Monday, February 29, 2016

Book review: Aleppo, by Philip Mansel

Once upon a time, it was a city, with a vibrant life, and beautiful buildings and an European flair. Its name was Aleppo and was almost destroyed by the latest civil war, although escaped for centuries big wars, riots or earthquakes. I personally never traveled to this city, but luckier travelers friends of mine told or showed me interesting stories or pictures from here. All these pictures are mostly showing places that are just memories. 
In his latest book, Philip Mansel covers the history of the city as part of the greater Middle East and the main trade routes. It is the story of a city "with a rhythm of its own, challenging categories and generalisations. Lying between the desert and the sea, the mountains of Anatolia and the banks of the Euphrates, it was Arab and Turkish, Kurdish and Armenian, Christian, Muslim and Jewish". 
Until the latest civil war, the city kept at a great extent a peaceful character and went through the big world conflicts without serious damage. Together with Damascus, to whom it places itself in antithesis, it is one of the oldest continously inhabited cities in the world. Faithful to the Ottoman Empire, it was used often as a basis during the frequent wars with Iran over the control of Iraq or the battles between Sunni and Shi'a. Although its commercial role will diminish by the 17th century, it will remain till the 21st century, an important hub of cultural, trade and diplomatic resources. The impressive number of sayings and proverbs typical for Aleppo that entered the public conscience in the region are an example of the special status of this city. My favourite by far is: "If you do business with a dog, you should call him Sir". It testifies about a special sensibility and a local code of values. 
The book has two big parts: one dedicated to cover various historical and political stages of development of the city, with its main benchmarks, and the other covering fragments from travel accounts about Aleppo. It is an interesting perspective which offers the chance to get a glimpse of the ambiance and profile of the city through direct accounts. 
It is an informative interesting read, of academic consistency and well written. My only regret is that the author commits the big sin of many historians approaching the 'multicultural' Middle Eastern cities of pretending that there was tolerance towards the Jewish inhabitants. Only at the beginning of the 19th century there were couple of infamous "blood libels" that are not mentioned in the book. Anyway, this was not the main topic of the book, but more attention to this detail will help countering the stereotype of the 'tolerance' in the Middle East. 
A lecture recommended to both historians and political scientiest, as well as to journalists covering the Middle East. 
The book will be released the 28th of April.
Disclaimer: I was offered the book for review via, but the opinions are, as usual, my own.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Faces of refugees

There is a lot to say about the refugee crisis that made the first page of many European newspapers for weeks the last year and still remains a very important challenge and test for the European policies and solidarity, especially at the EU level. There are dramatic aspects regarding the security, especially from the point of view of the terrorist threats, as well as of public diplomacy. or human rights.
As I am living in Germany, refugees are more than an abstraction or desperate beings shown on TV. Especially in some parts of Berlin, you can see them on the street and even approach them. A couple of days ago, while passing by a local office of Sparkasse bank, a human chain in the front of the door with a patch of paper on their jackets writing: Refugee Support. I also known quite a lot of people around involved on a regular or volunteering basis in helping the refugees and even telling their stories further.
Outside Germany refugees can be an abstraction and the representations of local population can be limited to the scary images of the yellow media. Again, I am convinced there are so many details and nuances to consider when it comes to this issue, but on the other hand it is important to embrace the entirety of the topic.
Thanks to social media though, the nuances can be offered, in their simple happening. A couple of days ago, when browsing the Instagram for new interesting photos from sunny places, I stumbled upon a reference to a project of the Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei, of documeting the arrival and life of refugees reaching the island of Lesbos in Greece. His account is: #aiww. I spent the next hour looking at the pictures or video gathered: first hand images of people, many of them children, upon their dramatic arrival on the island. Expressions of hope, happiness, relief, deep sadness, insecurity...the usual repertoire of humanity in its simplest manifestation. Especially the videos and the faces of small children are very moving.
Ai Weiwei's account is an example of the good changes that can be brought via social media. It also offers a chance to information and the possibility to make your own ideas and opinions based on what you see. The final political decisions are based less on feelings and emotions, but at least for us, the citizens, it is important to see all sides of the coin.