Feb 20th 2016
Damascus Diaries: Life under the Assads
By Peter Clark, Gilgamesh; 393 pages; £12.50
My House in Damascus: An Inside View of the Syrian Crisis
By Diana Dark, Haus; 282 pages; £9.99
WHAT is being lost as Syria bleeds? Not just lives, but a tradition of pluralism and tolerance, all too rare in the Middle East, and a rich cultural treasure-house. That is the message of these two very personal books by Britons who have lived in Syria and fallen in love with it.
Peter Clark ran the British Council in Damascus for five years in the 1990s. His diaries—quirky, digressive, indiscreet—chronicle his attempts to build cultural relations in a police state filled with fear, corruption and red tape. Even friendly officials are wary of the ruling Baath party.
When he starts English classes, they are infiltrated by the secret police. He persists, organising an exhibition of photographs of Syria by Freya Stark, a travel writer, in the 1920s and 1930s—and then, more ambitiously, an Anglo-Syrian production of Purcell’s opera “Dido and Aeneas”, which, against all odds, is a great success. In the midst of all this, he somehow finds time to translate a novel by Ulfat Idilbi, a spry old Syrian feminist in her 80s.
There are political insights into the persecution complex of the Alawites, the heterodox religious minority, historically poor and marginalised, which has come to dominate the ruling civil and military elite. There is a chilling encounter with the president, Hafez al-Assad, whose “cold grey eyes” seemed to “look into your soul”. But the principal characters are the author’s Syrian friends—the writers, lawyers, bank managers and university professors with whom he eats, drinks, dances and gossips. He relishes the odd details of Syrian life: the old khan (or caravanserai) that used to be a lunatic asylum, the tea Syrian migrants have brought back from Argentina, the delightful word Gommaji (an amalgam of Italian and Turkish), meaning a man who repairs punctures.
Diana Darke’s book is set in the Syria of Bashar al-Assad, who succeeded his father in 2000. Ms Darke is a journalist and travel writer, and much of her early time in Syria was spent walking its hills and exploring its mosques, churches, monasteries and fortresses. But in 2005 she took the bold decision to use her life’s savings to buy an 18th-century Ottoman house in the Old City of Damascus. Her book, now in an enlarged third edition, tells the remarkable story of how she did so, despite a succession of legal and bureaucratic obstacles, and the onset of civil war.
As with Mr Clark and his opera production, Ms Darke’s British and Syrian friends thought she was mad. Like him, she persevered. Interwoven with the story of how she renovated the house are asides on an array of issues—education, women’s rights, Islamic art—and on the Assads, whose regime she clearly detests. When the war forced her to leave, she turned the house into a refuge for Syrian friends escaping the violence.
Both authors cling to the hope that Syria with its mosaic of communities and traditions, and its unique history and archaeology, will somehow rebuild itself. In the meantime their books serve as moving tributes to the Syria that has been lost.