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The BookBrowse Review

Published September 20, 2017

ISSN: 1930-0018

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A Disappearance in Damascus
A Disappearance in Damascus
Friendship and Survival in the Shadow of War
by Deborah Campbell

Hardcover (5 Sep 2017), 352 pages.
Publisher: Picador
ISBN-13: 9781250147875

In the midst of an unfolding international crisis, renowned journalist Deborah Campbell finds herself swept up in the mysterious disappearance of Ahlam, her guide and friend. Campbell's frank, personal account of a journey through fear and the triumph of friendship and courage is as riveting as it is illuminating.

Winner of the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction Winner of the Freedom to Read Award Winner of the Hubert Evans Prize

The story begins in 2007, when Deborah Campbell travels undercover to Damascus to report on the exodus of Iraqis into Syria, following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. There she meets and hires Ahlam, a refugee working as a "fixer" - providing Western media with trustworthy information and contacts to help get the news out. Ahlam has fled her home in Iraq after being kidnapped while running a humanitarian center. She supports her husband and two children while working to set up a makeshift school for displaced girls. Strong and charismatic, she has become an unofficial leader of the refugee community.

Campbell is inspired by Ahlam's determination to create something good amid so much suffering, and the two women become close friends. But one morning, Ahlam is seized from her home in front of Campbell's eyes. Haunted by the prospect that their work together has led to her friend's arrest, Campbell spends the months that follow desperately trying to find Ahlam - all the while fearing she could be next.

The compelling story of two women caught up in the shadowy politics behind today's most searing conflict, A Disappearance in Damascus reminds us of the courage of those who risk their lives to bring us the world's news.

Chapter 1

ALONG THE TWO-LANE HIGHWAY from Syria's capital city of Damascus, where it approaches the border with Iraq, anti-aircraft batteries scanned the dome of noonday sky. Here and there an army tank rumbled over hot sand along a barren landscape that looked like the surface of Mars. Next to the highway, a crop of bored young Syrian soldiers slouched on boulders around a commander making diagrams on a chalkboard propped up against another boulder.

Gripped by the anticipation I always feel when I am about to plunge into an unknown situation, I was greeted by a weathered road sign that broke the tension. It read, in English, Happy Journey. A lovely sentiment—I had to take a picture. It was the peak of Iraq's civil war, and absolutely no one was travelling into Iraq on a happy journey; a million and a half refugees had already fled the other way, to Syria, and they were happy for nothing but to be alive. In the sliver of shade the sign provided from the scorching sun, people stood with their suitcases, gazing back towards the country they had left behind.

Beyond them, past a giant parking lot, more Iraqis were streaming towards me into Syria, disgorged from buses and SUVs. In the early days of the exodus there had been time to make arrangements, to sell houses and cars and belongings. Now the entire middle class was on the run: the doctors and professors and librarians, the filmmakers and painters and novelists, the engineers and accountants and technocrats—the people who thought things, made things, kept things humming. Half the professional class had already left, and two thousand more funnelled through this unimpressive desert crossing every day. Some looked dressed for the office, women in high heels and oversized sunglasses, men in pleated dress pants and button-down shirts, as if they'd walked out of work, grabbed the kids and the cash, and just left.

Watching them, the very people I'd come to the border to talk to, I almost didn't see the border guard as he emerged from a makeshift checkpoint and stepped in front of the car I'd hired. The checkpoint, despite the barred windows, was more shepherd's hut than blazing emblem of officialdom. But officialdom it was. He waved my driver to park in the dirt to the side. As I was getting out—jamming my notebook into the bag that carried my camera and audio recorder, rooting around for my passport, ignoring the furnace blast of heat—a large white press van pulled up beside me. The door slid open and an American TV news crew stepped out.

It was rare to meet other journalists in Syria so I was surprised. I had been doing my best to stay under the radar, to avoid undue attention, and here I was arriving with the cavalry. Waiting in the shade cast by the checkpoint while our documents were taken away to be examined, I asked the cameraman, a frenetic thirtyish guy with a shaved head, where he was based.

"Dixie," he said.


He laughed. "That's our code for the 'Zionist entity,' as they say around here." Jerusalem, like Beirut, was a hub for the international press. "I spend most of my time on the beach in Tel Aviv." For this short-term assignment the news team was staying at the Four Seasons in Damascus. They had taken the same highway from the city to the border crossing this morning that I had.

I glanced in the direction of the immigration building where we would soon be competing to interview the new arrivals. I hate reporting in packs. "Do you ever go into Iraq?" I asked, indicating the refugees.

"Only when I have to," he said. "To justify my paycheque." When reporting from Iraq, the network made sure its staff was heavily guarded. This was good for the staff but bad for journalism. "My bosses want me to leave our base, but I refuse. I'm not gonna get killed so they can get a story."

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from A Disappearance in Damascus by Deborah Campbell. Copyright © 2017 by Deborah Campbell. Excerpted by permission of Picador. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Through its compelling story of two women caught up in the shadowy politics behind today's conflict, A Disappearance in Damascus reminds us of the courage of those who risk their lives to bring us the world's news.

Print Article

A Disappearance in Damascus chronicles the real-life story of Ahlam, an Iraqi refugee who is abducted by the Syrian secret police, and the attempts by the author, Deborah Campbell, to find her. While researching an article on refugees living in Syria, Campbell needed help understanding the local culture and locating sources to interview. Through a fellow journalist she was introduced to Ahlam, living in Damascus in 2007, at the height of the Iraq war. Ahlam is a "fixer," someone who sets up interviews, facilitates contacts, and interprets local languages and customs for journalists.

When Campbell meets her, Ahlam is a central figure in the Iraqi refugee community, which was growing precipitously in Syria. University-educated, Ahlam took over her father's farm upon his death, and started working as a fixer for journalists in the 1990s, an atypical and dangerous profession for an Iraqi woman. After the removal of Saddam Hussein, she was a translator at U.S. Army civil affairs offices. She found military brass and prison workers who would tell her the names of Iraqis arrested by Americans, and she relayed this information to desperate families. Al-Qaeda suspected that she was a spy for the Americans. After being kidnapped and tortured by a gang of al-Qaeda militants, she fled Iraq for Damascus.

In the course of helping Campbell with her story, the two become friends. Campbell observes the Iraqi refugee community in Damascus as Ahlam establishes a school for refugee children and shelters Iraqis who are trapped in limbo by the collapse of their country, all in her modest apartment. The Syrian security services are never far behind Ahlam because of her work with American journalists, which is viewed as tantamount to spying. She works not only with Campbell but with numerous other journalists and UN officials. After she is suddenly arrested by the secret police, the danger hits home again.

Traveling throughout Damascus and the wider region, Campbell searches for clues about Ahlam's fate, and her detective work with other fixers and journalists is reminiscent of a spy thriller—complete with surveillance by Syrian officials and the paranoia it causes. She deftly describes the human cost of war and the repercussions of disastrous policies in Iraq. The story moves in time between the refugee neighborhood in Syria in 2007-2008 and flashbacks to Iraq, from where thousands of people had fled violence and chaos in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion. Her descriptions of Syria are all the more poignant since we know of the destruction that would unfold as a result of the country's civil war a few years later.

The reader also sees the generation whose futures dissolved amidst the chaos. The young men who hang around Ahlam's apartment, looking to help with errands or just find some way to pass the time, personify the helplessness of being unable to get a work permit or establish a family. As violent upheaval forces ever-increasing numbers of people to flee, it becomes vital for Westerners to hear of these realities.

Campbell is right to emphasize her outsider status and her privilege in being able to leave the refugee world—it is something western readers should internalize as travel bans leave refugees trapped in war zones. At times, however, it feels like she justifies her presence in Syria and her use of fixers like Ahlam a little too vehemently, and the account of her unraveling relationship with her boyfriend in the U.S. seems out of place.

Campbell eventually learns the truth about Ahlam's abduction, but the realities of war and the refugee crisis prevent easy answers or tidy endings. Instead, we are left with an account of how people persevere through torture, fear, and a loss of basic human rights. A Disappearance in Damascus is a timely account of the destruction wrought by political failures from governments concerned. Perhaps most important, it's a reminder of our common humanity and the ability of people everywhere to persevere and overcome.

Reviewed by Rose Rankin

Minneapolis Star Tribune
Campbell gives us a remarkably intimate look at the everyday life of people whose lives have been upended…. This important book opens our eyes to the lives of the people who are trying to find peace in a world of chaos.

The New York Times Book Review
Riveting and devastating…. [Campbell] has produced one of the more harrowing accounts of life inside a police state in recent memory.

Publishers Weekly
The author's devotion to her friend will open hearts as Campbell and Ahlam's family try every option to gain her freedom. Campbell's work is an informed, fascinating account of one courageous source.

Kirkus Reviews
Starred Review. In the stormwater's swirl, Campbell has found a bright and tender leaf to follow, and the effect on readers will be transformative.

Pique (Canada)
Compelling...A bold snapshot of the Assad regime prior to the start of the war, and will give readers an idea of why so many have fought to be rid of that dictator.

Literary Review of Canada (Canada)
Paced like a good novel...A Disappearance in Damascus is vivid, provocative and timely...While institutional efforts may improve protection for fixers, A Disappearance in Damascus illustrates how individual conscience and courage may also be necessary to confront the dangers of bringing news from hot spots around the world.

Quill & Quire (Canada)
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.

Vancouver Observer (Canada)
A vivid portrait...A must-read for people wanting to further their understanding of the Syrian civil war and refugee crisis, and about the deep ramifications that the Iraq war had on the rest of the Middle East. Especially now that the worst-case scenario that many Syrians have feared has come to pass, the book is essential to understanding the circumstances that societies lived with before their countries fell into chaos.

The Tyee (Canada)
Riveting...Campbell's book weaves the global into the utmost personal - a story of friendship flowering, then frighteningly uprooted...Campbell's urgency to find and free Ahlam drives a narrative laced with reflections on friendship, duty, imperialism and love strained by ambition...This book took a long time to write - and clearly the results were worth the wait!

Author Blurb Phil Klay, National Book Award-winning author of Redeployment
Gripping, inspiring, and at times intensely sorrowful, A Disappearance in Damascus provides a portrait of tremendous courage and resourcefulness within the community of Iraqi war survivors in Syria, the devastation war wreaks upon civilians, and a remarkable friendship between two women.

Author Blurb Eve Ensler, author of In the Body of the World and The Vagina Monologues
In this compelling, moving book, Deborah Campbell unearths so much of what could have disappeared in Damascus...This is a book about the power of friendship between women, about raw courage, and the political and deeply personal devastations of war.

Print Article

The Looting of the National Museum of Iraq

When looking back on the Iraq War, many American policy decisions stand out for their shortcomings, such as de-Baathification, which removed all experienced civil servants from government in one stroke; and disbanding the army, thereby leaving thousands of trained soldiers out of work and on the street. Another example, while less deadly, was materially and morally shattering: the failure to guard the National Museum of Iraq in the immediate aftermath of combat operations.

In the span of a few days in April 2003, as U.S. forces defeated Saddam Hussein's government in Baghdad, the city's National Museum of Iraq was robbed of an estimated 15,000 items in an orgy of looting. Was this, as Donald Rumsfeld characterized it, an example of how "stuff happens" in war? The raiding of the museum was in fact the result of multi-faceted failures in planning and policy.

Prior to the invasion, American defense department officials believed the fighting would be swift, and all the pieces of a functioning democratic state would fall into place almost immediately. Pentagon officials assumed that grateful Iraqis would install western-style institutions right away.

This vision seems sadly comical now, but in 2002 it resulted in the Departments of Defense and State neglecting to think about risks to cultural heritage in any post-combat disorder or plan for its protection. With only a light ground force (and no military police) protecting the museum and other cultural sites was neither prioritized nor provided for by top officials.

On the eve of the war, experts from universities and museums repeatedly alerted the U.S. government about the risk of looting, but they were met with bureaucratic and institutional disunity. The Pentagon ignored work at the State Department on post-war planning. Correspondence with diplomats went unanswered when archaeologists raised alarms. And when government officials did finally meet with a group of museum curators and one archaeologist, once on January 24, 2003, they focused on compiling lists of buildings and locations to avoid during bombings. This information was admirably adhered to, undoubtedly saving lives as well as precious artifacts during active combat, but the conversations passed over the risk of looting despite experts' warnings.

The antiquities community wasn't always altruistic either—scholars suspected that museum curators wanted to take advantage of regime change to loosen Iraq's laws on exporting artifacts. Academic archaeologists refused to collaborate with curators and collectors whose demand for objects often fuels illicit trade in antiquities. Thus, at a time when government officials weren't thinking about cultural heritage, groups that could have banded together to amplify their voices failed to do so because of long-standing animosities.

In his book The Rape of Mesopotamia: Behind the Looting of the Iraq Museum, author Larry Rothfield reports that outside assistance was lacking as well. The UN and U.S. were at odds over the war, so UNESCO couldn't provide advice or information about sites and items to protect.

It all culminated on April 10, 2003, when looters broke through a window at the National Museum and rampaged in waves. Some just smashed and grabbed; others clearly knew what they were doing. Locating boxes in the basement where museum staff had hidden thousands of objects, they pilfered cylinder seals, coins, and jewelry with surgical precision. Statues, cuneiform tablets, and friezes—all too large for the museum staff to have carried to the basement—were carted off from the museum's main floor. The stolen materials dated from as far back as the 9th century BC, some of the earliest artifacts of human civilization. Even the item catalog kept on simple index cards was destroyed.

In the aftermath of the looting, there was much hand-wringing and some belated efforts to recover stolen artifacts. Forty-three hundred items have been returned and the museum has since reopened. But the continued upheaval in Iraq allowed the destruction of archaeological sites and the black market trade in antiquities to flourish. When ISIS took control of swathes of the region it only got worse, as seen by the destruction of ancient Palmyra in neighboring Syria.

As the international community surveys the chaos unleashed by the Iraq war and grapples with the repercussions, we can only hope that lessons are learned and protection of cultural heritage gains much-needed visibility.

By Rose Rankin

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