Guest Blogger: on James Harkin’s Syria

Though Monday’s activities and guest speakers feel like aeons ago — time flies very fast here at OxTrad! — we want to briefly revisit a talk given by guest speaker James Harkin on Monday afternoon. Harkin’s subject was: ‘Syria’s archaeological tragedy: a report from Aleppo and Damascus’. It was a fascinating talk — but here we’ll stop; because guest blogger (and Journalism student) Emma Buchanan is going to take over and tell us more…


by Emma Buchanan, Journalism major student

THERE’S a modest brilliance to journalist James Harkin. His tone is understated, almost casual, as he describes his experience in Syria, one of the world’s most volatile war zones.
    Harkin spoke with students at OxTrad about his most recent trip to Aleppo, an area that has recently gained notoriety for its high number of journalist kidnappings.
    It is immediately made clear that this is less of a lecture and more of a glorified holiday photo show. The material he shows us is only 10 days old and we are some of the first people he has showed it to.
    Hawkin speaks to us about the destruction of ancient, archaeological riches in Syria, happening right now as the country is ravaged by war. Harkin talks about the “walking museum” of Aleppo, in Syria where everywhere you look there is evidence of ancient civilisations.
    He talks us through the awe-inspiring images filmed on his mobile phone of a city lost to destruction. At one point, he cuts to a shot of a stone walled room behind bars and reveals it is the tomb of a Syrian prince sitting in rubble.
    It’s evident this is not Hawkin’s first trip, as in one shot of an ancient mosque with a wall collapsed, he nonchalantly points out a Syrian Rebel sniper in the peripheral of the lens.
    Hawkins tells the story of a cultural history falling to ruin, but also the story of a generation trying to save the past. Another iPhone shot shows young archeologists in a lightless, thick walled basement,  hiding and protecting mass amounts of archaeological treasures. Hawkin’s footage shows students diligently categorizing while all the while they know, as Hawkin explains, that their lives are in danger for doing so.
    The presentation wasn’t only visual, and the discussion continued with a Q&A. Hawkin spoke of the limits and dangers of reporting, both with the Regime and the Rebel Syrian forces. He discussed the appeal of ISIS to Syrian people, expressing his opinion that the terrorist group recruits and grows in popularity by offering stability to people in desperate circumstance. One of Hawkin’s most powerful statements came when an OxTrad student asked what the most peculiar thing about reporting in Syria was. Hawkin said, after a moment of careful deliberation, the most peculiar thing about the relationship between the warring regime and rebels is “how much they have in common,” despite their intent on destroying one another.
    Hawkin’s presentation of his experience in Syria was in equal parts exposing and enlightening. His comfortable handling of such controversial topics comes as a reminder that the best stories often don’t come from gossip and sensationalism; they are simply the truth.

James Harkin writes essays, comment and reportage for The Guardian, Vanity Fair, The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, The London Review of Books, The Financial Times, Foreign Policy, Newsweek, The Economist, The American Prospect, The Nation and the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

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