Book Review: Investigating a disappearance in Damascus

Award-winning journalist Deborah Campbell shares a captivating account of the mysterious disappearance of her Iraqi fixer in Syria.
Updated 23 December 2017
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Book Review: Investigating a disappearance in Damascus

“A Disappearance in Damascus” by award-winning journalist Deborah Campbell is a captivating account of how her reporting on the Iraqi refugee exodus into Damascus in 2007 led to the mysterious disappearance of her fixer, translator and friend, Ahlam. The story is gripping and heartbreaking. All events, besides a few name changes, have transpired and have been written down so a reader cannot only understand the risks that come with journalism, but can also catch a glimpse of what refugees go through and the terrible things that happen when dictators and imperialist powers play with fragile lives. Campbell has reported from around the world, from Mexico to Russia and Cuba to the Middle East. Her field is immersive journalism, in which she spends long periods of time within the communities she is reporting on. “A Disappearance in Damascus” won the 2016 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction and the Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize. Ahlam was Campbell’s “fixer” in Damascus when she first arrived in 2007. Usually inclined to work alone when working on certain pieces, for her story on Iraqi refugees, Campbell needed “a trustworthy guide, someone to act as a go-between, traverse the barriers of language and culture and gain the trust of people who are unwilling to talk to outsiders.” These qualities she finds in Ahlam who is originally from Iraq, but has found a home in “Little Baghdad” in Damascus, “home to the largest community of Iraqi refugees in the world,” housing 300,000 Iraqis.
At this point in history, Iraq has already been invaded and it has been four years since Baghdad was captured by US forces. Saddam Hussein has already been found in his underground hideout and has been killed. The looting of banks, libraries, weapons and the National Museum has already happened and “within four years, a tenth of the population had fled the country. Syria was the only country still letting Iraqis in.”
Damascus saw the largest migration of refugees after the invasion of Iraq and “there was a concern the Iraqis would bring their war along with them. If that happened, it could tear Syria apart.”
Attempting to stay under the radar so she can write a concize account of Iraqi refugee life, Campbell arrives in Damascus as a professor on a tourist visa. It is not a lie, she is a university professor but is also writing a piece for Harper’s Magazine. She strives to “bridge the gap between the reader of the magazines I write for” and at the same time to tell the stories of “people in troubled places who such readers would never otherwise meet.”
When Campbell meets Ahlam, she immediately is struck by her professionalism, confidence and unyielding determination to help those who need it. But the life of a fixer is not easy, it is dangerous and even deadly. As an Iraqi refugee in Syria, Ahlam is scrutinized more than any other person, even the journalist she may be working for. She works on a contract basis for as long as the journalist needs to get the story and then must remain in the country after the journalist leaves. She is not only being watched by government officials, but by people on the streets and in her own neighborhood.
The Syrian government does not take kindly to fixers, nor journalists. Some fixers work as government employees as well, reporting to the Minister of Information about what journalists are asking and filming. But Ahlam is not one of them. She has been working independently since even before she was forced to flee from Iraq, but not without being watched. The Syrian secret police are ever-present and watching “Little Baghdad.”
Ahlam’s story is one that is painful and unique, yet so similar to the stories of others who have had to flee their homes due to war. From the Iraqi farming village of Kadhimiya, Ahlam’s tenacity and drive for life is overwhelming. As a university-educated woman, one who speaks English and had refused to leave Iraq when the American’s came, her life has taken unexpected turns to bring her to Damascus. She worked as a fixer for the Wall Street Journal and then worked at a civil-military affairs office in Iraq built by the Americans. She was hired as a caseworker when the military found out she could speak English and was a willing go-between for the US forces and Iraqi civilians in Baghdad. She is the type of woman who did her job because somebody had “to open the door and show the world what is happening.”
But Iraq’s troubles had only started and the situation escalated. Armed militias had begun to rise up with the departure of Hussein. The basis of power became sectarian or political, which caused much upheaval and death in an already broken Iraq. People who had been members of the Ba’ath party were targeted even though many had been party members to not be killed by Hussein during his reign. Those who identified as marginalized were killed for it and those who worked with the Americans, such as Ahlam, were targeted. It would not be long until Ahlam would be threatened before she fled, with her two children and husband, to Damascus.
Campbell’s account of her time and work in Damascus, her story on the plight of the Iraqi refugees, the humanized and relatable tales she delivers and the bond that she creates with not only Ahlam, but other refugees, fixers, journalists and humanitarians is what makes this book so powerful. Her self-awareness, as a journalist and a Western woman, is what gives her book a perspective that is clear and heartbreaking. “The truth was that Ahlam was one of the people I was writing about, one of history’s casualties, a refugee from a war planned and executed by my culture; a person who, because of us, no longer belonged anywhere.” Risking her own life, her career and her future, Campbell delves into the disappearance of Ahlam once she is taken and exhausts all the avenues she can.
This story is fascinating and thrilling, it is explicit about the roles everyone plays, such as Campbell and Ahlam, and the other journalists and refugees they meet along the way. It brims with descriptions of a once beautiful place — told through the stories of the refugees — and then quickly comes back to the terrors and heartbreak of war.
Campbell’s book is a powerful account of determination and the strength of refugees. She writes with ease and conviction to get Ahlam’s story onto the page. In her story, a friendship between two women from different worlds evolves and flourishes.
“Ahlam and I both left behind the world we knew for educations that forever put a distance between where we had come from and where we were going. We learned early to rely on ourselves.”


Book Review: Recalling a magic carpet ride through South Asia

Updated 21 October 2018
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Book Review: Recalling a magic carpet ride through South Asia

BEIRUT: This evocative title, which conjures up images of the iconic Silk Road, is only a foretaste of what you experience in the book. “Beyond That Last Blue Mountain” recalls the extraordinary journey of Harriet Sandys. At 19, realizing she was completely unqualified, she wondered what a girl from her background could do. Hearing about her brother’s trip to Afghanistan and reading Wilfred Thesiger’s “Desert, Marsh and Mountain” and Eric Newby’s “A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush” fired her imagination, and she decided to make that journey.
Four years later, in 1977, a letter inviting her to visit the archaeological sites of Afghanistan changed the course of her life.
After learning how to repair oriental carpets, she worked for the Afghan Refugee Information Network and decided to assess the situation of Afghan refugees at the North-West Frontier. Touched by their extraordinary stoicism, she organized exhibitions of Afghan embroideries and carpets and opened a shop.
However, many of the NGO carpet-weaving programs produced rugs of inferior quality which were unsellable. Harriet wanted to find an alternative project that women could do at home. The Ikat silk-weaving project was born. Over 12 years, she traveled through Pakistan, setting up the project despite problems and setbacks. She miraculously recovered from bacterial meningitis and pursued her humanitarian aid projects in Iraqi Kurdistan and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
After her departure, the silk-weaving project, contrary to all expectations, thrived thanks to the courage of Saleh, a 17-year-old boy she had trained in Peshawar. He brought the project back to Afghanistan and became a master weaver. The Afghan fashion event held in London in 2011 highlighted one of his creations, a stunning dark-green silk evening dress decorated with calligraphy.
“Oriot,” as she was affectionately called, defied danger, traveling in and around war zones with almost no financial support.
“Had I pondered too long and too hard on all the dangers and difficulties I might have encountered … I would have remained a secretary, regretting missed opportunities,” she said. Brave, humble and compassionate, Harriet Sandys touches our hearts in this moving true story.