.’
The ASP called for al-ghurfa as-siriyya or the secret ballot room, so the peasants could vote away from the landlord’s prying henchmen. The secret ballot room became law in 1954, when Hawrani sat in parliament. He was also behind the Ghab marshes reclamation project launched in 1952. In 1957, thanks to his efforts, it became illegal to eject peasants from their holdings.
He vehemently opposed the 1951 to 1954 Shishakli dictatorship which suspended parliamentary life, repressed the peasant movement, and for the first time installed the presidential system. Hawrani was a democrat, yet the ASP merged with the much less popular Ba’ath Party in 1952. The Ba’ath then was still in its idealist stage, and Hawrani was influenced by pro-peasant statements made by foundational Ba’athists such as Michel Aflaq, who wrote: “.. the struggle can only be based on the generality of the Arabs, and these will not take part in it if they are exploited.” Here, of course, is a lesson which remains unlearnt.
So how does Batatu think Syria’s peasants have fared since the mid 20th century? Their proportion of the population has been much decreased by rapid urbanisation. Those who remained on the land benefitted from the redistributive agrarian reforms of 1958 and 1963. By the late 1990s, 95% of Syrian villages had been electrified, and basic educational and health services spread almost everywhere. Peasants benefit from the fact that the new Ba’ath’s leadership has been largely drawn from the sons of middling to lower village notables, if not cashcroppers, from Hafez al-Asad’s self-identification as a peasant and his willingness to listen, through the active Peasant Congresses, to peasant concerns. Bucking the developing-world trend, Syria even experienced a migration of people from the cities to the countryside in the 1990s. The late Batatu warned, however, that the neo-liberal policies attendant upon globalisation, which arrived in Syria in Hafez al-Asad’s last years, threatened to exacerbate poverty and social division.