Published by Picador on September 5th 2017
Genres: History, Military, Iraq War (2003-2011), Biography & Autobiography, Political Science, World, Middle Eastern
Format: Electronic ARC
Source: Macmillan, NetGalley
Buy on Amazon
“Before the war you understood the rules: avoid the government and you will be safe. After the war there were no rules, only chaos.”
In the years following the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the subsequent civil war, over a million Iraqis poured over the Syrian border to escape the chaotic violence in their homeland. Writer Deborah Campbell traveled undercover to Syria in 2007 to interview the Iraqi refugees and show her readers the human face of the war. Foreign correspondents often use fixers who are native to the region to help navigate unfamiliar and often unwelcoming places. The fixers help navigate the bureaucracy and gain the trust of reluctant interview subjects, among other things. Campbell connected with Ahlam, an Iraqi refugee and fixer, who came with stellar recommendations. What begins as a professional relationship quickly evolves into a friendship.
Being a fixer is dangerous and there were indications that Ahlam was being watched. Campbell worried that she put Ahlam in harm’s way by employing her. Their worst fears were confirmed when Ahlam was taken from her home by a group of men and never returned. Did they take her because of her work as a fixer? Is it possible that Ahlam’s problems in Iraq followed her into Syria? Or even more terrifying–was she taken for no reason at all? During the months following Ahlam’s disappearance, Campbell uses all of her resources to discover where Ahlam was being held and what charges were being levied against her. The fact-finding mission is difficult and frustrating in a place where digging around too much can cause even more problems and one has to be careful who they trust.
What I strive to do is bridge the gap between the readers of the magazines I write for, such as Harper’s or The Economist, and people in troubled places who such readers would never otherwise meet. We talk about them, make policies to deal with them, even make war on them, while knowing almost nothing of who they are or what consequences our actions might have.
At heart, this book is about the friendship between a journalist and her fixer, so we get to know both women. Campbell describes what it’s like to be a foreign correspondent, both personally and professionally. Sometimes she struggles with her purpose. Is there any point what she’s doing when the past is already set in stone? Does making her readers feel something for the people she’s reporting on actually result in any meaningful action? Is she making things worse for people like Ahlam? Foreign correspondents also face many dangers and it’s best to stay under the radar. Campbell learns firsthand how the police state worms its way into one’s psyche and alters a person, even those who have the option to leave.
The star of this book is Ahlam. It’s worth it to read this book just to get to know her! She’s a fearless and capable person with a realistic perspective. Campbell describes her as a woman “whose power derived from no one but herself.” When the American troops arrived in Ahlam’s village just outside of Baghdad, she adapted to the new circumstances and worked alongside them. Her practicality made life better for her neighbors, but it also made her a target. She was kidnapped because her association with the Americans marked her as a traitor and spy. Her kidnappers released her after her family paid the $50,000 ransom and she promised to leave Iraq. (Note: Ransom payments typically result in automatic denial of a refugee application, because it counts as providing “material aid to terrorists.”) Even after the price she already paid for her activism, she was not content to recede into the shadows. After she fled to Syria and settled into the refugee community of Sayeda Zainab, also known as “Little Baghdad,” she continued her work as a fixer and set out to create a school for refugee children. She was determined to make a difference, even though group meetings were against the law and she sensed the authorities watching her.
Now that my belief in freedom of action, in agency, was gone, it seemed to me that it must have been an illusion all along. Just a luxury wrought by a worldview in which individuals believe they shape their own destinies—and a curse as well. In the West we are taught this from birth: that the course of our life is determined by how well we play our cards. The weak are weak because they did something wrong; the powerful have power because they earned it. Only now was I coming to understand the sense of fatalism so common in the East, where most of what happens is determined by forces beyond one’s control.
I expected this book to be more about Syria, but it’s just as much about Iraq. Campbell breaks down the complex history in an accessible way and outlines the path that led Syria and Iraq to their present-day situations. She describes the rural/urban divisions that led to Syrian Civil War and the fears Syrians had about the problems that might follow the constant influx of Iraqi refugees. With regards to Iraq, she shows the effects of removing a strong central power in a society with a deeply entrenched authoritarian culture without a strong institutional framework in place. Ahlam explains that Iraq “moved from one dictator to a multi-dictatorship system.” Campbell shows how the demographics of Iraq contributed to the chaos after the invasion. Centuries-old disputes boiled over and many times personal conflicts took cover under political ones. The violence between the various sectarian groups leads Ahlam’s brother, a driver, to carry four different identification cards. Choosing the wrong ID at a random stop could be fatal. The region has also long been plagued by the meddling of foreign governments, such as Western governments propping up of authoritarian regimes who advanced their financial interests and neighboring nations taking advantage of the instability for their own gain. Decades of ill-advised decisions and their unintended consequences worsened an already chaotic situation. Some of the decisions made thousands of miles away in Washington D.C. actually invigorated the Iraqi resistance and led to the formation of ISIS.
I dreamed about the death journey of the salmon. The salmon, as it battles upriver to spawn, grows fangs and a snout, turning from Jekyll into Hyde. After spawning and giving up its life, it floats downstream, providing food for bears, eagles, trees, for every living thing. If the rainforest seemed like a vision of the deep past, Sayeda Zainab—Little Baghdad—seemed like the future. Masses of humanity, on the run from our own species and our uniquely destructive abilities. Here, I was about as far as it was possible to be from that place of natural cycles. Here, when someone died, it was almost always for nothing.
Ahlam maintains her humanity and integrity when everything around her is falling apart. She knows her work as a fixer is dangerous but is insistent that “someone has to open the door and show the world what is happening.” This book shows the human cost of conflict and “what survival looks like with all the scaffolding of normal life ripped away.” Most people just want to be left alone to raise their families in peace. Sometimes that means making previously unfathomable trade-offs, like accepting encroachments on their freedom to avoid war or joining an unsavory group that promises to feed and protect their families (if there was even a choice to begin with). As Alessandro Orsini says in his book Sacrifice, “If it protects you from violence, even a crappy society becomes desirable.” As people separate into opposing sides, those who exist outside those boundaries pay a high price. Campbell introduces us to the people who are stuck in the middle, the ones doing their part to rebuild their country and regain some semblance of stability with little support or resources. One story that really struck me was a man voluntarily donning his traffic guard uniform in an attempt to reign in chaos after the U.S. suspended Iraq’s traffic code.
At this point, I’ve read several books about the conflicts in the Middle East, from both American and Middle Eastern perspectives. A common theme ties them all together: the feeling of being forgotten. The terrible cost of war can be difficult to comprehend from thousands of miles away. Civilian responsibility and engagement shouldn’t end with the decision to go to war; everything that happens after that matters too. A Disappearance in Damascus is a reminder of our shared humanity and the enduring consequences of war. You can read Deborah Campbell’s articles on her website. To get a feel for this book, I recommend reading Exodus: Where Will Iraq Go Next (Ahlam is named Aisha in the article).
If you are looking for more books about the region and its conflicts, you might be interested in the following books:
• Being Kurdish in a Hostile World by Ayub Nuri
• The Prisoner in His Palace: Saddam Hussein, His American Guards, and What History Leaves Unsaid by Will Bardenwerper – This is one of my favorite books! It gives insight into a Saddam Hussein’s mind and the enigmatic face of evil.
• Iraq + 100: The First Anthology of Science Fiction to Have Emerged from Iraq by Hassan Blasim – Ten short stories that envision Iraq in 100 years. There’s a scene in A Disappearance in Damascus where a man is fascinated by Ahlam’s humanity, because he had been taught that “Iraqis were all wild, like animals.” The anecdote instantly made me think of Kuszib by Hassan Abdulrazzak. One of Deborah Campbell’s contacts has a dim prediction for Iraq’s future:
“Even after ten years we won’t be back to zero,” he said, “because of the mentality of this new generation. This generation and the next two generations. They aren’t being educated anymore, they see nothing but violence. They’ve become easy to brainwash and they are caught between Saudi Arabia and Iran.”
• Verax: A Graphic History of Electronic Surveillance – Deborah and Ahlam both express the fear of being watched. This graphic novel discusses some of the mass surveillance technologies being sold to repressive governments like Syria. It also shows how the US government collects information on US citizens.
• I found Voices from Iraq: A People’s History 2003-2009 while looking to verify the “radicals putting underwear on sheep” anecdote. I haven’t read this one, but I want to.