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Lions, Leaders And Lingerie: 5 Great Reads From Syria

A Syrian book vendor waits for customers at his street stall in the old city of Damascus, Syria, on Sept. 24, 2011.
Muzaffar Salman
A Syrian book vendor waits for customers at his street stall in the old city of Damascus, Syria, on Sept. 24, 2011.

What does President Bashar Assad think of himself? How did his father, Hafez Assad, rise from a dirt yard to rule the country? What happens to those who speak out against the regime? Who wrote the Syrian 1984? Does Syria make the best lingerie in the Middle East? Find the answers to these questions in our roundup of five great books about Syria, recommended by experts at Harvard University, Brown University and the University of Texas at Austin.

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Lions, Leaders And Lingerie: Syria In Fact And Fiction

The New Lion of Damascus: Bashar Al-asad And Modern Syria

by David W. Lesch

A minor league baseball player turned professor of Middle East history, David Lesch wanted to write about Bashar Assad because he, too, had once gone through a sudden transformation: from London ophthalmologist to president of Syria. In the wake of recent news, it's easy to scoff at Lesch's conclusion that Assad is "essentially a morally sound individual, someone who has the best of intentions even if clumsily pursued at times." But the professor spent lots of time with Assad, meeting with him on several occasions in 2004 and 2005, and his book provides valuable insight into how the dictator imagines himself and how many Americans understood him before the Arab Spring.

Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East

by Patrick Seale

British journalist Seale writes for the long haul. His 1965 history The Struggle for Syria is considered a classic primer on the country, even though it's out of print (On Wednesday, used paperbacks on Amazon started at $178.51). This biography of Bashar's father, Hafez, may be more than twenty years old, but Brown University Professor Robyn Creswell says it's still "the best read about the Ba'ath party and contemporary politics — though it's not so contemporary anymore." In it, Seale sympathetically recounts how a man born in a two-room house with a front yard of plain dirt rose to become Minister of Defense and president.

A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution

by Samar Yazbek and Max Weiss

A corrective to Lesch's and Seale's regime-friendly books, Yazbek's diaries document the fear and brutality experienced by Assad's opponents. A novelist born into the ruling Alawite clan, Yazbek was arrested and threatened with torture after publishing accounts of the government crackdown on opponents in the spring of 2011. If her prose is sometimes overwrought, so was her situation. As the The Guardian put it, "Yazbek had been to all the most dangerous places in Syria and recorded how the people were resisting ... She saw things no one should ever see."

The Silence and the Roar

by Nihad Sirees

Sex is a form of opposition in this provocative novel, set in an unnamed country by a Syrian novelist who left the country in January 2012. While the rest of the country is forced to march in celebration of the 20thanniversary of their Leader's rule, the novel's hero, Fathi Sheen, opts to go hook up with his girlfriend, Lama. First, however, he has to get past the country's security forces. Mixing the absurd with the erotic, Sirees' novel is both political and delicious. Publishers Weekly calls it "a 1984 for the 21stcentury."

Secret Life of Syrian Lingerie: Intimacy and Design

by Malu Halasa and Rana Salam

"Islamic society in Syria is not demure or prudish," write Halasa and Salam. The proof lies within the covers of this delightful book. Highlights include an essay on "Competing Thongs" and photographs of elaborate bra-and-panty sets featuring fur, flowers and toy cell phones. As University of Texas professor Tarek El-Ariss, who specializes in Arabic popular culture, suggests, it's a wonderful volume "for some distraction, much needed in the midst of this crisis."

Marcela Valdes