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Usman Butt

The Merchant of Syria

Darke's book tells the story of a cloth seller from Homs [AFP]

Date of publication: 11 August, 2018

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Book Club: This is a compelling story about conflict and displacement, that teaches us about the importance of optimism, writes Usman Butt.
The Merchant of Syria: A History of Survival by Diana Darke is a captivating telling of 20th century Syrian history told through the prism of a larger than life character.

Abu Chaker is a Homs-born merchant who, due to political events during his lifetime, has had to move and relaunch his business not once, but twice.

Homs to Beirut and Beirut to Bradford, Abu Chaker's story is compelling and it offers us clues into what Syria's future might be. It's a story about dealing with social and political conflict, war and displacement and ultimately it is a story about survival.

Darke is unique as far as Syria observers go, she does not go into the past to escape the present nor does she go into the past to understand the present, instead, she goes into the past to express her optimism about what Syria's future could be.

Optimism is in short supply these days among those who are involved with Syria and so finding hope and enthusiasm is a welcome change.

To tell a story in which Syrians are not only people but have agency and that do incredible things, is greatly needed in a time when Syria and and its people have come to represent nothing more than a problem to the outside world.

Darke's passion for Syria is infectious and her long love affair with the country stretches back decades. She has personally witnessed how the country changed and some of that was captured in her earlier book, My House in Damascus: An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution which charted her attempt to buy and renovate an old Damascene house, against the backdrop of pre-revolutionary Syria. 

To tell a story in which Syrians are not only people but have agency and that do incredible things, is greatly needed

Darke seems to view Assad's rule as a dark phase in Syria's history, and there is something cyclical in how she views the interaction between Syria's past, present and future, which comes out in both her previous book and in this one.

Cyclical, not in terms of events repeating themselves over and over again, but in terms of themes of the present age that remind us of the past.

The world Abu Chaker is born into is very different to the one in which he dies.

Despite being the son of a wealthy landowning family, sharp divisions between the middle class and working classes were minimal.

Middle and working classes lived in close proximity to each other and their lives were intertwined. Individual communities mattered and were of central importance to political authority.

Inspired by religious traditions the poor were looked after by the wealthier members of their local community. All of this contributed to a strong society capable of looking after itself.

But Abu Chaker's world was also a harsh one in some respects. Aged 10, his father passed away forced the boy to take over his textile business in the 1940s.

He had to survive the Arab nationalists reform attempts which sought to strip old land and factory owners of their property and businesses, in an attempt to place them under state control.

He manages to set-up shop in Beirut while maintaining his shop and property in Homs without the Syrian authorities realizing it. When the Lebanese civil war breaks out he relocates to Bradford, England, where he revives an old textile factory and turned it into a success, at a time when most factories were closing.

Away from Abu Chaker's personal story, Darke makes some important arguments about the traditional socio-economics of Syria before the Assads' era (father and son).

Commerce was a social glue that bound together different religious and ethnic communities. Christians and Muslims were equal partners in trade, and traditional Syrian society was guided by an Islamic concept of 'moral economy' that integrated religion, trade and social welfare.

The measure of success was not the accumulation personal wealth but the improvement of the society. Any surplus was put back into the community and there was little need for charity due to the mutual support system that existed.

Darke makes some important arguments about the traditional socio-economics of Syria in the pre-Assads era

Darke explores how this system works through the story of Abu Chaker, providing a fascinating insight into the culture at the time.

The book is a delightful read and contributes to our knowledge of Syria, but more importantly it teaches us about the importance of remaining optimistic even in dark times. Stories like that of Abu Chaker go a little way to illuminating the darkness, and there can be nothing wrong with that.


Usman Butt is a multimedia television researcher, filmmaker and writer based in London. Usman read International Relations and Arabic Language at the University of Westminster and completed a Master of Arts in Palestine Studies at the University of Exeter.

Follow him on Twitter: @TheUsmanButt

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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