Posted by Christian Sahner on Wednesday, October 29th, 2014
The following is an excerpt from “Among the Ruins: Syria Past and Present,” just out from Oxford University Press/ C. Hurst & Co. For further information on the book and the history of Syria, follow me on Facebook and Twitter.
The road from Latakia to Qardaha wound gently along the Mediterranean coast. From here, the blue waters seemed to race to an endless horizon, to a world still wider than crowded Damascus, over one hundred and fifty miles inland. But the beachside view obscured the intimacy of the moment. Plato referred to this sea and the cities perched on its shores as a pond crowded with frogs. In antiquity, as today, these frogs came in a dizzying menagerie of shapes and colors, yet their diversity disguised their essential unity. There was more uniting these far-flung peoples than dividing them. It was a sense of a common heritage held together by the relentless flow of merchants, philosophers, and missionaries across this small pond.
Latakia—ancient Laodicea—is Syria’s principal port. It is located along a narrow coastal strip in the northwest of the country, between the Lebanese and Turkish borders. With its beachside resorts, open-air cafes, and relaxed ambiance, the city was a salutary reminder that Syria—at least in these parts—was very much one of Plato’s frogs, a Mediterranean country with its eyes trained on the sea.
Nevertheless, not everyone who basks in the Mediterranean sun enjoys its riches. For just as Syria’s geography and culture are divided between coast and desert, there is an equally pronounced rift between the coasts and mountains, which rise mightily from the waters’ edge. Here, the rugged peaks shelter villages that form the once-destitute heartland of Syria’s ‘Alawi community, a region known as Jabal Ansariyya. One hot day in July 2009, I headed to one of the most important of these mountain villages—Qardaha—to try to understand how a once-marginal group came to control Syria during the course of the twentieth century.
About ten miles south of Latakia, the road began to climb steeply. I was riding in a rickety van that had crawled the streets of Beijing or Seoul in another life, but was now covered with kitschy images of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Asad. The van shook to the songs of a Lebanese chanteuse, but the volume waned as we hit a steep incline. I was the only foreigner in a cabin filled with locals, many of them chain-smoking and forlorn-looking. Between them sat crates of peaches, parsley, and what looked like bottles of arak, that alcoholic nectar of the Levant.
The road leveled off eventually and the electronic rhythms resumed their punishing pace. Amidst the rugged landscape, the Mediterranean became harder and harder to see. She appeared occasionally with a coquettish wink, her sparkling blue eyes disguised between olive groves and mountain wadis. Up here, the sea was only seven miles away, but it felt like hundreds. Qardaha and its people were born of a sense of isolation from Plato’s world, not of belonging to it.
Qardaha enjoyed little notoriety throughout history: it was one of many faceless farming communities that dotted the mountains of Syria’s northwest, whose ‘Alawi inhabitants made meager returns selling tobacco, lemons and other crops to coastal merchants. For centuries, poverty here was endemic. Families were sometimes forced to make ends meet by selling their daughters into servitude in the homes of Sunnis grandees down below. By all reports, Qardaha was not a happy place, or much of a place at all; as Gertrude Stein once remarked of a very different city, Oakland, California: “There is no there there.”
All this would change in the early twentieth century, when contacts between the mountain and the coast began to increase. Among the beneficiaries was a young man named Hafez al-Asad, born in 1930, destined to become Qardaha’s most famous son. He descended the mountain for schooling and never looked back. As an adult, he rose up through the ranks of the Syrian Air Force, Baath Party leadership, and the government, serving as defense minister. In 1970, he seized control of the state in a successful coup, ruling Syria with cruel determination until his death thirty years later. You can tell a lot about a man by where he chooses to be buried, and despite a career forged in the cut-throat government halls of Damascus, Asad wished his body to return here, to the mountain village where he was born.
After a forty-five minute ride, I stepped out of the bus: Asad’s mausoleum sat on the edge of Qardaha’s still-humble, even derelict looking downtown. The ragged streets improved as I approached his grave, with newly planted trees and flowers lining a wide boulevard. Despite the inviting entrance and luxurious appointments, the mausoleum was strange: an eight-pointed star surmounted by a flat, onion-shaped dome—reminiscent of a spaceship in an old science fiction movie. An intricate Arabic inscription ran along the façade of the building, and on a large wall facing the entrance hung a sepia-toned portrait of the deceased leader. In it, an elderly Asad wore a page-boy cap and a wry smile, with the Syrian flag billowing behind him. It conjured a sense of nostalgia for a bygone world—for your grandfather and mine—for the grandfather of all Syria, this sunny-looking dictator.
The otherworldly ambiance was undiminished inside the mausoleum. Asad’s grave lay in a shallow octagonal depression in the floor, beneath the main dome. The casket, draped in a rich green cloth, was surrounded by a wreath of fresh flowers, and a second band of green satin sheets. To the left was the grave of Basel, the dauphin of the house of Asad who died tragically in 1994 (after crashing his Mercedes on the airport road outside Damascus, for which he is remembered as a shahid, or martyr). There were other empty graves in the building, presumably awaiting the deaths of other Asad family members—including Hafez’s widow Aniseh and their son Bashar, who took over the family business in 2000.
The mausoleum of Hafez al-Asad was more of a cultic site than a grave. Here, ‘Alawi security officers dutifully tended the tomb when not oiling their pistols or sipping tea, and piles of flowers left by dignitaries and pilgrims lay strewn outside. It looked like the mourning had never ended. There was a strange dignity to the place: it was a memorial to a man of ferocious but incredible ambition, as well as to a community that had managed to emancipate itself from its mountain miseries and take center stage in modern Syrian history. The story of Hafez al-Asad—the Alawi peasant who would become king—has no parallel in its particulars across this country. But in its generalities, it sums up the experience of many minorities over the past hundred years. It is the story of the outsider made insider, of the particular who managed to carve out a place for himself by redefining the universal.