Diana Darke delivers The Merchant of Syria four years after her My House in Damascus established itself in rare company, essential reading on Syria written by a foreigner. Intimate settings, compelling narratives, memorable characters, elements which Darke harnessed as both protagonist and narrator in her mémoire, are absent in this marketable follow up.
The Merchant of Syria is two half books, poorly twined. One chronicles the life of Mohammed Chaker Chamsi-Pasha (Abu Chaker), a textile merchant from Homs who resettles in Lebanon, then London, adapting to war’s upheavals. The other is an entire history of Syria.
Three hundred pages in hardcover is insufficient to accomplish the latter, much less both. The former makes for a striking publisher’s title, but is often an incongruous fit. The careful historian does not open too many more doors than they intend on closing later. But by moving through history at a breakneck pace—Abu Chaker is finally born on page 77—Darke cannot help it. We read as the group that runs through the museum, seeing everything, taking in nothing, because it closes in an hour.
“Creativity” we learn on this tour, “is built into the DNA in this part of the world.” As opposed to everywhere else? Humanizing Syrians is an important project, but romanticism such as this is not the answer. It undermines the credibility and acumen Darke consistently displays between indulgences.
“[M]agazine and camera; caravan and traffic; algebra, algorithm and zero; zenith and nadir; mattress, divan and sofa,” were originally Arabic words and Darke writes such Western heritage is “largely unacknowledged.” As with many English-language works, The Merchant of Syria lists, in chronological order, instances of ahead-of-the-West as if these were self-evidently high-water marks in the Arab world’s history.
In The Patriarchal Society, one of the stronger chapters, Darke deploys the nonfiction equivalent of click-bait. That, “early photos reveal that Christian women very often wore head-coverings or scarves that were indistinguishable from those of Muslim women.” The emphasis is mine. We know this: well established facts are simply accessed, not revealed, even if they upset imaginings of the ignorant mind.
Darke has spent extensive time in Syria, and romanticizes out of affection, love even, as opposed to Edward Said’s derision of an Orientalist romance stemming from ignorance and bigotry. But with Abu Chaker being so bourgeois a figure, one wonders if the result is not the same, the service of power-friendly class narratives. One simple paragraph details his visit to Istanbul’s Şemsi Ahmet Pasha Mosque, an occasion to which, we infer from her descriptions, Darke must have been an accompanying witness. The book needs more of these, but never delivers another scene of similar quality.
Abu Chaker’s sons prove main voices, referring to him as “Father” and storytelling with all the distance from intimacy that this capitalization implies. Once they relate, in a most privileged instance of hardship, “We flew from Kabul to Tehran, Tehran to Istanbul, Istanbul to Rome, Rome to Amsterdam, Amsterdam to Paris, Paris to London — it was all one trip, exhausting.” Bourgeois problems that are consistently solved does not make for compelling narrative.
Jumping back to history, we are abruptly told that, to “the Sunni majority, the very idea that an ‘Alawi could become leader of Syria was deeply shocking, in the words of American author and political commentator Robert Kaplan ‘as shocking as a Jew becoming tsar of Russia…’” Would not the careful historian look to cite some shocked member of said Sunni majority, or better yet, to reinforce Kaplan with a Syrian historian?
Darke speculates on the psychology (“…stemming perhaps from…”) of Abu Chaker losing his father early and assumes his opinion on things which he did not live to see. The topics are as far afield from his experience as the “revolutionary gender-equal society envisaged…in the Kurdish-controlled areas of Northern Syria.”
The book has its gems. One details the British foreign office of the early 1960’s commissioning a series of Arabic language films titled “Calling All Muslims” to “Manchester, Cardiff, Liverpool and Sheffield,” which, “spearheaded a recruitment drive aimed at attracting Muslims to come and work in Britain’s burgeoning industries.” Another shows the French set examples which Syria’s subsequent strongmen followed, making “little attempt to train local officials, fearing that any cohesion of the Syrian state might be a threat and a dangerous influence on their French North African colonies.”
“Ideologically,” Darke tells us in conclusion, “[Abu Chaker] was the personification of the traditional Sunni view that a good Muslim should not interfere in politics or broker revolution but should abide by the laws of their country.” It is hard to see how this is intended to be received. Abu Chaker is so lionized that it reads as an endorsement, not a reproach, of the willful disengagement from one’s own politics.
The analysis and exposition is strongest in the last one hundred pages, where Darke details the grievances that led to the failed Syrian revolution. We learn about the regime-approved convoys, “leading out of Aleppo, piled high with looted furniture destined for sale in so-called “Sunni markets,” about how “projects were given the green light because regime protégés were behind them” and that the “Makhlouf family also has a monopoly on the import of tobacco into Syria.” As a jumpstart for middle-class Western readership to greater awareness of the political realities of Assad’s Syria, this portion of the book is successful.
Then suddenly, horribly, and quite late in the game, we learn of “Abu Chaker’s surprising but enduring friendship with one of Hafez al-Assad’s top intelligence chiefs,” whom in 1987 became, “chief of the Political Security Directorate (al-Amn al-Siyasi), one of the top five appointments within the Assad regime’s mukhabarat.” Abu Chaker’s sons and family fondly called this blunt force object uncle.
“[T]ogether they would rock with laughter until their sides ached.” It is hard to imagine a more economical method of assassinating the believability of what we are assured of in the same breath, that the titular Merchant of Syria made his “first million cleanly.”
Before and after this Darke does an excellent job in detailing the extent of one of Syria’s most malignant cancers, the mukhabarat. In My House, she swiftly cut to that chase, stating “Syria is a police state.”
“Thanks to the wasta or influence of his military friend,” she continues, “Abu Chaker was spared the hassle of dealing with authorities in Lebanon and in Homs,” while repatriating shortly before 2011. “[A]nd gradually [he] began to see the beautiful side of Syria once more, as opposed to its sinister politics.” This is privilege and by the author’s own framing we understand the impossibility of meritocracy. After all, there are degrees and qualities of patronage that do not sink to the level of ill-gotten gains or robber-baronage.
“It is very different for a member of the bourgeoisie, even such a down-at-heel member as I am,” Orwell explains in The Road to Wigan Pier. “Even when I am on the verge of starvation I have certain rights attaching to my bourgeois status… even when my account is exhausted the bank people are passably polite.” That obstacles are taller for the proletariat is not a narrative of victimhood.
Perhaps this was poorly explained or understood, but to write then “a person can still succeed” or that “like many other honest Syrians, [Abu Chaker] knew that if he was careful, he could still live well in his native Homs” is fanciful. There are simply not enough mukhabarat chiefs to befriend and West End flats to go around.
Survivorship bias and the illusion of control may well be accepted indulgences of the sympathetic biographer. But because class is never properly qualified and because she so often goes big picture on the Syrian crisis, the implication of Darke’s character-as-destiny interpretation of “the archetypical Syrian merchant” is in bad taste.
In a recent (May, 2018) dispatch for BBC4, Darke concluded her report from government-controlled Damascus, “but social justice in Syria, so smothered under the official narrative now, will break through soon enough. It is only a matter of time.” Why this is we are not told.
Similarly, when Darke zooms out to make a case for warm, unforced multiculturalism or a “multi-ethnic, multi-religious society…held together…by the glue of commerce,” they read as assertions and assertions do not persuade. This is slightly maddening as she has distinguished herself from many British writers on Syria — by being on the right side of history.