A cultured utopia

Screen Shot 2016-04-01 at 09.06.41It is difficult, says Dalrymple, to see

what the French wanted a mandate in Syria for, other than to maintain their prestige and be generally important.

France and Britain ratted on the Arabs and between them

carved out territories that had no real meaning for their inhabitants but whose borders held for 100 years, which is said by some to be at the root of the present troubles. I don’t really believe it: I doubt that the Middle East would have become some kind of sandy Scandinavia if it had been left to its own devices.

Screen Shot 2016-04-01 at 08.48.18Joseph Kessel, in his 1926 book on Syria, argues that

the French made the mistake of changing their top administrators too often, so that by the time any of them began to grasp something about the country they made way for a replacement who knew nothing.

Dalrymple bought the 2014 Folio edition of En Syrie

because of the picture on its front, the photograph of a street in a still-Ottoman Damascus taken, I should imagine, about 1914, in the subtle shades of early colour postcards. It is a beautiful narrow street, leading (I think) to the Great Mosque in the distance.

Joseph Kessel

Joseph Kessel

It conveys

peace and a civilised existence. In the foreground a couple of men ride donkeys; in the middle distance are the only wheeled vehicles, a couple of calèches; the sun is overhead and the pedestrians cast long shadows, two of them walking with parasols. The architecture is pure Ottoman, with delicately-latticed mashrabiyas overhanging the unpaved road below. Life continues at a pleasingly slow pace.

The picture, says Dalrymple,

excites nostalgia for something that one has not even known and never existed; it provokes an almost dream-like state, a reverie of a life without politics and ideology, a cultured utopia, where there is an abundance of beauty and taste rather than of things, where people treat each other with ceremonial courtesy rather than in business-like fashion at best, and even the smallest and most ordinary of things are infused with a concern for aesthetics. A more fully human life.

Screen Shot 2016-04-01 at 08.55.27Dalrymple says that in his peregrinations,

I occasionally came across somewhere in which I thought, or rather preferred in my ignorance to imagine, there was such a life. All those places have since descended into chaos and massacre, with millions fled or displaced and the vilest doctrines propagated.

Kessel, who among many other things wrote a novel about Himmler’s charlatan doctor, was, says Dalrymple, a kind of

André Malraux minus the self-advertisement and dishonesty.

Screen Shot 2016-04-01 at 10.19.41

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