Syrian Studies Association Bulletin, Vol 16, No 2 (2011)

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Book Review:

 

The Other Side of the Mirror: an American Travels Through Syria.

 

Brooke Allen, The Other Side of the Mirror: an American Travels Through Syria. Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, $16.95 paperback, ix, 259 pages, bibliography.

 

Reviewed by Samuel Dolbee

 

Brooke Allen closes the introductory chapter of her Syrian travel narrative with an explanation of the books mission and title, The Other Side of the Mirror: to visit Syria is to confont the unhappy truth...that much of the international news we read or see...serves not as a window looking out at the world but as a mirror: a mirror that reflects our own fears and obsessions and shines them right back at us. (28) Allens work, then, is an effort to move, as the title suggests, beyond American preconceived notions about Syria and Syrians and, instead, see the reality beneath these distortions and stereotypes.  Allen, an essayist and critic whose most recent book detailed the irreligious nature of Americas founding fathers, generally succeeds in this task.  She is at her best when she debunks these inaccuracies throughout her wanderings, peppering deep contemplation of the past with vivid observations of her surroundings.  

 

The travels that form the body of the book occurred in two installments in 2009: for two weeks with her husband and two teenage daughters in the spring; and again with an old friend in the autumn of that year.  The text is arranged in five thematic chapters and does not adhere to a chronological timeline regarding either Syrian history or Allens travels.

 

What above all distinguishes Allens work is the aplomb with which she argues against the notion of a Western monopoly on Greco-Roman civilization as a primogenitor and the seamless way she weaves this argument with her travels.  Although she had little knowledge of Syria prior to her visit and must rely on French and English to communicate with Syrians, she has clearly done extensive reading, citing poets from Nizar Qabbani to al-Mutannabi and scholars from Amin Maalouf to Lisa Wedeen.  This level of erudition – well beyond that of most writers of travel narratives – enables her to bring together ruminations on modern, medieval, and pre-Islamic history to make a convincing case for the utter fallacy of the concept that Western civilization was the sole inheritor of Greco-Roman civilization.  In the West, we have been educated to see the mainstream of civilization...as a Western affair, Allen writes. (57)  With the pithiness that characterizes much of her writing, Allen continues, Here, all this stands revealed as nonsense. (57)  Seeing the remnants of the Greek agora in the courtyard of the Ummayad Mosque or the tradition of the Roman bathhouse in the Syrian hammam, Allen adeptly conveys Syrias rich historical tapestry.  She continues this nuanced estimation of historical content and context with respect to other epochs as well, characterizing, for example, the 1839 Ottoman Glhane Decree as revolutionary not only by Ottoman standards but by any standards of that era. (119)

 

Allen also vanquishes a number of common misconceptions that have obdurately remained swirling in the American public sphere regarding the nature of contemporary Middle East politics more generally.  She reminds readers, among other things, that opposition to Israel is different from anti-Semitism; the Holocaust occurred in Europe, not the Middle East; and those who wonder how Hizbullah can attract such a huge following could start to find an answer by looking at the social services they provide.

 

In addition to elucidating these important matters, Allen rises above the American-media driven stereotype of a country filled with violent extremists by detailing numerous interactions with the consumately friendly people of the most welcoming country she has ever visited. (1)  Encountering none of the knee-jerk, virulent anti-Americanism that is so common in Western Europe, Allen instead found Syrians without fail differentiated between her and her country. (8)  Indeed, many were eager to engage her with their affinity for various English-language cultural forms.  For example, Allen and her travelling companion encountered a lover of English poetry, who delighted in listening to Allens companion recite verses from Gray, Donne, and Eliot.  Another Syrian acquaintances proclivities angled toward an altogether different form of poetry; this young man hoped to be the Arab Eminem. (27)  Meanwhile, the boys mother often invoked Dr. Phil. (27)  Moreover, as consumers of American media are surely surprised to learn, Syrians do in fact wear lingerie, which, Allen adds, is sold quite openly. (39)  All of these points go to show that Syrians are not so different after all. 

 

An acerbic wit pervades Allens musings.  Lady Hester Stanhope, a two-centuries previous English traveler to Syria, is one of the preeminent lunatics of the nineteenth century. (81)  The Wahhabi leaders of Saudi Arabia are Bedouin rubes with oil money and a smattering of first-generation sophistication. (170)  Upon finding a clean bathroom at Masyaf, Allen adds, with toilet paper, mirabile dictu. (176)  Misspelled advertisements and menus (in English) are excellent signage. (130)  Nor does America evade Allens critical eye.  At times this self-reflection prompts a reluctance to judge: after all, a country that has given the world Las Vegas, Graceland, and Trump Tower has no room to scoff at other nations lapses in taste. (170)  But Allens disdain for Elvis-inspired kitsch notwithstanding, unvarnished aesthetic assessments of places on her itinerary may leave some readers all shook up.  Palmyra is a hick town; (93) Lattakia is nasty. (107)  With respect to the latter observation, she returns to the words of her favorite English eccentric, who happened to share Allens sentiment on Lattakia; since Stanhopes time, Allen adds, Lattakia has certainly not improved. (107)

 

Indeed, for Allen and her longue dure perspective, Syria is a place of essential continuity as the same trends and themes and cultural traits would crop up again and again, in different guises, throughout the centuries. (24)  Tracing these continuities can be interesting but other times it is problematic.  Regarding Hafiz al-Asads effort to establish a dynasty, Allen reasons, This seems an outrage on our side of the mirror, but it is in the natural order of things in Syria, where one dynasty has followed another for millennia. (246)  Although Allen is obviously trying to respond to readers who might self-righteously fulminate against such nepotism, her presentation of Syria as a land ruled by a succession of Oriental despots contradicts her broader goal of moving past stereotypes.  Even ignoring the question of what Syria means over the course of millennia, the generalization is inaccurate.  A glance at Syrias post-Ottoman ferment – to say nothing of ongoing protests throughout Syria today – reveals broad mobilizations of groups under various political banners making diverse claims about the nature of Syrian politics. 

 

Allens deconstruction of prejudice most notably fails, however, in her treatment of the Shia.  As she recounts her trip to the Sayyida Zaynab Mosque south of Damascus, she comments, Here, at long last, I found the kind of extreme religious enthusiasm that Westerners associate with the Muslim world. (171)  While the subsequent discussion of Shiism involves grasping for comparisons legible to American readers – likening Shiism, for example, to charismatic evangelical Christianity – the portrait nevertheless remains deeply monolithic and uncharacteristically shallow: her image of Shia stems from her observation of them at pilgrimage sites, a discussion with an archaeologist acquaintance of hers, and a joke made by her driver about Shii proclivity for unthinking pilgrimage. (172) Speaking with a Shii pilgrim, apparently, did not make it onto Allens agenda.  But as she segues to speaking about the medieval religious order-cum-hit squad of the Assassins, she introduces them as extremisteven among the already extreme Shia. (174) Allen backpedals from this statement to an extent, noting that todays Ismailis – unlike their forbears among the Assassins – are respectable citizens.  (176)  But the generalizations about pious Shii pilgrims remain untouched.  For a book that aims to dismantle stereotypes this type of language is especially puzzling. 

 

Indeed, the presentation of the Shia as those Muslims points to the limitations of this particular attempt to move past the mirror.  Going beyond simply interacting with the consumers of English-language popular culture might be too much to ask of a non-Arabic speaker conducting a month-long sojourn in Syria.  But this oversight nevertheless leaves the us vs. them dichotomy reconfigured rather than rectified.  More remains beyond the mirror, as it were.  Ultimately, however, disappointment at this shortcoming stems from the high standard of self-reflection and acute observation that Allen establishes in this lively, readable, and thoughtful work that will be enjoyable both for those with no knowledge of Syria and veteran specialists alike.            

 

Samuel Robert Dolbee is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History and the Department of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University.