For a long time very little was published on Syria in English. Patrick Seale's useful but hagiographic Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East (1990) was the best-known. Hanna Batatu's classic Syria's Peasantry, the Descendants of Its Lesser Rural Notables, and Their Politics (1999) and Raymond Hinnebusch's Syria: Revolution from Above (2002) were valuable academic studies of the Hafez-era state.
Over the past five years of revolution and war, shelf loads of books have appeared. Many are sensationalist, but several are of very high standard: Bente Scheller's The Wisdom of Syria's Waiting Game, is an excellent analysis of Assadist pre-revolution foreign policy for example. Samar Yazbek's A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution is the best account of the revolution's early months. Charles Lister's masterful The Syrian Jihad (reviewed on these pages) is the best guide to the various militant groups operating in Syria; while Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan's ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror is an accessible summary of the organisation's history and modus operandi. But now, three recent books, provide insider views from outsider women. Diana Darke's humane and elegantly written My House in Damascus from 2014, interweaves observations on Syria's past and present with an account of buying and restoring a 17th-century home in the Old City. An expanded version has just been released. Historical parallels and ironies abound. She describes the zu'ar of medieval Damascus, Mamluk and Ottoman thug-enforcers, precursors to president Bashar Al Assad's shabiha militias.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, and also reviewed on these pages in April – Janine di Giovanni experiences a sense of "timelessness, of lost time" as 7,000-year-old Aleppo is dismantled before her. She travels in regime and rebel-controlled Syria between March and December 2012. As a journalist and 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, published in April, is set 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 saw the slow death-by-bombardment of the liberated zone. In Borri's narration, retrospect and the exploding environment provide the dark irony. "Another two months and Aleppo will be liberated," says Abdelqader 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, who goes by “Guevara”, kills to avenge her murdered children and “to be able to matter more in tomorrow’s Syria”. And there’s an Italian mother searching for her Muslim-convert son, who’s fighting for Al Qaeda.
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 can’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, Al Nusra, then ISIL.
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 breadlines are the worst.
Borri represents this dark, surreal world with descriptive fluency, long and rhythmed sentences (translated impressively from Italian by Anne Milano Appel), and sudden shifts of time and place. The tone is more literary.
Hers is an experiential account, her subjectivity in the foreground. The focus is on her more than the Syrians – her political observations, which you may or may not agree with, her thoughts under fire on civilisation and death. Most of all, her anger – and it’s the book’s strength, the vine around which it grows.
She’s angry about the war freelancer’s lack of freedom, paid US$70 (Dh257) a story, to risk her life when it’s not sufficient to even cover expenses.
She condemns the cut-throat competition for the scoop that’s prevalent among 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 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 doesn't tell a complete story. While stressing the fragmentation of the opposition, Samer Abboud's Syria, an erudite book that combines clarity with a vast amount of information, recognises that the "rise of a robust, committed and active Syrian civil society has been one of the few foreseeable long-term positive impacts of the uprising". Liberated Syria boasts more than 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 extremists and collaborates with local women to establish more centres 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.
Robin Yassin-Kassab is co-author, with Leila Al Shami, of Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War.