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A Life and Death Relationship ‘Built Entirely on Trust’

Author Deborah Campbell on the riskiest journalism job you never hear about, Syrians struggling here, and more.

By David Beers 19 Oct 2016 |

David Beers is The Tyee’s founding editor.

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Journalist Deborah Campbell in Kurdistan: Her new memoir ‘A Disappearance in Damascus’ is a tale of friendship, intrigue and Middle East politics getting rave reviews.

By 2007, the violent chaos unleashed by the U.S. invasion of Iraq four years before had driven hundreds of thousands of Iraqis into Syria. Journalist Deborah Campbell sensed (all too accurately as we now know) that Syria itself risked becoming the next cauldron of unrest. So she left her home in British Columbia for the burgeoning Little Baghdad section of Damascus in search of stories to report.

She would need, of course, a “fixer” — some local to help the outsider find sources and stay safe. In the end, it was the fixer herself, Ahlam, who became the focus of Campbell’s riveting new account, A Disappearance in Damascus: A Story of Friendship and Survival in the Shadow of War.

Campbell’s book weaves the global into the utmost personal — a story of friendship flowering, then frighteningly uprooted when Ahlam is taken up by authorities before Campbell’s eyes and disappears into Syria’s prison system. Campbell’s urgency to find and free Ahlam drives a narrative laced with reflections on friendship, duty, imperialism and love strained by ambition.

A Disappearance in Damascus is shortlisted for the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction. You can read an excerpt published by The Tyee here. Campbell, who teaches in UBC’s creative writing program and is appearing at the Vancouver Writers Fest Oct. 20 and 22, spoke with The Tyee yesterday.

The Tyee: Your missing friend Ahlam was also your co-worker, doing a vital job that is little acknowledged by Canadian journalists reporting abroad. Talk a bit about the hidden role of fixers in the overseas reporting we read, and how their situation differs from the journalists they help.

Deborah Campbell: Fixers are local experts whom foreign correspondents depend on to provide access to sources and background, to interpret, sort out problems, and let them know when it’s time to make for the door. They are usually invisible and many want it that way. Fixers know the situation intimately because they live it every day, but that also makes them vulnerable.

When the foreign correspondent heads home, the fixer stays behind. If a state or militia or political group isn’t happy with the journalist’s story, it’s the fixer who pays the price. The fixer-journalist relationship is built entirely on trust. Journalists who make bad decisions can get their fixers killed, and fixers can also endanger journalists if they are incompetent or playing for another side.

Are you connected in any way with the Iraqi refugee community here in the Lower Mainland? Syrian refugees? What is your sense of how they are faring having lived through the hell you describe in your book?

I’ve met a lot of Iraqi refugees in North America, and some Syrians. Those who do best are those who gain language skills quickly and have a support network, especially of North Americans who can show them the ropes. The hardest part for refugees is losing connections and social status.

Prior to the wars, Iraq and Syria had developed educational systems, so both men and women tend to be educated, but suddenly a dentist is making sandwiches by day and parking cars by night and still barely making the rent. We are an individualistic culture accustomed to loneliness (or maybe not accustomed: rates of mental illness are way higher in western societies). But for people who grew up with a vast network of friends and relations, the isolation is a shock. Buried trauma tends to surface when people are no longer running for their lives and there may be nobody to help.

The kids, fortunately, tend to thrive. They often become translators and emotional, even financial, support for their parents.

This book took a long time to write — and clearly the results were worth the wait! What made it such a challenge?

I finished the first draft in spring of 2011. That same month it became clear that anti-government protests in Syria were turning into civil war. The civil war became internationalized with the involvement of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and other Sunni-dominant states angry about the rise of Shia Iran after the toppling of Iran’s arch-nemesis, Saddam Hussein in Iraq. They hoped to knock out the only Arab state allied with Iran, Syria, by arming and funding the opposition, including Islamic fighters who were pouring in through Turkey. This sidelined the non-violent Syrian opposition, many of whom fear the Islamic fighters more than they fear the government.

Islamic State, or ISIS, had formed in Iraq in 2006, and saw opportunity in the chaos of Syria. The U.S and Russia dove headlong into this mess. I immediately realized that the world, which had few notions about Syria until that point, now had a lot, and I was dealing with a rolling conflict. I had to reconceive the story of my friendship with my Iraqi fixer and what happened to her at the hands of the Syrian secret police to tell a bigger story that wasn’t being told, including the way the Iraq war had destabilized the whole region and set the stage for all that came next, and will come next.

You describe yourself as an ‘immersive journalist,’ less interested in writing about people making history, preferring to focus on people ‘living it.’ What is the value of such journalism? What are you trying to convey?

I honestly don’t know how journalists can fully tell stories about a people or a place without spending time with the people in those places. During the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan some journalists were embedding with military, but very few were showing what was happening to the civilians for whom war was going to define not only the rest of their lives but the realities of the region and perhaps — we’ve seen this already — blow back on the rest of the world. So I wanted to spend my time with those civilians.

I get tired of bang-bang war accounts, when in fact most of war is a story of human struggle in desperate circumstances. I wanted to tell that story, to show what war does and what it takes to survive. My fixer taught me that, and our experiences together brought it home.

Do you have any ‘immersive journalism’ heroes? Who and why?

For me, the late Ryszard Kapuscinski was the master. He was a Polish journalist who spent decades covering Africa as well as Latin America and Iran. He’s been criticized, perhaps rightly, for being loose with the facts — George Orwell and Farley Mowat faced similar charges — but nobody denies that what he wrote was literature of enduring value.

He had little money and no foreign bureau to provide him with help or resources, so he spent time living much like locals did, and through those experiences was able to illuminate how power works. In an interview with Granta he said, “You know, sometimes, in describing what I do, I resort to the Latin phrase silva rerum: the forest of things. That’s my subject: the forest of things, as I’ve seen it, living and travelling in it.”

What do you think are key blind spots in North American reporting about the Middle East?

There’s really not much reporting going on. In this age of cost-cutting, many foreign bureaus have closed up shop and journalists have been laid off by the tens of thousands. Reporters aren’t able to spend the time they need. And right now places like Syria are so dangerous that almost all the news is questionable, if not impossible to verify. I know someone who runs a Syria-focused news site. She has 20 reporters working for her. I asked her how many are reporting from inside Syria. She said, “None.”

Alliances are another problem. When no one is reporting from the ground, news come from the top down, and is often meant to score points politically or to show which side we’re rooting for. This isn’t a sport with any winners. I prefer to focus on history’s casualties.

Read an excerpt from A Disappearance in Damascus here.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics

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