Syrian story

3rd April 2018

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What future for Syria? Alumna and author Diana Darke finds hope and inspiration in telling the story of a Syrian cloth trader in her latest book, The Merchant of Syria.

  • The Merchant of Syria, Abu Chaker, aged 6 in Syria and in 1983; Briggella Mills in Yorkshire

The book sums up the extraordinary story of Syria in the life of merchant, Abu Chaker.

Barely literate, and supporting his mother and sisters from the age of ten, Abu Chaker built up a business empire, despite twice losing everything he had. Diana (German and Philosophy/Arabic, 1974) follows his tumultuous journey, from instability in Syria and civil war in Lebanon, to his arrival in England in the 1970s, where he rescued a failing Yorkshire textile mill, Hield Bros, and transformed it into a global brand.

“When their father died in late 2013, Abu Chaker’s sons asked me if I would write his life story; they realised it could serve as an inspiration to young Syrians seeking sense and purpose in their country’s tragedy,” said Diana.

The Merchant of Syria tells two parallel stories: the life of a cloth merchant and his resilience, and the rich history of a nation built on trade. Over millennia Syria has seen great conflict and turmoil, but like the remarkable story of Abu Chaker, it continues to survive.

“My hope is that by contextualising how people live in modern-day Syria within a framework of how they lived in the past, the reader will come to appreciate the immense potential that exists for Syria’s future, thanks to its mercantile tradition,” she added.

One theme that pervades the narrative is the vital importance of trust.“ Abu Chaker’s entire business empire was based on little more than trust and care for his community, worlds away from the corporate culture of today with its short-term focus on profit and shareholders. When he bought Hield and the mill in Bradford, the first thing he did was to take it private, away from the danger of takeover,” commented Diana. “The book itself is also an act of trust, from the Chamsi-Pasha family, trusting that I would understand what their father stood for.”

The book has attracted a number of positive reviews. Hugh Kennedy, Professor of Arabic at SOAS, University of London describes it as “A unique insight into the country Darke obviously loves."

The Merchant of Syria is published by Hurst in the UK  and by OUP in the USA

  • Diana Darke with her husband and fellow Wadhamite, John McHugo

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