- Recommended Books and Writers
The Other Side of the Mirror: An American Travels Through Syria by Brooke Allen (Paul Dry Books, 2011): Mark Twain once remarked that God invented war to teach Americans geography. If my knowledge of the Middle East is indicative, it may be time for us to try a different strategy. Even with revolutions spreading from country to country, and heavy American involvement in about half of them, I was stunned to discover—when I looked at a map in Brooke Allen’s travel book about Syria—that the country was on the Mediterranean and shared a long border with Iraq. My mental map of the area that stretches from Libya to Yemen to Afghanistan, all of which we are currently attacking, was almost totally wrong.
I knew very little about Syria other than its capital, which I had memorized at some point during grade school. Nor was I particularly interested in learning more, at least at first. I picked up The Other Side of the Mirror because I had read some of Allen’s reviews and essays in The New Criterion and already knew that she was a wonderful writer.
Her book arrives at an odd moment, because her two trips to Syria in 2009 predate the prodemocracy uprisings that began there in early 2011. So the book is not topical in the way you might expect. Considering the scale of American ignorance, however, a wide-ranging sketch of the country’s history and national character turns out to be something of a revelation. Here is Allen’s description of what she is setting out to do:
This is not a book about militant Islam, or women and the veil, or terrorism, or the Arab-Israeli crisis, or any of the other subjects Americans have come to expect every time they pick up a volume on the Middle East. Instead, it will be an old-fashioned series of traveler’s impressions: observations and thoughts about a country whose reality confounded all my preconceived notions and inspired me to seek out many historical and literary sources for enlightenment. It is simply my [End Page 225] attempt to convey a bit of what makes Syria one of the most captivating countries I have ever visited, and certainly the most welcoming.
The author, mercifully, does not seem to be working through any personal issues on this trip, and refrains from using Syria as a tool for her own self-development. She also does not have the tendency, common to travel writers, of pretending that she has gone so far off the beaten path and integrated so effortlessly into local society that she is somehow no longer a tourist. Allen knows exactly what she is doing in this country—she is seeing the sights—and her book is an illustration of just how enlightening tourism can be if practiced with genuine curiosity and open-mindedness. As for the locals, none of the people that Allen meets, as friendly as they are—whether the young man wanting to be a fashion designer or the older one in love with English Modernist poetry or the four cab drivers all named Muhammed—take up more than a page or two. These are pleasant and passing encounters, and Allen doesn’t squeeze generalizations out of them.
Her book, instead, is filled with history—one of the grandest and most varied human histories, in terms of surviving evidence, of any country on earth. Allen quotes an anecdote from Agatha Christie, who was accompanying her archaeologist husband on one of his excavations in Syria: “picking up from the ground some interesting artifact, he would toss it aside as he muttered with infinite contempt, ‘Roman!’ In Syria, the Roman Empire indeed qualifies as recent history.”
Going from cities to ruins to little-visited museums, Allen wends leisurely across the country. Along the way, in her sparkling and readable style, we find out about the Phoenicians; Syria’s Bronze Age religious cults and the temples of Ishtar; Queen Zenobia of Palmyra; the early Christians and “the street that is called Straight” in Damascus, where Saul received his revelation; and...