Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War

by Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami (Pluto, 2016)

Syria was once known as a ‘kingdom of silence’. In 2011 it burst into speech – not in one voice but in millions. 


I wasn’t awake to the voices in Syria until I met this FSA fighter in Cairo in January 2013. The Arab Spring Revolution in Tahrir Square had caught my attention and imagination two years earlier, but the revolution in Syria was merely soundbites on the nightly news. I wasn’t paying attention.

Today, I suspect my lack of interest may have been a consequence of the source of information I was receiving in early 2011, and to my general ignorance of the politics in Syria. Whereas, I sat mesmerized in front of Al Jazeera on TV morning, noon and night as the Egyptians fought for their dignity كرامة and freedom حرية  (and I felt knowledgeable about the politics involved in Egypt), I didn’t see or hear the Syrian people and their struggle, except through the lens of the mainstream media.

That changed in January 2013 when I was sitting in the lounge at Pension Roma in Cairo and met a handsome Syrian man in his 30s. He couldn’t speak English, and my conversational Arabic was practically non-existent. Fortunately, another young Syrian guest translated for us. Over a period of several days, this FSA fighter opened my eyes and heart to the Syrian revolution.  I’ve written about those conversations here. I’ve been reading and keeping my attention on Syria ever since.

Burning Country

Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War took me back to that Free Syria Army fighter as every chapter revealed the revolution from the Syrians’ perspective(s). The authors share the Syrian people and their stories, not as a unified monolith, but as a complicated tapestry. Their voices burst into eloquent speech in this book which every Westerner should read.

Yes!  The history, the politics and the people are complex and often murky as the world hears different narratives. Are the White Helmets the good guys or the bad guys?  Is Bashar Assad a sadistic dictator guilty of crimes against humanity or a victim of an international conspiracy fighting for the survival of Syria?

Understandably, the confusion created by these dueling world views has dulled most people’s interest in Syria beyond the simple soundbites, but it would be a big mistake to turn our attention away; or to accept the simplistic pronouncements littering social media.

This book provides a good primer and helped me put into context a lot of what I’ve been learning about Syria during the past 5 years. I was definitely a neophyte when I was speaking with that FSA fighter in January 2013. Today, I consider myself better informed than perhaps many members of Congress, not because I’m arrogant or overly-confident but because I’ve taken the time to wade through the weeds and distractions that often accompany any discussion about Syria.

This review of the book is worth reading:

As well as a non-orthodox telling of the conflict from the point of view of the activists and fighters who took part in the revolution, the book also speaks to the confusion and reluctance of western progressives to engage in the reality of Syria. “What’s happening is of immense human, cultural importance, not just for Syria and the Middle East but for the whole world. We do actually live in age of very messy revolutions,” says Yassin-Kassab.

I don’t know if my FSA friend is even alive today, but he was constantly on my mind as I read Burning Country and I know he would have approved of this telling of the Syrian revolution. Thank you Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami for giving voice to the voiceless.