[Marxism] 'A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution’

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Dec 27 08:38:22 MST 2012


Robin Yassin-Kassab
Woman in the Crossfire

'A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution’ by novelist 
Samar Yazbek is part journalism, part personal memoir, and all 
literature. It’s literature of the instantaneous sort, a staggered 
snapshot of the first four months of the revolution, a public history of 
  “a country succumbing to the forces of death,” and an interior history 
too. Yazbek tells us about her headaches, her insomnia and Xanax 
addiction, her crying fits, her fears for her daughter and herself, her 
constant panic. How sometimes in the speeded-up context the rush of 
information precedes all feeling: “The daily news of killing,” she 
writes, “was more present inside of me than any emotion.”

Samar Yazbek has always been problematic. Having consecrated herself “to 
the promise of a mysterious freedom in life,” she left home (in Jableh, 
on the coast) at sixteen, later divorced her husband and lived in 
Damascus, a single mother, working in journalism and writing sexually 
controversial novels. When Syria rose up against the Asad regime she 
publically supported the victims and their cries for freedom. And she’s 
an Alawi, a member of the president’s largely loyalist sect, of a 
well-known family. As an unveiled and obviously independent woman, a 
secularist and daughter of a minority community, her support for the 
revolution proved the lie of regime propaganda, which characterised the 
uprising as Salafist from the start.

So leaflets slandering her were distributed in the mountains. She was 
called a traitor, made  recipient of death threats, publically disowned 
by family and hometown. Naturally she was visited by the mukhabarat and 
made to experience, vicariously at least, the domestic wing of regime 
propaganda – for the theatre of blood is as important inside Syria as 
the projection of civilised moderation used to be abroad – by being 
walked through a display of meat-hooked and flayed torturees.

The Samar Yazbek of these diaries is an imposing presence but not one 
who crowds the reader. Indeed a reader who isn’t in Damascus, who hasn’t 
experienced the strangeness first hand (and what strangeness! – a known 
city, a home country, transforming into a death zone) requires a strong 
character through whom to experience and understand, just as he would if 
reading a novel. But beyond locating the reader, Yazbek more often plays 
her “favourite role, pretending not to know anything in order to learn 
everything,” and she gives most space over to the accounts of others.

Through these reports we learn of the horrors of detention and torture, 
of the pleasures and pains of protesting, of the plights of conscripts 
and refugees. Yazbek interviews secret sympathisers of the revolution, a 
state TV employee for instance, or a soldier who shot his own foot to 
escape the order to kill his countrymen, as well as committed 
revolutionary activists, the kind of people who are still very 
influential on the ground in Syria despite the inevitable arming of the 
revolution and the consequent rise of resistance militias. While the 
armed men fight, the activists are organising liberated and besieged areas.

One of the book’s most useful sections describes the early development 
of the Coordination Committees, the revolution’s backbone. Yazbek 
describes a spontaneous meritocracy in which talents are distributed 
into political, medical, media, even arts and culture committees, an 
organisational process entirely opposite to Asad’s corrupt, sectarian 
and nepotistic state.  She also very usefully describes the 
non-ideological compromise secularist activists made with the religious 
culture of the masses, recognising religion’s centrality to many 
people’s experience of existence, as well as its obvious mobilisational 

Her informants’ accounts illustrate how from the revolution’s earliest 
days the regime instrumentalised sectarian hatred, particularly in the 
coastal cities, Banyas, Jebleh and Lattakia, and the surrounding 
countryside, areas shared between Sunnis and Alawis. Rumours of roving 
Sunni mobs intent on murder were spread in the mountains and reinforced 
by false flag operations carried out by shabeeha. If this nonsense 
hadn’t largely worked, its memory would be comical. In Jebleh the alarm 
was frequently raised that an ‘infiltrator’ was at large in a 
neighbourhood, so the people would come out to catch him. When the same 
infiltrator was captured twice, each time in different neighbourhoods, a 
bystander was prompted to advise security to use different bait next 
time, if they still wished to be believed.

For the historian and analyst Yazbek’s diaries also provide important 
local information of a strategic nature, details often missed by 
newspaper articles, such as the fact that the Maydan and Qaboon areas of 
Damascus came out against the regime early because of the residents’ 
kinship ties to Dera’a, the revolution’s cradle.

But the main reason to read the book is for the immediacy and breadth of 
perspective (religious or not, Sunni, Alawi, Christian, of various class 
backgrounds) it offers, for the human element, and for its sense of shock:

“I stared into his eyes, which were like every other murderer’s eyes 
that have appeared these days, eyes I had never seen before in Damascus. 
How could all those murderers be living among us?”

It’s a narrative brimming with stark images. One, for example, of 
security forces attacking a funeral, shooting and critically injuring 
three pallbearers, causing the mourners to flee, leaving the coffin 
alone on the ground in an empty but blood-spattered street. It’d be a 
great image for a novelist to dream up, but reality got there first; 
reality in Syria outstrips imagination.

After four fraught months Yazbek and her daughter fled to Paris. She’s 
written about visits to liberated parts of Syria since, and like every 
Syrian inside or outside, like everyone connected to Syria, she sits and 
she wonders what terrors or glories the future might hold. “Fire 
scalds,” the book finishes. “Fire purifies. Fire either reduces you to 
ash or burnishes you. In the days to come I expect to live in ashes or 
else to see my shiny new mirror.”

The translation is by Max Weiss, and is excellent.

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