Rania Abouzeid was accused of spying and forbidden by the Bashar al-Assad’s regime from entering Syria in 2011. However, that did not stop this award-winning journalist from reporting from Syria illegally for six years. Her fluent Arabic made it possible for her to blend in with the crowd and continue covert reporting.
In this intimate account, Abouzeid details the lives of a wealthy insurance manager and activist, Suleiman; a 9-year-old girl, Ruha; a literature student and poet who becomes commander of a militia unit, Abu Azzam; a former prisoner, Mohammed, and others as they engage in the vicious, tragic Syrian civil war.
Many of the stories are told in the voices of these local people. “I went to Syria to see, to investigate, to listen— not to talk over people who can speak for themselves. They are not voiceless. It is not my story. It is theirs.”
The author depicts Syria as a nation “built on silence, and fear,” a nation in a continual “state of emergency.” She summarizes this feeling when she reports that a young man shouts from the crowd: “Everybody here is a martyr in waiting. Either we die free or we die.” This civil war has netted so many casualties that the United Nations quit counting more than four years ago when the death toll surpassed 500,000.
Abouzeid untangles the complex web of ideologies and allegiances that are the sources of the Syrian conflict. She identifies the chief political figures and clarifies the historical context of the troubled country with journalistic objectivity.
Many of the incidents she reports from the subjects’ lives are grisly, downright horrifying events. Her unfiltered depictions and explanations help the reader better understand the motivations behind torturous injustices. To escape injury, prison and death, hundreds of thousands of Syrians have fled to Turkey. The author follows some of them and describes the tough decisions they then have to make to either remain in exile or return to their embattled, beleaguered country and be with the people they love.
The deftly written, character-driven episodes provide a structure that makes Rania Abouzeid’s complicated coverage of the war easier to follow. Her reportage is a sad chronicle of the unraveling of a nation, but also a way to honor the courageous people who are trying to carve out a new way of living in the midst of infrastructure ruin and social chaos.
This is a must-read for those who want a better understanding of the Syrian situation. It is especially timely as, only a few weeks ago, ISIS control of the last parcel of the radical group’s caliphate was eliminated. While there can be no happy ending to this war, perhaps the defeat of overt ISIS activities will begin a new healing era in Syrian history.
Rania Abouzeid won the Michael Kelly Award and George Polk Award for foreign reporting, among many other prizes for international journalism. A New America Fellow, this free-lancer has written for The New Yorker, Time, Foreign Affairs, Politico, the Guardian and the Los Angeles Times. W. W. Norton and Company is the publisher of this 366-page book.