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James Denselow

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An Innocent Abroad

Posted: 10/06/11 02:03 PM ET

The Other Side of the Mirror (Brooke Allen, Paul Dry Books -- Philadelphia 2011)

Brooke Allen, an American critical writer, attempts in this book the ambitious task of writing a travelogue that opens up the closed state of Syria to an American public. Sadly, what Allen has created is a fragmented, superficial and deeply flawed foray into Syria that, considering the great potential of the task, is disappointing.

Although featuring sections of history and political commentary, the book reads much like a holiday diary. Much of the 248 page work comprises chunks of quotations ranging from Mark Twain to T. E Lawrence and a number of postcard-like pictures of Syria's greatest tourist attractions. What's more, the Syria that Allen describes is almost completely devoid of real characters. With no Arabic language skills to enable her to converse with Syrian people, the majority of the author's encounters are with workers in the tourist trade. Allen admits to having 'untutored eyes' and one wonders how much you can really learn from an author whose book is based on seemingly only two short trips to the country.

Allen has chosen a thematic structure to examine Syria through frameworks such as time, faith and ruins. She admits that the book is a 'series of traveller's impressions,' but the structure means that the reader is taken from one corner of the country to another in a matter of paragraphs and, crucially, the sense of travel is entirely lost. That said, the author has obviously read extensively around the subject and the book includes some strong sections on the historical context of Syria's many magnificent Crusader castles.

Allen is, however, perhaps the most innocent of innocents abroad, setting out in the early chapters the stark dichotomy between the Syria she believes that Americans perceive and the actual experience. This leads to bold statements such as "most Westerners are under the impression that Syrians are fanatically Muslim," and you feel that perhaps only an American with no knowledge of Syria at all can be the proper judge of the work. At several points in the book, Allen expresses her surprise that Syrians are not instantly hostile to her and you feel that after her trips she has undergone only a transition from absolute to relative ignorance. Many sections of the book are also deeply patronising, such as Allen's lazy referral to her drivers as Muhammed one, two, three and four, and the constant highlighting of translation and spelling errors on restaurant menus.

Having lived in Syria around the time Allen was writing, I did not recognise much of the book's description of the country. While some mistakes, such as thinking that there are no ATMs in Syria, are forgivable, much less so is Allen's rose-tinted conclusion that living in the police state isn't as bad as people would think. The 2011 uprisings and the brutal attempts to put it down have made the timing of Allen's book somewhat tragic, as Syria's emerging $5bn tourist industry has more or less collapsed. The author is surprised by the 'genuine enthusiasm' for their dictatorial leader and later argues that 'Syrians seem to have developed a far more civil and polite public arena than our own.' While Allen wrote the book prior to the March 2011 outbreak of protests her stance that the 'jury is still out' on Assad is very much out of date as today much of the world has now made the decision that he must go.

Allen's whistle-stop foray into the history, culture and politics of Syria contains nuggets of interest but ultimately falls wide of the mark, leaving an unfilled space for a heavyweight account of travels from this currently tortured country.

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