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A Disappearance in Damascus: A Story of Friendship and Survival in the Shadow of War

by Deborah Campbell

B.C. author Deborah Campbell, a self-styled “immersive journalist” who has published in Harper’s, The Walrus, and elsewhere, sees it as her goal to “bridge the gap between the readers of magazines I write for … and people in troubled places who such readers would never otherwise meet.” She is less interested in the individuals who supposedly make history than in “the ordinary people who have to live it.” Her new book, A Disappearance in Damascus, is an absorbing testament to how successful that approach can be when undertaken by a sympathetic, informed, and committed investigator. It offers a detailed, personal look at the consequences of disruptive global events on the individuals most affected by them.

Reviews_October_DisappearanceinDamascus_CoverIn 2007, Campbell was in Damascus to research an article for Harper’s on displaced Iraqi refugees who had flooded into Syria in the increasingly violent aftermath of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. It is estimated that as many as two million Iraqis settled in Syria in 2006–07, many crowded together uncomfortably in the overflowing Damascus neighbourhood dubbed “Little Baghdad.” To personalize the consequences of this migration, Campbell needs someone to serve as an intermediary between herself and her subjects – or, in the parlance of foreign correspondence, a “fixer.” She eventually employs the services of Ahlam, an expat who survived being kidnapped for ransom in her native Iraq.

Campbell does not press comparisons between Ahlam’s struggles and her own difficulties as a globe-trotting journalist, but the similarities between the women’s circumstances enable them to move beyond a professional relationship to something closer to friendship. The consequences of war have frayed the relationship between Ahlam and her husband, in the same way that the peripatetic demands of Campbell’s work have strained her relationship with her boyfriend in Vancouver. Campbell’s description of her own growing romantic estrangement is the narrative’s least interesting aspect. Thankfully, it never detracts from the main story of Ahlam’s sudden disappearance into the Syrian prison system.

The reasons for Ahlam’s detention, beyond trumped-up suggestions that she was somehow involved in smuggling arms and people across the border, are never entirely clear. Her connections to foreign journalists and humanitarian organizations make her a target of suspicion, as does her refusal to spy on the Iraqi community for Syrian authorities. Campbell, having returned to North America, flies back to Damascus, where she throws herself into uncovering Ahlam’s whereabouts (it turns out she is incarcerated in Douma prison, outside Damascus), as well as seeking clues as to why her friend is being held.

A Disappearance in Damascus strikes a deft balance between the present and the recent past. The suspense in Campbell’s investigation of Ahlam’s disappearance is never overplayed. The reader can guess from the grim prison chapters, narrated from Ahlam’s perspective, that eventually the two women will be reunited. More broadly, the distance between then and now creates an effect somewhat similar to dramatic irony. It is impossible for the reader not to be aware of what has befallen Syria in the decade between the events described in the book and today. As we read, we know that in the years after 2007, Syria will become engulfed in a civil war fuelled by the unresolved mess in Iraq. We also know that, like those Iraqis in Damascus, Syrians will be forced to flee their own country and join the legions of displaced and dispossessed.

But Campbell never lets that larger story overshadow the personal one she is telling. She does provide a sense of the broader context, filling in the outlines of mistakes made in the aftermath of the defeat of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and his Baathist regime.

Specifically, Paul Bremer, the diplomat authorized by the U.S. to govern Iraq after the invasion, disbanded the Iraqi armed forces and marginalized Baathists, which reawakened and exacerbated animosities between Sunni and Shiite Muslims – the seeds of discontent that spawned chaos and ultimately resulted in the vengeful emergence of ISIS. Campbell personalizes the standard interpretation of events by telling the story of a fired history teacher – one of 40,000 instructors to be dismissed – whose livelihood, personal safety, and family connections were threatened and even destroyed.

Early on in A Disappearance in Damascus, Campbell warns against the imperial impulse to create policies that affect people “while knowing almost nothing of who they are or what consequences our actions might have.” Her book successfully counters that arrogant inclination by showing us how the continuing spread of chaos has real consequences for real people.