John McHugos’ Syria
Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 5th July, 2014
Earlier this week I was at Mosaic Rooms in Kensington, interviewing the writer and Arabist John McHugo about his new book on Syria. The topicality of the subject was doubtless one reason that the place was packed — and both John and his publishers, Saqi Books, deserve praise for turning the book round so quickly but professionally, so that it can become part of the national debate on Syria. John and I first met over 40 years ago, in the coffee room of the Oriental Institute at Oxford, though at that time I was studying Chinese with Japanese, while John was already grounded in Arab studies. This helped him greatly in the preparation of his last book, A Concise History of the Arabs (brought out by Saqi last year), but marrying Diana Darke, the author of My House in Damascus, which I reviewed earlier this year, certainly cemented his involvement in Syria in particular. His new book, Syria: From the Great War to Civil War (Saqi, £17.99), really brings alive the trials and tribulations — as well as some periods of relative calm — of the people of Syria over the past century. I was particularly interested in John’s treatment of the French Mandate period, which gets scan coverage in most English-language texts about the 20th century Middle East. He was able to draw on Patrick Seale’s magisterial biography of Hafez al-Assad to help portray the rise to power and its exercise by that remarkable man, who had a very clear vision for the role and future of his country, and was prepared to liquidate anyone who fundamentally disagreed. When the old man died and his second son, Bashar, took over, there was a false sense of reasssurance in many Western capitals, that this partly English-educated newcomer with his medical background would usher in a glorious period of reform — not that the presidential circle and narrow base of vested interests would ever have allowed him to be too radical in challenging the system of patronage from which they benefitted so handsomely. By chance, John and I were both in Syria — he in Damascus, me in Tartus — when the waves of the so-called Arab Spring finally reached Syria in March 2011. Had the authorities handled things differently then, instead of relying on oppression, things might have developed quite differently. Inevitably, in the question and answers at the Mosaic Rooms event, John got asked about what is happening now in what to an extent has become a proxy war, with different foreign powers and even religious ideologies lining up on one side or another. But I am sure he was right when he said that sectarianism between Sunni and Shia was not such big issues for most of the period covered by his book, though now it is seen as defining the struggle that has so far cost over 150,000 lives.
[photo: Susannah Tarbush]