Samar Yazbek’s Syrian Voices a Contribution to History
By Gareth Chantler.
Journalist Samar Yazbek’s ‘A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution,’ could have been titled as her account of July 7th, 2011 begins: “News of the killing increases by the day.” On one side of escalation is the future, the aspirations of Syrians, on the other is the past, the Asad regime and its brutal counter-revolutionary violence. Across forty-three entries, as the future tries to assert itself, “Statues are falling in the cities. Statue after statue,” the past re-establishes itself twice over.
“Today on the Friday of the Tribes,” Yazbek reports, “39 people are killed and one hundred are wounded. There are demonstrations in 185 different places — in Damascus, in its countryside and its suburbs, in Aleppo and its countryside, Homs and Hama and the governorate of Idlib, al-Hassakeh and the Euphrates region, the coast and the Hawran.”
The scale of details may disorient readers unfamiliar with Syrian geography. A small map would have been useful on April 5th, for example, when men were stopped and questioned near Bab Tuma while “hordes of people are holding up flags and portraits of the president” by Umayyad Mosque. But as, “People flooded into the streets to show their solidarity with the people of Dar’a,” we learn, “Some had never heard of the town before.”
“Syrians,” Yazbek explains, “soon learned the geography of their country as open rebellion erupted in hundreds of towns simultaneously.” The book explores geographies physical, demographic, economic, and confessional.
Who is the past and who is the future? Readers of John Stuart Mill or Thomas Paine would find it curious that a police state could, successfully, lay claim to being the future, a modernizing force. Such branding has taken Asad further than anyone could have fantasized.
Similarly, the author’s wealthy Alawi family “supports the regime absolutely and […] considers me a traitor.” Yazbek is barred from her hometown, coastal Jableh. “I was there the day they [the security services] handed out the leaflets,” a young man tells her, “stirring people up to kill you.”
“During the revolution,” Yassin al-Haj Saleh writes in ‘The Roots of Syrian Fascism,’ “some of the cruellest judgments were voiced by members of one sect against other members of the same sect who chose to dissent from the presumed consensus.” These are the judgments the author diaries.
Meanwhile in Damascus, Yazbek, “an active witness,” attends checkpoints, demonstrations, and secret meetings. She urges reluctant taxi drivers towards the day’s chaos. “What’s this? Between one checkpoint and another checkpoint there’s a checkpoint?” Once there, they yell to her to get back in the car. One weeps on the return trip, realizing his country will be forever changed, forgetting his observer in the rearview mirror.
The book does not read like a translation, a credit to Yazbek and her translator Max Weiss. She sometimes leaves little notes, the kind a lover leaves for another. These are for Damascus — “just like any other city. It becomes more beautiful at night, like a woman after making love.”
The author takes coffee with regime-loyal couples by day and revolutionaries by night. She interviews a student protestor, then an illiterate fisherman. Each speaks at their length. The latter tells her, “We want them to leave us alone so we can live our lives, nothing more than that.” The diary fills with places and dates, the sizes of demonstrations and the methods of their suppression, the initials of the surviving and the names of the dead. She fights insomnia with Xanax.
“The cities are annihilated one after another and the whole world is watching, criticizing and calling for reform while the Syrians die, quite simply.” This unbearable hesitancy came to prove what foreign policy scholar Bente Scheller titled, ‘The Wisdom of Syria’s Waiting Game.’
Ordinary citizens often resist both sectarianism and escalation. “It’s the practices of the state that feed sectarianism,” one Sunni activist testifies. “The Alawites in the villages around Baniyas are very poor, they suffer the same injustice.” The Syrians we meet through Yazbek often talk about economic injustice, something infrequently discussed by news-media.
“We pushed aside what some now call ‘The Islamic character of this revolution,’” another activist whom “wouldn’t even set foot inside a mosque,” details. “[I]n the end,” he explains, “we were forced to use a mosque because it was the only place that many people were allowed to congregate.”
“What is the point of everything I am saying now amidst this carnival of death?” Yazbek wonders. “I will infiltrate the sleep of those murderers and ask them, ‘Did you look into the eyes of the dead as the bullets hit their chests?’” She returns to a rewording of this basic question again and again, but cannot explain to herself the callousness of those who kill.
There is a fine line between poetry and vulgarity in writing about death and hazard. Yazbek does not write with detachment during sensational events, but cynicism prevents her from sensationalizing.
“I know I will be among the first to criticize whatever group takes over the reins of power in Syria following the fall of the regime,” she explains, having skipped a certain meeting, “because the process of democratic transition will require a conscience and witnesses of truth.” Such level-headedness earns reader trust, which matters greatly when Yazbek writes: “Every time I went out to the demonstrations to monitor what was happening I didn’t see anyone but peaceful protestors.”
Yazbek presents as many voices as she can, not all in precise agreement, but each countering the regime’s narrative. “The whole thing was very strange,” an Alawi officer recalls. “Like everything they had told us was a lie. I have no idea who the people going out for demonstrations are.”
We get a sense of the spirit that could move people to “go out with your friends to demonstrate, knowing that there are snipers from general security who could shoot you at any time.” Interview subjects speak until they are too tired, often promising to finish later. These times seldom arrive.
Many passages could have been written six years later. “People began sending calls for help on behalf of children who might die of starvation […] there is a flour embargo […] they’ll even cut off the bread?! Are they just going to let the people die from hunger?” We know now that the answer was — and is — yes. How could so much time pass like this? Yazbek knows that too — it doesn’t have to be asked. “What we write in novels,” she explains, “is less brutal than what occurs in real life.”
“Foreigners would never imagine there could be so many cars in the squares,” she says, unable to provide a first-hand account one day. This is one of the most believable sentences in the entire book. While many would not easily believe that a security apparatus could have fifteen independent branches, that a writer would receive violent threats from their government to delete a Facebook post, that a police state’s tentacles could reach the backseat of just about any taxi. Many would not recognize the most common Syrian stories, “I got tortured in prison while I was still in the army,” as they would not understand Yazbek’s operating premise, that “the dissolution of the secret service would mean the immediate toppling of the regime.”
Abruptly, the author finds herself touring a mukhabarat basement, full of “young men’s mutilated bodies.” When her escorts remove her blindfold, she realizes she preferred stumbling in darkness. In ‘the kingdom of silence’, everyone experienced the revolution on a need to know basis. Prison guards “marvelled at the fact that we were all leftists and secularists,” one survivor says later, of his imprisonment, “[to them] everyone who went out to demonstrate had to be a Salafi.”
Not all are forthcoming. Once, after men are ‘martyred’ demonstrating, witnesses are quiet with her, “I understand now what my presence as an unveiled woman means: an agitator.”
Yazbek feels that her family has “painfully suffered the consequences of my life in a conservative society,” and that she has, amid their “nonstop bickering,” endangered her daughter. She decides to leave Syria. Most readers will consider the choice overdue.
Two questions arrive with her departure — can her diary be considered reporting and how should we treat the book’s testimonies? Both have one answer — it depends on corroboration.
“At the al-Khatib station, there’s something called ‘reception.’ […] [The security forces will] all be standing there on both sides, right and left, and as soon as you enter they start beating you from both sides.” This account can be seconded or contradicted by others. Further reading is therefore encouraged.
‘We Crossed a Bridge and it Trembled: Voices from Syria,’ a collection of Syrian testimonies, well-organized by academic Wendy Pearlman and released in 2017, is a natural place to start. So is Alia Malek’s ‘The Home That Was Our Country: A Memoir of Syria.’ Her Damascus is Yazbek’s, though the dialogue of others relates more to Malek’s personal narrative than testimonial collection.
Yazbek’s diary flows with an urgency others books don’t quite achieve — we do not know if those she meets will live or die. Her follow up, ‘The Crossing’ (2015), builds on and even surpasses its predecessor. In it, the author travels against better judgment to the villages and fronts of Idlib to see what has become of the revolution.
Yazbek, Malek, and Pearlman’s works contribute to an expanding catalogue built on a mature practice — that an effective telling of history is to be filled with voices and voices and voices. Voices not always in sync, since truth does not sound like a symphony playing for the mind (ideology, rather, forces noise into harmony).
Readers begin to appreciate what, and how much, they do not know. If this is Yazbek’s work between just March and July of 2011, how many bookshelves could the Syrian story fill? This helps deal with the central question of how the news could saturate itself with a conflict to no fruitful end. How can so many react, on cue, to a word — Syria — yet so few know anything about it?
News washes off every day and, “Numbers have become a game […] as if these numbers don’t mean souls and human beings with names.” We feel awake splashing our face daily in water — we feel we have caught up having read the news. But every day we learn nothing further, nothing more — the water splashes skin deep. Yazbek’s book tattoos the mind.
[Main photo: Samar Yazbek in Saint Malo, France (Majalla/Fair use. All rights reserved to the author)].