Review of We Crossed a Bridge and it Trembled: Voices from Syria, by Wendy Pearlman (Custom House 2017).
The story of this century’s greatest popular uprising, in 2011 against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, is told in this exceptional book by people who participated. They also recount the hurricane of violence unleashed against the revolution and the divide-and-rule methods used by the regime and the “great powers”.
Syrian revolutionaries describe in the book how they became refugees. More than half of the pre-war population of 22 million have been forced from their homes; more than 5 million have fled the country.
We Crossed a Bridge and it Trembled tells these stories through interviews with 87 Syrians, collected in 2012-16 by Wendy Pearlman, a US-based researcher of the Middle East and author of two previous books on Palestine.
Pearlman conducted the interviews mainly among Syrian refugees in Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Germany, Sweden and Denmark. They included “housewives and rebel fighters, hair-gelled teenagers and businessmen in well-pressed shirts, die-hard activists and ordinary families caught in the crossfire”, she writes.
Most of the people she interviewed had fled the aerial bombardment and other mortal punishment used by the regime against those who challenged it. “The people with whom I spoke do not represent all of Syria’s complex religious-political landscape, and in particular those who support Assad. Nevertheless, they are a population that meets with too few opportunities to represent itself.”
The book’s title comes from the section describing how the revolution began. Annas, a doctor from Ghouta, said that the first big demonstration in Damascus was held “in solidarity with Easter, out of respect for our Christian brothers”. More than 100,000 people gathered.
People came from all over the Damascus suburbs: from Douma, Harasta, Zamalka, Kafr Batna … I remember we crossed a bridge and it trembled underneath our feet because we were so many people. We reached Jobar and regime forces were there waiting for us. They fired tear gas and we retreated. […]
We’d been chanting, “Freedom, freedom, freedom!” And then someone shouted, “The people want the overthrow of the regime!” Everyone went silent. This was the first time we’d heard people say that.
No-one spoke for ten to fifteen seconds. Honestly, we were afraid that he could be part of the secret police. Everyone looked at each other and thought, “This guy just said what we’ve been wanting to say for years.” (pp. 86-87.)
Apart from the introduction, the entire text of the book consists of excerpts from the interviews, between a couple of sentences and six pages long. Pearlman, who assembled a team of more than 20 people to help transcribe and translate them, uses this form to bring out the profound emotional upheaval that is surely central to any real revolution. For example, Rima, a writer from Suwayda, described her first experiences of demonstrating:
I started to whisper, Freedom. And after that I started to hear myself repeating, Freedom, freedom, freedom. And then I started shouting, Freedom! My voice mingled with other voices. When I heard my voice I started shaking and crying. I felt like I was flying. I thought to myself, “This is the first time I have ever heard my own voice”. I thought, “This is the first time I have a soul and I am not afraid of death or being arrested or anything else.” I wanted to feel this freedom forever. (p. 80.)
The section on the revolution is the third of eight. It is preceded by sections reflecting life under the authoritarian regime of Hafez al Assad from 1970 to 2000, and one on the accession to power of Bashar, Hafez’s son, and the disappointment felt by people in the failure of the “Damascus spring”, the regime’s short-lived experiment in allowing a measure of free speech.
Rather than bandy around the word “totalitarian” – as journalists and academics do so often these days, mis-labelling all types of dictatorships –
Pearlman and her interviewees succeed in getting under the skin of how dictatorship works.
Little details mattered a lot, Tayseer, a lawyer from Daraa who spent eight-and-a-half years in prison for joining a political party, explained (p. 19). For him, it was the fact he could only see his son through wire netting, and never touch him, during prison visits.
For Sana, a graphic designer from Damascus, it was her dad questioning the idea that supporting the Palestinian cause against Israel meant supporting the regime. At school, she assumed no-one would notice if she didn’t sing the national anthem, but:
One teacher did. As punishment, she forced me to crawl on my elbows and knees all over the school grounds. I was bleeding and she called me names, like “vile” and “despicable”. I’ll never forget that. (p. 24.)
After the third section on the revolution, the narrative turns to the violent crackdown. The number and variety of the accounts conveys something of the horrendous scale of the repression, and the impunity with which the regime has used arbitrary killing, torture and terror against its own population. A centre-piece of this section is a description by Shafiq, a graduate from Daraya, of his ninety-day detention during which he was tortured continuously (pp. 128-134).
The Assad regime’s claim to have superseded national and religious divisions in Syria is exposed as hollow, with bitter accounts of how it deliberately fostered these enmities in order to undermine the unity of the uprising.
Adam, a media organiser from Latakia, described how one night, when people shouted “freedom” from their rooftops and banged pots and pans, an army detail on the street formed into a circle, with the officer in the middle and machine guns pointing outwards.
I served in the military so I know this formation. It’s what you do when enemies are coming at you from all sides or when you don’t know where the enemy is. This formation is your last stand.
So they thought that they were surrounded by enemies. And they were in their own city. And nothing was happening except that people were shouting.
The regime was basically doing everything possible to put sects against each other and create a toxic environment, where nobody trusts anybody and nobody knows who’s in control. (p. 108.)
The regime’s cynical fostering of divisions is a subject that reappears in the fifth part, about the militarisation of the conflict. Islamist militants were freed from prison: the regime clearly preferred that they, rather than community movements and democratic organisations, should dominate the
opposition-held areas. There are inspiring accounts of community resistance to the Nusra front and other Islamist organisations, which continues to this day.
The interviewees’ pithy comments on the international powers strike a contrast with the screeds on that subject by so many so-called “left” commentators in the west, who are much more interested in Putin and Trump than on what Syrians are doing. For example Abu Firas, a fighter from rural Idlib, concluded:
Not a single [country] is doing anything to protect any fraction of the rights that I should have as a human being living on earth. I’m not saying that the conscience of the international community is asleep. I’m saying that conscience doesn’t exist at all. (p. 160.)
The sixth – and most frightful – part of the book is about people’s experience of living through the total war of 2013-15, by means of which the regime, the Islamists and the great powers endeavoured to crush the revolution. Terror took many forms, Pearlman writes in the introduction.
Imposing shockingly brutal rule in the areas that it seized, ISIS raped women and girls, entlisted child soldiers and committed murder through such gruesome means as public beheadings. Far greater numbers of casualties occurred at the hands of the Assad regime. The single greatest killer was barrel bombs, typically oil drums or gas tanks packed with explosives and shrapnel and dropped on areas that included schools, hospitals, markets and residential neighbourhoods. (p. xlvii.)
The seventh part of the book describes the experiences of Syrians seeking refuge, and very often forms of permanent exile, outside their country. Again, repetition makes an impact. Of the 13 accounts of flight that end in a European country, eight include hair-raising descriptions of journeys across the Mediterranean, organised by people smugglers in perilously overcrowded boats.
The last section of the book, in which Pearlman passes on her interviewees’ reflections on the events, is open-ended and incomplete. Understanding takes longer.
Khalil, a defected officer from Deir ez-Zor, said that the crux of the problem to be that many of the Middle Eastern powers (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE etc) are now sponsoring armed formations in Syria, and continued:
We don’t know where any of this is leading. All we know is that we’re everyone else’s killing field. The only way I can understand this is that these other countries don’t want the crisis in Syria to end. They want to scare their own people from demanding change. They want to send a message to their own populations: if you make a popular revolution, you’re going to wind up like Syria.
Following the events in Syria from the relevant comfort of the UK, I think this point is crucial. It is not just that violence has been used to try to destroy the world’s widest, deepest, most unified popular uprising in a generation – it is how that that has happened.
The assaults on demonstrators by soldiers, police and regime-organised thugs didn’t work. The next step was militarisation: mountains of weaponry poured into the country, anti-opposition forces fostered on all sides. Finally came total war, with the supply of Russian weapons to the regime an important element. The regime literally preferred to destroy the country and its people, rather than ceding power.
Of course there are countless examples of violent repression of popular revolutionary movements (including an example close to Syria: Egypt in 2012-13), and of war being used to stifle such movements (for example the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s). And every war seems effectively to wreck and undermine social movements. But here a big international military conflict has been unleashed with the primary purpose of subjugating a popular movement for change.
Syrian revolutionaries emphasise that, despite this, their movement has not been vanquished. And this movement – openly in many parts of Syria and Kurdistan, and in ways that I don’t know in regime-controlled areas – continues. But Khalil’s point is undeniable: the human cost has already been devastating.
All of us who aspire to radical social change need to think about the lessons; to distance ourselves from the old “left” – so corrupted by Stalinism that it couldn’t see the Syrian revolution as it unfolded, in some cases so blinded by geopolitics that it sided with Assad and Putin against the people; and find ways to support and side with our fellow thinkers in Syria.
Reading Wendy Pearlman’s book is a good place to start. GL, 27 July 2017.
Good stuff on Syria in English
On People & Nature