A Brief History of Syria

October 31, 2013 § 1 Comment

Soho Theatre, September 29th, Dan Snow

The theatre went dark; Dan Snow was announced, but no one arrived. There was nervous laughter, a ripple of anticipation – then on he comes, tall, open shirt. Very causal.  A slight “there’s a rock star in the house” feel descends, particularly when Dan begins by telling us that he’s just come back from the Congo. He likes dangerous places, it seems. We didn’t mind though. Actually, we approved.

He was pretty good. Lots of information. Here are a few bits and pieces. (Huge apologies if any of this is incorrect. I was writing in the dark and he covered about 10,000 years and said quite a few words I couldn’t spell.)

  1. On medieval maps of the world, before Columbus, Syria is slap bang in the middle. It was the nexus of ancient history, on the route not just for trade but for ideas and language. The first complex civilisation was established there about 10,000 years ago. Damascus and Aleppo are probably the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world.
  2. Conquerer upon conquerer arrived – Egyptians, Mongols, Alexandra the Great, the Romans, French and British. The physical geography of the country changed along with each new invader.
  3. Khālid ibn al-Walīd, known as the Sword of Allah, (592–642), is “perhaps the best general we’ve never heard of.” He won over 100 battles and was key in spreading Islam.
  4. The Ottomans created a Sunni manorial-type of aristocracy, but this was starting to crumble by the early 20th Century. As shipping routes  improved, the old silk route through Syria was abandoned.
  5. The majority of the world’s Muslims are Sunni and so it is in Syria, where about 75% of the Muslim population are Sunni. The remainder are Shia. Assad is part of the Shia minority. In addition, he is an Alawite – a minority within a minority. (Good bit on what this means across the region here.)
  6. After World War I, the Sykes-Picot Agreement carved up the Middle East into spheres of influence. Between us, the British and French created eight states, with new borders. The French claimed Syria because, they argued, they had played such a large part in the Crusades.  Under French rule, the Alawite minority was favoured and promoted – divide and rule type of thing. Assad’s father benefited.
  7. After Word War II, Syria was granted independence. However, the new state struggled. Intellectuals were put in charge but there weren’t many of them. Under the French, pre-World War II, only 350 Syrians were in higher education (not sure when and where but it seems like a good stat). In addition, the French charged the newly independent Syria 50 million Syrian pounds – the cost of their occupation.
  8. Ater the creation of Israel, Syria embarked on a series of disasterous wars. Most Syrians regarded the Golan Heights and other parts of Israel as being Syrian territory.
  9. In general, Alawites (about 12% of the population)  are more left wing than the conservative Sunni majority.  In addition, Assad has been very secular. He married in a civil ceremony, for example. But that doesn’t make him the good guy.
  10. In 1982, Assad’s brother, General Rifaat al-Assad, led the Hama massacre, when the Syrian army besieged the town of Hama for 27 days and ultimately crushed an uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood.  It is estimated that 20,000 people were killed.
  11. Before the current civil war, the Syrian population had grown by one third in the last 10 years. Unemployment was high and schools were running double-shifts to cope. Oil is running out and at the end of the 2000s, there were a series of droughts. Prices were also increasing. In addition, as markets have been liberalised, a small number of the ruling regime have become very rich. For example, one of Assad’s cousins owns two large mobile phone companies and all the duty free shops.
  12. The civil war was triggered when the police beat up a market trader.
  13. And, to make a link back to my write up about infectious diseases, the WHO have just confirmed the first cases of polio in Syria for 14 years. (Thanks to my friend, Liz, for prompting that thought.) Not good. Really, not good.

A couple of poets and some other stuff

October 29, 2013 § Leave a comment

I’ve been a bit lax about writing up these talks. It’s poor. Very poor. Over the last few weeks, it’s been Sylvia Plath, Philip Larkin, Oscar Wilde (the betrayal of) and Victorian England (life and death in). Here are a few things I have learned.

1. Sylvia Plath, King’s Place, 23rd September, some people whose names I have forgotten/lost, plus Juliet Stevenson reading.

It’s impossible to think about Sylvia Plath without being influenced by how she died.  As she said in “Lady Lazarus”,


Is an art, like everything else.

I do it exceptionally well.


So smiley, yet so sad

2. Philip Larkin, King’s Place, 7th October, people from The Archers and some musicians.

Philip Larkin’s relationship with women doesn’t make for a light-hearted evening round the piano. Love his work but he didn’t treat the ladies too well. Attempting to turn that into a semi-humourous exploration of his sex-life was possibly an error, even (or maybe especially)  when presented by Lilian and the Reverend Alan from The Archers. Larkin had three mistresses and, for some years, all at the same time.  Monica Jones, who is generally seen as his soul-mate (whatever that means) was an academic whom Larkin met at Leicester University, where he worked as librarian prior to moving to Hull.  They had an affair from 1947 until his death 40 years later. Maeve Brennan, a devout Roman Catholic and a member of Larkin’s library staff in Hull, was with him from 1961, on and off, for about 17 years. Then there was Betty Mackereth, his secretary at the library in Hull. We were told that each woman added to Larkin’s life in a different way which must have been jolly nice for him. This all singing, all dancing Larkin romp was at King’s Place, so in front of a very Guardianesque audience. They surprised  and confused me at their willingness to guffaw at the way Larkin used all three women (and more).

Larkin and Betty having a picnic

Larkin and Betty having a picnic

But none of that should put you off reading his poetry. Really.

3. Oscar Wilde, Soho Theatre, September 25th, David Hare, Rupert Everett, Merlin Holland

Oscar Wilde has a grandson who talks about his grandfather. That made me feel rather close to the Victorians.

Wilde was tried for gross indecency.  He could have run away but instead waited at the Connaught Hotel to be arrested and, apparently, here lies his immortality.  If he’d fled, would he be remembered still?

Rupert Everett is still fab. He described Wilde in his last days as “a terrifying hag,” living down in the Paris sewers. He described how being famous can lead you to think you are immune to being toppled. Wilde felt that everyone loved him. “The country is behind me to a boy.”

Rupert as Oscar

Rupert as Oscar

4. The Victorians, Soho Theatre, September 29th, Judith Flanders, Kate Colquhoun and Claie Armitstead

There are everyday bits of history that are lost to us simply because we were not there (Dickens is full of this kind of thing, if you know where to look). For example, Victorian streets were incredibly noisy, so loud that often you couldn’t hear a conversation. Burial grounds were so full that the level of churchyards just kept rising. One, in Dury Lane, was as high as the first floor windows.  The best place to sit in a train was with your back to the engine, thus reducing the chance of getting smut in your eyes. That kind of thing.

Cars were originally welcomed as “non-polluting” transport – ie no horse poo.


Next time: Syria.

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