Syria past and present: Among the ruins

Syria past and present: Among the ruins

William Armstrong -
Syria past and present: Among the ruins ‘Among the Ruins: Syria Past and Present’ by Christian C. Sahner (Hurst, £20, 240 pages)

HDNAs Syria continues to implode, the scale of its humanitarian tragedy, mass exodus, and social, cultural and spiritual carnage becomes ever more catastrophic. The conflict has rarely been out of the international headlines since erupting almost five years ago, but Princeton historian Christian Sahner found most reporting on it lacking sufficient perspective on Syria’s complex social and religious texture. “There seemed neither room nor patience for the kind of deep history I felt was needed,” he writes, describing how he decided to produce a “snapshot of the country on the edge of change” for the non-specialist. Drawing heavily on his experiences living in Damascus in the years just before the war, the result is not really a view from “among the ruins,” but rather a view from just before those ruins were created by the eruption of local tensions and regional proxy wars.

As a historian of religious beliefs in the region, Sahner unsurprisingly spends most of his time focusing on the mosaic of sects that make up modern day Syria, and how they interact (or interacted) with each other. He looks back to the origins of each community, as well as to their modern situation, and asks the question, “Is Syria’s history a unity arising amidst diversity, or unity destroyed by cleavage and division?” His natural American optimism doesn’t stop him from answering unflinchingly. Although no simplistic peddler of the “ancient hatreds” thesis, he challenges the view that the country was a supra-sectarian paradise before the war, in which Sunnis, Alawis, Christians and Druze carried on with a noble lack of interest in each other’s faiths:

The notion that sectarianism suddenly appeared only because of the civil war does no justice to what historical analysis and personal experience show to be deep and unspoken tensions before the onset of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ ... True, the destructive sectarianism the world has witnessed in Syria recently is something new, but it seems clear that as a discourse and a practice, sectarianism is appealing precisely because it builds on pressures that have existed in Syria for a long time.

In one memorable passage, he recalls the striking words of his friend Abdallah, who questions the American approval of “diversity” for Syria:

What if diversity in my society isn’t the same as diversity in yours? What if diversity is a source of weakness? Wasn’t it diversity that created the violence in Iraq? The existence of all those different groups … I would rather live in a place that did not have diversity and was stable, than live in a diverse place that was at was at constant risk of falling into a civil war.

All this is good food for thought, but Sahner’s monomaniacal interest in sect sometimes makes him seem like the biggest sectarian of all. Of course, with the country reduced to rubble by a war inflamed by religious sentiment, focus on the sectarian dynamics of Syria is essential. But surely all players should be regarded as people first and foremost before anything else. When a taxi driver is a described as a “Sunni taxi driver,” not just a taxi driver, and when a security officer is an “Alawi security officer,” not just a security officer, you can see how an ordinary Syrian might be annoyed. The problem seems particularly egregious because Sahner’s sectarian blinkers crowd out other important divisions in Syrian society. It’s striking, for example, that the country's Kurds are hardly mentioned throughout the book, despite being the focus of so much international attention these days.

Sahner also occasionally lapses into purple prose, with an annoying tendency to refer to nouns - mosques, cities, the Mediterranean - as “she” or “her.” Nevertheless, on the whole this book remains a worthwhile read; the author’s obvious affection for the country shines through, and the humanity of the Syrians he writes about manages to rise above his fixation on sect.