Friday, 10 July 2015
Divided country, divided narratives
'Ms Yazbek’s book makes a valuable contribution to the attempt to explain the turmoil still unfolding in Syria. Mr Glass’s work, by contrast, serves to muddy the waters further. Foreign powers are undoubtedly playing an unhelpful role, but Mr Glass attributes too much to them. He criticises Turkey and other Arab countries, who have chaotically backed Syria’s rebels, while more or less letting off Iran and Russia, who have funded and armed Mr Assad to a far greater degree. Though he is no diehard fan of the regime, he also downplays its crimes relative to those of the rebels (which are not in dispute).
Sometimes this borders on the outright disingenuous. He writes that chemical weapons are “alleged to have been used not only by the government but by the rebels as well”. Yet there is overwhelming evidence against the regime, including of a sarin attack on Damascus suburbs in 2013 that left hundreds dead. By contrast, there is little sign of rebels using chemicals, and certainly not on that scale.
Although Ms Yazbek’s book is written exclusively from the rebel-held area of the country, and she considers herself part of the opposition to Mr Assad, her account of weeks spent in the northern province of Idlib is more balanced. She lets people of all stripes speak for themselves: the rebel leader who threatens Alawites (the minority sect to which Ms Yazbek and the Assads belong; see article), Raed Fares, a well-known secular activist, as well as ordinary Syrians, male and female.
She is not blind to the changing nature of the war, as it has turned from a peaceful uprising to an armed, and increasingly religious, conflict. She fears the danger not just of jihadists but of the growing devoutness of ordinary civilians left with nothing to turn to but their faith. Yet in her book, bursting with Syrian voices, the revolution to overthrow the Assad regime continues. One woman, who pleads with Ms Yazbek to tell the world what is really happening, tells her she will never “kneel” to Mr Assad. “I’m going to get pregnant every nine months and keep having children so that we don’t become extinct,” she says.
Her trips show why: the brutality of the regime is evident on every page. In rebel-held Syria the unimaginable is now the norm: children without limbs; whole families wiped out in barrel bombs; playgrounds turned into burial grounds as cemeteries fill up. Through snippets of these people’s lives Ms Yazbek does the important job of putting faces to the numbing numbers of Syria’s crisis: over 200,000 dead and 10m displaced. Amid the rubble, many Syrians have an incredible sense of social solidarity and they find ingenious ways to survive. It is impossible not to share her anger at “the great injustice that had fallen on us as a people and a cause”.
Ms Yazbek does much to make Syria better understood; her book is gripping. Mr Glass’s feels more hastily written and polemical. One can only hope that more Syrians, with better access to and understanding of the country, write their stories. Their take on the war needs to be heard.'