BookBrowse Reviews A Disappearance in Damascus by Deborah Campbell

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A Disappearance in Damascus

Friendship and Survival in the Shadow of War

by Deborah Campbell

A Disappearance in Damascus by Deborah Campbell X
A Disappearance in Damascus by Deborah Campbell
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2017, 352 pages
    Sep 2018, 352 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Rose Rankin
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About this Book



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.

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

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in September 2017, and has been updated for the October 2018 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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