Despite the international community's lacklustre response, Syrians are responding to the destruction of their country resiliently—and with desperate black humourby Robin Yassin-Kassab / September 15, 2018 / Leave a comment
“Syrians. I hated the deceptive simplicity of that word. We were 23 million people. Soldiers and fighters. Revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries. The torturer and the victim. How could one word encompass us all?”
Syria’s democratic revolution is defeated, the country destroyed, and what follows will not resemble peace. Assad’s throne has been saved, but at the price of Syrian social cohesion and regional stability. Secondary and tertiary conflicts now bloom—Sunni-Shia, Turkish-Kurdish, Israeli-Iranian—while refugee flows and terror attacks have infected our politics in Europe. Syria will continue to demand our engagement, and not only for the sake of its vast human tragedy.
Escorted by Russian bombers and Iranian militia, Bashar al-Assad’s regime has regained control of key parts of the Syrian heartland in recent months. In its wake come deportations, mass arrests, torture and field executions. Secure in its impunity, the regime has begun issuing death certificates for the tens of thousands murdered in detention since 2011. Against this backdrop, Vladimir Putin has called for the regime’s “normalisation,” and in the run-up to the Helsinki summit in July, it seems that he won Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu’s acquiescence.
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 with the First World War, when half a million Syrians died of famine, and survivors of the Armenian genocide arrived from Turkey. The author’s great-grandfather Abdeljawwad, a landowner and entrepreneur, sheltered one Armenian refugee before participating in the 1920s uprising against the French. The mandate brought martial law, aerial bombardment, and an army dominated by the small Alawi sect—theologically at odds with Sunni Islam—from which Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father and ruler of Syria for 30 years, would later emerge. Abdeljawwad, by turns generous and manipulative, was a Christian, school founder and womaniser.
Every character here is complex. After grandmother Salma—a heavy smoker called “sister of men”—moved to multicultural Damascus, the fates of her relatives and neighbours illustrate the declining fortunes of society at large. An imperfect post-colonial democracy was succeeded by coups and counter-coups,…