Ironically, it is this most hospitable of countries, with ‘one of the first housing complexes in the world for forced migrants’, that has now become an emitter of large numbers of people. Chatty does a great job in showing how Syria has not only been a focal point for the dispossesed, but also how these influxes ‘were integral to the emergence of the ‘Other’’ characteristic of modern Syria. In addition, Ottoman Syria is presented as one of the progenitors of the institutionalization of refugee integration. In 1857, in response to mass influxes of Crimean Tatars, a Refugee Code was promulgated by the Ottoman government. In 1860 a General Administration of Immigration was set up for the integration of thousands of immigrants and political figures from Eastern Europe and the Balkans. It was the Muhajirin district in Damascus -originally built for Muslims fleeing Crete after the local 1867 revolt- that housed these populations. During and after the two world wars, they were complemented by Armenians, Kurds and Palestinians and recently by Iraqis.
Chatty skillfully paints an organic ‘Greater Syria’ harking back to the mid-19th century and she is highly evocative when delving into Syria proper. Sha’laan, Syria’s once thriving cosmopolitan quarter, is brought to life in the form of a timeline running parallel to the country’s history. Once the headquarters of Sir Edmund Allenby, Sha’laan was at one and the same time a host for exiles from Palestine, Armenian refugees from Turkey and the location of the French Lycée, and the Parliament. In the 1940s and 1950s the quarter witnessed the growth of a vibrant business community, while the 1960s and 1970s were accompanied by the construction of modern residences. In the century’s closing decades traditional businesses were replaced by modern boutiques, cafes and restaurants as well as a youthful, cosmopolitan generation. These changes failed to negate Sha’laan’s quintessence. Even in 2017, the region’s vivacity makes it the ‘bustling heart of a multi-ethnic, cosmopolitan quarter’.
Chatty most fascinating chapter looks at Syria’s relations with its most troubled neighbor, Iraq, always through the prism of population influxes into Syria. Under Saddam Hussein’s regime, the trickle from Syria into Iraq built up, with figures as prominent as Nuri al-Maliki and Iyad Allawi sojourning in Damascus. And after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Syria witnessed the arrival of an assumed 1.2 million of Iraqis. In light of the book’s main idea, Syria’s unconditional hospitality throughout the centuries, Chatty recounts the post-2006 mass arrivals of Iraqis into the country, where they ‘were not regarded as refugees’. That accounts for their overwhelming unwillingness to register with UNHCR, despite the latter’s ‘concerted efforts and and innovative programmes’. In Syria, refugee reception was an affair of ‘Arab solidarity, social custon, social networks and kinship ties rathern than any mechanisms of international law’. Interestingly enough, Syria is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and has no domestic asylum laws. Consonant with its history of pan-Arab solidarity, it has never set up a visa regime for any Arab.
The author concludes by narrating how Syria, after 9 waves of in-migration during almost two centuries, came to its current state. She explores the international community’s inept response, although she is far more critical of the Europeans than Syria’s neighbors. She calls the former’s actions a ‘sop to humanitarian principles’, thus picking sides in what is still an acrimonious, hot-button issue. As for the UN, she portrays its response as varying according to country, although the reader can sense her disapproval at what should have been a more holistic and robust approach to the crisis. Chatty never steps into the emotional domain, yet her book feels highly personal. By expressing her admiration for Syria’s century-long hospitality and juxtaposing the latter with the world’s palsified response to the Syrians’ mass displacement, she laments the tragicly ironic fate of the ever-hospitable Levant. It might not have been her primary intention, yet the book does indeed feel like a ‘salutary lesson’ to the West.
For our interview with the author follow this link.