New book on modern Syria – a rich history and an uncertain future
“I wanted to talk not only about politics, conflicts and institutions in this book, but also about culture and intellectual life.”
As an undergraduate student at Georgetown University in the 1970s, James Reilly was interested in classical archeology when he went to Lebanon to study at the American University in Beirut.
“I was living in the dormitories, my roommate was a Saudi and there were Palestinians and Iraqis across the hall,” says Reilly, now a professor in the Department of Near & Middle Eastern Civilizations in the Faculty of Arts & Science. “I had come from a fairly homogeneous American background, and they had experiences and perspectives that were so new to me.”
Along with his new friendships, Reilly also experienced the breakout of the Lebanese civil war in 1975, which further piqued his interests in the history, politics and peoples of the Middle East. Fascinated, he quickly changed the trajectory of his studies and has since built a career as an acclaimed historian of the modern Middle East, particularly the Ottoman Empire, Lebanon and Syria.
But Reilly’s new book about modern Syria isn’t an academic work. Fragile Nation, Shattered Land aims to reach a wide audience with an accessible portrait of Syria, a country with a rich past and, at the moment, a very uncertain future.
“I wanted to talk not only about politics, conflicts and institutions in this book, but also about culture and intellectual life, so that readers could understand that Syria — whether 200 years ago or today — is a society that is full of people who think, create, enjoy life and suffer,” says Reilly.
From the Arab Spring to a multi-sided civil war
A massive and violent conflict has engulfed Syria since 2011. Half of the country’s people have been displaced from their homes and an estimated two per cent of the population — nearly 500,000 people — have lost their lives. Many Syrian refugees have ended up here in Toronto.
A number of different groups are vying for power. While the dominant narrative often frames the clash as one of authoritarian dictator Bashar Al-Assad versus the people, less is discussed about the roles of the Kurds, the Muslim Brotherhood, ISIS, various rival rebel groups, the Saudis, the United States, Israel and Russia.
“Al-Assad’s regime is by any measure a terrible regime,” says Reilly. “But there are many Syrians who equally fear the alternative. Whether by default or through resignation, they passively or actively support the regime, or at least oppose the armed opposition to the regime.”
Syrians caught in the middle of this multi-sided conflict “very often don’t have choices,” says Reilly. “They just have to follow the path of least resistance.”
To contextualize the current situation, Reilly’s book examines the last three centuries of the region, tracing global developments in modernity, early industrialism, nation-state building and world wars alongside events and communities specific to the region. The book delves into everything from leisure activities in various eras to the rise of literacy, the role of religion in public life, rural-urban tensions, coast-interior rivalries and Syria’s relationships with various external powers including the Ottoman Empire, Israel, Egypt and France.
What emerges is a portrait of a diverse and ever-changing region that has played a key role in global modernity, particularly with Damascus as one of the oldest continuously-inhabited cities in the world — a hub of cultural and intellectual activity — and Aleppo as a major international trade route until the early 19th century.
“Is there anything we, as historians, can do?”
Reilly and his colleagues have been “appalled by the bloodshed and the conflict that has engulfed Syria since 2011,” he says.
“At first, I couldn’t think of anything that I, as a historian, could bring to the public discussion, which focuses on the here-and-now and on scenarios for the future. But then I realized perhaps we could draw connections between the historical phenomena that we study and some of the underlying issues in Syria.
“Writing something that wasn’t only for other specialists was important,” says Reilly. “If we want to put something out there for more general use, it has to be addressed to a general audience.”
Reilly hopes readers of his book will come away with an appreciation of the usefulness of history in helping us to comprehend the present — what is past is neither gone nor forgotten, but continues to influence “the way in which people understand themselves and their choices,” he says.
Reilly credits his students with helping him work through some of the issues and narratives in his book. “A lot of the themes I develop in the book come from years of teaching undergraduate courses because, to effectively teach, you have to construct a narrative that is not only accessible but also one that opens up questions rather than closes them down,” says Reilly.
“Being able to teach at U of T for 30-plus years, where we have excellent students, prepared me to write a book like this. My students have brought things up to me that have made me confront gaps in my own knowledge, or they’ve asked questions I had not thought of.”
Reilly considers dispelling myths about the Middle East to be one contribution a historian like him can make to effect change.
“People only think of the Middle East as a place that’s full of troubles, a place of conflict. That’s a very simplistic and ahistorical notion. Instead, in my teaching and in this book, I ask: ‘What happened? Who did what? What were the consequences?’ without appearing to be partisan. There are ethnic or other stereotypes that can get in the way of understanding why people do what they do, and why they live the way they live.
“In teaching history, you’re deconstructing, but also trying to reconstruct a story so that people feel some empathy for fellow human beings confronting situations that are existential. What kinds of choices should people make, and how much choice do they have?”
Fragile Nation, Shattered Land aims to answer those questions about modern Syria for anyone who wants to know.