Syria and Turkey commentary


Darke Merchant_1_vignette web

Published by Hurst in the UK and by Oxford University Press in the USA, this new book tells the story of a real, yet archetypal Syrian merchant who lived from 1921-2013. The result of four years’ extensive research, it serves as a concise economic and cultural history of Syria illustrated through the life of this merchant, making Syria’s turbulent past and present accessible to the general reader. It can be purchased here:




The text of the OUP peer reviewer reads as follows:

The Merchant of Syria

The Merchant of Syria is an original take on the social history of Syria. The book is based on extensive research on the country from the days of Ottoman rule through the French mandate period and into the present. It presents this history in an accessible way that appeals to the non-specialist reader but this does not detract from the book’s rigour and scholarship.

The book’s structure is engaging. Chapters alternate between telling the personal stories of its main characters, namely the family of the merchant, and those giving an overview of the historical context in which those family members live during different eras. Through doing so, Diana Darke manages to offer the reader concise summaries of key time periods in Syria’s history. The reader emerges with knowledge of the rise of the Baath party, the ruling Assad family, the Lebanese civil war, as well as of Ottoman and contemporary Syria.

Darke skilfully contextualizes modern day Syria within that of the past. Syria has come to occupy a central part of media coverage in the West since the start of the conflict in 2011, but few people can relate the nuances of what they see or hear in the news with Syria’s historical development. The book serves as an accessible way to make that link, such as in the discussion of the war economy in today’s conflict-ridden Syria. Anyone following the rise of ISIS in north eastern Syria will have come across the fact that that region is populated by tribes. The book’s explanation of tribal dynamics, particularly how tribes evolved to become clients of whoever appears to be in possession of power and wealth in their areas, clarifies to the reader how come ISIS managed to take over those tribal areas in Syria.

The book is based on oral history, archival research and ethnography. It is anthropological in the way it interprets its findings, and the fact that the author herself lived in Syria and knows the country intimately comes across strongly in her deep sense of engagement with the country. This takes the book a notch higher than pieces of work on Syria that are based on second-hand sources only. This rich utilization of primary and secondary material gives the work great value as a resource not only for mainstream readers but also for researchers seeking to understand the evolution of social and economic dynamics in Syria. The level of detail in the book is also remarkable, and even experts with good knowledge of Syria will find in it novel information.

The combination of originality of approach, in-depth research, rich findings, and triangulation of research methods makes the book a strong literary as well as academic product. It is as useful a resource on Syria since 2011 as about historical Syria. As such, it makes an important contribution to literature on the history of the Levant.


My first public talk on the book will take place at the Words by the Water Festival in Cumbria, at 2.30pm on Sunday 18 March 2018, as seen here on the final page of the festival brochure:


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