In Syria by Joseph Kessel

En Syrie by Joseph Kessel (1926) Not available in English.

Joseph Kessel was born in Argentina in 1958. His parents were Jewish and had fled pogroms in Russia. He grew up between the Urals and France. His cosmopolitan origins influenced him and he was a citizen of the world.

In 1926, Kessel was sent in Syria as a journalist. He spent around four weeks there and as he points out in the disclaimer of the book, he cannot pretend to know the region. However, his childhood memories of caravans arriving near his home in the Urals left him captivated with the Orient. En Syrie is a collection of the reportages he wrote during his assignment there. In the first one, Une vue sur Beyrouth (A view over Beirut), he writes:

La Syrie? Que savons-nous d’elle? Avouons-le sans faux orgueil : quelques reminiscences historiques sur les croisades, quelques pages célèbres, les beaux noms de Damas, de Palmyre, de l’Euphrate, voilà tout notre bagage pour une grande et féconde contrée placée sous le mandat français. Syria? What do we know about it? Let’s admit it without false pride: some historical memories about the crusades, some famous pages, the beautiful names of Damascus, of Palmyra, of the Euphrates. This is our only knowledge of a great and fertile country placed under French mandate.

Kessel_SyrieTerribly true. When we study decolonization in school, we learn about the countries rebelling against the French rule and winning their independence one by one. We learn the names of the leaders who led the fights for freedom. We linger a bit on the war in Indochina and the one which left the deepest scars, the war in Algeria. We never hear anything about Lebanon and Syria. And of course nobody tells us about the wars to submit these territories in the first place. I had to read Maupassant to realize it took thirty years to conquer Algeria. The way it’s told, you’d think these people were waiting for us to take charge. So, with the current war in Syria, I was curious to read these reportages, republished for the occasion.

The first pages reveal two things: first the cultural, historical and political context is incredibly complex for a Westerner; second, Syria is at war and it seemed nothing had changed in almost a century, except that they rebel against the French mandate. (I’d never heard about this fights.)

Depuis l’insurrection que seul –il faut le dire—a réprimée le bombardement du général Sarrail (qui peut-être ce jour-là a sauvé le mandat français), la « gouta » de Damas abrite toutes les bandes que stipendie le comité syro-palestinien qui, du Caire, dirige la révolte. Elles sont embusquées là, invisibles, guettant avec la patience orientale l’imprudent qui s’aventure sans protection suffisante. La nuit, souvent, elles attaquent les postes.« gouta » = jardin Since the insurrection that, it needs to be said, only the bombing done by general Sarrail (who may well have saved the French mandate that day) had managed to repress, the “gouta” of Damascus shelters all the groups that the syro-palestinian committee reviles while organizing the rebellion from Cairo. They lie in ambush, invisible, watching out with oriental patience for an imprudent who would wander without sufficient protection. At night, they often attack military positions. “gouta” = garden.

It sounded familia and I wondered what hope there is for this region to be at peace in a foreseeable future. I also thought that the West meddles in issues they know nothing about and probably only makes things worse.

Then Kessel takes us with him in his travels in the country. It’s not a political analysis. It’s more a colorful picture of both sides and a global message of mistrust for politicians. They’re assigned in Syria for too short a time to know the culture of the country and create a reliable network with the influential natives. They see the issues through their Parisian lenses. Consequence: they make rooky mistakes.

Kessel is a strong storyteller. The landscapes and the people come to life under his pen. His cosmopolitan origins and his unquenchable curiosity for the world are an asset. He’s never arrogant. He accepts other cultures as as valuable as his own and this approach gives the reportages a special tone. Almost a century after they were written, they are still readable without blushing of shame for all the contempt that we, colonist countries, poured down on conquered territories. He doesn’t think that the West holds all the answers or that his civilization is superior. It’s refreshing and this special angle makes that the reportages do not sound dated, even if they relate past events.

PS : sorry for the clumsy translation of the second quote, Kessel’s syntax is complicated to translate into English.

  1. March 21, 2015 at 6:17 pm

    Have you read Belle de Jour? I have that here and it’s going to be the first book I read by this author.


    • March 21, 2015 at 6:18 pm

      Yes, I have. There’s a review on the blog.


      • March 23, 2015 at 3:02 am

        I’ve been meaning to read it for years…


        • March 23, 2015 at 10:55 pm

          Time to give it a try?


  2. March 21, 2015 at 7:29 pm

    This sounds really interesting and refreshing in the sense that Kessel appears to bring a sense of understanding and balance to the reportage. Is this is another for your ‘translation tragedy’ category?


    • March 21, 2015 at 10:07 pm

      I really liked that he was so balanced in his descriptions. Books written during the colonial period can be really condescending. I think he was too curious about humanity in all its different kinds to be narrow minded.

      I wouldn’t say it’s a “translation tragedy” as it’s not a real literary miss that you can’t read it in English. The Karinthy is a definite tragedy. I think I must have put 12 books in that category. It’s going to be one of my odd categories, with “Beach and Public Transport” and “Sugar without cellulite”. -:)


      • March 22, 2015 at 6:54 pm

        I’d love to see you put up pages for these “odd categories” – I’m so curious to know what you’ve listed in each of them!


        • March 22, 2015 at 9:01 pm

          Easy: Look on the right of the screen and see the “My little boxes” pad.
          You can click on a category and see what’s filed under it.


  3. March 22, 2015 at 4:19 pm

    It’s always striking when you read something like this to see how little has changed.


    • March 22, 2015 at 9:02 pm

      To be honest, the first reportage was disheartening. It sounded like today’s news, only with different names.


  4. March 22, 2015 at 6:52 pm

    Emma – Based on the little I’ve read of Kessel (his glorious Les Cavaliers – which actually is available in English in an out of print edition as The Horsemen – and some journalistic pieces), I think your last paragraph is a marvelous assessment of the writer. I have a long list of his works on my TBR list, onto which I’ll now add En Syrie.


    • March 22, 2015 at 9:07 pm

      I’ve stayed away from him for years because I hated Le Lion in school. (M. had the same reaction, btw) He was really good, though.

      I have Dames de Californie and Les steppes rouges at home. Have you read them?


      • March 23, 2015 at 7:59 pm

        I’ve avoided Le Lion, as it sounded like a too-long and somewhat condescending (to youth) version of a short novella I like very much, Henry Bauchau’s Diotime et les lions (I’d be curious to know what M. would think of that one in comparison). The California novel interests me (for obvious reasons); the next Kessel on my list, however, is La Vallée des rubis.


        • March 23, 2015 at 11:08 pm

          I’ve never heard of Henry Bauchau’s Diotime et les lions. I thought Le Lion was silly at the time but I’m not attracted to stories with animals. (except Gros Câlin)
          Dames de Californie is also non-fiction. I wanted to read it last summer but got caught up in something else. I’m curious about La steppe rouge which is also waiting on my shelf. La vallée des rubis sounds great too.


  5. March 23, 2015 at 2:03 pm

    I think I read something about Joseph Kessel in a journal a while ago, his work never got into my hands, though.

    It’s ashamingly true that we know little to nothing about the Middle East, its history and cultural background after the time of the New Testament. As you say it’s all very complex thanks not only to our meddling (especially after the Great War of 1914-18), but also to the intermixing of ethnicities that started under the Roman Empire and went on under Ottoman rule. It must be an incredibly herogeneous region!

    However, if you’d like to read something literary about the region I can recommend the Austrian classic about the genocide of the Armenian people (which I’m going to review on Friday): The Forty Days of the Musa Dagh by Franz Werfel. A newer novel that gives an idea of the living conditions in Damascus in the late 1950s and 1960s is The Calligrapher’s Secret by Rafik Schami (a Syrian writer living in Germany). I read it for My Mediterranean Reading Summer 2013. For me it was a fascinating read – review on my blog.


    • March 23, 2015 at 2:06 pm

      Is it possible that the system swallows letters? I could swear that I wrote “heterogeneous”, not “herogeneous”.


      • March 23, 2015 at 11:04 pm

        Hmm. I don’t know. I guess that if it had turned into erogenous you could have put it on the fifty shades inferno. 🙂


        • March 24, 2015 at 4:14 pm

          Erogeneous… hahaha! I hadn’t thought of that one 🙂


    • March 23, 2015 at 11:03 pm

      Maybe you’ve heard about Belle de Jour?

      Thanks for the recommendation. I’ve never heard of this book but apparently it’s just been published in French.

      I’ve read Death in Beirut by Tawfiq Yusuf Awwad and it was fantastic. I recently purchased Le Pain by him and I’m looking forward to reading it.


      • March 24, 2015 at 4:20 pm

        No, I never heard of Belle de Jour… I only recall a film starring Romy Schneider with almost the same title. But be assured that I’ll be looking for it in my book shop. I heard of Death in Beirut and the author, but haven’t yet got round to reading any of his books yet. However, literature from the Middle East (and the Arabic or better Islamic world) is on my agenda. If only the days had more hours and the years more days!


        • March 25, 2015 at 10:34 pm

          Belle de Jour is a film with Catherine Deneuve.
          Death in Beirut is very interesting, I learnt a lot of things in it.

          I guess we all wish we had more time to read!


  1. January 31, 2017 at 7:02 am

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