Robin Yassin-Kassab

Diana Darke on Islam’s “moral economy”

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This interview/ review was first published at the National.

darkeThe Middle East “held a fascination for me since childhood. I mean, it’s where civilisation began.”

I was speaking to the British writer, historian and Arabist Diana Darke, whose second book, “The Merchant of Syria”, is published this month.

An engaging conversationalist, Diana told me about her life-long entanglement with the Arab world.

After studying Arabic in the 1970s, she spent six months in Beirut. This is when – through a series of cross-border visits – she first fell in love with Syria. “I was a 22-year-old blonde woman travelling alone and I was completely safe. Everybody was courteous and welcoming.” Damascus in particular captured her heart – “You breathe the history as you walk the streets” – so much so she wrote a Brandt guidebook to the city, and years later struggled through Syria’s notorious bureaucratic hurdles to buy and restore a 17th Century Old City home. Her first book – “My House in Damascus” (2016) – is an affecting account of this process.

For a while after the revolution and then the war erupted, the house was inhabited by friends displaced from the besieged Ghouta. Then, after a corrupt lawyer wrote a security report describing Diana as “a British terrorist”, the house was seized by profiteers. Undaunted, she returned in 2014 to reclaim it.

Her books interweave contemporary and historical events, providing a long-range perspective she deems “more important than ever. Because today everybody has short memories. The media works on immediacy – blood and gore. It distorts people’s view of the area, which across the centuries has been this incredibly open, tolerant, embracing place – and largely because of trade.”

“The Merchant of Syria” is in part the biography of Abu Chaker Chamsi-Pacha, who began his business career aged ten, on his father’s death, running the family textiles shop in Homs, and ended it running one of Britain’s biggest textile companies.

The subtitle is “A History of Survival”. Dodging the United Arab Republic’s nationalisations, Abu Chaker shifted to Lebanon in 1959. When, at the outbreak of Lebanon’s war, his warehouses were looted, banks extended him credit simply on the basis of trust. He used it to buy stock directly from the UK to supply the souqs of the Gulf. In 1981 he moved into Yorkshire’s struggling textiles industry, buying the giant Hield and saving its Bradford mills.

darke1Alongside this story of personal survival, Diana recounts Syria’s economic history. Her intriguing argument is that commerce has always acted as the social glue joining together different communities. Instead of the rural-urban divide, she focuses on the “grain-trade alliance” which her “archetypal Syrian merchant” embodied through his cooperative social network.

She admiringly describes the waqf system integrating religion, trade and public welfare, and sees Islam’s traditional “moral economy” as a more humane variant of capitalism. “The surplus is put back into the community,” she told me. “Mutual support is built into the system. Nobody talks about giving to charity. It’s just the way things are done. It’s the opposite of our contemporary corporate cut-throat culture.”

In Abu Chaker’s Homs, Christian traders were as supported as Muslims. Peaceful interchange between the country’s various groups has been the rule, Diana told me, “precisely because of political turbulence, because the state – from at least the French period on – was rapacious, it meant communities had to work together to solve problems. And they usually did.” At its best this produced a form of multiculturalism proving “that the strength of society lies in everybody, from every background, bringing something to the table.”

Abu Chaker resettled in Homs in 1999. He left for the last time in 2011, aged 89, and died two years later, having watched from a distance the regime impose on the city its blueprint “for the four-stage strategy of siege, starve, destroy and transfer.”

The war appears to have utterly undone the strong social bonds that Diana praises. Today she warns extremism will continue “as long as a government remains that the majority of the population cannot respect, trust or depend on,” and hopes for a future in which “the motivation for wealth creation is shared benefit, not personal enrichment.”

The long historical perspective sometimes makes it seem that Syria is fated to eternal repetition. Evidence is presented of repeated destruction (Emessa – ancient Homs – was also “thoroughly destroyed”), resistance (in 1925 “broad coalitions of Syrians” fought the French), and repression (assisted by foreign mercenaries, the French then burnt the Ghouta). I asked if this focus on continuity also contained a message of hope.

“It’s the worst it’s ever been. Syrians will have to fight incredibly hard to overcome it. But society will survive. It’s not going to be permanently pushed under by this current phase. My grandfathers – one German one English – fought in opposite trenches in the First World War. Some years later their children married. There’s a lesson here.”

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

April 6, 2018 at 12:59 pm

Posted in book review, Syria

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