Two of the four chapters of Charles Glass’ new book, Syria Burning: ISIS and the Death of the Arab Spring, begin with jokes. In the first joke, a relic of civil war-era Lebanon, a war-weary Lebanese dog escapes to Syria only to return a couple of months later, to the confoundment of the other dogs:
“Seeing him better groomed and fatter than before, they asked whether the Syrians had been good to him. ‘Very good.’ ‘Did they feed and wash you?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Then why did you come back?’ ‘I want to bark.’”
The second joke, which Glass describes as a Cold War favorite among Syrians, features a survey question posed to citizens of different nations: “What is your opinion of eating meat?” In Poland, the overwhelming response is, “What do you mean by ‘meat’?” In Ethiopia, it is, “What do you mean by ‘eating’?” The Syrian response, finally, is, “What do you mean by ‘what is your opinion’?”
To be sure, freedom of expression hasn’t exactly been the most salient characteristic of the Syrian Arab Republic under the leadership of the al-Assads—first Hafez, who ruled until his death in June of 2000, and now Bashar—although, as the Lebanese dog attests, there were certainly other comforts. Glass notes in his book that, prior to the 2011 onset of the Syrian civil war, the country not only “fed itself” but also boasted health care and educational services that were “among the best in the region.”
During my own first visit to Syria in 2006, part of an extended and somewhat aimless hitchhiking journey with my friend Amelia, Syrians we spoke to who were not fond of al-Assad generally refrained from criticizing him too loudly. They were, however, less hesitant to voice their negative opinions of our souvenir preferences: colorful posters and decals of the ruling family, which we found amusingly ridiculous, and fake Syrian military epaulettes that we sewed onto wife-beaters.
Now, of course, Syria is far from a joking matter. More than 200,000 people have been killed in the war over the past four years, and millions have been displaced. As Patrick Cockburn remarks in the foreword to Syria Burning, it’s difficult to find an account of the conflict that isn’t hopelessly biased in favor of one side—and indeed, it’s Glass’ defiance of this tradition that makes his work valuable. READ MORE AT WARSCAPES.