As one of the world’s oldest areas of human settlement, Syria has seen it all: glory and irrelevance, conflict and calm, dynamism and stagnation, tyranny and tolerance. While it has gone through long periods of international obscurity — pretty much ignored by the Roman and Ottoman Empires, for example — it has at times also played the part of a bustling regional power center, a military might, a thriving crossroads of culture and commerce.
But Syria today faces an existential crisis like no other in its history. After more than seven years of civil war, it is in chaos, with many of its cities in ruin and its countryside carved into an ever-mutating jumble of would-be mini-states. The country operates, more or less, with a crippled central authority, several intrusive foreign militaries and a variety of domestic insurgent groups and Islamic extremist movements.
Since war broke out in early spring 2011, hundreds of thousands of Syrians have died — so many, in such miserable circumstances, that international aid groups have given up trying to count them. Millions more have been driven into internal exile, and some 5.6 million additional people, half of them children, have fled Syria altogether, exhausting the international community’s willingness to welcome them.
With an end to the fighting nowhere in sight, urgent questions arise. Can the country that was Syria survive? Will its citizens ever be able to return home to what could pass for a normal life? If recovery remains out of reach, how can the world reconstruct and record for posterity the history and culture of one of its earliest civilizations?
It is with all this in mind that Diana Darke wrote “The Merchant of Syria: A History of Survival.” Her beautifully written and impeccably detailed book uses alternating chapters to capture Syria’s cultural, political and economic life while tracing the life of a single Syrian cloth merchant whose life ended in exile a few years after the outbreak of the civil war seven years ago.
Darke, the author of the 2016 book “My House in Damascus: An Inside View of the Syrian Crisis,” is an Arabist who lived and worked in the Middle East for more than 30 years before the war drove her from her home in Syria. She now lives in London.
The merchant of the book title, Abu Chaker, was born into a modest family in Homs in 1921 and took over his family’s cloth shop in the city’s souk, or bazaar, at age 10, when his father died. Working in the system of traditional Islamic values and practices, he built a flourishing textile business in Syria, but he ultimately fled to England to escape growing instability and to protect his business and family.
While remaining focused on the Middle East, in 1981 he managed to expand his business into manufacturing in the northern English city of Bradford by purchasing his largest supplier, Hield Brothers. Sadly, conditions in Syria failed to improve enough to enable him to move back, and he died in London in 2013 at age 92, a wealthy man in a foreign land.
The central theme of Darke’s book is the collapse of Syria as a desirable place to live and work. But her deepest message is a love of Syria and its people. This may seem at times an overly generous message, too wet a kiss to be totally credible, but her affection is clearly genuine and a joy to explore.
“It is no accident that so many of the world’s greatest innovations originated in this melting pot of civilizations, where the blend of diverse ethnicities, cultures and religions led to a uniquely stimulating cross-fertilization of ideas,” Darke writes in laying out Syria’s early history.
“Creativity is built into the DNA of this part of the world, a direct result of the multicultural ambiance where three continents meet and where trade and competition drive enterprise and build prosperity,” she goes on. Embedded in the regional mind-set is the belief that for every problem there must be a solution, a view that has taken root not least where rulers and governments have shown themselves to be neither capable nor reliable.”
“Many innovations — like soap, carpets, quilts, the three-course meal, alcohol and coffee (from al-kuhoul and qahwa, both Arabic words) — have heavily influenced the Western lifestyle, yet our debt to these imports from Muslim culture goes largely unacknowledged.”
Her dissection of the suitability of Homs as a place for her main character, Abu Chaker, to begin his life is similarly compelling. The city, she notes, was among the first to rise up against President Bashar al-Assad as the civil war got underway and among the first that his regime “bombed into submission, to serve as a warning to other rebellious centers of what to expect,” should they also misbehave.
The world may not have been paying much attention to Homs at the time of Christ’s birth. But well before then, Darke writes, the city was celebrated for its fine cloth, highly prized in burial shrouds woven from wool, cotton, linen and even silk imported from India and China.
In 59 A.D., early Christians secretly built one of their first churches within the city’s walls, so they could worship underground to avoid persecution by their Roman rulers. Islam arrived in Syria in the seventh century, but Homs still had both churches and mosques in the mid-19th-century, enabling Muslim and Christian families alike to weave textiles on the more than 5,000 looms set up in their homes at the time.
While Darke unstintingly honors Syria’s past, she abhors the Syria of today, led by the autocratic Assad since 2000, when he took power at the death of his father Hafez al-Assad. The younger Assad had been training in London to become an eye doctor and began his time in office as a reformer committed to promoting democracy and a modern economy, but he never delivered on his promises. He instead presided over his country’s gradual disintegration while targeting political opponents and ensuring that corruption thrived.
When the first peaceful protests cropped up in Syria as part of the regional movement dubbed the Arab Spring, they were met with an iron fist, along with a gradual sapping of Assad’s central control as society fell apart and power slowly devolved to regional warlords, Kurdish separatists, Islamist extremists and various rebel factions.
Darke stresses that the war years have been particularly hard on Syria’s women, who increasingly have been pushed into unfamiliar and often unwelcome roles by economic hardship and the shortage of men. Rates of both divorce and polygamy have soared, even as Islamist extremists have strived to chip away at women’s rights and their access to education.
As it chewed up Syria’s people, the endless fighting devastated the economy, including the textile industry, which accounted for 63 percent of the industrial sector before 2011 but now is barely limping.
Without merchants like Abu Chaker, “the danger is that the longer the current regime with its system of corrupt self-interest remains in place, the more honest merchants will leave in search of better opportunities elsewhere,” Darke writes. “The German and Turkish economies are already benefitting from a huge surge in start-up businesses from Syrian refugees. Given the choices that Abu Chaker faced, who can say he did not make the right decision when he headed west?”
“The Merchant of Syria: A History of Survival,” by Diana Darke; 978-0-19087-485-8
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Irwin Arieff is a veteran writer and editor with extensive experience writing about international diplomacy and food, cooking and restaurants. Before leaving daily journalism in 2007, he was a Reuters correspondent for 23 years, serving in senior posts in Washington, Paris and New York as well as at the United Nations (where he covered five of the 10 years that Sergey Lavrov spent in New York as Russia’s senior UN ambassador). Arieff also wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s with his wife, Deborah Baldwin.