It’s a pity that Deborah Campbell’s new book has such a Nancy Drew-like title, because it is actually a serious, riveting work about a part of the world that too many of us know too little about.
“A Disappearance in Damascus” is the story of Ahlam, an Iraqi refugee in Syria who is arrested by the Syrian government and disappears. Her arrest almost certainly was prompted by her relationship with Western journalists, including Campbell; Ahlam is fluent in English and has worked as a translator and “fixer.” So Campbell sets off to find her.
It’s a compelling story, a page-turner, and one that sheds light on the fraught political situation in the Mideast, the lives of ordinary citizens and the West’s culpability in the giant mess.
One of Campbell’s great skills as a writer — besides her formidable reporting chops — is her ability to clearly explain complicated politics without oversimplifying. And so the first part of this book works as a sort of primer of the complex situation in the Mideast — the tribal conflicts, the vacuum in leadership and disappearance of the professional class after the fall of Saddam Hussein (problems that Campbell deftly places at the feet of the United States), the suddenly unemployed but still armed army, the growing refugee communities and the growing unease of governments.
Some of her observations have echoes of foreboding for the U.S. and our current political situation: The turmoil’s “true genesis was a class war: the city versus the countryside,” she writes, as well as “the privatization of state lands and services, the cuts to subsidies that most benefitted the poor.”
The book opens in 2007, when Campbell is undercover in Syria. She poses as a university professor (which she also is, in Vancouver), since it is dangerous there for journalists. She is working on a piece for Harper’s on the growing community of Iraqi refugees in Syria, and this is how she meets Ahlam.
Campbell depicts Ahlam as a strong, vibrant, charismatic woman, one of the only girls in her village to be educated. Her father wanted her to grow up fearless and self-reliant. “He raised me like a boy,” Ahlam says. The women become friends.
The book is steeped in atmosphere and sensual details, bringing Damascus to vibrant life, a reminder that the war-torn neighborhoods we see in the news are only one part of a sophisticated ancient world.
“We walked down dusty alleyways, stared at by curious children, buzzed by rickety motorcycle carts and the occasional Pepsi truck, the scent of roast peanuts and diesel in the air,” she writes. And, later, “I loved to lose myself in the walled Old City with its narrow stone passageways. … In the cool of the evenings, the city’s cosmopolitan residents sat outside on cafe terraces, men and women mixing freely, the scent of fruit-flavored tobacco wafting.”
Campbell gives us a remarkably intimate look at the everyday life of people whose lives have been upended. “As she led me ever deeper inside the hidden world of the war she had fled, and into the increasingly unstable country of Syria where she had sought refuge,” she writes, “she showed me what survival looks like with all the scaffolding of normal life ripped away.”
Campbell is a Canadian journalist, a writer for Harper’s, the Economist and the Guardian, and a three-time winner of a National Magazine Award. Last year, “A Disappearance in Damascus” won the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Non-Fiction, which honors the best nonfiction book published in Canada.
This important book opens our eyes to the lives of the people who are trying to find peace in a world of chaos.
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune senior editor for books. On Facebook: facebook.com/startribunebooks
A Disappearance in Damascus
By: Deborah Campbell.
Publisher: Picador, 352 pages, $27.