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.

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Committees, Councils and Cultural Production

Omar Aziz
Omar Aziz

In this presentation on Syria – in green Seattle’s public library  – Leila al-Shami talks about Razan Zeitouneh, founder of the Local Coordination Committees, and Omar Aziz, the anarchist who first thought of building local councils. And I talk about the revolution’s cultural and media achievements. Interesting questions from the audience afterwards.

On the Brian Lehrer Show

Amreeka March-May 2016 033In New York (what an astounding city), Leila and I were interviewed by Brian Lehrer for his show on WNYC. We talked about Syria’s failing ceasefire, the illusory Damascus Spring, Assad’s collaboration with George W Bush, the history of the Baath, and Obama’s deals with Iran and Russia. A couple of listeners called in with questions – one about the sectarian element.

You can listen to the interview here.

Burning Country at the Middle East Institute

Someone in New York sneered and said Washington was a sterile city, but I liked DC a lot during our two-day visit. The centre is full of people from everywhere, lobbying, plotting and misgoverning. The rest of the city has a mainly black population. We stayed with wonderful people, ate good food, and the sun was shining, the trees in bloom. I met my niece, lots of lovely Syrians, and some great Arab thinkers at the Tahrir Institute, most notably Hassan Hassan. The Museum of the American Indian is worth a visit too.

At the Middle East Institute our talk was chaired by the scholar Charles Lister, author of the indispensable book The Syrian Jihad. Here Leila talks about the aspects of the Syrian revolution rendered invisible by Western commentary, and I talk about what’s stopping us seeing: ideological assumptions, and the fact of war. Q and A afterwards.

 

Talking about Syria in Chicago

On a pier poking into the icy turquoise of Lake Michigan, looking back at Chicago’s brutal towers, Leila and I were interviewed on Syria by Jerome McDonnell, an engaging host, for WBEZ’s Worldview. We talked about Razan Zaitouneh, revolutionary councils, imperialist intervention, American policy, Islamism, Robert Fisk, and the farmers and dentists who make history. Jerome McDonnell hosted us again that evening at Chicago University’s International House.

Listen to the 30-minute interview here.

The Arab of the Future

This was my review for the Guardian of Riad Sattouf’s graphic memoir.araboffuture

The graphic novel has proved itself over and over. It already has its classical canon: Spiegelman on the Holocaust, Satrapi on girlhood in Islamist Iran, and (perhaps most accomplished of all) Joe Sacco’s ‘Footnotes in Gaza’, a work of detailed and self-reflexive history. Edging towards this company comes Riad Sattouf’s ‘The Arab of the Future’, a childhood memoir of tyranny.

Little Riad’s mother, Clementine, is French. His father, Abdul-Razak, is Syrian. They meet at the Sorbonne, where Abdul-Razak is studying a doctorate in history. Those with Arab fathers will recognise the prestige value of the title ‘doctoor’. But Abdul-Razak is more ambitious. He really wants to be a president. Studying abroad at least allows him to avoid military service. “I want to give orders, not take them,” he says. When humiliated, he sniffs and rubs his nose.

Abdul-Razak is a pan-Arabist who believes the people (“stupid filthy Arab retards!”) must be educated out of religious dogma. For reasons of both vanity and ideology he turns down an Oxford teaching post for one in Libya. The family takes up residence in a flat which doesn’t have a lock, because Qaddafi has ‘abolished private property’. Little Riad sees Libya all yellow, its unfinished buildings already crumbling. He sings the Leader’s speeches with kids in the stairwell and queues with his mother for food (only eggs one week, just bananas the next).

When Qaddafi decrees that all must change jobs, teachers becoming farmers and vice versa, the family leaves, via France, for Syria, another country which “seemed to be under construction”. A disturbed Abdul-Razak has already absorbed news of the 1982 massacre in Hama. Now one dictator’s portraits are replaced by another’s. The bribery starts in the arrival hall.

Then to the ancestral village outside Homs, which is sexually segregated, afflicted by power cuts, soundtracked by howling dogs and calls to prayer. Riad’s weathered grandmother licks specks from children’s eyeballs. It’s this sort of detail, drawn with the cartoon clarity of childhood perception, which makes the book such a success.

The village boys, fascinated by Riad’s European toys, kick a puppy about for fun. Mokhtar and Anas, his bullying cousins (Riad is related to everyone in the village) call him Yahudi (Jew) on account of his blonde shock of hair.

Riad’s father – though by no means a hateful character – is the story’s foremost authoritarian, incapable of admitting ignorance or error, guilty of sectarianism, anti-black racism, misogyny and superstition (these last two intertwined). He suffers the inferiority/ superiority complex of the rapidly upwardly mobile, and he believes in strong men – Qaddafi, Saddam, Hafez al-Assad – against the evidence of their depredations. All these are faults typical of his Arab generation.

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