Between late-night strategic seminars and early-morning information salvaging sessions, our CSO has been getting as far away from LED and LCD screens as the development of a company will permit him to, and amongst the books that have been on his radar recently is an intriguing Bradt guide to Syria (second edition, 2010). Authored by the Oxford-educated Arabist Diana Darke, the book is superbly researched and written in a highly-accessible yet profoundly informative style. Darke, a Damascus denizen who possesses a tangibly profound attachment to her adopted homeland, attempts to present a view of Syria untainted by political considerations; in many ways, she succeeds admirably, memorably illustrating the exceptional cultural, architectural and gastronomic treasures that this currently troubled country has to offer.
However, we at Mediolana did notice a flaw with this approach: flicking through this book, it was difficult to discern that there was anything much wrong at all in the Syrian Arab Republic. The impression that one gets of Bashar al-Assad is that of a benign moderniser – the president of the national computer society, no less! – while the section on the city of Hama, a metropolis now synonymous with rubble, all but condones the internationally notorious 1982 massacre during which the fourth-largest settlement in Syria was all but levelled in an alarmingly disproportionate crushing of a violent but relatively small-scale insurgency.
The author’s stance is in many ways understandable. Syria is a much-misunderstood country which is in addition of significant geostrategic value not merely for other regional entities but also major world powers such as Russia, China and the United States; looking at the fate of Syria’s eastern neighbour Iraq, the goal of wishing to avoid giving any pretext for overseas intervention in the affairs of Damascus is not necessarily a negative one. In this context, positing a view of Syria which stresses the country’s numerous strengths, including a remarkable tradition of religious and ethnic diversity, is more than comprehensible.
But ultimately such a perspective ends up engendering more problems than it solves. By papering over huge and obvious structural issues within Syria, Darke has done her own otherwise excellent work a disservice. The fact that Syria has a chronic and polity-defining youth unemployment rate; that the country is ranked 175/183 in the world in terms of ability to enforce a business contract; that Syria occupied a position in the 2010 Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index below China PR, Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan; these are indicative of the kinds of macro- and micro-tyranny that Syrians have had to endure for decades. In an era where tourists are increasingly mindful of what their money is doing to destination economies and societies, information such as this is surely at least as valuable as the nth restaurant review.