Revolt in Syria by Stephen Starr - review

Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising

By Stephen Starr

C Hurst & Co, 232pp, £14.99

Having lived in Syria for several years, I have always been sceptical about the coverage of the uprising. This is partly because the analysis often seems disconnected from the reality on the ground. There are Sunnis who will die for Assad, just as there are Alawis who have joined the FSA. These voices are not heard because information is disseminated through a tech-savvy opposition and because journalists and "experts" possess only cursory knowledge of the country’s political and social topography. Stephen Starr is an exception. His book is the only account that gives previously unheard voices a chance to be heard.

Starr was a colleague of mine, and is familiar with the sectarian and political milieu in Syria better than anyone I know. He has spent five years in the country, marrying into Syrian society - if there is one Irishman that the Syrians would describe as muta’rrib, "Arabicised", it is him. His local knowledge is excellent. The fact that recent protest should stem from Midan is unsurprising; as he points out, it’s a place for delicious grilled meat but also a conservative Sunni stronghold. He knows that First Cup, a plush café in Mezze, is a pro-government Alawi outfit, just as he is able to distinguish between Damascene and Lattakian accents in order to ascertain a person’s sectarian affiliations. It’s the sort of texture you need to understand Syrian society better.

Through a series of vignettes and anecdotes, Starr, editor of Near East Quarterly, provides us with a plethora of voices from minorities: Sunnis, Shias, Kurds, Palestinians, pro-regime and anti regime Syrians. What becomes clear is that Syrian society is riven by fault lines that are not insurmountable, though the media likes to portray them that way. Rather it is the Alawi government which stokes sectarian tensions to strengthen its own position. 

The book is a witness to a dilapidated regime. Starr shows us the workings of a government bureaucracy that enslaves its employees through subsidies and low pay. It makes obtaining a permit into a Kafkaesque experience. Sometimes it is not money that does the trick, but presenting a bit of madlu’a, Syrian sweetmeats, to one of the officers. Such techniques can eliminate all the paper work in an instant or make your passport into a door stopper; Starr captures it all brilliantly.

His account gives one a sense of the paranoia that seeps into your very being. Starr changes passwords daily, reports to the local mukhtar, informs the Mukhabarat, the secret police, takes his cell phone batteries out so they can’t listen; the system has gnawed away at him.  At his book launch last week, Starr told me I had been too conspicuous to the Syrian security services; but trying to study classical Arabic forces you to be. In order to master it you had to go beyond the University of Damascus and the young Alawi language teachers with poor grammar, and sit with master grammarians under house arrest venting their vitriol. Of course you had to pay the price. In the eyes of the Mukhabarat, if you possessed an Arabic name and studied classical Arabic you were either a Muslim Brother, Salafist, a spy or anti-regime. Why else study Arabic? A random phone call instructed me to attend an interview. How do you prepare for such an interrogation? Ask Starr: bring out your wasta, someone who can vouch for you. My wasta was a former advisor to Hafez Assad. I never got any trouble from the secret police after that. Ironically, it was also this same wasta who had kept my Arabic grammarian under house arrest.

The book’s only flaw is that it barely touches on the role of the ulama, or clerics, in Syrian society. Only Thomas Pirret’s Near Eastern Quarterly article, "The Role of the mosque in the Syrian revolution", and a recent Royal United Services Institute presentation by Shaykh Muhammad al-Yaquoubi, a Syrian opposition scholar, have discussed the pivotal role that 10,000 clerics play in shaping Syrian society. Notwithstanding this oversight, Starr’s book is not only an important contribution to the uprising, but also a sometimes terrifying account of the Syrian police state.

A defaced poster president Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian city of Aleppo (Photo: Getty Images)

Tam Hussein is an award winning writer and journalist specialising in the Middle East. He spent several years in the Middle East and North Africa working as a translator and consultant. Tam also writes for the Huffington Post.

© THE TRUSTEES OF THE BRITISH MUSEUM
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How Native American culture fought back against the colonisers

The British Museum's new exhibition reveals the resilience of First Nations culture.

In the Great Court of the British Museum stand two enormous cedar totem poles, acquired in the early years of the 20th century from the north-west coast of North America. One was made by the Haida peoples and the other by the Nisga’a, two of the nations that make up the many-layered society stretching through Alaska, British Columbia and Washington State in the lands which, today, are called the United States and Canada. These peoples, whose history dates back at least 9,000 years, have been remarkably resilient in withstanding European and Russian incursion from the 18th century onward. Besides the Haida and Nisga’a, there are the Tlingit and Kwakwaka’wakw, the Tsimshian, the Coast Salish, Nuu-chah-nulth and Makah groups.

Now, for the first time, the British Museum is bringing together objects from these cultures in an exhibition that showcases one of the world’s most recognisable artistic traditions, and demonstrates how cultural identity can endure even in the most terrible circumstances. First Nation rights and identity are still very much under threat, as protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota show.

The exhibition takes its title from the legendary Thunderbird, who uses his strength and power to hunt whales – a skill he is said to have given to some of these communities. His legend persists into the present day. The Thunderbird can be seen here on a club collected by Captain Cook in the 18th century, and on a 1983 print made by the contemporary Kwakwaka’wakw artist Tony Hunt.

The objects on display are set in cases painted with a pale green wash to evoke the colour of fresh cedar bark. Some – such as the totem poles in the Great Court – evoke the power and majesty of these societies, while others are domestic items that combine beauty and usefulness in equal measure. In the first category are two potlatch “coppers”, shield-shaped plaques about a metre in height, made from what was an exotic and valuable metal. The potlatch is a ceremony, often days long, of feasting, dancing and giving of gifts. Such copper plaques, patterned with spruce gum in the sinuous “formline” design, which is as distinctive to the north-west coast as intricate knotting is to the Celtic tradition, were a significant part of the ceremony.

Equally intricately worked is a basket made of cedar twigs and cedar bark, used to catch fish. The bark on the basket is wrapped in an alternating sequence around the twigs: a technique that brings not only beauty but strength to what is, in effect, a delicate net. From these two objects alone, one can begin to grasp the sophistication of life on the Pacific north-west coast. The people of these cultures built highly complex and rich societies, all without the benefit of agriculture – evidence of the bounty of the bays and islands. In this lush geography, artists and craftsmen made works that are a source of wonder today: look for the joins at the corners of the elaborately decorated Haida box on display and you won’t find any. The chests are made from a single plank of red cedar, which is steamed until pliable; the two ends are then pegged together. They can be used for the storage of clothing, also as drums, or for cooking – or even for burial. They are a good symbol for the adaptability of the cultures of the north-west coast.

The new exhibition is laid out over a single room. One side of the room spans the earliest stone tools and historic weapons made in the region, up to objects from the time of Captain James Cook’s arrival in the 1770s; the other features art and regalia from the museum’s collections, including contemporary work and examples from the modern era. The latter addresses what might plainly be called cultural genocide: the often willed destruction of First Nation populations, in both Canada and the United States, by disease; by the residential school system, under which children were taken away from their families to be “educated” out of their culture and beliefs; and by the attempted eradication of languages and religious practices.

One of these banned practices was the potlatch itself, outlawed in Canada from 1880 until 1951 – long enough for a culture to vanish. Yet it survived, the curator Jago Cooper told me, as a result of “people going into museums and studying, or grabbing a grandparent and asking questions. People were incredibly industrious when it came to restoring their culture.” The show opens with a video of a vibrant potlatch.

There is evidence of that restoration and revival in the regalia worn by Chief Alver Tait in 2003 when the Nisga’a totem pole was first raised in the British Museum after decades of storage. He and his wife, Lillian, performed a spirit dance “to bring life back to the ancestors in the totem pole because they had been resting for so long”.

Much of the material here has been seen less frequently than it might be. In Missing Continents at the British Museum, a BBC Radio 4 programme made last year (and still available on iPlayer), the artist Antony Gormley, a former British Museum trustee, argued that the cultures of Africa, Oceania and the Americas are overshadowed there by those of Europe and Mesopotamia, which take the lion’s share of permanent displays at the institution.

Temporary shows such as “Where the Thunderbird Lives” allow a glimpse of the museum’s hidden holdings, some of them simply too fragile to be seen very often, or for very long. At least one of the objects, a gorgeous yellow cedar cloak, collected in the last years of the 18th century on George Vancouver’s North Pacific voyage and painted with an oystercatcher and two skate figure images, is a “once in a lifetime” object – it can’t be exposed to light for long, so now’s your chance to see it. We don’t know who made it. Some of the others, such as the “welcome figure”, carved with open arms, can’t even be attributed to a specific culture. That is, of course, true of many items in the museum’s vast collection: we don’t know who made the Sutton Hoo Helmet, or carved the Rosetta Stone.

The past cannot be changed: it can, however, be acknowledged, as this exhibition gracefully does – for in the work of the contemporary artists here, one sees, in diverse ways, the continuation of their ancestors’ traditions. What looks like a traditional Tlingit spruce root twinned basket is made of glass, by the contemporary Tlingit artist Preston Singletary; a copper pendant echoes the great potlatch coppers but the image printed on its face shows a detail from a US$5 bill (this was made by the Tlingit artist Alison Bremner). Ownership of culture and definitions of culture are questions more hotly debated than ever before. “Where the Thunderbird Lives” is a thoughtful – and beautiful – addition to that debate. 

“Where the Thunderbird Lives: Cultural Resilience on the North-west Coast of North America” opens on 23 February and is at the British Museum, London WC1, until 27 August. Details: britishmuseum.org

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit