Book review: Weaving a cloth merchant’s story into the history of Syria

The author details his life using in-depth interviews with his children, friends and colleagues. (Shutterstock)
Updated 07 July 2018
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Book review: Weaving a cloth merchant’s story into the history of Syria

BEIRUT: “The Merchant of Syria” is more than a history of survival, it interweaves the story of cloth merchant Mohammad Chaker Chamsi-Pasha with the development of Syria in an insightful look at the life of a successful businessman who expanded his trade from the Levant to the shores of the UK.
Author Diana Darke was introduced to the merchant, known as Abu Chaker, by his youngest son in 2005. During his lifetime, Abu Chaker refused to have a book published about himself, but after his death in 2013, his sons asked Darke to write the story of their father’s life.
The book alternates between the macro and the micro, with even-numbered chapters recounting the life of the illustrious merchant and odd-numbered chapters setting that story against the socio-economic history of Syria, from the end of the Ottoman Empire to the present day.
Abu Chaker faced a series of tragedies that reinforced his determination to succeed against all odds. His father died when he was ten-years-old, leaving him with a mother and seven unmarried sisters to support. He left school to earn a living in his uncle’s textile shop where he learned the ropes and eventually became a textile merchant.
After losing everything in Syria, then in Beirut, he left for London. He soon took over a Bradford-based textile plant and went on to build a multi-national empire. He had an innate sense of entrepreneurship, instinctively knew the right approach for each buyer and, above all, he had a knack for turning disasters into opportunities.
The author details his life using in-depth interviews with his children, friends and colleagues. It is, of course, difficult to gain a solid understanding of the man through the words of his acquaintances, but Darke does an admirable job of piecing together his journey.
If I had to recommend a single book for someone wanting to understand Syria, it would be this. The “Merchant of Syria” is a fascinating read that sews together the life of one man into a wider look at the history of a country that many seek to understand.


Nine Palestinian refugees tell Shatila’s stories in this innovative book

Updated 21 July 2018
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Nine Palestinian refugees tell Shatila’s stories in this innovative book

CHICAGO: A novel born of extraordinary circumstance, “Shatila Stories” is a collaborative work of fiction written by nine refugees from the Shatila camp in Beirut that was commissioned by Peirene Press. The authors, ranging from the ages of 20 to 43, captivate the reader by painting a picture of muddied walkways, crumbling walls and desperate faces. From beginning to end, the phenomenal words of Omar Khaled Ahmad, Nibal Alalo, Safa Khaled Algharbaqi, Omar Abdellatif Alndaf, Rayan Mohamad Sukkar, Safiya Badran, Fatima Omar Ghazawi, Samih Mahmoud and Hiba Mareb take the reader on a powerful journey.
“Shatila Stories” begins with the character of Reham, who is leaving Damascus for Beirut. She and her family look to Shatila as a refuge from the strife at the Yarmouk camp in Syria. Reham’s story is embedded in spirituality and faith, a strength that drives many of the book’s characters through hopeful and harsh times. After Reham, the reader is told the story of Jafra, named after the revolutionary Palestinian fighter who was killed in an airstrike in 1976. Somehow, their destinies are one and the same as they sacrifice themselves for the greater struggle.
Evil lurks within the boundaries of the Shatila camp, where one’s wages can mean the difference between life and death. The dangers are real — children are exploited, disease is rampant and the methods used to safeguard residents are sometimes more harmful than helpful.
The writers have done a brilliant job of conveying the constricted yet vibrant lives led by many in the camp, as they wander alleyways that are “narrow yet wide enough to hold a thousand stories.”
The effort to publish nine refugee writers began with Mieke Ziervogel, publisher of Peirene Press, who journeyed from London to Beirut with editor Suhir Helal after getting in contact with an NGO that runs a community center in the camp. After handpicking the writers during a three-day workshop, the manuscripts were received and translator Nasha Gowanlock got to work. It was a Herculean effort that reminds us that storytelling may be an art, but everyone has a story to tell.