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.

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In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump