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How can we talk about Syria?

The uprising in Syria started in the Spring of 2011. It was provoked by the detainment and torture of fifteen teenagers in Dera’a who had been accused of being irreverent to the president and who were tortured. This must of course be seen in the larger context of the Arab uprisings as well as of previous attempts to create democratic debate, at the beginning of the 2000s, which the regime only allowed for a few months.

Since then:

- The death toll is over 200,000 perhaps closer to 300,000 but no one knows.

- Massive displacement of refugees in neighbouring countries: 1.5M in Turkey, 1.2M (but probably more) in Lebanon, a country that has a population the size of Ireland’s, the rest in Jordan. Only 1.7% of this number have been offered sanctuary by the rest of the world since the crisis began almost four years ago.

- About 7.6M Internally Displaced People.

- One million people have been wounded during Syria's civil war and diseases are spreading as regular supplies of medicine fail to reach patients.

- Vaccination cover – at more than 90% before the conflict – has now dropped to barely 50%.

- Virtually every conceivable war crime has been committed: use of chemical weapons by the regime (as recently as 16 March over Idlib), indiscriminate bombing of civilian populated areas, use of children by both pro-government and anti-government militia, prisoners executed in jail, targeting of doctors and medical care from day-one by the regime, and demolitions serving no necessary military purpose (a phenomenon sometimes described as urbicide).

- Heritage has been destroyed by government bombings as much as by much widely-trumpeted IS destructions: including world heritage sites such as the Krak des Chevaliers, the old city of Aleppo, ancient villages of northern Syria, etc. Looting and traffic of antiques go hand-in-hand with such destructions.

- The conflict has become intractable: Islamist factions realign constantly, the so-called rebels have to fight on several fronts, the regime is targeting civilian populations and letting Islamists factions, including IS, prosper, and the Lebanese forces of Hezbollah fight alongside regime troops, and are supported by Iran and Russia.

- Recent developments include the siege and the destruction of the Palestinian camp of Yarmouk under the twin attacks of regime and IS.

The conflict has become partly sectarian, with, in particular, the danger of eradication of Christians from the area.

It is not for me to say what should be done. Perhaps no one knows. We can say what has not been done. There have been no real efforts at negotiations from the beginning or at engaging with the Russian government over Syria. There has been no attempt to support the opposition. No action was taken after the first evidence of use of chemical weapons. There has been no air-exclusion zone to protect civilian populations. There is no support on the part of the EU for refugees (with the exception of Germany and Sweden). 

In the face of such horror, how can we talk about Syria? It is no doubt important to place the situation in a triple perspective: that of a very long history, as attested by the presence of strata of history and religions and sects and populations; a medium-term history which needs to take into account the effect of colonialism and international treaties, including the French protectorate over Syria, the creation of Lebanon, the amputation of Iskanderun (which had historically been the sea-port of Aleppo); and a shorter-term history which includes 50 years of dictatorship by the Assad clan, the Iraq wars and the Lybian war.

The duration of the civil war and whole history of conflict in the region has made it difficult to imagine Syria other than in its current plight and position. For an alternative perspective we can return to a book written in the eighteenth century over a period of 50 years by two brothers, Alexander and Patrick Russell: The Natural History of Aleppo, and Parts Adjacent. Containing a Description of the City, and the Principal Natural Productions in its Neighbourhood; Together with an Account of the Climate, Inhabitants, and Diseases; particularly of the Plague, with the Methods used by the Europeans for their Preservation, first published in 1756 and then in a much-enlarged edition in 1794. It testifies to a world that is, in many ways, no more. The recognisable aspect of some of the manners and customs the authors describe, the sense of history, indeed the sense of belonging on the part of the inhabitants of Aleppo to that long history of manners and customs is something that has now disappeared under the bombs and the rubble inflicted by the war in Syria. Reading the book returns us to a world when it wasn’t always thus.

The book is, to an extent, an illustrated narrative of Aleppo. The second edition opens with an engraving of Aleppo which offers a view of the city from a distance, the citadel and minarets providing landmarks (for recent photographic work on the city of Aleppo: click here).The foreground is made up of a bucolic landscape of trees around the city, with turbaned natives seen chatting, wandering with a child, or someone riding a horse towards the city. The caravan which comes in from the left suggests economic activity (Aleppo was the terminus of the great caravan routes from Persia and Mesopotamia, but the goods were conveyed to and from Aleppo to Iskanderun by camels). Above all, the careful and peaceful composition provides a commentary on the general organisation of the city and its surroundings: 

In some parts, more especially on the North side of the town, the gardens thus formed are of considerable extent, affording an agreeable prospect from the houses, which by gradual encroachments have been raised on the ruins of the old ramparts.

The reader is ascribed the role of the inexperienced traveller being shown, and perhaps educated, by one who knows more about these things, and who endeavours to bridge the gap between the Englishman’s perception of the world and the realities of Aleppo. The language of the picturesque together with the movement of the traveller who follows the buildings and gardens as if he were indeed walking round a landscape garden characterise the narrative.

But the book also purports to be a scientific text, as the title indicates, a natural history of the city, one where we find that the brothers collected information about birds and plants and manners and customs and, above all, their medical reflections on the plague (both Russells had been physicians to the factory of the Levant Company at Aleppo). The conjoining of rhetorical modes that favour scientific detachment and objectivity (classifications, precise descriptions), with other modes that belong to travel literature (the picturesque, the personal presence of the narrator in the text, etc.), the heterogeneity of a text that was written over fifty years by two brothers, suggests a complex process. The overall picture is one of effort, of the difficulty of approaching the nature of life in Aleppo, except through revisions and transformations, through textual modes that leave the reader to negotiate the various perspectives given by the narrative. Such difficulty persists today, in different form, but this narrative of social, historical, complexity may help us return to an Aleppo and Syria that is no more.

Published: 14 May 2015  Categories: English Literature, History, Politics

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Alexis Tadié is Professor of English Literature at the University of Paris-Sorbonne and a Fellow of the Institut Universitaire de France. He was previously a Cultural Attaché in Syria.