October 01, 2013

The Middle East Crisis and Our New Novel


The Middle East Crisis and Our New Novel

This editorial, by author (of The Pet Hawk of the House of Abbas, which goes on sale today, October 1) Dmitry Chen, appeared last month on Bloomberg.com, and considers how the current crisis in Syria has its roots 13 centuries ago.


“And when, on a gentle spring morning after several days of siege, that host streamed through a breach in the walls of Damascus, murder and pillage ensued that scarce abated with the sunset.”

No, this isn’t a prediction. It is from a novel I wrote about eighth-century Syria, Iran and Iraq.

I hate being a prophet.

If we (Europe, Russia, the U.S.) all stick our military hands into Syria, there will be plenty of quiet chuckles echoing through the Arab world: “Welcome, you idiots, to exactly where we wanted you. Now do the dirty job for us.”

To understand what is happening in Syria, one must look at the larger picture. And that larger picture is the ancient and bitter Arab-Iranian rivalry, today manifested in the Arab world’s attempts to nip off bits of the Iranian sphere of influence, this particular bit being Syria.

When the conflict began, there was no America. There was no Europe, not really (we have to wait for Charlemagne to be born). The eastern Roman Empire was half alive, half gobbled up by the Arabs. And Iran – well, it had been wiped out as an enlightened, ancient empire a century before, in 651. After that, the Arabs took a long rest on the borders of Sogd (modern-day central Asia, with its capital in Samarkand), which they began to conquer only in 712.

Why the rivalry? Why did the conquerors (the Arabs) so loathe the conquered (the Iranians)? That’s where the eighth century comes in. A hundred years after the Arabs destroyed Iran, their own empire, which stretched from Spain to the Chinese border, was a teetering wreck, being devoured from the inside by rivalries and bad government.

Then, in 747, a revolt began in Iran that would eventually overthrow the Umayyad dynasty, replacing it with the Abbasids. The Abbasids would go on to build Baghdad and rule the huge Islamic caliphate for 500 years – until the arrival of Genghis Khan and his Horde.

Yes, the Abbasids were Arabs, but their scribes, builders and literati were Iranians and the Arabs who cared to learn from them. As a result, the Iranians gradually all but took over their conqueror’s empire from the inside.

What an exquisite revenge – an ancient nation that refused to give in, even when it was impossible to hold on.

Are there echoes of this stubbornness in current Iranian negotiating behavior regarding nuclear proliferation? There are. One needs to understand the roots of this ancient nation to appreciate how the Iranians negotiate against all odds – just as they did in the eighth century, refusing to believe they were finished. And no, they won’t give in today.

Here is the crucial bit: The Arab-Iranian divide is far more than cultural. In the eighth century, subjugated Iran was also abandoning its ancient religion – Zoroastrianism – and creating its own, unique strand of Islam, Shiite, that stood in opposition to the dominant Sunni strand favored by the Abbasids.

A historian would tell us to remember that today’s conflict in Syria can be traced back to an Arab-Iranian – Sunni-Shiite – rivalry that is 13 centuries old.

This novelist can tell you that he has been there, back in eighth-century Damascus, and the streets were drenched in blood.

One thousand two hundred sixty-six years have passed. Unfortunately, little has changed.

You Might Also Like

The Pet Hawk of the House of Abbas
  • October 01, 2013

The Pet Hawk of the House of Abbas

This exciting new trilogy by a Russian author – who has been compared to Orhan Pamuk and Umberto Eco – vividly recreates a lost world, yet its passions and characters are entirely relevant to the present day. Full of mystery, memorable characters, and non-stop adventure, The Pet Hawk of the House of Abbas is a must read for lovers of historical fiction and international thrillers.  
Like this post? Get a weekly email digest + member-only deals

Some of Our Books

Jews in Service to the Tsar

Jews in Service to the Tsar

Benjamin Disraeli advised, “Read no history: nothing but biography, for that is life without theory.” With Jews in Service to the Tsar, Lev Berdnikov offers us 28 biographies spanning five centuries of Russian Jewish history, and each portrait opens a new window onto the history of Eastern Europe’s Jews, illuminating dark corners and challenging widely-held conceptions about the role of Jews in Russian history.
At the Circus

At the Circus

This wonderful novella by Alexander Kuprin tells the story of the wrestler Arbuzov and his battle against a renowned American wrestler. Rich in detail and characterization, At the Circus brims with excitement and life. You can smell the sawdust in the big top, see the vivid and colorful characters, sense the tension build as Arbuzov readies to face off against the American.
Moscow and Muscovites

Moscow and Muscovites

Vladimir Gilyarovsky's classic portrait of the Russian capital is one of Russians’ most beloved books. Yet it has never before been translated into English. Until now! It is a spectactular verbal pastiche: conversation, from gutter gibberish to the drawing room; oratory, from illiterates to aristocrats; prose, from boilerplate to Tolstoy; poetry, from earthy humor to Pushkin. 
Stargorod: A Novel in Many Voices

Stargorod: A Novel in Many Voices

Stargorod is a mid-sized provincial city that exists only in Russian metaphorical space. It has its roots in Gogol, and Ilf and Petrov, and is a place far from Moscow, but close to Russian hearts. It is a place of mystery and normality, of provincial innocence and Black Earth wisdom. Strange, inexplicable things happen in Stargorod. So do good things. And bad things. A lot like life everywhere, one might say. Only with a heavy dose of vodka, longing and mystery.
White Magic

White Magic

The thirteen tales in this volume – all written by Russian émigrés, writers who fled their native country in the early twentieth century – contain a fair dose of magic and mysticism, of terror and the supernatural. There are Petersburg revenants, grief-stricken avengers, Lithuanian vampires, flying skeletons, murders and duels, and even a ghostly Edgar Allen Poe.
The Little Golden Calf

The Little Golden Calf

Our edition of The Little Golden Calf, one of the greatest Russian satires ever, is the first new translation of this classic novel in nearly fifty years. It is also the first unabridged, uncensored English translation ever, and is 100% true to the original 1931 serial publication in the Russian journal 30 Dnei. Anne O. Fisher’s translation is copiously annotated, and includes an introduction by Alexandra Ilf, the daughter of one of the book’s two co-authors.
Fearful Majesty

Fearful Majesty

This acclaimed biography of one of Russia’s most important and tyrannical rulers is not only a rich, readable biography, it is also surprisingly timely, revealing how many of the issues Russia faces today have their roots in Ivan’s reign.
22 Russian Crosswords

22 Russian Crosswords

Test your knowledge of the Russian language, Russian history and society with these 22 challenging puzzles taken from the pages of Russian Life magazine. Most all the clues are in English, but you must fill in the answers in Russian. If you get stumped, of course all the puzzles have answers printed at the back of the book.
Life Stories: Original Fiction By Russian Authors

Life Stories: Original Fiction By Russian Authors

The Life Stories collection is a nice introduction to contemporary Russian fiction: many of the 19 authors featured here have won major Russian literary prizes and/or become bestsellers. These are life-affirming stories of love, family, hope, rebirth, mystery and imagination, masterfully translated by some of the best Russian-English translators working today. The selections reassert the power of Russian literature to affect readers of all cultures in profound and lasting ways. Best of all, 100% of the profits from the sale of this book are going to benefit Russian hospice—not-for-profit care for fellow human beings who are nearing the end of their own life stories.

About Us

Russian Life is a publication of a 30-year-young, award-winning publishing house that creates a bimonthly magazine, books, maps, and other products for Russophiles the world over.

Latest Posts

Our Contacts

Russian Life
73 Main Street, Suite 402
Montpelier VT 05602

802-223-4955