Listening to the Voices of Syrians, Unadulterated

Editors’ note: This article is the fourth in a series on books by or about refugees.

As a Syrian, I have witnessed the revolution’s beginnings, developments and reverberations from both inside and outside Syria.

So I am not usually interested in reading any attempts to record what has happened and what is still happening. First, I think it is still too early to record the history. Secondly, I have been frustrated by many books, fiction and nonfiction, that have attempted to portray what is going on. They are usually immersed in one view at the expense of another, or else engulfed in praising or even glorifying one faction or individual.

In addition, as a journalist, I believe that a history will not be realistic and true unless it is written by history’s participants. I never bothered reading the many books about the 1973 Arab–Israeli War, for example, because I have heard about it from my father, who was a soldier.

So when I received a copy of Wendy Pearlman’s latest book, “We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria,” I opened it with some trepidation.

The author is a professor at Northwestern University, in Chicago. She has previously written two books on the Palestinian National Movement. Her career is rich with articles about the Middle East; she speaks Arabic and has spent a lot of time in Arab countries. Those last factors increased my interest in her book.

The first thing I noticed when I opened the book was her dedication: “To those who did not live to complete their stories.”

The last official total number of deaths due to the war in Syria provided by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees was 191,000, as of August 2013. Since the beginning of 2014, the organization has said it can no longer accurately count deaths, and will not announce any new figures. Dealing with war victims as numbers seems inhumane, but to stop even counting them is tougher for many, including me. It’s as if the victims had never existed, and their murderers will never be punished.

Author Wendy Pearlman, a professor at Northwestern University.

The book’s dedication touched my heart and reminded me of the many friends I have lost during the war. I spent much time thinking about what they might have been doing today if they were still alive. That day, I did not read another sentence from the book.

The next day, I picked it up again, determined to read most of it. I skipped the dedication page and stopped for a moment in front of the map of Syria and its geographical location within the Levant. Then, I moved quickly to browse the biographies of 86 of the 300 Syrians interviewed by the writer since 2012, in personal or group interviews, in Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, and the United States.

The interviewees were from most of the Syrian governorates and cities, and include men and women of differing ages, religions and sects. The writer did not mention the full names of her characters. She mentioned their first names, occupations, the place where she met them, and the dates that she met them.

Pearlman divides her book into eight chronologically oriented chapters. The beginning of the book focuses on incidents in Syria during the reign of Hafiz al-Assad and his son Bashar. The end of the book focuses on reflections about the state of play six years after the revolution. The writer does not write in her own voice, but gives Syrians the freedom, which they have fought for, to tell their stories, and those of the people who lived around them.

Some stories occupied two or three pages, while others were limited to a few lines or half a page. “The different lengths of entries,” Pearlman wrote, were intended to “capture the rich expressive variety.” And I can vouch for the fact that all the stories carry true human richness and pure Syrian flavor, whether about the life details, the vocabulary used or even the symbols that Syrians have always used to avoid talking directly about politics.

Some of the stories were by university students, who dropped out of education, due to war or an arrest or fear of an arrest. Among the characters, there were also university professors and teachers. For me, their stories did not explore new dimensions of the topic, because of my work in covering the issues of refugee education. But they spoke about their difficult living conditions and the loss of their academic dreams in their countries of asylum. They painted a bleak picture of the loss of my country’s real wealth in its youth and the loss of young people’s dreams for a peaceful revolution, a free homeland and a better future.

“Today, kids don’t think about going to school in order to be able get a job someday. It’s the opposite: They think about getting a job in the hope that they will be able to go to school someday,” said Bushra, a Syrian mother from the Damascus suburbs who is now living in Marj, Lebanon.

The last chapter of the book is filled with visions that carry a clear determination among many of the people interviewed in the book who engaged in the revolution in a hurry and without planning. But the painful course of events since then has pushed them today to be more mature and confident about the revolution as a permanent and continuous action, even if they are thousands of miles away from Syria.  

“We should take responsibility in order to improve ourselves. If we change the regime but don’t change our broader culture, the same regime will come back, just different people,” said Sami, a university graduate from Damascus who is living in Beirut.

Pearlman ends her book by thanking all the people she met for trusting her and sharing their stories. In turn, I would like to thank her for her generosity in giving her entire book to the Syrians themselves. Readers can learn about their ideas, dreams, heartbreaks, and mistakes.

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in knowing what was and is going on in my country, as the truth appears in the voices of those who have lived through the history.


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