Syrian Dust: An Overview of Books

syriaThis review of books on Syria, mainly of Francesca Borri’s ‘Syrian Dust’, was published at the National.

…if you only talk about those who are fighting, any revolution becomes a war.” – Francesca Borri

For a long time very little was published on Syria in English. Patrick Seale’s useful but hagiographic “Assad: the Struggle for Syria” was the best known. Hanna Batatu’s classic “Syria’s Peasantry and their Politics” and Raymond Hinnebusch’s “Revolution from Above” were valuable academic studies of the Hafez-era state.

Over the last five years of revolution and war, several shelf loads of books have appeared. Many are sensationalist, cashing in on the latest terrorism scare. But several are of very high standard. Bente Scheller’s “The Wisdom of Syria’s Waiting Game”, for instance, is an excellent analysis of Assadist pre-revolution foreign policy. Thomas Pierret’s “Religion and State in Syria” is an indispensable resource on the social roles of the Islamic scholars in the same period.

Novelist Samar Yazbek’s “Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution” is the best account of the revolution’s early months, though “Revolt in Syria” by Stephen Starr, an Irish journalist then resident in Damascus, comes close. Jonathan Littell, author of the remarkable WW2 novel “The Kindly Ones” wrote “Syrian Notebooks” after spending two weeks of 2012 in besieged Homs. Marwa al-Sabouni’s well-received “The Battle for Home” gives a Syrian architect’s perspective on the destruction (and potential rebuilding) of the city.

Charles Lister’s masterful “The Syrian Jihad” is not only the best guide to the various Islamist groups operating in Syria, it also explains and contextualises their rise. Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan’s “ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror” is an accessible summary of the organisation’s history and modus operandi. “Jihad Academy” is French journalist Nicolas Henin’s thoughtful account of ISIS captivity.

And three recent books, beneficial in very different ways, provide insider views from outsider women.

Diana Darke’s humane and elegantly written “My House in Damascus” interweaves observations on Syria’s past and present with an account of buying and restoring a 17th Century home in the Old City. Historical parallels and ironies abound. She describes the zu’ar of medieval Damascus, Mamluk and Ottoman thug-enforcers, precursors to the Assad regime’s shabeeha militias. And today, Syriac Christians are fleeing Syria and resettling Tur Abdin, the homeland in Turkey from which their forefathers fled.

A British Arabist, Darke visits temples, churches, and mosques. By the time she writes of them, many of these sites no longer exist. Her house is currently inhabited by friends displaced from war-torn suburbs nearby.

In “The Morning They Came For Us” – the most important book of these three – Janine di Giovanni experiences instead of history a sense of “timelessness, of lost time” as 7000-year-old Aleppo is dismantled before her. She travels in regime and rebel-controlled Syria between March and December 2012. As a journalist and as a UNHCR researcher she interviews victims of Assad’s mass torture and rape campaigns, particularising the horrific statistics with human voice and detail. It’s a deeply personal work of raw witness.

Francesca Borri’s “Syrian Dust”, again a personal account by a Western journalist, is located entirely in Aleppo, scene of the armed revolution’s greatest mistake. Overly confident to the point of hubris, rebel militias from the countryside rushed into the poorer half of the city in July 2012. Then their ammunition supply was halted. The stalemate that ensued witnessed the slow death-by-bombardment of the liberated zone. In Borri’s narration, retrospect and the exploding environment provide all the dark irony necessary.  “Another two months and Aleppo will be liberated,” says Abdel Qadar al-Saleh, late commander of the city’s rebel forces. Then a building collapses. “Maybe three,” he goes on.

At first Free Syrian Army fighters dominate, freedom fighters in flip-flops, “labourers, engineers, truck drivers, students, shopkeepers.” And a female sniper going by the name ‘Guevara’ killing both to avenge her murdered children and “to be able to matter more in tomorrow’s Syria.” Plus an Italian mother searching for her Muslim-convert son, who’s fighting for al-Qaida.

Borri focuses on the people in the middle, some living in tombs or stables, eating cats and rats, those who often resent the rebels for engaging in a battle they couldn’t win.

She notes the corruption of the opposition’s elites, and the indiscipline of the rebel brigades as hunger sets in, their looting, casual brutality and internecine warfare. This mayhem carves a gap filled by jihadists of increasing extremity: Ahrar al-Sham, Nusra, then ISIS.

Just as Darke’s book is punctuated by disappearing heritage, Borri’s Syrian contacts are killed with regularity. The battle isn’t really a stalemate, a doctor remarks, because “the numbers of dead are advancing.”

“Abandon all rules, ye who enter here,” Borri writes, “All logic.” The front isn’t the most dangerous place here. At first the Shifa hospital holds that honour. Once that’s destroyed, the bread lines are the worst.

Borri represents this dark surreal with descriptive fluency, long and rhythmed sentences (translated impressively from the Italian by Anne Milano Appel), and sudden shifts of time and place. The tone is more literary than journalistic.

Hers is an experiential account, her subjectivity in the foreground. Indeed, the focus is on her more than the Syrians – her political observations, which you may or may not agree with, her insomnia, her thoughts under fire on civilisation and death. Most of all her anger (and this is the book’s strength, the vine around which it grows).

She’s angry about the war freelancer’s lack of freedom, paid $70 a story, $70 to risk her life, not sufficient to even cover expenses.

She condemns the cut-throat competition for the scoop prevailing amongst her colleagues, and satirises parachute journalists “who spend one week in Syria, one week in the Congo, who when the war in Libya starts again say, ‘Awesome!’”, as well as the publishers they feed, and the inattentive public fed in turn. No-one understands what’s happening in Syria, but everyone’s heard the tale of the heart-eating rebel Abu Sakkar, “the story of a psychopath, nothing more. An individual who represents no-one.” On intervention, refugees, terrorism, the “debate says little about Syria, but a lot about us.”

Borri’s scepticism here is entirely valid. But in her didactic emphasis on war’s futility she inflates and overgeneralises. She doesn’t exaggerate the horror – that would be impossible – but she does underestimate the revolution’s achievements. “No-one is governing anything here,” she writes. “There’s nothing left to capture but rubble.”

This approach flattens meaning, deters solidarity, and fails to tell a complete story. While stressing the fragmentation of the opposition, Samer Abboud’s “Syria”, an erudite book which combines clarity with a vast amount of information, recognises nevertheless that the “rise of a robust, committed, and active Syrian civil society has been one of the few forseeable long-term positive impacts of the uprising.” Liberated Syria boasts over 400 local councils, many democratically elected, as well as civil society organisations, media agencies, newspapers and radio stations.

And independent women’s centres. Samar Yazbek’s second book of the period, “The Crossing” – one of the very best first-hand accounts of any revolution or war – describes the author’s journeys through ravaged northern Syria. She meets activists, fighters and refugees, engages in prickly conversations with Islamists, and collaborates with local women to establish more women’s centres, places where women can seek education and support. Yazbek, an insider, is as angry as you’d expect. But this is precisely because there’s a lot more than rubble left to fight for.

Postscript: Naturally I recommend my and Leila al-Shami’s ‘Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War‘ for the view from the revolution’s grassroots.

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