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  • Syria’s Democratic Years: Citizens, Experts, and Media in the 1950s by Kevin W. Martin
  • David Commins (bio)
Syria’s Democratic Years: Citizens, Experts, and Media in the 1950s, by Kevin W. Martin. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2015. 215 pages. $85 cloth; $35 paper.

The Arab world’s drift to authoritarianism in the 1950s is the subject of a large body of scholarship devoted to the region’s complex political scene. Kevin Martin brings a cultural historian’s vision to the Syrian case with his deep interpretation of one segment of the mass media that flourished between the fall of the Adib al-Shishakli regime in 1954 and the creation of the United Arab Republic in 1958.

The foundation of Martin’s study is his extensive research in the Syrian National Library’s collection of weekly and monthly magazines and transcripts of radio programs. In the mass of columns and articles, he discerned a stream of discourse claiming [End Page 685] to represent expert authority and advancing a set of values deemed essential for Syria to thrive in the modern world. The discourse assumed a consensus on national development as a collective goal and the need for citizens to give priority to duty and sacrifice rather than freedom and individual rights. Thus, the freest period in Syrian history produced a discourse that defined citizenship in a fashion suited to authoritarian rule.

The book hinges on close study of three personalities: an attorney, a military officer, and a physician, each representing a particular kind of expertise. Najat Qassab Hasan was a prominent Damascus attorney who became a familiar public figure through his broadcasts on national radio and his columns in a magazine dedicated to educating the public about the new national legal system. The “radio attorney” considered the state to be impartial and fair in implementing laws. Many Syrians, however, did not understand how the law worked and were therefore not equipped to play their part in upholding a stable, progressive social order. Qassab Hasan took it upon himself to play the part of law professor for the nation. His radio program had a special segment, “Almuwatin wa-l-qanun” (“The citizen and the law”), for readers to pose questions, and for Qassab Hasan to pose questions in the names of fictitious readers, on issues pertaining to property and family law. Some notable themes in the lawyer’s view were the duty of citizens to become familiar with the law and the necessity to keep documentation in order to secure their legal rights; the special responsibility that men bear for keeping family affairs in order; and the dangers to family and social stability posed by men of weak character and morality.

Colonel ‘Adnan al-Maliki was deputy chief of staff of the Syrian army when he was assassinated in April 1955. Martin’s study of the Maliki affair is a tour de force interpretation of his assassin’s trial as an emblem of mass media’s role in stoking national hysteria over traitors plotting with foreign enemies, the weakness of civilian institutions when put under relentless pressure by military leadership, and subversion of the law by the special military tribunal, in particular its resort to torture to elicit confessions. There is an ironic shift from Qassab Hasan’s faith in the law as a pillar of national strength and unity to the military’s sabotaging the law. Martin traces the construction of Maliki as national hero, martyr, and ideal citizen whose sacrifice could be redeemed only through vigilance against traitors and foreign enemies. One of the significant effects of the Malki affair was to militarize the Syrian definition of the citizen.

Sabri al-Qabbani was a physician and popularizer of modern medicine. Revenue from advertisements placed by Western pharmaceutical companies subsidized publication of his glossy magazine. Not surprisingly, Qabbani endorsed advertised products as part of an approach to health that emphasized familiarity with the latest medical advances and treatments. Martin probes Qabbani’s columns devoted to advice on sexual matters, primarily addressing the concerns of male correspondents, with an eye to reinforcing public morality for the sake of collective stability. He advised Syrians that marriage is not only the...


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pp. 685-687
Launched on MUSE
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