Books paint a portrait of Syria

September 16, 2013

Abraham Lincoln famously told Harriet Beecher Stowe that her book "Uncle Tomís Cabin" started the Civil War. In the 1990s, two books helped inform the policies of President Bill Clinton in the Balkans. Robert D. Kaplanís "Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History" portrayed centuries of irreconcilable ethnic enmity and gave the impression of a morass that would swallow up any country that intervened. But later Clinton read Noel Malcolmís "Bosnia: A Short History," which portrayed the conflict in that country as the product of the Machiavellian political calculations of Slobodan Milosevic. A more active U.S. role soon followed.

So what is one to read about Syria, the latest place to provoke debate about whether the U.S. should send missiles or troops to a distant land?

A plethora of books have been written on the Syrian revolution and the Assad regime in the last year. But at World Literature Today, Nikolaos van Dam recommends a memoir by Hanna Mina, one of the few modern Syrian novelists whose works are available in English translation.

In the 2004 book "Fragments of Memory," Mina describes "the hardly imaginable poverty in which he and his family had to live: under a fig tree, on a dusty roadside, constantly exposed to the sun and extreme hunger. Mina provides a dramatic, in-depth, insiderís view of the miserable, early-twentieth-century life of rural people," Van Dam writes.

Several Syria observers also recommend Van Damís own book, "The Struggle for Power in Syria: Politics and Society Under Asad and the Baíth Party," published by I.B. Tauris, which recounts how the Assad dynasty (there are various spellings of the name in English) came to rule Syria.

Current Syrian President Bashar Assad inherited leadership of the regime created by his father, the late Hafez Assad. The elder Assad is the subject of another book on Syria, by Patrick Seale, "Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East." Published in 1989 by the University of California Press, Sealeís book is a more sympathetic portrait of the elder Assad, the Los Angeles Times wrote in a review.

University of Oklahoma professor Joshua M. Landis, a commentator on Syria, calls Sealeís book "the best and most readable overall book on modern Syrian history." Landis places Sealeís book on top of his list of books on Syria, along with Van Damís book and Hanna Batatuís "Syriaís Peasantry, the Descendants of Its Lesser Rural Notables, and Their Politics."



McClatchy-Tribune Information Services