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: Nadav Kander
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Sarah Hall's dark short stories are fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment

The displacements in Madame Zero are literal, figurative and occasionally fantastical.

There’s no story called “Madame Zero” in Sarah Hall’s new collection: the title floats enigmatically above this dark and memorable set of stories. A passing mention of “Cotard. Capgras. Madame Zero” gives a clue, but the reader has to scurry for it.

In the 1920s a patient presented herself to the French psychiatrist Joseph Capgras with what the latter identified as an unusual form of the Cotard delusion, a mental illness characterised by a radical sense of disconnection from the self. Some Cotard sufferers think parts of their body have vanished; some think they’re dead and rotting. Capgras’s patient felt that she wasn’t there at all, and gave the name Madame Zero to the non-being who had replaced her.

With this, a lot becomes clear about Hall’s second collection of short fiction. So many of these stories are about characters who have vanished, become strange to themselves or stepped out of the centres of their own lives.

The displacements are literal, figurative and, occasionally, fantastical. In the opening story, “Mrs Fox”, for which Hall won the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2013, a woman who “dreams subterranean dreams, of forests, dark corridors and burrows, roots and earth” is out for a walk with her husband one morning when she transforms into a vixen. “She turns and smiles,” Hall writes, in language whose imagery edges close to horror. “Something is wrong with her face. The bones have been re-carved. Her lips are thin and the nose is a dark blade. Teeth small and yellow. The lashes of her hazel eyes have thickened…”

The story quietly updates David Garnett’s strange little novel Lady Into Fox from 1922, but its fascination with the wild – in humans, in nature, in the borders between the two – continues a theme that runs in Hall’s work from her debut novel Haweswater (2002) to her most recent, The Wolf Border (2015).

It finds an echo in “Evie”, the collection’s final piece, in which a married woman becomes wild in a different way, exhibiting cravings, confusion and promiscuity that first baffles then arouses her husband. Her radical changes, however (“She’d walked carelessly across the tripwires of their relationship, as though through a field of mines, as if immune”), turn out to have a dreadful neurological cause.

Other stories experiment with register, style and genre. Written in downbeat medicalese, “Case Study 2” takes the form of a psychiatrist’s report on a patient: a wild boy found on the moors who turns out to have been brought up by a secretive communal cult. As the therapist begins to “re-parent” her new charge, getting him to say “I” instead of “we” and teaching him about property and possessions, Hall drip-feeds hints about the community he has left, whose slogan “All of one mind and all free” soon acquires a threatening resonance.

The points in this story about connection and selfhood give it an aspect of fable, but at root it’s a weird tale; take away the leached and wistful tone and the doctorly equivocations and we might be in The Twilight Zone. Hall has written counterfactuals and science fiction before: her novel The Carhullan Army imagined life among a group of armed feminist rebels in dystopian Britain, while The Wolf Border, written before the referendum but set in a newly independent Scotland, looks more alternative-historical by the day. 

Similar impulses power several of the stories here. “Theatre 6” portrays a Britain living under “God’s Jurisdiction”, in which the Department for the Protection of Unborn Children insists all pregnancies be carried to term. Other imaginary societies are evoked in “Later, His Ghost”, a haunting piece of cli-fi about a Britain devastated by high winds (originally published in this magazine); and in “One in Four”, a four-page chiller set in the middle of a flu pandemic. Hall is no world-building nerd, however. Her focus is always on the strangely displaced characters (harried anaesthetist, obsessed survivor, suicidal biochemist) at the stories’ heart.

A microclimate of unease also hangs over the stories in which nothing weird is visibly going on. In “Luxury Hour”, a new mother returning from the lido meets the man with whom she once had a secret affair; going home, she imagines her child “lying motionless in the bath while the minder sat on a stool, wings unfurled, monstrous”. “Goodnight Nobody” evokes the crowded inner world of Jem, an Eighties child with a ThunderCats obsession (but her mum works in a mortuary, and the neighbour’s dog has just eaten a baby…). And “Wilderness”, my favourite from this collection, conjures stark prickling fear from its description of a woman with vertigo crossing a creaking viaduct in South Africa: “The viaduct was floating free, and sailing on the wind. It was moving into the valley, into the river’s mouth. It was going to hit the hillside, and heave and tip and buckle.”

These aren’t particularly comforting stories; they’re fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment, told by or featuring characters who are frequently incomprehensible to themselves. But their poise, power and assurance are very striking indeed. 

Madame Zero
Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber, 179pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder