The tortured history of Syria

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Alia Malek’s memoir on Syria addresses the upheavals the country went through, from the Ottomans to the French and after.
By Adil Bhat
Syria’s civil war has entered its eighth year. The future of the conflict lies in its past: the patronage system that outlived the Ottoman period; the continuation of the colonial institutional legacy; and eventually, the people’s will to resist power.

Alia Malek’s memoir, The Home That Was Our Country: A Memoir from Syria, is an echo of time that gives a detailed historical perspective to the current political situation in the country. Through her gripping memoir, Malek—a Syrian-American writer—narrates her family’s story, which is neatly entwined with the history of the country and the geopolitics of the region, making the book both personal and political. This rich writing breaks the stereotypes associated with the region and the people by elaborating on the civilisational layerings, of which Syria is an essential part.

A journalist by profession, Alia Malek, in her testimonial account, navigates through the cultural landscape of the region, while narrating the story of her maternal grandmother, Salma, the daughter of a Christian businessman Sheikh Abdeljawwad al-Mir—the man who came to be known as “sheikh” and “saw himself as being responsible not just for his family and his village, but also for the labourers who toiled in his field”. Revolving around the towering figure of Salma, who experienced disadvantages owing to her gender in those times, the author weaves a narrative that highlights the political and social nuances of Greater Syria: the successful rule of the Ottomans that was a result of “integrating its people across classes”.

However, the Ottomans had their set of faultlines. For instance, the Ottoman land laws, under which the wealthy were able to buy more land and the poor worked as slaves, came to be seen as the groundwork for future discontent among the masses. As Malek writes, it “later became a critical part of Syrian politics”. The Christians and the Alawites, a Muslim minority sect, marginally Shi’te, were part the poor section of the society.

Beset by internal power struggles, its participation in World War I, and the massacre of its own subjects, the gradual falling apart of the Ottoman Empire has had a resonance over the years within Syria and across the region. In the aftermath of its defeat, the inhabitants of Greater Syria were left to the mercy of external powers, with the victorious Allies executing their plans of partitioning the territorial spoils. This eventually culminated in the promulgation of the notorious Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916 and the Balfour Declaration of 1917 that split territory between France and United Kingdom, with Syria and Lebanon falling under the French. Such a policy was not only limited to the loss of territorial integrity, but also had an impact on the economy cohesiveness of the region.

As Malek writes, “…the new borders had already yielded negative consequences; imposing different currencies in the different areas, for example, wreaked havoc on the economies of places that had long been bound to each other in fluid trade and commerce.”

This territorial contiguity was extended further to cross-cultural socialisation and interaction. The long fight for liberation from French occupation unified Syrian society. Set in this political and economic backdrop, Syrians from a wide political and social spectrum chose to come together for a common goal of ousting the French colonisers. This collective resistance, in the author’s words, brought forward “a Christian, an Alwaite and a Kurdish Syrian—all doing their part for a new Syria free of the French”, who had put Syria under martial law after the breakout of the Second World War.

It was the legacy of the Ottomans and the French that were later carried into an independent Syria with “borders that made little sense”. The Ottoman’s inequitable distribution of land and the French occupier’s obsession with security, military and administration came to define the independent nation-state.

Talking of the French influence—“the nasty habits that would linger in the new Syria”—Malek writes: “[French] They had spent much on security and administration, creating the intelligence agencies out of which the Syrian mukhabarat [a group of four different security bodies, with twenty-two branches in Damascus alone that have for decades carried out regime’s surveillance on its people] would one day develop, while spending very little on transportation, infrastructure and education in Syria … France had also played favourites among the minorities, seeding sectarian fault lines [In this case it was the Alawites who were generally excluded from position of power but were recruited in the military academy founded by the French in Homs].”

These sectarian fault lines were later entrenched with the passage of time, giving way to kleptocratic authoritarianism of the state by furthering the narrow cliques, which included government officials, relatives, and most importantly, the religious clerics. The newly independent state had several challenges to be resolved, including “the iniquities of labour and land ownership, the basis of belonging, and the role of religion in public life”.

This challenge was further compounded by the role of external and regional powers that were attempting to “gain footing, influence and power” in Syria “by exploiting whatever division they could create or deepen in its society”.

In this context, there emerged competing visions on “what Syria should be and where it belonged in the world”. Among these visions and aspirations, four groups—many of them who “threatened the privileges of the old notables and the power structure that supported them”—stood out, writes Malek. They were the Qawmiyun (Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party)—which envisioned a multi-ethnic and multi-religious state spanning present day Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Kuwait, Jordan, Palestine, Cyprus, Sinai, southeastern Turkey, and southwestern Iran, based on a belief that the people within those boundaries shared a common history; the communists, inspired by the Soviet Union; the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, who espoused a religiously oriented platform that favoured political pluralism and religious tolerance; and the Ba’ath, who embraced a kind of Pan-Arab socialism.

This multiplicity of visions convinced some aspiring politicians that they needed to sacrifice democracy and cooperate with the army, at least in the short term, if they were to get their plans in place. “These miscalculations,” writes Malek, “would set the course for the future in Syria.”

With political ideologies coming to work with the military, Syrians were introduced to military coups. The defeat of Syria at the hands of Israel in 1948, under the first Syrian president Shukri al-Quwatli—who had reduced the numbers of the military—was seen as a humiliation of Syrians as a nation. Thus, ideologies became willing to work with the military. Each time the war broke out, citizens grappled with their thoughts about the future. For instance, during the war with Israel in 1967, Salma sent all her children to her parents’ home in Hama, thinking that staying away from Damascus would be safer.

It was during this time that a permanent schism arose between the Iraqi and Syrian Ba’ath movements, following a coup in which the military Ba’athists dumped the old Ba’athist guards. With the military constituting the leadership in the country, the schools were nationalised. This angered a lot of people, including the author’s mother. As the French administration receded, Ba’athist loyalists changed the curriculum, and students were no longer permitted to study mathematics, science and music in French, which was considered anti-national. The students were allowed to study these subjects only in Arabic.

The changing character of the nation—with military dictatorships under Hafez al-Assad and later his son Bashar al-Assad—and non-existent sectarian differences were stoked for political gain. During Malek’s visit to Damascus in April 2011, the country was witnessing early signs of resistance from the people in the form of peaceful civil demonstrations, where people called for an end to corruption. Syria had been under “emergency laws” for decades, “where the laws had been routinely amended to accommodate a dynastic presidency,” writes Malek, and “where an extended family was above the law”.

These peaceful demonstrations turned into violent protests, eventually escalating into a full-scale civil war and Syria emerging as a wounded body politic on the global scene. With no let up to violence, the war in Syria reached the nadir, squashing all hopes of the new Syria of the 1940s.

Having successfully reclaimed and renovated her grandmother’s house, Malek—who was on her way back to the US after realising her time was up—reminisced about the shutters of the house that she thought of restoring the way they were in late 1940s “when [Salma] was a bride and the house was new, and when the country, too, had been new and hopeful”.