Writing Syria: Wendy Pearlman’s ‘Oral History of the Revolution’

Kurdish YPJ fighter. Syria, December 2013.

BEIRUT – When she wrote her book We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices From Syria, Wendy Pearlman set herself a difficult target: She wanted “readers who might not otherwise think of picking up a book on Syria” to not only come away with a better understanding of the complex conflict but also care about it.

Pearlman, who is an associate professor of political science at Northwestern University, said her methodology was “so simple … it’s practically a cliché.” Which is, “if you can try to encourage others to put themselves in someone else’s shoes, it’s one way of moving people to care.”

Her book comprises more than 300 first-person accounts by displaced Syrians in the Middle East and Europe. Her only objective going into the interviews was “that people talk about whatever they wanted to talk about,” she said, speaking to Syria Deeply following a panel discussion with author Alia Malek in New York City last week, co-sponsored by this platform.

Syria Deeply: Can you tell us about where the idea for the book came from?

Wendy Pearlman: I began this project fascinated by the idea of “breaking the barrier of fear” and wanted to collect real stories about what that meant to Syrians. As events evolved, the stories I collected evolved along with them: from participating in protest to how people coped with repression, and then the militarization of the rebellion, the experience of living the multi-sided war that we see today, and finally their flight as refugees.

I interviewed more than 300 Syrians in the Middle East and Europe from 2012-2016, and continue to do interviews today. I tried as much as possible to speak to people of different backgrounds, hometowns, social classes, ages, etc. But the overwhelming majority of people I spoke to were critical of the regime. Many were or became critical of the opposition, too! Still, the book is primarily a collection of the testimonies and reflections of those who wanted change. It’s something of an oral history of revolution.

Syria Deeply: That seems indicative of a major theme in the book, how many only felt comfortable telling their stories when they’re outside Syria.

Pearlman: Again and again, Syrians described Syria before 2011 as a place where, “the walls have ears” – where to hope for change seemed foolish and to fight for it, reckless. One of my favourite passages in the book is from a man who left Syria in the 1980s. He said about the decades before 2011, “When you meet a Syrian coming out of Syria for the first time, they start to say the same sentences. ‘Everything is great, Syria is a great country.’” Even outside Syria, you feel like someone is recording.

For me, that’s part of what made the uprising so heroic. In spite of it all, people claimed their voices. And many people are refusing to surrender that voice.

Syria Deeply: Did your interviewees express any of that apprehension about speaking freely while you were collecting testimonies?

Pearlman: I was only interviewing people displaced outside Syria, but it’s still remarkable to me how rarely this was actually an issue.

Syria Deeply: Why did you decide to write the book as a series of personal narratives, without your own voice interpreting, introducing or providing context?

Pearlman: I experimented with different formats that included a greater role for my own voice, but became convinced that I should get out of the way and let readers engage directly with the testimonies. The personal narratives are both powerful and insightful. They not only express the human dimension of the Syrian uprising and war but also provide analysis about its origins and evolution.

I put the book together with an average American reader in mind. I think many feel bewildered by Syria. They don’t know where to begin to learn about it and might not have patience to slog through a lot of heavy history and politics.

I wanted the book to be an accessible, human entry point for readers of that sort: a book that would leave them feeling like they’ve come to understand Syria better, and also be moved to care. At the same time, I hoped the human element might offer something new for people who are already familiar with Syria, and even be a contribution to the historical record for Syrians themselves.

So my task became that of curator. In selecting the excerpts that made it into the book, I looked for those that provided the most moving, human detail and also hit major events and issues that a non-Syrian reader should know.

Still, the book is by no means a comprehensive account – readers will need to turn to other books to get a more complete history. And that’s why it’s great that many phenomenal books have been written recently or will be coming out soon.

Syria Deeply: How do you think that the media can do a better job of helping people better understand, and then be driven to care?

Pearlman: I think the job of journalists covering this is incredibly difficult. I don’t know if critique lays with journalists, as much as on readers. There is a tremendous amount of fantastic reporting out there by Syrians themselves, and others who are devoting huge effort to working with and listening to Syrians.

Syria Deeply:  Are readers paying as much attention to this work as they should?

Pearlman: People far away have the luxury of turning away from this humanitarian catastrophe. And the sheer horror of the war is beyond comprehension for people who have been lucky enough not to live it. But that shouldn’t be an excuse to disengage. As fellow human beings, we should try to ask ourselves: “What would I do if I were there? How would I cope? Would I protest? Would I fight? Would I be silent? Would I flee? Would I stay?”

I wanted my book to bring non-Syrians to ask themselves those questions. To try to put themselves in Syrians’ shoes, to whatever extent possible.

In that spirit, the book tries to bring out universal themes, like hope, fear, courage, family, love, even humour. For me, one of the most important themes throughout the book is that of dreaming. The first passage is from a man who says about life before 2011, “A Syrian citizen is a number, dreaming is not allowed.” I think that’s the context in which to appreciate stories of the uprising, which show Syrian citizens daring to dream. The stories that follow show those dreams being quashed by sheer every kind of violence. The last passage of the book returns to this theme suggesting how Syrians are still struggling to dream, in spite of it all.

Much of that trajectory is uniquely Syrian, but it’s also something that any human being can try to relate to. Whatever, your aspirations, you can ask yourself: What would it feel like if my horizons of possibility were stunted? If my hopes for a better future were met with violence? Would I be able to find the courage and the resilience to dream and keep dreaming?

Syria Deeply: Aside from the shifts in the actual conflict, what shifts did you observe in the way people told their stories, or the stories they chose to tell?

Pearlman: When I began doing interviews in 2012, there was still a tremendous amount of optimism. People I talked to were convinced that they were going to return home any day and that Syria’s future was going to be brighter than its past. Every year I did interviews thereafter, I could see that hope fade and a growing sense of despair about the future of the country.

At that time, most of the people I met were still eager to tell their stories. I’ve seen that eagerness wane, too. Given all that’s happened, some Syrians now find it exhausting or painful to relive the events of the past. I can’t even imagine how difficult that is. Many who have become refugees want to look forward, focus on their futures and their children’s futures. It takes all the energy that they have to look forward. I can understand why they would rather not look back any more than the continued bad news from Syria already pulls them to do.

Syria Deeply: Do you think that’s the phase that we’re in now, or has there been another shift?

Pearlman: I think that the macro-story of the Syrian conflict is one of relentless loss and horror. But on the individual level, people are tremendously inspiring. Many people haven’t given up working for a better future for themselves, their families and their dream for Syria. They show such remarkable creativity, resourcefulness and sheer determination. And that’s what gives me hope.

At the same time, I think that it’s important to continue gathering testimonies in order to document what’s happened and how people have lived it. This grassroots, people’s history should be preserved and be accessible for future generations. Some Syrians who read my book said about passages on the early phase of the uprising, “I’m already forgetting those details that we lived.” It’s important to document so that these things are not forgotten.

These responses have been edited for length and clarity. 

This article originally appeared on Syria Deeply. You can find the original here. For important news about the war in Syria, you can sign up to the Syria email list. Photograph courtesy of Kurdishstruggle. Published under a Creative Commons license.