The merchant of Syria
Until Syria returned to the headlines two weeks ago, fatigue and cynicism had been growing and focus was drifting. New approaches seemed necessary to recapture interest in the tragedy. In “The Merchant of Syria,” author Diana Darke uses the life of textile merchant Abu Chaker as a window through which to examine the modern history of Syria, from the late Ottoman era to the cataclysmic present. The book skillfully weaves an engaging personal story with rich scholarship based on oral history, archival research and ethnography.
Abu Chaker was born into relatively comfortable circumstances in Homs in 1921. But after his father died he had to abandon his studies at the age of 10 to support his mother and seven sisters. Despite this, through shrewd determination Abu Chaker managed to develop his local business into a multinational empire, riding the waves of political turbulence until his death in 2013 aged 92.
Darke describes Abu Chaker as the “archetypal Syrian merchant”: Crafty, wily, smart and endlessly adaptable. She says he embodied a noble Syrian tradition stretching back centuries. In a diverse religious and linguistic landscape - Sunni and Shia Muslims, Alawis, Druze, Orthodox and Catholic Christians, Syriacs, Armenians, Kurds, Turkmens, Circassians, Ismailis and Jews – trade glued the mosaic together. The high esteem that merchants have historically been held in the region is clear from the commercial architecture dating back centuries - the souks, bedestans and hans that Darke describes as “veritable cathedrals of commerce.” Commerce and religion, she writes, are “forever side by side.” Indeed, mosques have long been built at the center of social and commercial complexes, funded by foundations or wealthy merchants.
Abu Chaker was a Sunni Muslim with professional origins in the Homs souk. From there he built his cloth trade into a national, regional, and international network. He moved operations to Beirut in 1960, where the freer, more liberal atmosphere provided the right climate to expand beyond the shores of the Middle East. After the Lebanese civil war broke out in 1975, Abu Chaker turned to the U.K., buying and saving a mill run by the textile company Hield in the Yorkshire town of Bradford. Bradford had been an important economic center during Britain’s industrial heyday, but by the end of the 20th century many factories had closed down. Abu Chaker managed to save the Hield business at a time when all the other working mills in Bradford had fallen silent, turning it into a global brand with a showcase store in London’s Knightsbridge. The mill in Bradford still serves as the company’s headquarters today.
Darke’s previous book was “My House in Damascus,” describing her experiences buying and renovating a 17th century courtyard house in Damascus’ old town, which ended up stolen and occupied by war profiteers. Her deep personal knowledge of Syria and its people is worn lightly throughout “The Merchant of Syria.” Darke personally knew Abu Chaker and his family before his death, and portrays him in an almost reverential light: A tough but scrupulously honest businessman, a pious but tolerant Muslim, a modest and humble man. One senses a certain idealization in the portrait, but the book’s weaving of Abu Chaker’s life story with broader contextual details is richly rewarding.
Toward the end of 2017 some hoped that an end to the war in Syria was in sight. But in recent months the country seems to have careened once again into a violent spiral. Darke is sympathetic to the idea that “only shared commercial interests can bind the region together, not politics.” She finds in Abu Chaker a hopeful model for this: “A good merchant’s role will be the same as his – to find partners who can be trusted, irrespective of their religion or ethnicity, to establish links between different communities, based on mutual benefit.” This is moving and certainly true, but amid intense geopolitical jostling in Syria it also feels sadly unrealistic.