Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer and book critic based in Beirut and Brummana, Lebanon
On assignment for Harper’s magazine in 2007, Deborah Campbell was looking for someone to assist her with research for an article about Iraqi refugees in Syria. What she needed was an insider, someone who could make “journalism possible where the outsider cannot go alone.” This person, known as a fixer, would help set up interviews, interpret, and offer “context and background.”
Campbell quickly settled on a woman named Ahlam. Not only did she speak English fluently and have a sterling reputation among the foreign journalists, nongovernmental organizations and U.N. bodies she had worked with in the past, but this mother of two was a refugee from Iraq and lived in a Damascus neighborhood teeming with other Iraqi refugees. Her knowledge of the subject was deep, and firsthand. Yet in Syria, a police state that demands docility on the part of its citizens and foreign residents, Ahlam’s work as a fixer (illegal, owing to her status as a foreigner) made her a target. Given that Ahlam serves as the focus of a book titled “A Disappearance in Damascus: Friendship and Survival in the Shadow of War,” the reader has more than an inkling of what will befall her.
Although occasionally marred by Campbell’s awe-struck view of her biographical subject, “A Disappearance” relates an unsettling true story with journalistic adroitness and novelistic flair. And there is plenty to admire about Ahlam (intelligence, pluck, resilience, nonsectarian dedication to helping Iraqis). “Like army commanders, sea captains and wilderness explorers, Ahlam’s stubborn fearlessness made those around her feel fearless too,” Campbell writes. Because of Campbell’s style of immersive journalism, the reader comes to know the author’s fixer-turned-friend intimately.
Ahlam is frank about her predicament. “I’ve figured out I’m being watched here in Damascus,” she tells Campbell early on. She wonders if this marks the return of her tormentors in Iraq, from which she fled after being kidnapped — and released — by al-Qaeda. (She had worked for the Americans, dispensing financial compensation to Iraqi families who had lost a member to the war.) But it turns out that Syrian intelligence is the culprit, in particular an agent who goes by the handle “Abu Yusuf.”
Ahlam’s role as a fixer and her efforts to aid Iraqi refugees have aroused suspicion; a regime inclined toward totalitarianism will try to control everything, even relations between individuals. At one point, Abu Yusuf demonstrates flexibility, granting Ahlam permission to operate an unofficial school for Iraqi refugee children out of her apartment, but he may soon want something in return. And then (in mid-2008) Ahlam is suddenly arrested and held incommunicado.
When, through her contacts, an increasingly distraught Campbell discovers the charges leveled against her friend, some are so outlandish that she does not know what to make of them. Is the regime so paranoid as to believe that, alongside working with foreign journalists, Ahlam is engaged in gunrunning and people-smuggling? Or does it want to obscure the real reason for her arrest? “Had she simply been accused of working for media, or being too bold in advocating for refugees,” remarks a discerning Campbell, “it would look like political repression.”
The author powerfully conveys Ahlam’s plight behind bars, injecting stark brutality into a story hitherto characterized by uncertainty and angst, and ushering the reader into a terrifying hidden dimension: Abu Yusuf “walked over to the chair where the guards had set [Ahlam] down and began kicking her feet, hitting her arms. . . . He slapped her so hard that she was knocked from her chair.” Through such disturbing episodes, the book sheds light on Syria’s ruling Baath regime, helmed by the dictator Bashar al-Assad.
The wretchedness and trauma of Iraqi refugees languishing in Syria enrobe “A Disappearance” with an aura of melancholy. Moreover, the knowledge that, because of a looming civil war, millions of Syrians are fated to suffer similar displacement and attendant misery will surely trigger dread on the part of an empathic reader.
Yet at least one very troubling aspect of this (still unfolding) saga might elude detection in “A Disappearance,” as it comes twinned with a heartening development: About five months after her arrest, Ahlam regains her freedom. (This is how the author learns of, among other outrages, the aforementioned beatings her friend endured while incarcerated.) In the book’s final chapters, Campbell details the circumstances of Ahlam’s release from prison in late 2008, her immediate relocation with her children to Chicago (where her husband moves a couple of years later), and their starting anew. A happy ending, right?
Only in part. Not because Ahlam struggles to acclimate to life in the United States; that’s something you’d expect, given the culture clash at play. The wormwood we must chew on is that, for Ahlam, it takes America to put the “happy” in happy ending, and that, for even the most imperiled Iraqis and Syrians, Uncle Sam does so only grudgingly — more so now, during President Trump’s administration.
There are no happy endings in Syria and Iraq. Nor will there be any for some time. Meanwhile, chances that at-risk Syrian and Iraqi families will experience such a desperately sought denouement in the Statue of Liberty’s once-capacious protective shadow, the way Ahlam’s has, diminish by the day.
By Deborah Campbell
352 pp. $27.