A His­tory of Sur­vival

Foreword Reviews - - Foresight / Biography -

Diana Darke, Ox­ford Univer­sity Press (MAY) Hard­cover $27.95 (224pp), 978-0-19-087485-8

In The Mer­chant of Syria, Diana Darke uses the true story of Abu Chaker, a cloth mer­chant who be­gan his ca­reer in Syria be­fore ex­pand­ing into Le­banon and later the United King­dom, as an en­try point to dis­cuss Syria and how it de­vel­oped as a coun­try.

Abu Chaker was born in 1921, as the Ot­toman Em­pire was on its way out. He died in 2013, dur­ing the Syr­ian civil war, af­ter he left his home city of Homs. Darke tracks the ma­jor events of Chaker’s life, from his mar­riages to the start of his tex­tile ca­reer, and from some pre­car­i­ous ca­reer moves to his suc­cess ex­pand­ing the Uk-based Hield Broth­ers brand. In­ter­views with his chil­dren and ac­quain­tances pro­vide back­ground, though their con­tri­bu­tions steer to­ward gen­eral im­pres­sions and his over­ar­ch­ing views on life and busi­ness, with­out a lot of ad­di­tional de­tail.

Though The Mer­chant of Syria is os­ten­si­bly about Abu Chaker, it’s re­ally a big-pic­ture story about Syria from an­cient times through to the present, with trade high­lighted through­out. Darke notes what was hap­pen­ing in Chaker’s life at im­por­tant touch points in Syr­ian his­tory, us­ing him to help place those events in con­text.

The book pro­vides a solid, quick over­view of Syr­ian his­tory, both as part of larger em­pires and as a sin­gu­lar en­tity. This in­cludes ex­plain­ing how gender roles in the coun­try de­vel­oped, the im­por­tance of com­modi­ties like tex­tiles as a form of hard cur­rency in the area, and how the trans­fers of power be­tween the Ot­tomans, the French, the Ba’ath Party, and the As­sad fam­ily af­fected life for the Syr­ian peo­ple.

Darke has lived in and writ­ten about Syria be­fore, and does a nice job de­scrib­ing the var­i­ous fac­tors that, for bet­ter or worse, led to the mod­ern Syr­ian state. Abu Chaker lived through key parts of that his­tory, and his story proves to be an ef­fec­tive ve­hi­cle for greater un­der­stand­ing.

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