1- What drew you initially to the Arabic language and culture which you studied at University?
I switched to Arabic from German & Philosophy at Oxford, because I was drawn to the Middle East as the birthplace of civilisation, with the early river cultures of the Tigris & Euphrates and the Nile. Because of the late change, I had to make up the time myself and complete the three-year course in two years, which was hard work but very rewarding.
2- What was your profession before you became an author and how did this transformation take place?
I knew I wanted to continue using my Arabic after graduating, so I applied to GCHQ and was taken on as an Arabic Linguist Specialist. I then worked for many years as an Arabic translator/interpreter for the British government and for Racal Electronics, a British company, and gradually started writing as a hobby. My first book in 1986 was a travel guide to Aegean & Mediterranean Turkey, which sold out the first summer, so gradually the hobby started to take over and I became a full-time Middle East travel writer.
3- In 2005 you purchased a 17th-century courtyard house in the Old City of Damascus. Clearly by then you were enamoured with the city and its people to a level to make such a long-term commitment. Do you know much of the earlier owners of this property? Are these ancient houses now a rarity in the city?
I tried to find out about the previous owners but could only glean very general information – records that predate the French Mandate period are very difficult to access and are not held systematically by any institution. Old Ottoman houses that still have a complete courtyard are quite rare – most have been sub-divided due to inheritance rules, so that very often, one courtyard may have as many as four properties that now encroach onto it.
4- As we all know in 2011 Syria descended rapidly into a vicious civil war from which it has still not fully emerged and no doubt reconstruction will go on in a patchy and painfully slow progress for decades to come. At the start of the disturbances did you have any inkling just how much blood would be shed and cruelty inflicted on the Syrian people?
At the start of the uprising in March 2011, I, like many other people, hoped it would succeed in bringing about reforms to the corruption that was rampant in the Syrian government. The Assad family has ruled Syria for nearly 50 years in an exploitative and violent way, holding power through its brutal intelligence services – 17 branches in all – modelled on the Stasi, where all dissidents were imprisoned, tortured or exiled. The violence the regime was capable of had been demonstrated in the tens of thousands killed at the 1982 Hama Massacre. But the extreme nature of their violence surprised even veteran observers. Right from the start, they branded all opponents as “terrorists” and set out to kill or imprison them. The thing that has surprised me is the scale of the refugee exodus – a third of Syria’s population has left. Another third is internally displaced. Close to one million are estimated to have been killed. These are horrifying statistics that give an idea of the scale of the tragedy.
5- You have written numerous articles on the aspects of the Syrian Civil War, yet in all you are a rarity amongst journalists in that you do still hold hope that the resilience of its population and even for Kobani you have brought the idea of the creativity of its people to reconstruct both the fabric of these devastated cities and communities. Do you believe the Syrian people are almost unique in the region for seemingly never willing to give up all hope and still display generosity, including to outsiders who could easily be blamed for being part of the historical problem of regional instability?
Yes, I do believe Syrians across their history have shown a remarkable resilience in the face of political turbulence, though the fallout from this war is the biggest challenge the country has ever faced, in my view. My Syrian friends have never been hostile to me as a British person, even though Britain’s record in the region is poor, especially in the events that led up to the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. They tell me they know I am not the British government, just as I know they are not the Syrian government.
6- You have earlier travelled extensively in Syria including regions such as Idlib and Efrin which are truly out of bounds for journalists now as they are still under Jihadist rebel control. Clearly these regions culture and archaeology means a lot to you as you are about to have an article published on these regions. Are you able to receive somewhat unbiased reports on the conditions of civilians in these zones beyond Syrian Government control?
I have written a piece for the BBC website on Afrin here: and on Idlib for the TLS here: I travelled to all corners of Syria extensively when researching my Syria guidebook, so this is how I know these areas so well. I no longer have direct connections with people on the ground there – the populations of both areas have changed enormously over the course of the seven years of the war, with internal displacement, sometimes several times.
7- The real life character of your last book, ‘The merchant of Syria: a history of survival’ died aged 92 in 2013, so you got to know this person in the twilight of his life. According to you he was a man of few words and hardly wrote anything, being of limited education due to circumstances in his youth. So despite the family giving the green light following his death for the book, how were you able to build a picture of the twists and turns of this long life, as long as Syria has been a nation?
It was thanks to the many interviews the family set up for me with his former business partners and colleagues in Lebanon, Syria and Britain, that I was able to build up a picture, and of course, from his four sons and his wife. They were the main source. The background research was surprisingly difficult because very little has been written on Syria’s socio-economic history, which is why it took four years to write the book.
8- Do you think there is a great irony that the once great textile industry of Britain centred in Bradford Yorkshire was partly rescued in the 1980s by a scion of a family who for generations traded in this commodity and a mill was bought to ensure the product would still be available in Syria to trade? Is this mill still producing?
Yes, it is ironic that a Syrian economic migrant should have saved a Bradford textile mill at a time when all the other Yorkshire mills were closing down, due to the competition from synthetics from the Far East. It still produces a little, but the family also bought other mills in Huddersfield and they are all still producing.
9- What are your favourite Syrian dishes? Was food part of your initial attraction to this nation?
My favourite Syrian dishes are the typical mezze, small starters, especially tabbouleh, baba ghanouj and kibbeh. No, it was not the food that attracted me, rather it was the people and the richness of their extraordinary cultural heritage.
10- Since you remain actively committed to helping Syrians achieve a better future do you at times self-censor to ensure you retain access to the country and the people you care for? Is this a hard balance when reporting on people who clearly remain at threat in a country where there seems to be very little accountability.
I have never self-censored and have always reported and written openly and honestly about Syria and about what is happening on the ground. I don’t give my sources’ names on the whole, as that might put them and their families in danger.
11- Post-independence of Syria in 1946 you report that there was a very brief period of democracy that never took deep root with the rise of authoritarianism within a few years. What do you think went wrong?
The problem was one of timing, in my view. 1946 was a period of great instability in the region with the build-up to the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 after WWII, and huge waves of Palestinian refugees flooded into Syria. Democracy was fragile as the French had not prepared the country for independence in any way, so it found itself overwhelmed by regional problems not of its making. Had the period from 1946 onwards been more stable regionally, Syria’s future might have been very different, giving it a chance to establish itself and gain experience in good governance.
12- You are involved in a number of initiatives to help Syrian refugees, such as the ‘Culture Through Making’ programme. Can you tell us more what this organisation does please?
This is still is a new charity, seeking funding and applying for grants to support a programme of training Syrians inside the country, both children in schools and adults in workshops, to revive the traditional craft skills like tile-making, mosaic-making and textile embroidery. It is partnered under the umbrella of Syria Relief and has a website here:
Syria needs as much of this kind of support as it can get, as its manpower has been severely depleted during this war, with many craftsmen now outside the country as refugees, and therefore no longer using their skills. They will be essential to rebuilding when the time comes.