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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Edinburgh in the time of Harry Potter - growing up in a city that became famous for a book

At first, JK Rowling was considered a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. 

In an Edinburgh playground, circa 1998, I found myself excluded from one of the world’s first Harry Potter cliques. My best friend Sophie had a copy of a book with a title which seemed indecipherable to me, but she insisted it was so good she couldn’t possibly let me read it. Instead, she and the other owner of a book huddled together in corners of our concrete, high-walled playground. I was not invited.

Exclusion worked. Somehow I procured a copy of this book, rather sceptically read the praise on the cover, and spent the next day avoiding all company in order to finish it. After my initiation into the small-but-growing clique, I read the second book, still in hardback.

Edinburgh at that time was something of a backwater. Although it still had the same atmospheric skyline, with the castle dominating the city, the Scottish Parliament was yet to open, and the Scottish banks were still hatching their global domination plans. The most famous author of the moment was Irvine Welsh, whose book Trainspotting chronicled a heroin epidemic.

In this city, JK Rowling was still considered to be a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. She gave talks in the Edinburgh Book Festival, a string of tents in the posh West End Charlotte Square. By the time I saw her (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, hardback edition, 1999), she had graduated from the tepee to the big tent reserved for authors like Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen. At the end we queued up for the book signing, and she told me she liked my purple dungarees.

At that time, there were no films, and what the characters should look and sound like was a constant playground debate. Another member of the Harry Potter clique I spoke to, Sally*, remembers how excited she was that “she did the same voice for Hagrid that my mum did when she was reading it to me”.

About the same time, a rumour spread around school so incredible it took a while to establish it was true. JK Rowling was moving to the street where some of our Harry Potter clique lived. We started taking detours for the privilege of scurrying past the grand Victorian house on the corner, with its mail box and security keypad. The mail box in particular became a focus of our imagination. Sophie and I laboured away on a Harry Potter board game which – we fervently believed – would one day be ready to post.

Gradually, though, it was not just ten-year-olds peeping through the gate. The adults had read Harry Potter by now. Journalists were caught raking through the bins.

Sally recalls the change. “It was exciting [after she first moved in], but as it was just after the first book it wasn’t as much of a big deal as it soon became,” she recalls. “Then it just felt a little bizarre that people would go on tours to try and get a glimpse of her house.

“It just felt like an ordinary area of town with ordinary people and it made me realise the price that comes with fame.”

Edinburgh, too, began to change. As teenagers (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2003) we liked to gather at the Elephant House cafe, on the bohemian George IV Bridge. We knew it was one of the cafes JK Rowling had written in, but we also liked its round wooden tables, and its bagels, and the fact you got one of the hundreds of miniature elephants that decorated the café if your bagel was late. It became harder and harder to get a seat.

We scoffed at the tourists. Still, we were proud that Harry Potter had put our city on the map. “As I grew older, it was fun to think of her writing the books in local cafes and just being an ordinary person living in Edinburgh with a great imagination,” Sally says. As for me, it was my trump card during long summers spent with bored Canadian teenagers, who had not heard and did not care about anything else relating to my teenage life in Scotland.

The last in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was published in July 2007, a month after I left high school. Not long after that, I left Edinburgh as well. The financial crash the following year stunned the city, and exiled graduates like me. I fell out the habit of reading fiction for fun. JK Rowling moved to a house on the outskirts of Edinburgh, ringed by 50 foot hedges. The Scottish independence referendum divided my friends and family. On Twitter, Rowling, firmly pro-union, was a target for cybernats.

Then, two years ago, I discovered there is another Harry Potter city – Porto. As in Edinburgh, medieval passageways wind past stacked old houses, and the sea is never far away. JK Rowling lived here between 1991 and 1993, during her short-lived marriage, and drafted the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In the university district, students wear black, ragged gowns, and the fantastical wooden carvings of the Livraria Lello bookshop is tipped to be the inspiration for some of the aesthetic Rowling applies to the books.

I don’t know whether it did or not. But it made me realise that no city can possess an author, and not only because she could afford to any part of the globe at whim. Standing in the bookshop and watching the students drift by, I could imagine myself in some corner of the Harry Potter world. And simultaneously, perhaps, some tourists queueing for a table at the Elephant House were doing the same.

*Name has been changed

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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