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The Merchant of Syria: A history of survival by Diana Darke

04 May 2018

Stephen Griffith reads about the Syria that has been destroyed

WHEN you have lived in Syria, and known and loved its people, how do you make sense of its past seven bloody and destructive years? Diana Darke deals with this sorrow by telling stories.

Her follow-up to the seductive My House in Damascus is the story of Mohammad Shaker Shamsi-Pasha (known by all as Abu Chaker), a Syrian “merchant” from Homs; how he ended up an international businessman of some importance, based in Bradford and London. His life spanned decades of political and economic change, and she interleaves the chapters of his story with the history of Syria.

Encouraged by an act of trust and extraordinary generosity by another merchant, Abu Chaker cleverly developed bonds of mercantile confidence to become the main supplier of Hield Brothers’ Bradford broadcloth across the Middle East, in time buying and expanding the Yorkshire business.

This book is more than that story. By adding alternate chapters on Syria’s history, it tackles questions about the causes of the catastrophe of the past seven years, and seeks to challenge both those who think that the Syrian War is about supposed ancient sectarian hatreds, and those who, in their ignorance, despise Islam.

She has an excellent knowledge of both Syria and its Islam, and an affection for the multi-faceted, non-sectarian world that existed before the rise of the current House of Assad, with its outrageous corruption, greed, and violence. This is all thoroughly narrated in the historical chapters.

She is occasionally wrong when she discusses Eastern Christianity, accepting as history what is clearly legend, and she may well paint an overly rosy picture of the life of minorities under the Ottomans; but she is right in showing Syria’s urban life as integrated and not sectarian until the 1970s.

Her affection for Abu Chaker is clear. He is a paragon of Muslim business values, in which absolute trust, and care for the customer and the wider community, is paramount. In his world, no one would seek to bankrupt anyone, see a cheque bounce, or impoverish those in debt. And, as a pious Muslim, he works with Christian partners by whom he was trusted, as by the whole community. There is a sense of generosity, integral to Muslim piety, which is very close to the values of Jesus which Western capitalism has forgotten.

If you want to grasp what Syria was, what it could have been, and how instead it has become this hell, reading this book will be informative, and offer a deeply human view of a world destroyed by the Assad thugs and their associates.

The Revd Stephen Griffith is a retired priest. He specialises in Syria and the Syriac community in Turabdin.

The Merchant of Syria: A history of survival
Diana Darke
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