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In Syria by Joseph Kessel

March 21, 2015 24 comments

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.

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