THE Syrian revolution began stutteringly in January 2011 in the mainly Kurdish city of Hasakeh with a man self-immolating in protest against the brutal and corrupt Syrian regime, followed in February by a demonstration in Damascus following a very normal act of police brutality. In March, several demonstrations took place across the country, all peaceful. But the government’s reaction was violent, and in weeks huge demonstrations were taking place daily. People wanted the rule of law, and to be treated with respect. What they got was extreme state violence — the storming of mosques by troops, government thugs abducting civilians; and the result was the catastrophe we now know.
In 2013, Samara Levy decided that she, with no relevant experience, would heal some of the wounds of the suffering Syrian people, and this book is her tale. She had no intention of working with Tearfund, Christian Aid, or any of the many other skilled and experienced NGOs already there. Her book has her stumbling bravely or foolishly in Syria, and I found it both baffling and intriguing.
Levy is a very Evangelical Christian. She practises bibliomancy, the sort of magical divination rejected by scripture, spending time trying to convert her Christian co-workers, and judging the brave faithfulness of Syria’s Christians as wanting. She imagines that the Syrian border authorities deny her a visa because of her not praying the right prayer. She tests God.
Allowed for some time to deliver aid to government-held territories, she describes powerfully the excesses of Islamic State and other jihadists. Saying that she has no interest in politics (except the political struggles in the Old Testament, her only source of political analysis), she ignores the ongoing brutality of the Syrian regime and its Russian, Lebanese, and Iranian allies. Passing through the empty city of Tadmor (Palmyra), she mentions the damage done by IS, but not that it had destroyed the notorious prison there, where political prisoners from 2011 onwards had been held and tortured in filthy conditions.
Rather than the complex story of who is fighting whom, this is a narrative of the government (good) against jihadis (bad). It ignores a great deal that flourished away from both.
Naïve, sentimental, theologically vapid, and with no serious grasp of the complexity, it is a book with interesting descriptions, and stories of traumatised people who deserve better.
The Revd Stephen Griffith is a retired Anglican priest. He specialises in Syria and the Syriac community in Turabdin.
Rebuilding the Ruins: Following God’s call to serve Syria
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