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Start of a Friendship: Meeting My Fixer in Syria’s ‘Little Baghdad’

A slice from Deborah Campbell’s celebrated new memoir ‘A Disappearance in Damascus.’

Deborah Campbell 19 Oct

Deborah Campbell is the author of This Heated Place and the just published A Disappearance in Damascus. She has written widely on international politics, and teaches in UBC's creative writing and journalism graduate programs.

[Editor’s note: Vancouver-based Deborah Campbell covered the diaspora pouring out of Iraq shattered by the U.S. invasion. Like most foreign correspondents, she sought the help of a local “fixer” to show her the ropes and avoid danger. But danger too often stalks the fixer, and that cold reality lies at the heart of Campbell’s tautly told new memoir, shortlisted for the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction. Campbell is appearing at the Vancouver Writers Fest Oct. 20 and 22. Below is a sample from ‘A Disappearance in Damascus: A Story of Friendship and Survival in the Shadow of War.’ Read The Tyee’s interview with Campbell today here.]

It was easy to miss the gravel turnoff from the paved highway that had taken me from the chic shops and modern restaurants and office towers of downtown Damascus. The taxi driver had to brake and reverse against traffic. Marking the roundabout on the main street of the neighbourhood known as Little Baghdad was a large folk mural of Hafez al-Assad, who had ruled Syria for three decades, painted in the style of a psychedelic rock poster. Every second shop window displayed a photograph of Assad’s son Bashar, in mustache and aviator sunglasses and army fatigues, an obvious attempt to make him look less like the nerdy ophthalmologist he had been before taking the presidency in 2000 when his father died. Aside from its festoons of electrical wires and its taxis and sputtering motorcycle carts, the neighbourhood looked medieval.

Drab low-rise tenements emerged like dead teeth from streets of pounded dirt. The air smelled of roasting meat and baking bread. A mule passed by pulling a cart overloaded with watermelons. At the roadside a bearded man with a wrestler’s build sold cigarettes, his upper half so hale and robust that it took a moment to register that he had no legs. Farther along were the gold shops where Iraqi widows performed alchemy, turning their jewelry into bread; some did the same with their bodies once the gold was gone.

Ask Syrians what they thought of Little Baghdad and the word “backward” usually came up, or the joke about the two Iraqis expressing their surprise at seeing something unusual: a Syrian! The first time I had gone there my taxi driver, an avuncular man who believed he was dealing with a confused tourist, tried to talk me out of going. “There’s nothing to see there,” he insisted into the rear-view mirror. “Just Iraqis.”

Home to 300,000 refugees, this was where Baghdad had transplanted itself. It was insular, poor and unstable. The Syrian secret police, the mukhabarat, hovered over Little Baghdad the way cops do around high-crime neighbourhoods.

Looming above it all, aloof from the spectacle, was the magnificent shrine to Lady Zainab, granddaughter of the Prophet Mohammed. With its turquoise minarets and gilded dome, the shrine was the only good reason for visitors to come here.

It was Ahlam’s suggestion to meet at the main street roundabout. In the warren of nameless alleyways that branched off from it, she figured I wouldn’t be able to find her apartment. I waited under the red canvas awning that shaded an electronics shop, willing myself to look inconspicuous. This wasn’t easy. Westerners never came to this part of the city except in tour groups to visit the shrine. Fat and pale, they filed out of buses with expensive cameras dangling from their necks, blinking like newborns in the stark sunlight.

As I stood there, glancing at my watch, I felt a rising anxiety. Once, when I’d come here before meeting Ahlam, I had been swarmed by a group of Iraqi men. They were out of work. They were running out of money. They were desperate. They were angry. “I have a question for you,” said one of the men, his face inches from mine. “If people come and tell you to get out of your home, if they are killing you based on your identity card, if the international community does nothing — tell me, what will be your destiny?”

I had no answer to give him. The crowd was growing larger, gathering momentum. Crowds like that crave some sort of release, a catalyst, some object on which to vent.

Now, as I stood alone in the shadows beneath the canvas awning, a man walked past. He stopped short to rubberneck, his mouth agape, then took up a post beside me and watched me from the corner of his eye. When I caught him staring, he glanced away nervously. If he was a spy he needed to go back to spy school.

I was relieved to see Ahlam crossing the sunlit main street towards me. She was, I would come to learn, the most sought-after fixer in Damascus — connecting international journalists to refugees from Iraq. But fixers are never famous, except to those in the know. They work in murky times and murky places. Which is when and where they are needed.

She was tall for an Iraqi woman. She wore men’s black jeans, men’s black shoes, and a man’s overcoat that defied the oppressive heat — a style she had adopted when the war began and there were bigger problems to worry about than conforming to fashion. Her broad and high-boned face might have been beautiful if she had paid the least attention to vanity. But her face was unusual here because it seemed cheerful, right at home. As if we weren’t walking through a refugee slum where Syrian agents kept watch for rogue journalists and for any sign of the sectarian tinder that might set fire to Syria as it had to Iraq.

Phone in one hand, she greeted me with the standard three kisses — right, left, right — smiling as if our meeting here was the most natural thing in the world. We might have been two friends about to go to lunch. No one seemed to be watching us, but two policemen were standing beside the Assad rock poster directing traffic, their eyes concealed behind mirrored sunglasses. Leading the way to her apartment, Ahlam walked quickly but not as if she were in some kind of hurry. Merely the gait of a busy person. She stopped to talk to a shoeshine boy whose family she knew. Such boys were eyes on the street: useful sources of information.

Walking with her into the maze of yellow dirt alleyways, sweat pooling beneath my clothes, I felt a strange sensation. I felt relaxed. Almost happy. Like army commanders, sea captains and wilderness explorers, Ahlam’s stubborn fearlessness made those around her feel fearless too.

Excerpted from ‘A Disappearance in Damascus: A Story of Friendship and Survival in the Shadow of War’ by Deborah Campbell. Copyright 2016 Deborah Campbell. Published by Alfred A. Knopf Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.  [Tyee]

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