Three Must-Read Books on Syria
The truth about Syria in the age of fake -news and propaganda
In my travels, I keep encountering people who either don’t know much about the Syrian conflict or are influenced by fake-news coverage of war crimes deniers.
I confess this makes me deeply sad and even angry! My first reaction is wondering how on earth, that after eight years of the worst humanitarian crisis in the 21st century, so much explanation is still needed?!
I had one of these encounters Last week while on vacation. It was with an academic who was impressed by an anti-imperial website. The kind of sites whose only concern was to blame the west for what happened in my country without the slightest effort to discuss the root causes, the responsibility of the ruling regime, etc.
This time instead of getting angry and falling into despair, I decided to do something. I took a few hours of my vacation to write a shortlist of three must-read brooks, which, in my opinion, present an honest and balanced narrative of the events in Syria. And the most important thing is that these books give enough space for voices from Syria to tell the story.
So if you ever heard, in the last eight years, an awful piece of news about Syria. If you thought, this is just another third world country, where people are killing each others’. Thus, you felt the urge to shield yourself from this negative energy.
Or, if you were in contrast driven, by some heartbreaking photos emerging from the humanitarian crisis in Syria, to act and support a particular NGO. If you felt this action has eased your conscience, but never had the chance to investigate what is causing this crisis in the first place and how to stop it.
Or if you felt lost with the different narratives coming from this middle eastern country. If you have wondered what to believe? Is it an uprising against a brutal dictatorship or another Islamic insurgency fueled by western imperialists.
If you ever care about truth and justice, I strongly advise you to read these books, or one of them at least:
1. Assad or We burn the Country — by Sam Dagher
Sam Dagher, the author, is an American-Lebanese writer, and reporter to the Wall Street Journal. He has written one of the most detailed and compelling narratives on Syria I have read in the last few years. It draws an amazingly accurate picture of Syria’s events through the voices of several diplomats, politicians, and Syrian personalities and activists he interviewed throughout the last few years.
If you are up to the challenge of reading this thick volume of 592 pages, this is the book to start with. I promise you won’t get disappointed.
From 2012 until he was kicked out of Syria in 2014, Dagher was the only western journalist allowed to stay in Damascus and report on what he was witnessing. For this reason, I consider this book a critical testimony coming out not from any ‘Syria-expert,’ but from someone who saw the unfolding of the events firsthand through the lenses of an independent journalist.
The book starts with a brief historical background on Syria, and the Assad dynasty’s ascent to power. Then, Dagher skillfully takes us to the inner-world of Bashar al-Assad through the narratives of some of his close friends such as Manaf Tlass and others who preferred to remain anonymous.
Tlass was not only a high-ranking officer of the republican guard who deserted the regime and fled to France. He was also a childhood friend of the Assad family and the son of Mustafa Tlass, the companion of Bashar’s father Hafez al-Assad, and his defense minister for three decades.
The inside knowledge of the Assad circle is of extreme importance as it helps the reader to understand the rationale behind many seemingly-irrational decisions that were made throughout the uprising and the subsequent conflict. Why, for instance, would Bashar negotiate with the elders of Daraa and Douma cities one day and promise to meet their demands, then send the army on severe repression campaigns.
Revisiting the different stages of the Syrian uprising after eight years, and reading through the various developments that led to the current place was excruciating. It meant going through all the hopes that we once lived, the disappointments we suffered, the atrocities we witnessed, the friends we lost, and the hypocrisy of the international community who let significant events such as the use of chemical weapons go unaccounted for. This was too hard, and I doubt any pro-human-rights Syrian who read this book would have felt the same!
But for those of you who wish to know more, this is a must-read book which I would easily give 4.3 stars.
2. The Pianist of Yarmouk — By Aeham Ahmad
The last few years have seen a plethora of books published on Syria. Very few though were written by Syrians. So when I stumbled upon this book by Aeham Ahmad, the famous piano player of the Yarmouk camp, in one of the UK’s bookstores, I got excited.
And what a nice surprise this book was.
In July 2013, the Syrian regime’s forces besieged Yarmouk camp, the once vibrant camp for Palestinian refugees in Damasucs. Shortly afterwards, some awful news and images emerged from the remaining civilians there. Starvation, snipers killings, and the lack of medical supplies were rendering their lives there into a living hell.
Nevertheless, amidst the bleak news from Yarmouk, a young pianist started broadcasting videos of him and his small choir chantimng for life and hope. This young pianist is Aeham Ahmad the author of this book.
The Pianist of Yarmouk is one of these rare books, which I fell in love with from the first few pages, and couldn’t put aside. It is a great testimony, to life, lose, and survival before the uprising and during an awful siege reminiscent of the Middle Ages.
Aeham’s personal story, since his childhood until his escape to Germany, is one that deserves to be told. It is a tale of ordinary Syrians’ who found themselves caught in war they didn’t choose. Aeham confesses that he grew up apolitical. When the uprising hit his camp he was a bystander, whose only concern was the welfare of his small family, and the prosperity of his small family business.
Throughout the pages, I was full of admiration to the character of his blind father. His determination to provide for his family, teach his son piano, and the special bond he nurtured meanwhile with his son.
There were also moments of grieve and sorrow though.
The most extraordinary part of the book remains with no doubt the vivid description of Yarmouk’s besiegement. What does it mean to starve to death? to have nothing but boiled grass to eat? To die in your attemt to collect soem grasses to eat? to be hit by mortar’s shrapnels and go under operation in a makeshift medical point? To witness the death of a girl in your choir by a sniper juts few steps away from your piano.
I give it 4.5 stars and strongly recommend it.
3. The Home That Was Our Country — by Alia Malek
Alia Malek’s book is an all-time favorite. The American Syrian journalist, lawyer and activist takes us on a fascinating trip to visit her origins in Syria.
The author, who was born in America to Syrian parents, always kept her connections with Syria through her grandmother, and t he family flat in Damascus.
While staying in Damascus to renew Slama’s apartment (her grandmother’s), she used to secretly report for several publications about the unfolding of the Syrian uprising, until 2013. At the same time, she had to witness the atmosphere of denial and sometimes terror that prevailed within the elites of the Damascene society, and even within her own extended family.
Malek uses her family’s histroy, and that of the apartment, as a background to her cleverly told narrative of the social, political and economic transformation the Syrian society has undergone. A transformation that led to totally closed political and public space, which made the societal explosion inevitable.
The family tragedies, the kidnapping and subsequently the killing of one of her mother’s uncle, the occupation of Salma’s flat, and Salma’s own personal tragedy, are all linked somehow to the general context in a fascinating way.
This extraordinary saga deserves with no doubt 4.6 stars.