Author: James Snell

Review—The Raqqa Diaries: Escape from ‘Islamic State’

A review of The Raqqa Diaries: Escape from ‘Islamic State‘, by Samer. Interlink Pub Group (1 March 2017) 112 pages. The Syrian war has produced a great deal of writing, but little of real permanence. Most of its derivative works are journalistic accounts and dry geopolitical analyses. It has yet to produce a new novelist, poet, or memoirist of note, rather than simply providing new material for old hands. Some day, a great book about the Syrian civil war will be written – something that draws deeply from the conflict and sets the tone for a changed nation, region, and world. Such an era-defining conflict will have that effect. The Raqqa Diaries by ‘Samer’, a pseudonymous media activist who documented the daily reality of the occupation of his city by the Islamic State (ISIS), is not that book. Its brief length and episodic narrative do not allow it to reach great literary heights. It is presented too generally, in a way that will render it accessible to Western audiences. Arabic terms, even basic ones, are explained …

A Memoir from Mesopotamia

A review of The Unravelling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq by Emma Sky. New York, NY: PublicAffairs (2015), 402 pages. Emma Sky’s memoir of her time in Iraq captivates. Her account, as a British, female, one-time opponent of the Iraq war, deals with how she administered an Iraqi province in the aftermath of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. The book documents the years she spent in the country, working closely with the American military — the same organisation she and many like-minded individuals opposed so vigorously in the run up to the war. In the latter role, Sky became associated with what she calls the ‘American tribe’ (despite being a British citizen with little formal guidance from her own government), serving as a political advisor to American officials including Raymond Odierno (‘General O’) and David Petraeus. A great deal of the memoir consists of the realities of administering a newly-liberated nation, with dramatic descriptions of the work the military undertook, the realities of working in a warzone, and interesting dissections – complete with …

History and Memory in Syria

The Syrian uprising is on the verge of its fifth anniversary. To a great extent it has become the essential conflict of our times. Despite this – or perhaps because of it – the prospect of peace, despite some apparently encouraging signs from the United Nations, remains a chimera. Much – and understandably so – has been written about what Syria has become, and what led it there: the murders, the torture, the senseless slaughter, the almost inconceivable devastation. There is no shame in this; it is necessary and I have done more than my fair share. But sometimes this analysis is insufficient. Sometimes it is better to write from an unconventional perspective; sometimes what is missing from the equation is a greater sense of historical understanding. Some works do this very well. ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, the excellent book by Hassan Hassan and Michael Weiss, devotes considerable space to chronicling the origins of the Islamic State. But missing from all this is an idea of the personal experience of many Syrians; and …