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Brave Syrian writer captures her country’s nightmare

Samar Yazbek has a keen eye for detail and nuance.

A Woman in the Crossfire
Samar Yazbek

Samar Yazbek is a single woman in her 40s who lives with her teenage daughter. She loves the work of Jose Saramago and Arthur Rimbaud, and worries about making ends meet while awaiting payment for a book translation. She blogs daily on Facebook, watches the wedding of William and Kate on television, and considers herself an ardent feminist, secularist and urbanite.

But she lives in Damascus. And a casual comment about reform on her Facebook page – hacked by a desperate regime – results in a telephoned death threat within minutes. Her family – part of the Alawite establishment loyal to Bashar al-Assad – has disowned her for her support of anti-regime, pro-democracy protesters. And government security agents follow her every move.

Sleeping only a few hours a night with the help of Xanax, she moves through her days alternately numbed by the testimonials of horror she collects from demonstrators who have survived imprisonment and torture, and galvanized by an urgent need to tell their stories.

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A Woman in the Crossfire is not an easy read. It was written in a hurry, and recounts the heady first 100 days of the "Syrian spring," which has since become a nightmare, with upward of 35,000 dead and half a million refugees. But it offers a unique window into the anguish of Syria: an intimate journey into the head and heart of a woman trying to maintain her sanity, humanity and, above all, love for her deeply wounded nation – from a tiny bugged-to-the-gills flat in downtown Damascus.

The only relief amid the litany of despair – and the verbatim transcripts of interviews with young men and women of all creeds who have been tortured, raped and stomped on by sadistic regime security agents – comes in the form of Yazbek's often lyrical reflections on her city and her homeland.

While wondering "how could armed men suddenly appear and start killing people?" she finds momentary respite in the familiar: "I step out onto the balcony and the lemon trees revive me. The place is calm for a few moments, then gunfire breaks out."

And yet, amid the grotesque stories of teenagers with missing faces hanging from meat hooks in underground dungeons, and bloody assaults on unarmed civilians and defecting soldiers alike, the most frightening thing in Yazbek's book is how the familiar turns menacing in a matter of minutes. "Shopkeepers morph into murderous security agents who gun down protesters; yellow cabs become abduction vehicles for regime thugs…"

At the same time, the familiar offers succour. A meeting with young women activists who remind her of her sisters cheers her immeasurably; refugees in Turkey from various clans and sects eat dinner together "like one big family."

The author notes that "what we write in novels is less brutal than what occurs in real life." Still she copes with the madness that surrounds her by falling back on her art. "I think of writing a novel about a sniper who watches a woman as she walks confidently down the street. I imagine them as two solitary heroes in a ghost town: like the street scenes in Saramago's Blindness."

Yazbek is at her best when she returns to her novelist's instincts, with a keen eye for detail and nuance. After catching a televisual glimpse of Angelina Jolie visiting Syrian refugees in Turkey, she writes, "My heart skips a beat. Syrians are now displaced persons; celebrities adorn themselves with them."

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Yazbek's dangerous journeys recently earned her the PEN/Pinter prize for her courage. Yet she is a clumsy, if earnest journalist; her long verbatim transcripts come off, rather unfortunately, as one-sided. Not that there isn't enough damning evidence about the horror of the Syrian police state, but it wasn't that long ago that we were outsourcing torture to those same underground dungeons, hailing Assad as an ally in the "war on terror" and running puff pieces on Madame Asma al-Assad in Vogue magazine.

Yazbek's passion for a united Syria and her refusal to play the regime's "sectarian games" never fails, in spite of a letter she receives from a salafist saying, "Dear unveiled infidel, the Syrian revolution doesn't want an Alawite apostate like you in its ranks," and she still speaks from exile in Paris of a post-Assad "feminist revolution" in Syria. But with the Free Syrian Army made up of some dubious fundamentalist bedfellows, cynicism is easy.

Still, A Woman in the Crossfire remains a compelling, if somewhat frenzied testimonial to the suffering of a nation peopled by ordinary folk, fed up with corruption, who dream of a future "free Syria" that knows no fear.

Hadani Ditmars is the author of Dancing in the No Fly Zone: A Woman's Journey Through Iraq. Her great grandparents fled Syria for Canada a century ago.

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