With love and fury: the Syrian writers proving there’s more than one war story: Book Review
“Syrians. I hated the deceptive simplicity of that word. We were twenty-three million people. Soldiers and fighters. Revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries. The torturer and the victim. How could one word encompass us all?” – Marwan Hisham
Escorted by Russian bombers and Iranian militia, the Assad regime has returned in recent months to key parts of the Syrian heartland. In its wake come deportations, mass arrests, torture and field executions. Secure in its impunity, the regime has begun issuing death notices for the tens of thousands murdered in detention since 2011. President Putin calls for the regime’s ‘normalisation’ against this backdrop, and in the run-up to the Helsinki summit, it seems he won Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu’s acquiescence.
The democratic revolution is defeated, the country destroyed, and what follows will not resemble peace. Assad’s throne has been saved, but at the dual price of Syrian social cohesion and regional stability. From the originary counter-revolutionary violence, secondary and tertiary conflicts now bloom – Sunni-Shia, Turkish-Kurdish, Israeli-Iranian – while refugee flows and terror scares have infected our politics here. Syria will continue to demand our engagement, and not only for the sake of its vast human tragedy.
Of the expanding shelf of Syria books, the most explanatory (or least ideological) tend to start from the diverse experiences of Syrians themselves. Four recently published books do just that, in very different ways.
Both chronologically and socially, “The Home that was Our Country”, by Syrian-American journalist Alia Malek, has the widest focus. It begins at World War One, when half a million Syrians died of famine, and Armenian genocide-survivors arrived from Turkey. The author’s great-grandfather Abdeljawwad, a landowning ‘notable’ and entrepreneur, shelters one refugee before participating in the 1920s uprising against the French – whose mandate brought martial law, aerial bombardment, and an Alawi-dominated army. By turns generous host and manipulative patriarch, equally attached to tradition and modernity, Abdeljawwad is a Christian, school founder, and womaniser.
Every character in these densely populated pages is as complex. After grandmother Salma – a heavy smoker called ‘sister of men’ – moves to multicultural Damascus, the fates and interactions of her relatives and neighbours illustrate the declining fortunes of society-at-large, as the imperfect post-colonial democracy is succeeded by coups and counter-coups, then the Baath’s one-party state, and finally Hafez al-Assad’s one-man party. Now people (including Salma’s brother) disappear for the slightest dissidence. Their relatives fear asking too many questions. Religious coexistence, once a given, strains under the mutual fear and suspicion built into the new dispensation. Infrastructural stagnation accompanies seeping moral corruption: “If people disregarded anyone’s welfare but their own, it was in part because the state made Syrians feel that everyone was on his or her own; people were being pitted against one another.”
The conditions at home decide her parents on permanent American residence, but Malek lives in Damascus for long stretches as an adult, reporting clandestinely on Bashar al-Assad’s disastrous neoliberal (or crony-capitalist) reforms while reclaiming Salma’s house from an immoveable lodger. When the revolution erupts, some around her participate, openly or covertly, while others sink into “Stockholm Syndrome”. Initially Malek ascribes this to an inferiority complex – the idea that Syrians are incapable of democracy. Later she understands that willed belief in propaganda may serve as an escape strategy from “the simultaneous shame of living under such a regime and of looking away – of being both a victim and a bystander,” and realises that “many already understood – consciously or subconsciously – that the regime would work to unleash [violent] forces without a second thought.” Soon, sure enough, to preserve the “architecture that made children out of adults … the regime began to make corpses out of children.” https://c0.pubmine.com/sf/0.0.3/html/safeframe.htmlReport this ad
In this nuanced, intelligent account of Syria’s intricate social fabric and its slow unravelling, micro and macrocosm, family and state events, can illumine each other with a subtly metaphorical force. So post-stroke Salma, “alive in a dead body, waiting, waiting, waiting for something to happen,” suggests the whole country before 2011, as well as the hundreds of thousands languishing between the dead walls of Assad’s prisons afterwards.
Rania Abouzeid’s “No Turning Back” contains a long, painfully gripping description of a two-year passage through these death camps. The victim is Suleiman, a businessman from Rastan. This town near Homs, once a source of army officers, was called ‘the second Qardaha’, a Sunni version of the Assads’ (Alawi) village. But in 2011, signalling the collapse of the cross-sect Baathist alliance, it became an early base for the fledgling Free Syrian Army.
Suleiman never holds a weapon, but joins, records and uploads protests. He also works with the coordination committees – anonymous activist cells – to shelter defected soldiers. As “the seeds of a grassroots civil society”, the committees are Assad’s primary target, and the apparent reason for Suleiman’s arrest.
Thereafter he suffers hunger, extreme temperatures and an unrelenting litany of physical and psychological tortures. Eventually released (when his father pays a bribe), he is immediately rearrested – “a body cycled in perpetuity through a labyrinth of suffering.” Very many die in prison, but with (relative) luck and further bribes, Suleiman survives to finally recount his story from German exile.
Vowing “not to talk over people who can speak for themselves”, Abouzeid closely follows, and contextualises, her informants. A seasoned war-correspondent, she is naturally strongest on the armed resistance, and more specifically its degeneration. At the start, the FSA militias were “just local men banding together” by family or neighbourhood. These “men of words and weapons” concentrated on defending the communities to which necessity and solidarity bound them. By September 2012, however, swathes of northern Syria were defacto ‘liberated’. A hoped-for No-Fly Zone never materialised, military stalemate set in, and rebels squabbled over inconsistent and insufficient supplies. Worse, “political money and foreign agendas split rebel ranks, even as those [donor] states urged the men on the ground to unite.”
Abouzeid correctly states that “classism, rather than sectarianism, was a stronger revolutionary driver for many opponents.” But Assad’s scorched-earth-from-the-sky, as well as generalised lawlessness, presented enormous opportunities for tightly-disciplined Sunni extremists. Men like Mohamad, who grew up in Jisr al-Shughour, an Idlib town punished through the 1980s for its Muslim Brotherhood sympathies. Bad blood long preceded the revolution here – Mohamad’s childhood memories include soldiers murdering the neighbours and stripping old ladies naked in the street – and in June 2011, after months of repression, Jisr al-Shughour saw the country’s first serious outbreak of retaliatory violence. The first mass displacement followed, as thousands – Abouzeid accompanying them – fled the helicopter-borne vengeance.
In the previous decade the regime had funnelled Salafi-jihadists to American-occupied Iraq. Those who returned were imprisoned. Mohamed, arrested in his teens for reading al-Qaida texts, soon joined them. Early in 2011, as protests swelled, he and hundreds of other jihadists were released. Assad was deliberately helping create an opposition which would terrify key Syrian constituencies into loyalty while ensuring international appeasement of his crimes. Once back home, Mohamad didn’t bother protesting but immediately prepared for war. Abouzeid’s reportage – tracing Mohamad’s career with (the al-Qaida-linked) Nusra, and Nusra’s conflict with ISIS – usefully humanises this deeply-compromised character by placing him in a family, a community, and a long-term cycle of violence and vengeance.
Abouzeid admits telling – inevitably – only “a fraction of the story”. Yet her focus on fighters at the expense of the civilian revolution occasionally weakens an otherwise excellent account. When protestors drive Nusra from Saraqeb in July 2017, for instance, their resistance appears to arrive out of the blue. But the town, long a stronghold of civic activism, elected a local council in the same month. Today 118 councils survive in Idlib province, and hundreds more throughout the surviving liberated pockets.
So not only are Syrians capable of democracy, they are actually practising it, despite the war. When this rarely-mentioned information enters the frame, the endless rhythm of violence no longer seems inevitable. Nor do the strong-man ‘solutions’ of western ‘realists’ seem relevant. https://c0.pubmine.com/sf/0.0.3/html/safeframe.htmlReport this ad
The first strong-man Marwan Hisham escapes is his father. His “Brothers of the Gun” stresses the revolution’s generational aspect, the youthful rejection of a society in which “it was forbidden to aspire.” Sent from a severe upbringing in Raqqa – “a poor uneducated city, lagging behind” – to an Islamic boarding school, Hisham is subjected to interchangeable religious and nationalist rhetorics involving “chest-puffing, militaristic cultishness, saccharine exaltation of sacrifice” and “pseudo-scientific pomp.”
His irreverent tone swoops from anger at the superstitious passivity of people who “lacked all desire to change”, through euphoric appreciation of the “generosity and participatory ethos” of Raqqa’s liberation, to a bitter cynicism when liberation turns sour.
Punctuated by air-raids, Raqqa’s interval between tyrannies witnesses an unequal civil struggle between democrats and Islamist-authoritarians, alongside continuous battles between the latter, until the fiercest, most counter-revolutionary win. “Our people used religiosity as a tranquilizer,” Hisham complains. As the anxiety increases, so does the dose. And after the ISIS takeover, American then Russian bombers pummel the city.
Hisham buys a satellite dish and opens a cybercafé which attracts Raqqa’s multinational jihad-tourists. Their snooty stupidity is recounted with desperate black humour. By this telling, ignorance and trauma are the twin bases of their intolerance.
By now Hisham is tweeting on life under ISIS, and soon starts working with American artist Molly Crabapple. She draws his photographs, he provides words. Several Vanity Fair articles and this distinctively beautiful book arise from their collaboration.
It makes great reading, at once raw and stylish. Yet the exuberant scorn which animates it can sometimes oversimplify. “I had counted on the majority to defy [jihadist] aggression,” Hisham writes, “but instead they remained silent at best and complicit at worst.” This is inaccurate. Having defeated Raqqa’s rebel militias, ISIS faced the ‘White Shroud’ tribal resistance and a host of activist and media groups.
Further afield, non-authoritarian Islamist brands also flourished. In the Damascene suburb Daraya, for instance, influenced by ‘liberal Islamist’ Jawdat Said, activists like Ghayth Matar promoted self-organisation and non-violence. The regime in return (even as it released the Salafi-jihadists) killed Matar under torture.
Daraya’s neighbouring community, Moadamiya, “surrounded by fields of flowers and olive groves”, and populated by “simple, loving people” is the setting of Kassem Eid’s powerful memoir “My Country”. This most tightly-focused of the books, and an accessible explanation of the human basics, is a grassroots, first-person, eyewitness account written with alternating love and fury.
Eid is a working-class Palestinian-Syrian, one of eleven children. Consciousness of the regime’s sectarian misrule is implanted early, when his mother warns him not to play “beyond the railway” where Alawi military families live. Settled in strategically-valuable areas, on their sons’ behalf exam results are rigged and legal process is suspended. Nevertheless Eid forms a friendship with one boy, Majed, who later becomes a fighter pilot.
One of Eid’s brothers disappears (note the repetition – most Syrian families guard a similar story). Eid himself is attacked at seeming random. Harassment, intimidation and impoverishment are the everyday indignities of a “country of no opportunity.”
When the 2011 protests break out, they call for nothing more than “a Syria where human life and dignity are respected.” Soon soldiers are deploying roadblocks and raping the women they drag from taxis. Cars explode; snipers pick off pall-bearers. Those who can, leave. Others sell their jewellery (life savings in a country which mistrusts banks) to buy Kalashnikovs. Eid bribes military contacts to smuggle in medicine and food.
Relentlessly escalating, the army commits several large-scale massacres before enforcing the regime’s ‘Kneel or Starve’ absolute siege. With characteristic insistence on setting the terms, Eid chooses to go on hunger strike. By now – when he can access the internet (the generators are fuelled on nail polish remover) – he’s a media activist. He doesn’t hold a weapon until the aftermath of the August 2013 sarin attacks when, surrounded by choking, vomiting, foaming victims, and between bouts of unconsciousness, he suddenly does. https://c0.pubmine.com/sf/0.0.3/html/safeframe.htmlReport this ad
A brief ceasefire is brokered, and Eid escapes to Lebanon, then America. Impressed by the Syrian-American lobby, he’s otherwise depressed. He’d assumed “the murder of civilians agitating for democracy” would spur a serious political response, but realises “when confronted with obvious and unspeakable evil, the world will do everything in its power to look away.”
This lack of international engagement more than any inherent backwardness condemns Syrians to Abouzeid’s dictator-terrorist binary, and everyone to further war. When Moadamiya finally succumbed (in October 2016), thousands of residents were deported to camps in overcrowded northern Syria. Millions more populate camps across the borders. The Palestinians have been dreaming of (and fighting for) return for seven decades. How long will it take today’s Syrians?
Feature image: Protest under fire: an illustration from Marwan Hisham’s memoir. Illustrations: Molly Crabapple
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(A slightly edited version of this article – which reviews books by Alia Malek, Rania Abouzeid, Kassem Eid, and Marwan Hisham and Molly Crabapple – was first published at Prospect Magazine. If you’re interested in more Syrian perspectives on the revolution and war, I recommend Wendy Pearlman’s oral history – my review here – Yassin al Haj Saleh’s brilliant political writing – my intro to the book is here, Samar Yazbek’s books – Woman in the Crossfire reviewed here, and The Crossing reviewed here – and of course our book Burning Country, which gives a grassroots account – information on that here.)