This is a review of Samar Yazbek’s book A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution. Mashallah News recently met with her in Paris; read that interview here.
Damascus, March 16, 2011. Samar Yazbek participates in a protest in front of the Interior Ministry building. As soon as she faces the violence brought on by a crackdown on protestors, her life is turned upside down. Once a writer, she has now become a militant. Using words as weapons, recounting the revolution as it unfolds, this is now her sole mission.
From March to July 2011, the Syrian novelist collected personal testimonies of activists, protestors, state journalists and even soldiers, from cities such as Banyas, Lattakia, Homs, Hama, Jisr al-Shughur, Jableh, and Damascus. The terror of the repression in Syria is exposed, brutal, violent.
Samar Yazbek condemns the methods — the rumours, the hatred fueled between the different communities, and the reawakening of long buried grievances — by which the Assad regime tries to ensure that community conflict becomes true. Week after week, on the ground or from her apartment in Damascus, she collects and assembles eyewitness accounts. Among them, she finds no evidence of hate speech or fighting among communities; during the first few days of the revolution, Alawites and Christians equally participated in the protests. “This is the people’s revolution for dignity. This is the uprising of a brutalised people wishing to liberate itself from humiliation. That’s how the uprising in Syria broke out.”
The writer is caught in the crossfire: she belongs to the Alawite community but is, at the same time, is committed to the opposition. “The murderers and I are from the same city. Some of their blood flows in my veins.” Born in 1970 in Jableh, a coastal city in Northeastern Syria, from an Alawite family connected to the Assad regime, Samar Yazbek has unleashed the fury of her clan. In her home region people have been distributing pamphlets threatening her with death.
After anonymous phone calls and threats, the author has been placed under strict surveillance. In May, blindfolded, she was taken to a detention center, her first “exit to hell.” Because she is an Alawite and because her work continuously disrupts the version of events put forward by the regime, she is forced to “visit” the place and see its horrors. “It was like human beings were just pieces of flesh on display, an exhibition of the art of murder and torture that was all for show.”
Released by the executioners who cannot incarcerate her without jeopardising the allegations of an Alawite-Sunni clash, she returns many times. “Blood coursed down their bodies: fresh blood, dried blood, deep wounds carved all over them, like the strokes of an abstract painter. Their faces hung downwards, in a state of unconsciousness, swinging there like sides of beef.”
She is also caught in this crossfire because her cause is not always understood or accepted. Several isolated voices of the opposition refuse to accept her cause. Others say they are disappointed by her silence. The writer and journalist does not remain silent but she is discrete, in order to protect herself, her daughter, and those she interviews. “All the young men I meet with say the same thing and then disappear.”
The writer-activist is participating in the formation of several coordinated committees. With a group of female Alawites, she recorded a video against the Bashar al-Assad regime at the end of June 2011.
Such a chronicle of the revolution is also the very private journal of a woman who lapses into the solitude and whose grip on reality has changed her. One smells the odour of the cigarettes she smokes when she trembles when writing this book.
In this mise-en-abîme, the young woman sees herself as a stranger. “I am just an idea, a character in a novel. I drink my coffee and believe that I am only thinking about a woman I’ll write about one day. I am a novel. I am living through a more realistic novel than I could ever write. […] I observed myself going into the house, a woman caught somewhere between life and death. I saw her toss a bunch of keys on the table and then light up her cigarette. The woman closed her eyes and put the blindfold back on, as though she were on stage, and those images of the mutilated bodies returned.”
Samar Yazbek has discovered the reality of violence, its physical reality, a reality she never anticipated and from which she is struggling to recover: “When did the human body turn into a lethal killing machine?” The stories end in July 2011, the month during which she fled from Damascus. Disgusted by the silence of many Syrian intellectuals, she blames them: “Today, those who remain silent are accomplices to the crime.”
Translated from French by Adam Dexter.