Some days I picked up Samar Yazbek’s A Woman in the Crossfire, to read only two pages, and set it aside.
Other days I picked it up and forced myself to read a certain number of sections (being that it’s a diary).
Afterwards, whether a couple of pages or a couple of sections, I would adopt some simple task – chopping vegetables or washing the dishes, ironing or carting the compost to the bin –tasks requiring little concentration, while the images from the diary loosened and dissipated.
Unsurprisingly, these Diaries of the Syrian Revolution are grim reading.
In translation by Max Weiss, the prose is clear, even perfunctory. That’s just what I needed. A year ago, I could not have located Syria on an unlabelled map. Samar Yazbek’s name was not one I recognized, nor did I understand how unusual it was for someone in her family (which supports the regime) to have broken with tradition to expose what she witnesses of the revolutionary activity in her homeland. This book might not be intended as a beginning, but it offers me a way into the subject, a path towards understanding.
She writes: “I was a traitor to my sect for being on the side of the demonstrators. I wrote two pieces about the protest movement, in which I talked about the practices of violence and killing and arrest carried out by the security forces. They responded by posting articles on a mukhabarati website discussing my relationship with American agents, a ready-made excuse the security apparatus would always resort to in order to clamp down on people who have their own opinions.”
The role that social media plays in her story is fascinating. For instance, that’s how she learns of her family’s disavowal of ties to her. “I am the daughter of a well-known Alawite family, a family that supports the regime absolutely and that now considers me a traitor and a shame upon them, to the point that some members of the family announced on Facebook that in Jableh I am no longer consider one of them, publicly disowning me.”
All because she attempts to access parts of the region which have been restricted, in an effort to determine if she can witness the activities which are reported to be taking place there (usually what she observes is different from the reporting, sometimes the opposite of what the regime is reporting).
Interview with Samar Yazbek and Frontline Club in 2012 (1 hour, 21 minutes)
She also conducts interviews and records testimonies which are relayed in detail. Extracting a few lines from these feels disrespectful to the survivors, who relive these traumas to share their experiences. In turn, Samar Yazbek engages with that trauma as she transcribes their accounts.
Often she questions her ability to continue. “In that moment I also understood how important it is for a human being to be capable of regenerating herself and bringing her dead cells back to life; this may seem like a line out of a book but it’s a real feeling and not a metaphor I write down in words here.”
The blunt and deliberate summary statements are filled with horrors. “Things in al-Baida are becoming clearer. After enough time passes, history will record how human beings here were carted off to prison like cattle, how women came out to defend their husbands and their children, how children shouted even as they were being arrested, how blood was spilled in the streets, and how bodies were left out in the open air.” The personal accounts are shattering. But what is the alternative? To forget them, to ignore them?
She appreciates irony and she comments on how the wider world seems to be carrying on as though these terrors are not unfolding. “The Arab and non-Arab channels broadcast the wedding of William and Kate,” she writes, on a day when 62 peaceful protestors are killed, when her daughter weeps as Samar prepares to leave the house again, fearful that her mother will not return.
At times, she doesn’t feel as though she can continue with her writing. At times, the writing is all that keeps her going. She writes that “…these diaries were helping me to stay alive; they were my walking stick these days.” They are a sustaining force: “As I transcribed the stories about the uprising, I also draw strength from them.”
And this is essential. Because all the rest of it is brutal and bloody. “The murderers and I are from the same city. Some of their blood flows in mine. Some of my relatives are theirs, people who embrace murder and bloodshed. I am weighed down with a heavy burden in the face of all this death.”
In the face of all this death, reading seems like such a meaningless gesture. But I suppose writing felt like that for her sometimes too.