It was very pleasing to receive so many comments and messages encouraging me to post a reading list on Syria. So here we have my top 14 of the best books on Syria. I know that is quite a bold statement and one no doubt that will draw criticism, which is of course fine. The list is broad in nature and should appeal to a wide variety of tastes, they are all very readable books and even the political titles very accessible.The war in Syria has become a global issue not just another Middle East crisis, the lasting effects of migration and displaced refugees era defining. The news headlines tell us very little and our political parties just use the headlines to further their own agendas.
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Marwan Hisham & Molly Crabapple
Molly and Marwan are quite simply two of the most incredible people you are ever likely to meet. Molly is a writer, activist and artist, utterly unique and totally inspiring, her own biography makes compelling reading.
Marwan is a Syrian journalist and the book is his story of coming of age during the Syrian uprising and coming to terms with life under the ISIS occupation of Raqqa, yet this is no gore-fest of atrocities but a touching story of growing up in rural Syria, of family and relationships and the choices that have to be made when adversity arrives, written with both pathos and humor. What would you do when your town is over-run with religious zealots? Marwen opened an internet cafe.
The book is a creative collaboration written by both Molly and Marwan and illustrated with Molly’s beautiful art.
I confess to not yet having read this book but I have followed Sams work closely over the years and its one I fully intend to read. The tittle alludes to the slogans spewed out and scrawled on walls by Syrian regime militia. With embedded sources and diligent journalism the provides an exceptional insight. His brave work between 2012 and 2014 landed him in one of Assads prisons before he was deported.
Revolt in Syria, Eye Witness to The Uprising
Stephen is a friend and colleague, we worked on many stories together inside Syria and later in Turkey. His book is of crucial importance, he had already been living in Damascus a number of years when people took to the streets, he already had a good understanding of the complexities of Syrian society, something usually often missed in media accounts, more often referring to armchair academics with little or no contact with ordinary life in Syria. Its this ordinary life that forms the basis of this book; countess interviews with ordinary Syrians of all political, sectarian and economic persuasions. Much has changed and many have died since publication so its of great importance to remember where this all started. Stephen worked tirelessly on this book and after witnessing probably the earliest war crimes committed in the conflict he felt it time to leave.
The Struggle For Power in Syria Nikolaos van Dam
Van Dam is a highly regarded academic and diplomat. The Struggle was first published in 1979 and has undergone several updates since then, I think the last was in 2014 but you may like to check that. Essential reading in understanding the political complexities of the Assad dynasty and their reign for half a century and so providing a valuable resource on modern Syrian history.
The Crossing Samar Yazbek
Since 2011 there are now many more books available in translation from wonderfully talented writers such as Samar Yazbek, a dissident writer forced to flee the country, in The Crossing she makes a courageous illicit journey back into the north of Syria to bring back heart wrenching accounts of ordinary Syrians plunged into a never ending nightmare.
My House in Damascus Diana Darke
I first became aware of Diana as a guide book writer for Bradt travel guides. Bradt approached me for images for their Syria book, they have a well founded reputation for off the beaten track destinations, well written and skillfully researched and it was a pleasure to have one of my favorite Syria images on the cover.
Diana had bought and restored a 17th century Arabic house in the Old City of Damascus a few hundred meters from the house I bought, yet despite being neighbors and living in a community where almost everybody knows everybody else we didn’t meet until 2020 in London.
My House in Damascus is an incredible narrative, from the challenges of buying an Ottoman era property in a city with more history than any other, with a depth of understanding rare among foreigners, nuanced layers of the lives of her neighbors, of heritage and the undeniable charm of the Old City, to the inevitable catastrophe of war which along with the bullets and bombs also brought profiteers and thieves. In the midst of the onslaught Diana went back to Damascus to reclaim her property after thugs had mistakenly assumed would be easy pickings. This worthy book is hard to categorize other than encompassing all that is Syria.
Cleopatra’s Wedding Present -Travels Through Syria Robert Tewdwr Moss
This is a uniquely fascinating, flawed and beautiful book, very much the authors personal journey more than an insight into Syria. For anyone who has spent extended amounts of time in Syria there is indeed lots that is familiar despite the decent into flowery Orientalism, with lashings of angst and wit this book ranks highly as classic travel literature.
The writers back story is as intriguing as the book; Tewdwr Moss was found murdered in his London flat and his computer with the almost completed manuscript missing.
I first read the book before having lived in Syria so would be very keen to see how my perspective has changed. In Aleppo I met some of the characters depicted and has lead me on occasion to to describe Aleppo Souk as the gayest in the Middle East.
The Pigeon Wars of Damascus Marius Kociejowski
Marius is the kind of poet you only ever meet in the souks of the middle east. I was introduced to him after being contacted by CNN Traveler magazine who wanted some images to showcase an extract of his next book, The Pigeon Wars of Damascus, I had already read his previous book on Syria so was very happy for the opportunity, it also opened up the incredibly fascinating word of pigeon keeping in Syria, a subject I have mentioned many times.
Marius has a unique gift for story telling and his books will take you on a magical journey.
Mirror to Damascus Colin Thubron
Its now a very long time since I read this, my overriding memory is one of brilliantly descriptive travel writing, a timeless classic that inspires wanderlust, the beautiful combination of history and humour, anecdote and adventure. Thubron is highly placed in the Pantheon of travel writers but he did make a bit of a tit of himself by returning to Syria on the books 50th anniversary, involving himself in issues he had no knowledge of, fortunately much of his meddling has since been retracted from the websites that published it.
From the Holy Mountain: A Journey In The Shadow of Byzantium
This is not strictly a Syria book but a classic non the less and considered de-rigueur for anyone heading in that direction. It is a heady mix of all the Middle East has to offer with the occasional hermit thrown in for good measure. Dalrymple follows in the sandal steps of a couple of byzantine hipster Monks a journey from mount Athos in Greece,through Turkey and Syria into Egypt and the un-Holy land.
Ballots Or Bullets? : Democracy, Islamism, and Secularism in the Levant Carsten Weiland
Carsten was my next door neighbor when I first moved to Damascus, he managed to rope me into an acting role on a Syrian TV series, something to this day amuses many and haunts me!
It was many years later I chanced upon the book he had been writing, the war was by now well underway and I somehow felt his book would seem dated, but it was not only far from dated it was actually prophetic. Intelligent and essential reading in understanding of Syrian social political history. Its highly recommended as is the follow up book; Syria A Decade of Lost Chances
Burning Country; Syrians in Revolution and War Robin Yassin-Kassab & Leila Al-Shami
I first met Robin in the summer of 2013 in a refugee camp on the Turkish/Syrian border, it had only been a couple of weeks since I had managed to extract myself from Syria and here I was again, I wrote a previous bog post from that time HERE and anyone interested in reading Robins account of that Syrian interlude then I will be happy to pass it on via email-just ask.
One of the things that struck me about Robin at that time was his genuine interest in every Syrian he spoke with, patiently listening to every opinion and personal account, you may be surprised how few journalists take such time and effort.
As the Syrian conflict morphed into a Geo political cluster-fuck its important to understand the genuine Syrian resistance movement, this book gives voice to the ingenuity and creativity of grass roots activism and discusses the rise of the Islamist and sectarian violence that has become rampant.
The Dark Side of Love Rafik Schami
An epic Syrian novel, this is the ultimate literary souk, you enter, you get lost and don’t care, you just keep searching and the last ting you want is to find your way out. A beautiful box set of a book. The only novel in the list, oddly, still, one that Syrian exile Schami will expose a side of Syrian culture rarely explored, a binge of a book, of poetry, politics and people. Could we compare Rafic Schami to Orhan Pamuk I wonder.
I do hope you are all coping with these strange times we are facing, stay home, stay healthy and wash your hands.
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Thank you Anna
Thank you! Looking forward to exploring!
Oh man, I have some reading to do! Great work.
Good luck and love to hear what you discover
Thanks for taking the time to put this incredible list together.
Thank you Carolyn
Thank you John! I am going to save this as part of my very long reading list. The novel sounds like a good read but so is Sam Dagher’s book. I went to the book launch Lebanese American University – NY Headquarters organized for he and his book back in May 2019. It was a very interesting conversation.
Yes am sure it was, actually he was in London doing the same but I couldnt make it.
Let me know how youget on
Thanks Bea 🙂
I most definitely will! Very bizarre times but I found the time to read recently. Am adding Middle East titles right now on my list.
Thanks for the list! Thanks for your work!
My pleasure 🙂
Thanks for putting this reading list ‘out there’ for all of us. Stay home. Stay healthy
Thank you my friend 🙂
Hope all is well in the land of madness
Thanks for the list. Long time fan of Thubron and Dalrymple, will investigate some of the others.
Thank you 🙂
I’m definitely going to read some of these. Thank you. The Dalrymple is the only one I know so far.
My pleasure 🙂
Glad you found it interesting
Thanks John for your reviews/summaries of these books. During self isolation I will get hold of some of these and become better informed. The novel also appeals. Cheers, Mark
Thanks John, of immense value! Put a few on my reading list.
Thank you Mathias
I am reading Sam Dagher’s book right now. It is excellent. I would avoid Van Dam, however, based on Robert Fisk’s endorsement of his book plus Van Dam’s praise of Patrick Cockburn. I’ve heard that Van Dam cites the execrable Tim Hayward, another warning sign.
Its Van Dam’s recent book- “Destroying A Nation: the Civil War in Syria” (with what looks like a deliberately ambiguous titlle – who is doing the “destroying” here?) that seeks “balance” by citing the pro-regime charlatan Tim Anderson on two occassions. That makes it a curious work that needs to be reated skeptically – but it still has some value. His earlier work, which John cites here, is a classic for understanding the origins of the Assad regime.
Yes an endorsement from Fisk is worrying to say the least, I do think the early work of van Dam does have value though.
I am reading ferociously these days. Thanks for the intriguing list; I look forward to checking out a few of them. Keep well.
I would add Wendy Pearlman’s ” We crossed a Bridge and it Trembled” An unparalled collection of personal narratives of the Syrian revoluti0n at several points in time. https://www.harpercollins.com/9780062654441/we-crossed-a-bridge-and-it-trembled/
I have not read it and will at some point but know it has been well received
Want to read one of these some day, as I want to understand the core issues. Once my reading list for 2020 is complete, I’ll certainly delve in. Thank you so much!
Good luck and thank you 🙂
Oh, this could be interesting. Could be a fresh diversion from the 4 books I have on the go now.
Hope you get the chance and would love to hear your opinions
Thank you 🙂
Love the list. Thank you!
Thanks Kally 🙂
Thank you for the list. I love learning about other cultures, and when we aren’t able to visit books are the next best option. Also, as a teacher of reading and writing, I appreciate expanding my literary knowledge. 🙂
Thank you Michele
I think I will be adding a new page to my blog on books actually-stay tuned 🙂
Thank you for preparing this reading list. I think we, in the US, turn a blind eye and choose not to learn all we can about world issues…more important than ever as we struggle with our own corrupt government.
Not just the US either, self interest and corruption is rising everywhere, the US seems to have set the bar. Lets hope for change.
Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, means a lot.
Thanks for passing by and dropping a like on my blog , your books are very engaging, and it evokes some nostalgia at the tittles of the list, and souvenirs in reading this post. I walked in the streets of Damascus, from Bab Toumah (The door of St Thomas) to Hamidiah, and sat at a Café In Damascus, longtime ago,.
I know the walk very well, my house is close to Bab Touma.
Wow!! Thank you for sharing this, it’s a wonderful list- can’t wait to start reading!!!
I will definitely check out these books I love reading and learning new cultures!
Wonder if they are available in Indonesia but let’s see. Thanks for sharing the list. Greetings from Jakarta.
Oh yes! Thank you!