Book Review: Disappearance in Damascus

Disappearance in Damascus – A story of Iraqi refugees in Syria

A heart-wrenching blend of emotion and history, this hybrid of a memoir and biography isn’t just a collection of memories, but also a representation of history as seen by an insider and an outsider. We are provided with a view of the problems in Syria from a visitor’s perspective and from someone who has lived the conflict.

Published in 2016, Disappearance in Damascus was released in the midst of media frenzy surrounding the current (as of 2017) Syrian refugee crisis; but many people, myself included, do not understand the complexities of the conflict in the Middle East. Reading up to a point in this book, I was forced to put it down and do a little research (Googling) into the conflict – not that the author explained it badly – but because there was so much more I was curious about.

Deborah Campbell, investigative journalist who was working for a few small media outlets, now turned writer, focuses on the arduous fight to communicate the true effects of war to the western world. Through her contact, Ahlam, she immerses herself in the world of the fixer – the life of a local who works with foreign media to uncover content to share with the west. A fixer’s job is dangerous and often draws the attention and ire of governments who would often conceal certain problems from foreign media.

The book describes a time in  Syria in the early 2000’s following the United States’ invasion of Iraq. Iraqi refugees, driven out by war, risked their lives to flee to surrounding countries and the only country that kept their borders open was Syria. The magnanimity and compassion of the Syrian government led to the foundation that created so many problems for the country. Syria enters one of the worst droughts in centuries, which drives rural residents to the cities in search of jobs, only to find their place taken by refugees, willing to do any type of labour for much cheaper.

Deborah communicates the tolerance but also the fear and distrust in the Syrian people. The colloquially-named area “Little Baghdad”, home to over a million Shiites and Sunnis, is a hub where refugees struggle to create a life for themselves. In addition to their status as refugees barring them from finding stable work and education for their children, there are those who would take advantage of the situation. Ahlam faces Iraqi extremists, Syrian manipulators and those who oppose her in the governments of both countries. She rides a fine line in working as a fixer to support her family.

Ahlam and Deborah become friends through a growing respect for each other. Deborah sees and appreciates the danger that Ahlam faces on a day-to-day basis and Ahlam respects the effort put forth by Deborah to communicate a lesser-told story. The narrative illustrates a rising tension between Ahlam and the Syrian government. She is told to stop “fixing” and

As you can imagine, it is a hard thing to conceal a Western journalist in the depth of Little Baghdad and ultimately Ahlam is taken into custody for her work with some photographers. Her children, friends and contacts have no idea where or how she disappeared. Petitioning the UNHCR and the government for information, Ahlam’s capture ended became more of a missing persons case than a detainment.

In one poignant observation, she discusses the fallacies of media – they have a choice to provide information a wide range of topics but only a small subset of all the available information are given to the public. Global issues fall in and out of consciousness and even if a few people were to learn from an article, it would still be worth the risk, struggle and oppression that needed to be overcome to create the article.

As a westerner, Deborah is both involved and distanced from the happenings in Little Baghdad. She talks to the locals and integrates their stories into her writing. She makes friends with many of the refugees, yet by the power of a passport, she is allowed to transverse the boundaries of the city. Not only is she able to move, she is able to leave when the situation becomes too overwhelming, and that is the power of a passport. No matter the danger Deborah faces, she ultimately can leave for home and never return. She has a readily available escape that the millions of refugees do not have.

Review: 8.5/10

While I’m not too big of a fan of Deborah Campbell’s tone and perspective – she tends to exaggerate a little and make her personal issues a larger part of the story than necessary –  I think there is value in the story that she writes. I appreciated the detail in describing her (and Ahlam’s) perspective on the circumstance and history of the Syrian refugee. This book is definitely interesting and, while not among my favourite memoirs, it deserves a read.


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