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Book Review: Unraveling Syria's struggles

Diana Darke paints a broad picture of Syria, past and present, identifying the nation’s complex character and its remarkable endurance capacity

On 15 June 1974, The New York Times reported the arrival of President Richard Nixon in Damascus. He was given a "large, friendly welcome, and for the first time since the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, the American flag flew in this ancient capital of Syria."

The visit took place during a rare era of rapprochement between Syria and the West. The door was even opened to international oil companies—including US firms—following the discovery of the Karatchok oilfield and the completion of a pipeline linking it to the Homs refinery.

But President Hafez al-Assad's flirtation with the West was brief. It came to an abrupt end after Egyptian President Sadat's ground-breaking visit to Jerusalem in 1977 and the signing of the Camp David agreement between Egypt and Israel a year later.

The Nixon visit is one of dozens of historical vignettes that enliven Diana Darke's The Merchant of Syria: A History of Survival. At the centre of the book is a story of one man, Abu Chakerthe merchant of the title. When Abu Chaker was 11, his father died, leaving the boy with the task of supporting his family by running their textile shop in Homs and bartering for whatever he could get for them all to live on. Syria was experiencing a severe drought at the time.

Despite various setbacks caused by wars and political instability, and being barely literate, Abu Chaker developed a successful business, moving first to Beirut and then, when the Lebanese civil war broke out in the mid-1970s, to the UK. Here, eventually, he bought and saved a Yorkshire wool mill.

Building identity

Abu Chaker's survival in the face of adversity is a metaphor for Syria's capacity to survive any number of past onslaughts and his tale provides a narrative thread for the book. But more importantly it acts as a catalyst for the author's lucid presentation of Syria's recent history, and deeply sympathetic portrayal of its religious, social and cultural mosaic. This is a work of insight by an Arabist who knows Syria intimately.

She explains, for example, steps that Hafez al-Assadduring his 29 years in powertook to keep the vast and disparate country together. He understood the way the fabric of Syrian society was stitched together according to localitiesurban areas or rural villages. In these, residents "are linked by a common sense of identity independently of sect or religion". Hafez knew that if he could tie these localities into a relationship with the central authority of the state, his longevity was assured. While, she points out later, Bashar hasn't been so assiduous in fostering this strategy, "Hafez's success in this respect is the reason that the Syrian state has not unravelled to this day, even after years of civil war".

Despite the strong survival metaphor, the author doesn't end on much of an optimistic note. She laments the way that Islamist extremism has grafted itself onto Syria. Radical groups "will continue to find fertile breeding ground among a brutalised and unemployed youth who have nothing to lose". If things remain unchanged, "with a wealthy privileged elite exploiting a poor, disadvantaged underclass, flare-ups of violent conflict will continue."

Also, the chaos in Syria is driving away the merchants, who, in Darke's view, play a pivotal role in a society steeped for centuries in trade and commerce. Without them and their ingenuity, "the outlook for the population remaining inside the country will be even bleaker". Is this, then, the beginning of the end of Syria's survival story?

The Merchant of Syria: A History of Survival, Hurst, London, 2018

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