A Disappearance In Damascus: A Story of Friendship and Survival in the Shadow of War
By Deborah Campbell, Knopf, 341 pages, $27
I imagine that most everyone who reads A Disappearance in Damascus will come to a moment when an image suddenly clutches at his or her heart. For myself, that moment came when a woman, just released after months spent in a government dungeon, is reunited with her 10-year-old daughter. Desperate to find some way to reconnect with the emotionally numbed girl, the woman begins brushing her daughter’s long black hair, only to discover it now has strands of white.
Deborah Campbell has written a searing and extraordinarily affecting account of her experiences in Syria in the mid-2000s, one that reads in equal parts as memoir, history and mystery story.
Campbell is a magazine journalist specialising in the long-form feature article, and her work relies on her ability to slip beneath the surface of a foreign culture and spend long periods of time with her subjects in order to coax out those intimate, personal narratives that might collectively reveal a larger story. In 2007, this mission carried her to the Middle East to chronicle one aspect of the still-unfolding catastrophe visited on the region by the American invasion of Iraq four years earlier: the mass exodus of an estimated one million Iraqis into neighbouring Syria. In the Syrian capital of Damascus, Campbell soon meets Ahlam, an Iraqi woman in her early 40s and a refugee herself, who acts as the journalist’s guide, or fixer, in this demimonde.
Initially, the relationship between the two women follows a fairly routine course. Through Ahlam, Campbell gains entree to the Sayeda Zainab suburb of Damascus, home to an estimated 300,000 impoverished Iraqi refugees, and builds a detailed, if depressing, accounting of the enduring misery that war inflicts. It soon becomes clear, however, that Ahlam’s own story is a remarkable one.
Despite her roots in a conservative farming village outside Baghdad, Ahlam (Campbell omits her family name) grew up as a fiercely independent young woman in a ferociously paternalistic society. With her father’s encouragement, she not only attended high school — almost unheard-of for rural Iraqi girls at the time — but went on to be the first in her village of either sex to get a university degree. Indicative of Ahlam’s radical ways, in a culture where girls were routinely married off at 15, she didn’t wed until the age of 29 — and then only grudgingly.
But Ahlam’s life was turned upside down with the American invasion of her homeland in 2003. When it became obvious that the invaders had absolutely no conception of Iraqi society or how to navigate it, Ahlam became a kind of intermediary between them and the locals suffering at their hands. That role soon led to her being denounced as a traitor by Iraqi militants. After being kidnapped and only escaping execution courtesy of a $50,000 ransom, Ahlam fled into Syria with her estranged husband and their three young children. Tragedy followed the family; when Campbell met her in Damascus, Ahlam wore a pendant containing a photograph of her eldest son, 11-year-old Anas, who had died in a botched medical procedure the year before.
As Campbell’s time in Syria goes on, so her relationship with Ahlam evolves into a close friendship. At the same time, both women seem to discount the warning signs that Ahlam’s work with foreign journalists and her civic activism in Sayeda Zainab — she has started an ad hoc school there for refugee children — are making her suspect in the eyes of government functionaries. And then, very abruptly, Ahlam is grabbed by the authorities and disappears.
The search for Ahlam, to find out why and where she has been taken, and how Campbell might win her release, forms the emotional heart of the book — and it is both riveting and devastating. The account also presents an unusual perspective on the grinding horror of the police state, not the all-too-familiar tale of one of its direct victims, but rather that of the outsider trying to navigate its treacherous shoals.
Without accreditation as a journalist — Campbell has passed herself off to Syrian authorities as an academic — she has no official standing to take up Ahlam’s case. But of course, it may well have been Ahlam’s work with foreign journalists that got her into trouble in the first place; as Campbell writes of her friend, “She had taken many risks, and I was one of them.” Instead, the journalist is virtually paralysed by a series of questions with no obvious answers. Does she try to raise publicity about Ahlam’s plight, or is that the worst thing she could do? She is briefly comforted by the idea that perhaps her friend was arrested by mistake, but then realises that “with no good reason to arrest her, there would be no good reason to set her free.” All the while, that pool of Syrian friends and acquaintances that Campbell might turn to for advice steadily dwindles, for in the terror and cowardice that a police state induces, no one wants to be connected to someone who has fallen. It is both ironic and a testament to Campbell’s skills as a storyteller that, despite her own very limited risk in the situation she describes, she has produced one of the more harrowing accounts of life inside a police state in recent memory.
If all this makes A Disappearance in Damascus sound like a depressing slog, it is not that at all. Instead, even in its darkest moments, there are bright flashes of humour, along with brief side stories that in the hands of a less accomplished writer would be annoying but are fascinating here. Campbell also has a fine eye for the telling detail, as in her description of idle and futureless Iraqi refugee boys filling up the internet cafes in Sayeda Zainab to play “first-person shooter games, pretending to be American soldiers on urban combat missions in neighbourhoods that must have reminded them of home.”
For all her strengths, Campbell does have one conspicuous weakness, for the form of the overheated and portentous quote. Especially in the early going of the book, strangers have a way of stepping on stage to deliver pithy aphorisms before quickly exiting. None, though, are as lofty as the lines attributed to Ahlam recalling her efforts to learn to swim as a child. “‘But the difficulty isn’t to learn to swim in the water’, she added, musingly. ‘The difficulty is to learn to swim in life’.” People don’t usually talk this way, and if they do, it is the writer’s duty to protect them with a convenient paraphrase.
But this is a small quibble when set against the raw power of Campbell’s narrative, and just as the reader is likely to be pulled up short by its piercing imagery, so too those images — haunting, odd, profoundly human — are likely to stay with them for a long time to come.
–New York Times News Service
Scott Anderson, is the author, most recently, of Fractured Lands: How the Arab World Came Apart.