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.

Photo: Getty
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Toys R Us defined my childhood – 6 of the toys I won't forget

Memories of a now-struggling toy shop. 

For my family, visits to Toys R Us usually took place around Christmas time. Since it was invariably freezing, this first meant being wrapped up by fussy parents in the cheapest and scratchiest of woolly hats, gloves and scarves. 

My Toys R Us was on Old Kent Road in south east London. It has a stupidly big car park, and was opposite a sofa-store which changed its name every few years. 

The store itself was as well-lit as a supermarket, but instead of cabbages, the shelves were lined with colourfully-packaged toys. 

On a street with few constants, Toys R Us has remained ever present. Now, though, the firm is filing for bankruptcy in the US and Canada. UK branches will not be affected for now, but the trends behind its demise are international - the growth of online retailers at the expense of traditional toyshops. 

Each year at Toys R Us is different as each is defined by a different set of best-sellers - the toys which defined my childhood are unlikely to define yours.  

Here is a retrospective catalogue of my Toys (and yes, they deserve capitalisation):

1. Beyblades

Perhaps my most treasured toy. Beyblades were in essence glorified spinning tops. 

The hit TV show about them however, made them anything but. 

On the show, teenagers would battle their spinning tops, which for some reason were possessed by ancient magical monsters, against each other. 

These battles on TV would last for multiple (surprisingly emotional) episode arcs. Alas, in the real world battles with friends would be scuppered by the laws of physics and last no longer than 30 seconds. 

Not so with the remote-controlled Beyblade. An electric motor provided an extra minute or so of flight time. 

It was wild. 

2. Furbies

At aged eight years old, I thought Furbies were stupid. I was wise beyond my years.

3. Barbies

Trips to Toys R Us inevitably also meant buying something for my younger sister. I would choose the ugliest looking doll from the shelves to annoy her. She was always annoyed.

4. Talking Buzz Lightyear

A toy which I will always remember as it led me to the epiphany that Santa Claus wasn't real. How did I figure it out? The Christmas tag was written by someone who had the distinctive handwriting of my father. I for one, am not looking forward to Toy Story 4. 

5. Yu-Gi-Oh Cards 

Yu-Gi-Oh was a card game about magical monsters that actually required a lot of strategy. It was cool to like them for a bit. Then we quickly realised that those who were actually good at the game were the losers and should be made fun of.

I was one of those losers. 

6. Tamagotchi

The first birthday present I ever bought my sister (with my hard earned birthday money, no less). She didn't care for it. Who did?

As much as all these playthings, Toys R Us itself has defined a specific part of childhood for millions. But for those growing up in the US however, that may not be the case any longer.