John Borneman, Syrian Episodes: Sons, Fathers and an Anthropologist in Aleppo (Princeton, 231 p., 2007)
Princeton anthropologist John Borneman says at the outset of his account of a several month sojourn in Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city, “I suppose I went to Syria for enchantment, reenchantment or some kind of magic unavailable to me in America.” He cheerfully confesses to following in the footsteps of such “Orientalists” as Flaubert, Burton, von Humboldt and T.E. Lawrence. After reading about Borneman’s adventures in the marketplace, the shops, the University of Aleppo, and even in the hamam (or bathhouse) across the street from his apartment… all I can say is that Syria seems like a hell of a place to go for enchantment.
For those of us Canadians who only know of Syria as a prime destination for rendition to torture, Borneman provides a thumbnail sketch of the country’s dismal situation. Syria is a secular republic ruled by the Baath Party, whose current president, Bashar el-Assad inherited the office on the death of his father, Hafez, in 2000. Bashar’s father had taken control of the country through a putsch within the governing party back in 1970, and ruled for the next three decades. The son, Bashar, was re-elected, with only token opposition, to another seven-year-term just last week. Given the political realities in Syria, terms such as republic, elections, security apparatus and the like probably should be put in raised-eyebrow quotemarks.
Borneman makes the point—relevant to his sub-title about sons and fathers—that Bashar “is not the father but the father’s son, and neither the eldest nor favorite son,” but a reluctant political heir thrust into office when the designated successor, an elder brother, died in a speeding crash.. Second, the Assad family rules as part of a non-Sunni Muslim minority sect, the Alawites, that “operates as a clan, amassing wealth and centralizing power through a clientilistic system.” It’s a clan that disproportionately rewards its own members, who make up only 12 per cent of the 20 million Syrian population, a population that has roughly doubled in the last 20 years.
As Borneman describes it, in his thirty years of rule, Hafez el-Assad “constructed an authoritarian state, represented by a Stalin-like cult of personality regime, but with no all-encompassing ideology.” Almost needless to add, there’s a powerful “security apparatus,” the Mukhabarrat, which the father installed during his transformation of Syria into a “national security state,” and the grip of political power has not noticeably loosened under the son.
That tight grip, however, is beset by continuing political instability. Among the litany of threats to the secular dynasty’s future that Borneman cites, recent Syrian history includes wars with Israel; internal political and religious rebellions; Palestinian refugees and, more recently, those from Iraq; the collapse of the Soviet Union and its patronage; the increased power of oil-rich Arab Gulf states; and the now ubiquitous and well-armed fundamentalist Islamic movements.
Amid rapid population growth, there’s a grim economic situation. Average per capita GDP in the last quarter-century has remained consistently low, which means that economic growth lags behind population growth, which further means that youth unemployment burgeons, leading to both a brain drain of the best and brightest and a basis for future domestic unrest. All in all, Syria is not a pretty picture.
But Borneman’s book, Syrian Episodes, is not about politics. Rather, it’s about daily life and the author’s own experiences during his time in Aleppo. As a professional and reasonably prominent social scientist, Borneman feels obliged to offer a theoretical grounding for his wanderings in Aleppo. The theory is fairly minimal, almost an anti-theory, and seems to be mainly intended to justify simply writing about what happened in an episodic, vignette-driven narrative.
I think the story is justification enough, since we haven’t had many recent accounts of everyday life in Syria by visiting North Americans, but in any case Borneman underscores his “commitment to experience itself, to sensual experience in face-to-face interactions as a privileged mode of encounter, one that may ultimately lead to knowledge unattainable through other means.” I guess scholars are required to announce that insights derived “from the rawness and brevity of a momentary exchange, an unusual taste, an overheard comment or direct gaze; from the feel of a hand or play of light in a room” are often more informative than survey questionnaires. In the end, it’s a very roundabout way of describing what other writers call “writing.”
Once past the slightly cumbersome preliminaries, Borneman has an interesting tale to tell about life in the souk, or market district. “Summer days are long, noisy, exhausting, and at the end of each I often feel as old as the souk itself, covered head to foot with a thin coat of dust,” says the 50-something-year-old visitor. “I awake at dawn to the Islamic ‘call to the good,’ the Fajr prayer (where the crier calls out twice, ‘Prayer is better than sleep’), though loud catfights also punctuate the still of the night.” A few hours later, “the clanging of cast-iron locks and the rumble of rolling aluminum doors” gets the day underway, and until after midnight, when Borneman falls asleep “to a resounding pitter-patter of shoes rhythmically pounding against the large stone-paved streets… I am immersed in the sounds of muttering, milling customers and the shrieks of merchants who lure them into their shops.”
In addition to having a nice sense for the sights and sounds of the place, Borneman offers an array of engaging quick sketch portraits of various merchants and students, mostly sons and nephews of shopkeeper families. Borneman is frequently invited to the homes of the young merchants, as well as to those of the students he meets at the university, and other acquaintances encountered at the local bathhouse. Although these social occasions are sometimes lugubrious, Borneman’s detailed accounts of his conversations with various families and his descriptions of the determined hospitality they offer succeed in giving readers a well-rounded sense of what the lives of ordinary Syrians are like, and of the inter-generational tensions that obtain between fathers and sons.
Although Borneman’s narrative convinces us that ordinary Aleppians are pretty much like the (ordinary) rest of us, I find his Syrians rather less enchanting than he does. His young men are an often melancholy lot, filled with unsatisfied heterosexual yearnings, destined for family-arranged marriages, faced with dim economic prospects, and devoid of the sort of critical thinking that professors like Borneman hope to instill in their students. Still, Borneman finds a glimmer of hope in frequent conversations where he’s invited to offer standard—and thus shocking—liberal answers to questions about religion, sex, and politics. He optimistically sees the questions as an invitation to express views that his interlocutors are tempted to hold but don’t dare utter themselves.
Borneman went to Syria on a Fulbright scholarship, with an agreement to teach a course at the University of Aleppo. This sub-theme of the book is distinctly unenchanting, especially for Borneman. Instead of the agreed-upon teaching assignment, he walks into a buzzsaw of academic bureaucracy, and is given a three-month runaround before being fobbed off with the opportunity to give a few non-curricular lectures. What’s perfectly clear from these particular Syrian episodes is that the administration at the University of Aleppo is fairly anxious to keep Borneman out of the classroom, presumably to save themselves from possible difficulties with the regime and its security apparatus, even though the regime has given formal permission to the academic interchange program. Borneman’s limited academic experiences in Aleppo seem of a piece with the generally repressive ideological climate of the country.
The murkiest part of Syrian Episodes has to do with Borneman’s commitment to “sensual experience,” specifically, homoerotic sensual experience. Borneman is gay, undisguisedly so, but he never quite comes out and says so, though he does in passing mention (to the reader) that he has a male partner back home in the States, and frequently provides heavily gay-themed vignettes in his book.
Instead of a simple declaration of sexual preference, Borneman sets up his own identity as an inexplicably unmarried man. As he puts it, “I am in the Middle East frequently identified both as a man who could be a father, hence someone already known, and, because I am not married, as a grand ambiguity… In Syria, what provokes the most incomprehension is the nonmarried man who does not marry even though he would be able to, or says he does not want to marry.” Several of the episodes in the book offer variations on conversational exchanges in which he’s asked by young men why he isn’t married, and the conversations invariably end in frustration, for both the questioner and the reader, because Borneman doesn’t say, or feels he’s not in a position to say (since it’s a possibly forbidden linguistic category), that he’s gay.
Even though I’m pretty well attuned to gay codings in writing, both as a gay man myself and as a writer, I was unable to decide whether Borneman is being coy or airily sophisticated, making the assumption that his gayness is so obvious that it doesn’t require mention or discussion. In either case, I often felt as uncomprehending and mystified as his Syrian questioners in trying to figure out what’s going on.
There’s a problem here and Borneman doesn’t address it head on. I have a sympathetic interest in what he’s trying to do because several years ago I attempted something similar in writing, with equally mixed results. The problem goes something like this: how does a writer who’s gay include his relevant gay experiences and perceptions in a work for a general readership, a work that deals with a variety of topics and is not primarily about homosexuality? This is especially problematic if you’re describing a culture in which homosexuality is forbidden, or a culture that doesn’t permit linguistic recognition of such desires except by means of joking or pejorative remarks. That’s the situation in Syria that Borneman is in and he doesn’t frankly take it up, even though it obviously impinges on a lot of what he’s talking about
Despite his seeming evasiveness at one level of the account, Borneman provides a first-person report of an explicit homosexual encounter that he has, a couple of enthusiastic descriptions of his infatuations with young men, and frequent allusions to brief homoerotic flirtations that remain unrequited, or are responded to with tempting ambiguity. In addition, there’s an extended portrait of a particularly campy bi-sexual scarf merchant, and knowing remarks about homosexual relations.
At one point, Borneman casually says, “Some of my Syrian acquaintances who have a lot of sex with men (they are also invariably married, and most have sex with their wives also) have told me that if anyone asks them about homosexuality, they have learned to just deny everything—and then have sex. In other words, they do what I might consider ‘having sex’ but do not call it that. The worst thing to do, what ends all communication, is to say one is interested in sex.” Wait a minute, I wanted to say. Who are these heretofore unmentioned "acquaintances who have a lot of sex with men" and how did you meet them? What's the rest of the story?. So, in another sense, it’s all there, but the reader is often left to tease out the implications and put together the scattered hints and occasional explicitness.
To make matters slightly worse, along the way there is considerable descriptive writing about young men that typically sounds like this steamy steambath moment: “A young man with luscious lips, crooked teeth, and a most exquisitely sculpted chest comes over to my bench…” On another hamam occasion: “I melt as I look into his dark, attentive eyes and his finely chiseled face.” Or this, from a dinner scene: “His younger brother looks much like him, except he has no beard and his hair is long, shiny black, and his eyebrows frame raccoonlike eyes. He is, in other words, a stunning beauty.” I suppose these exquisitely sculpted chests, meltings, raccoonlike eyes and stunning beauties are all well and good, since hotness, if not beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. But an editor of mine, who noticed my own penchant for indulging in similarly descriptive “devotional” writings, gently pointed out that what I was doing was “hagiography” rather than what was wanted, namely, “anthropology.” That observation is even more apt when applied to a practising anthropologist
The old Enzio Pinza song that kept running through my mind as I read of Borneman’s enchantment, goes, “Some enchanted eveing / you may meet a stranger / across a crowded room…” Borneman tends to be less distracted while describing the crowded room than he is when dealing with the enchanting strangers.
In one passage where he reports on the perils of crossing six-lane roads crammed with high speed, dangerous drivers, Borneman also notices the unflattering and ubiquitous presence of fluorescent lighting in both homes and public spaces in Aleppo. He sees a strained dynamic between the traffic pattern and the lighting.
“In these well-lit spaces, then, of homes, cafes, restaurants, stores and shops,” he observes, “people bask in immobility, conversing for hours over a Turkish coffee or a cup of tea, but this slowness is countered by the high speed not only of traffic, but also the speed at which people eat, and the quickness of the orgasm in sex—for men, that is.” Again, I find myself wondering how much enchantment there is in the harshly lit stasis and fast, almost furtive orgasms of Syria.
For all its faults and frustrations, it’s useful to note the overriding point Borneman makes about his project, namely, “I write this at a time when in the United States knowledge generally and academic knowledge specifically is dismissed if politically, religiously, or cognitively inconvenient. This book, in response, is an attempt to write a no-spin or anti-spin monograph. It does not repeat propaganda; it does not attempt to hide or twist anything said or done… nor does it attempt to serve ideological ends.” In those terms, Borneman’s Syrian Episodes is pretty convincing. It’s not “spin,” and it tells us a lot that’s useful, interesting and often poignant about a place that’s little known these days.
While reading Borneman’s episodic tale, I also found myself thinking about that old joke in academia that goes, “A social scientist is a guy who needs a hundred thousand dollar grant to find his way to a whorehouse.” In this case, the destination is a bathhouse. But it’s a place that’s worth the price of admission, and what we learn there is far more useful than most of the latest headlines from the Middle East.
Berlin, June 1, 2007. Stan Persky teaches philosophy in North Vancouver, B.C. His forthcoming book, Topic Sentence: A Writer’s Education, will appear shortly. .