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Samar Yazbek

Fragments of so-called life in Syria


In her latest book ‘The Crossing,’ PEN award winning Syrian journalist Samar Yazbek gives an account of what she witnessed in Syria

“The Crossing” is neither fiction nor a memoir. It is a testimony of a Syrian journalist on the people left behind in Syria. Samar Yazbek documents the real people, living (or more accurately dying) under the current aerial bombardment.


In her book, the PEN award winning journalist gives an account of what she has witnessed. From the 2011 protests demanding human rights to the formation of local militias by common people, “The Crossing” accounts for the gradual metamorphosis of the rebellion into a fragmented opposition dominated by extremists.

“Before our homeland became a magnet attracting radical Islamists and paid soldiers, we had an honorable revolution,” says Yazbek, referring to the beginning of the protests she participated in as an activist. Her critical writings and activism against the autocracy of the Assad regime forced her into exile. She was arrested for five times, beaten and forced to watch young activists hanging upside down in the dungeons of the regime.

Yet, she believes writing is essential in this turmoil. Unless documented, she says, the truth will be forgotten because of the chaotic environment and manipulations of the media under the pressure of the intelligence service. That is why, starting from 2012, she sneaked back into her country multiple times to document sometimes even the front line.

She talks about the inability of a child to run, with her already shrapnel-blown arms and legs when planes start to drop barrel bombs. She also talks about a regime soldier, executed for disobeying a direct order and refusing to rape another child.

Her testimonials are heavy, as she answers our question “How is the daily life under current war conditions?” She points to the shrapnel-loaded barrel bombs of the regime once again as the biggest danger threatening the survival of innocent civilians today.

“Access to primary health care, water and gas requires a long journey on unsafe roads,” she says. In her own words, daily life is hell in Syria, both for children and adults. In areas under the control of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Yazbek explains children are taken from their mothers suddenly in the daytime, to be armed under their so-called army. These children then become numbers in death tolls in air strike operations.

She has met elderly people who refuse to run and hide during aerial bombardment. “Hope for survival is lessening,” she tells us. “The number of civil organizations including Turkish volunteers actively working within Syrian borders is decreasing,” she reports. “Bettering the daily life for those we left behind becomes harder by this very fact.”

Yazbek says the primary reason is the expanding ISIL activity, with its morbid brutality and the interventions of other radical religious groups in civil society, while the regime’s bombs drop from the sky.

Indeed, the hegemonic wars of the international community in the region have replaced humanitarian solutions. Military solutions trampled the priority to protect. The United Nations held their meeting in New York last week. No deterrent decision was produced for Assad’s helicopter-dropped barrel bombs killing civilians indiscriminately. Besides, France started its first air strikes against ISIL militants in Syria, which means more bombs on already decaying towns. The civilian left behind in Syria seems to be nobody’s top priority. Russia appears to be more concerned about extremist Islamic formations with its air force backing up the regime. Europe’s biggest source of worry is most probably people marching to their borders. “We do not see measureable gains, the murderer ISIL is expanding and Assad’s tortures make things worse,” says Yazbek. “Where politics fail to accomplish its objective to produce a solution what can media or literature do?” we ask Yazbek.

Her answer is simple: “We should keep on writing and put civilian massacres on the agenda.” She believes literature constructs social memory and remembering the truth nourishes hope to reconstruct society.

“Syria’s major problem is that our demands of justice and freedom have been transformed into a refugee and donation problem,” says Yazbek. “This is a political decision and manipulation of the truth by international actors,” she explains.

Meanwhile, EU leaders gathered in Brussels. They announced a short-term action plan: the EU would offer at least 1 billion euros more to the U.N. refugee agency and others, to increase funding for Syrian refugees in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, etc. However, so far this year, the U.N. has received only 37 percent of its appeal for aid in Syria. The World Health Organization has only received 27 percent of needed funds for the devastated country. When it comes to those we left behind, neither side seems to have much regard for civilians under the crossfire.

“The Crossing” appeared on the bookshelves on July 2. The book aims to keep an eye on the people in Syria left to suffer alone in political maneuvers.



The novelist vs. the revolutionary: My own Syria debate

A Syrian novelist on military strikes, extremism and other questions facing in her country.

Syrian novelist and journalist Samar Yazbek.

By Samar Yazbek, Published: September 13 E-mail the writer

Samar Yazbek is the author of “A Woman in the Crossfire” and the winner of the 2012 PEN/Pinter Prize for international writer of courage. This essay was translated by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp.

I am two women. They stand head to head, at loggerheads.

The revolutionary in me joined what started as peaceful demonstrations against the Syrian government in March 2011.

The novelist in me fled to France that July.

The revolutionary, who has several times since then furtively crossed the border back into her country, is steeped in the smell of blood. She wipes the dust off the corpses of children disfigured by violence, stops to wring out her heart, then carries on.The novelist struggles to close her eyes to the atrocities: She can’t take any more. She begs the revolutionary to stop walking through Syria’s circles of hell.But the other voice rebukes her: “It is up to you to step into this hell, to bear witness to it, darling novelist. It is up to you to work against all that is dark and violent, everything that is leading your country to ruin.”

The novelist, living in exile, in the world of politicians and diplomats, far removed from falling shells and sudden death, wonders whether Syria should be hesitant about welcoming military strikes from the West. She argues that no country has the right to interfere in the affairs of another, that independence and national sovereignty are sacred. And she questions whether hitting military targets without taking down President Bashar al-Assad, especially while Russia and Iran continue to support him, will bring a shift from the inhumanity that the regime has imposed.

The revolutionary, moving among guerilla fighters and civilian activists, stands by those who are living under the regime’s bombardment and dying at the hands of its military machine. She argues that sovereignty shouldn’t mean the freedom to kill one’s own people, to displace them or to force a sectarian wedge between them. She notes that the soldiers she overheard speaking Farsi when the rural town of Haish was annihilated are evidence that international intervention happened long ago. She adds that Syria is not the Assad regime. Syria is the Syrian people.

The novelist looks on with bewilderment at the religious extremism of groups supposedly representing the opposition: preventing women from going out in public, carrying out arrests, threats and killings, all in the name of Islam.

The revolutionary, who has met with leaders of Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and other influential jihadist battalions, is gripped by fear at what they represent. But she believes that Assad has encouraged them, knowing that an unsavory alternative to his regime makes the international community hesitant to intervene. She has interviewed dozens of jihadists who told her they had been in Assad’s prisons until they were suddenly released at the beginning of the revolution. She believes that Assad’s violence gives them legitimacy and that only the elimination of the regime can rescue Syrians from the increasing threat of extremism.

This same woman has witnessed the presence of moderate fighters and heroic civilian activists who have not received the support they need. And she recalls long talks with Syrian families who reject the exclusion of women and with the mothers who keep walking their children to school, despite the continual shelling by Assad’s warplanes.

The novelist regrets that the opposition movement has evolved from its peaceful origin. She refuses to condone, let alone applaud, armed uprisings. “Isn’t political opposition the better alternative?” she meekly suggests.

The other woman laughs in her face and rejects her logic. “What are you waiting for, you futile scribbler, when more than 100,000 people lie dead and thousands are imprisoned or missing? When hospitals are being shelled and doctors targeted, when there are massacres in bakeries and people are deprived of water and electricity? What more do you ask of your people? What kind of justice is it that you’re after?”

These two women crash about beneath my skin, colliding at every twist and turn of this unfinished narrative. But there’s one thing they agree on: Anything that might bring a definitive end to the murderous Assad and his regime is a force for good. The question is: Does the world really want to stop these atrocities, or is it happy to stand by and watch?


Also in this week’s Outlook section: Art critic Philip Kennicott explores why images of suffering don’t galvanize public outrage, author and filmmaker Sebastian Junger says sometimes being anti-war requires embracing force, Eliot Cohen debunks five myths about cruise missiles and William Dobson reviews a book on how presidents go to war. Read more from Outlook, friend us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter.


Woman in the Crossfire

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womaninthecrossfire_72A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution’ by novelist Samar Yazbek is part journalism, part personal memoir, and all literature. It’s literature of the instantaneous sort, a staggered snapshot of the first four months of the revolution, a public history of  “a country succumbing to the forces of death,” and an interior history too. Yazbek tells us about her headaches, her insomnia and Xanax addiction, her crying fits, her fears for her daughter and herself, her constant panic. How sometimes in the speeded-up context the rush of information precedes all feeling: “The daily news of killing,” she writes, “was more present inside of me than any emotion.”

Samar Yazbek has always been problematic. Having consecrated herself “to the promise of a mysterious freedom in life,” she left home (in Jableh, on the coast) at sixteen, later divorced her husband and lived in Damascus, a single mother, working in journalism and writing sexually controversial novels. When Syria rose up against the Asad regime she publically supported the victims and their cries for freedom. And she’s an Alawi, a member of the president’s largely loyalist sect, of a well-known family. As an unveiled and obviously independent woman, a secularist and daughter of a minority community, her support for the revolution proved the lie of regime propaganda, which characterised the uprising as Salafist from the start.

So leaflets slandering her were distributed in the mountains. She was called a traitor, made  recipient of death threats, publically disowned by family and hometown. Naturally she was visited by the mukhabarat and made to experience, vicariously at least, the domestic wing of regime propaganda – for the theatre of blood is as important inside Syria as the projection of civilised moderation used to be abroad – by being walked through a display of meat-hooked and flayed torturees.

The Samar Yazbek of these diaries is an imposing presence but not one who crowds the reader. Indeed a reader who isn’t in Damascus, who hasn’t experienced the strangeness first hand (and what strangeness! – a known city, a home country, transforming into a death zone) requires a strong character through whom to experience and understand, just as he would if reading a novel. But beyond locating the reader, Yazbek more often plays her “favourite role, pretending not to know anything in order to learn everything,” and she gives most space over to the accounts of others.

Through these reports we learn of the horrors of detention and torture, of the pleasures and pains of protesting, of the plights of conscripts and refugees. Yazbek interviews secret sympathisers of the revolution, a state TV employee for instance, or a soldier who shot his own foot to escape the order to kill his countrymen, as well as committed revolutionary activists, the kind of people who are still very influential on the ground in Syria despite the inevitable arming of the revolution and the consequent rise of resistance militias. While the armed men fight, the activists are organising liberated and besieged areas.

One of the book’s most useful sections describes the early development of the Coordination Committees, the revolution’s backbone. Yazbek describes a spontaneous meritocracy in which talents are distributed into political, medical, media, even arts and culture committees, an organisational process entirely opposite to Asad’s corrupt, sectarian and nepotistic state.  She also very usefully describes the non-ideological compromise secularist activists made with the religious culture of the masses, recognising religion’s centrality to many people’s experience of existence, as well as its obvious mobilisational power.

Her informants’ accounts illustrate how from the revolution’s earliest days the regime instrumentalised sectarian hatred, particularly in the coastal cities, Banyas, Jebleh and Lattakia, and the surrounding countryside, areas shared between Sunnis and Alawis. Rumours of roving Sunni mobs intent on murder were spread in the mountains and reinforced by false flag operations carried out by shabeeha. If this nonsense hadn’t largely worked, its memory would be comical. In Jebleh the alarm was frequently raised that an ‘infiltrator’ was at large in a neighbourhood, so the people would come out to catch him. When the same infiltrator was captured twice, each time in different neighbourhoods, a bystander was prompted to advise security to use different bait next time, if they still wished to be believed.

For the historian and analyst Yazbek’s diaries also provide important local information of a strategic nature, details often missed by newspaper articles, such as the fact that the Maydan and Qaboon areas of Damascus came out against the regime early because of the residents’ kinship ties to Dera’a, the revolution’s cradle.

But the main reason to read the book is for the immediacy and breadth of perspective (religious or not, Sunni, Alawi, Christian, of various class backgrounds) it offers, for the human element, and for its sense of shock:

“I stared into his eyes, which were like every other murderer’s eyes that have appeared these days, eyes I had never seen before in Damascus. How could all those murderers be living among us?”

It’s a narrative brimming with stark images. One, for example, of security forces attacking a funeral, shooting and critically injuring three pallbearers, causing the mourners to flee, leaving the coffin alone on the ground in an empty but blood-spattered street. It’d be a great image for a novelist to dream up, but reality got there first; reality in Syria outstrips imagination.

After four fraught months Yazbek and her daughter fled to Paris. She’s written about visits to liberated parts of Syria since, and like every Syrian inside or outside, like everyone connected to Syria, she sits and she wonders what terrors or glories the future might hold. “Fire scalds,” the book finishes. “Fire purifies. Fire either reduces you to ash or burnishes you. In the days to come I expect to live in ashes or else to see my shiny new mirror.”

The translation is by Max Weiss, and is excellent.


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