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Lives among the ruins

Books review of 'We crossed a bridge and it trembled' and The home that was our country'

Eiza Griswold | NYT 

Voices From Syria 
Wendy Pearlman 
Custom House/HarperCollins Publishers
290 pages; $24.99

A Memoir of Syria 
Alia Malek
Nation Books
334 pages; $27.99

“I lived in a country where dying was taught to us from childhood,” the writer Svetlana Alexievich said in her 2015 Nobel Prize acceptance speech. “We were taught death.” Alexievich was speaking of Belarus, where she grew up and where, during World War II, 2.2 million people died — nearly one person in four. The scale of this suffering seems impossible to fathom, numbers so large that the mind snaps shut. Yet one needn’t cast back in history for such figures. Since the war in Syria began six years ago, 6.5 million people — more than one in three Syrians — have been internally displaced, and another 470,000 are dead. Now, as the war grinds into its seventh horrifying year, literature written in English and borne out of the conflict is finally beginning to reach the rest of the world. 

Alia Malek’s memoir, The Home That Was Our Country, is one of the finest examples of this new testimonial writing. Born in Baltimore to Syrian-American parents, Malek is a journalist and attorney who landed a job in the civil rights division of the Justice Department less than a year before 9/11. She quit the US for the West Asia, where she travelled and taught human rights for the better part of a decade. 

In April 2011, Malek moved to the Syrian capital of Damascus to report in secret for The Nation and The New York Times. The country was in the initial throes of what many hoped would become a democratic uprising born out of the Arab Spring. Yet there were already terrible signs that the regime of Bashar al-Assad wasn’t going to give up without bloody reprisals. In an attempt to quell reports of dissent, the regime banned many foreign journalists. Malek went to work anyway. As a cover story, she tells her Syrian cousins that she’s writing a book about her maternal grandmother, Salma, the daughter of a Christian businessman, Sheikh Abdeljawwad al-Mir, born in the Ottoman Empire in 1889. 

Her cover story wasn’t entirely false, as that book becomes this one, and Malek grounds her narrative throughout in her grandmother’s story. Salma, a charismatic and embittered matriarch, grew up as the chain-smoking daughter in a family that prized only men, and after suffering a stroke, spends the last seven years of her life in her Damascus apartment, “locked in” her body, paralysed yet alert, able to communicate only with her eyes. When Salma dies, she leaves behind a chic flat for Malek’s family, which, after decades of feuding with a hostile tenant, they succeed in reclaiming. 

As Syria burns, it falls to Malek to renovate the flat — haggling for light fixtures from the Electricity Souk during a blackout, and keeping an eye on a corrupt contractor while the Assad regime gasses its own people, drops barrel bombs — oil drums loaded with shrapnel — from helicopters, and disappears thousands to be tortured in underground prisons. 

Malek observes almost none of this firsthand. Instead, her war is largely made up of what she can’t see. She lives day to day under the cloud of claustrophobia and menace that dominates the Syrian capital, where her presence poses a significant risk both to herself and to her Syrian family. 

Although it becomes increasingly clear that her family would prefer that Malek leave Syria immediately, she stays on for two years, conducting clandestine interviews with ordinary Syrians undertaking extreme acts of courage — from those shuttling medical supplies to besieged areas to others launching ingenious and nonviolent protests against the regime. Some have survived unspeakable horrors in the basement of the nearby office of the security forces. 

In her neighbourhood, as elsewhere, she realises, the proximity of the mukhabarat, as the security forces are called, has a double purpose. Their nearness terrifies local civilians into submission. 

By contrast, We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled chronicles Syrian lives that are anything but normal. In it, Wendy Pearlman, a professor of politics at Northwestern University, collects the accounts of refugees, most of whom have fled the brutality of the Assad regime. Many of these voices render themselves unforgettable. A doctor named Annas tells Pearlman during an interview in Turkey how he and others found unconventional ways to treat protesters gassed by the regime: “People were choking on tear gas and we’d pour cola on their faces, which counters the effect of gas. Their faces were sticky and glistening.” 

These oral histories aren’t dutiful case studies. Instead, Pearlman shapes her subjects’ narratives, winnowing interviews down to stirring illustrations of human adaptation. In a tent in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, Pearlman finds a woman named Bushra, a mother who has, five years into the war, raised her children largely on the move and out of doors by necessity. One day, she took her young daughter to a woman’s centre, which was in an actual building. “After living in a tent, she was amazed by the real walls and real floors,” Bushra tells Pearlman.  

What makes Pearlman’s and Malek’s particularly necessary is their insistence on foregrounding the extraordinary heroism of ordinary Syrians — both those who remain trapped in the yoke of an oppressive regime, and those struggling to make new lives in unwelcoming places. 

© 2017 The New York Times News Service

First Published: Sun, July 23 2017. 22:41 IST