Miller’s passionate, history-laden travelogue about Syria bemoans the country’s bygone beauty and greatness.
Miller (Laying on of Hands, 2003), an artist and prolific author, has explored numerous cultures, including Peruvian, Mexican and Asian, and she now trains her perceptive eye on Syria, a country she’s visited multiple times and studied for years. The resulting project could be considered a memoir of her travels in one of the oldest continuously inhabited sites on Earth, but it functions more as a historical tour through 21 Syrian cities, each with its own chapter. While Miller indeed serves as a knowledgeable and fervent guide, extolling the splendors of Syrian art, music, literature and especially architecture, she struggles to define her audience. The book’s title suggests a personal memoir perhaps intended to heal Syria’s modern image, but before Miller ever mentions herself, the first 20 pages describe Damascus’ vastness and architecture, parse the city’s name and meander through its violent religious legacy. The opening information is so dense, it’s jolting to hear Miller suddenly wax personal. As the book progresses in this manner, with Miller occasionally pausing the tour in order to voice her lyrical whims, it becomes clear her presence only provides a periodic sense of personality to what is otherwise a rambling history book. After describing the Hanibla mosque in Damascus, whose tombs house “heroes and mystics,” Miller unexpectedly shifts from tour guide to poet: “How much of love is laughter? How much of faith is the promise of redemption? How much of beauty is a moment, when time, like breathing or a scent, stops in its tracks, looks around, and says, ‘I may have been here before. I may have loved like this.’ ” The bigger problem, perhaps, is that Miller never fully reveals her identity in relation to the country, nor why she’s in Syria in the first place. Readers must piece together the fact that she’s merely a tourist herself, that the countless references to “we” include her husband and that she has no intentions beside lamenting the country’s prominent but forgotten past. Miller is otherwise a capable, astute and thorough writer with an eye for antique elegance.
An uneven but ultimately engrossing celebration of Syrian culture.