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Book Review - Syrian Episodes: Sons, Fathers, and an Anthropologist in Aleppo, by John Borneman

Syrian Episodes is not a straight academic text, but a fascinating composite, a book of many textures, tones and levels. At one and the same time, it is a mischievous travel memoir, a philosophical inquiry into individuality and a personal quest woven into a field report.

John Borneman’s stated mission is an anthropological inquiry into urban Syrian men, their relationships with each other and especially those between fathers and sons. This is of critical importance for anyone wishing to understand the social, political or spiritual values of the Arab world. For the respect so freely given to fathers and grandfathers is part of a pattern of obedience which extends to other patriarchal authority figures - to the rulers of the house, be they socialist Presidents, hereditary Kings, scholarly Sheikhs or coup-leading Colonels. Borneman is too wise to give us easy prescriptions, and certainly his initial concept, that the patriarchal role model is being undermined by the stagnant economic and political realities of Syria, is gradually corrected. For in encounter after encounter, the family group as run by a meritocratic patriarch emerges triumphant. Unmarried sons work for mere pocket-money, knowing that their canny uncles and fathers are banking the balance for a house on their behalf when they settle down in their thirties and get married. The young men bicker, they dream, but they also comply. Networks of brothers and cousins allow the young men to travel and experiment, to pursue love affairs, military service or expatriate work in the Gulf, knowing that their old jobs and old folks back home are being cared-for. Indeed there are moving examples of how individuals have turned their back on personal advancement (even a work visa to the much-desired western world) when they are unable to bring with them their entire family unit. As a 31-year-old trader freely confessed, “My mother means everything to me…I couldn’t leave her”. These reports are even more valuable and insightful in that they clearly go against the grain of John Borneman’s own desires and experience. He is a triumphant individualist, sitting on the very top of the world tree: not only a white, educated, male but a professional American who is also a Professor from Princeton to boot, with a Fulbright scholarship to spend on board, travel and lodging abroad and a book to write for the University Press. But in Syrian terms he also finds he is to be pitied, alone in the world, without a wife and a child, let alone a protective network of cousins. In the telling phrase of a student at the university cafeteria, “I would rather have children than fly [around the world]”. This is all the more poignant as it becomes increasingly clear that the relationship between fathers and sons is not just a professional line of inquiry for John Borneman but a personal obsession that rests heavily on his own unhappy experience of childhood trapped in a Wisconsin Farm.

Syrian Episodes can also be read as a contemporary travel book: a chatty, confessional memoir about the experience of living in the heart of a medieaval city. Indeed just three years ago a quite similar tale of a professor teaching abroad, 92 Archanon Street, won the best new travel book of the year award. For six months Professor Borneman is based in an elegant apartment in the Khan al-Nahasin, the old caravanserai once used by the Venetians as their base in the city. The professor is good company. He has a quick wit and a roving eye that can just as quickly focus in on male beauty “a young man with luscious lips, crooked teeth, and a most exquisitely sculpted chest comes over to my bench” as the power of a telling phrase or a troubling metaphor. He seems to be in his element in the covered markets and steam baths of the ancient city of Aleppo: talking, flirting, gossiping, sipping coffee, eating out in the evenings in the wonderful restaurants of the Christian quarter as well as spending generous amounts of time with his students, tutoring them in life in the university cafeteria as well as accepting invitations to come home and meet their parents over dinner. Part of the Herculean task of teaching a course in a Syrian University lies in Kafka-like embroilments with the bureaucracy, not to mention the hidden heirachies of the ruling Baath party and the many elements of the state security apparatus, the Mukhabarat.

All this makes for good copy and allows the professor to speculate on the many inherent contradictions of being a Syrian-Arab. The men of Syria take great pleasure in sitting quietly in public, taking time to be with friends and to contemplate the world, but once behind a steering wheel become stridently competitive speed devils. It is generally agreed that a clerical Muslim party would almost certainly win any free election in the Middle East, but if this happened in Syria, the existing minorities would be so alienated that the country would implode into a Civil War. It is also conceded that the greatest single problem of the Middle East is that there is no in-between, so that it is either ‘this’ (some degraded popular sex-pop imported from Iraq or Italy) or sober Islamic tradition. And why is that practically all his American students (who are free to travel the globe) stay at home, whilst all Syrian students wish to leave?

On these and other questions, the professor is very good company indeed. He is also equally informative on Syrian food and Aleppo restaurants (pages 162-6) but by British standards he is a quite hopelessly inadequate figure on the wider, romantic landscape of the travel tradition. For instance he knows so little about Palmyra (the very lodestone of British Orientalism in terms of history, architecture, culture and geography) that he is seemingly content to read from a guide-book. Offhand I can think of no greater disgrace for a travel writer. Indeed one can almost visualize it as a Bateman cartoon, “the travel-writer who confessed to receiving his historical information from a copy of the Lonely Planet guide.” He also treads a fine line with his descriptions of homosexual encounters. Like Robert Tewdwr Moss and his Syrian travel book, Cleopatras Wedding Present (which is quoted with approval) this can produce some wonderfully evocative scenes, misadventures, dialogue and throw away lines. There is a new definition for ‘fieldwork’ after ten seconds of sex with a married man in a field….and his description of the textile salesmen in the covered market, who manipulates various European languages to create humour, sexual confusion…and much greater sales is wickedly clever. But at other times, I felt that the professor was too candid about himself, as if Socrates were to stop in mid-dialogue to describe an unsatisfactory blow-job with Alcibiades. Or perhaps all anthropologists should aspire to be as free, as personally honest and as rigorously self-inquiring as John Borneman, and so earn themselves the right to question others?

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