[Marxism] Syria: The Smartphone War

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Apr 3 19:48:40 MDT 2018

NY Review
The Smartphone War
Lindsey Hilsum APRIL 19, 2018 ISSUE

No Turning Back: Life, Loss, and Hope in Wartime Syria
by Rania Abouzeid
Norton, 378 pp., $26.95

Brothers of the Gun: A Memoir of the Syrian War
by Marwan Hisham and Molly Crabapple
One World, 300 pp., $28.00 (to be published May 15)

Journalism in Times of War
edited by Awad Joumaa and Khaled Ramadan
Al Jazeera Media Institute, 170 pp., available at www.aljazeera.com

Becoming the Story: War Correspondents since 9/11
by Lindsay Palmer
University of Illinois Press, 202 pp., $99.00; $25.95 (paper)

Every few seconds my iPhone lights up with new posts on a WhatsApp group 
linking doctors in the Damascus suburb of eastern Ghouta to journalists 
in the outside world. News of Russian and Syrian government bombardment 
comes more or less in real time: “Before three hours in Ghouta, Russian 
plane tracked ambulances and hit both ambulances and hospitals.” “Dr 
Hamza: I have treated twenty-nine cases so far, the majority are 
children.” Visuals are captioned in Arabic and English: “Photos of 
shelters that local residents dug under their homes.” The journalists, 
who include correspondents from The New York Times, The Washington Post, 
and other international newspapers, use the group to clarify the numbers 
of casualties and check locations of attacks, while broadcast media 
request Skype interviews from inside the war zone.

A meticulous sifting of testimony, videos, and photographs conveyed by 
social media, to be cross-checked with government propaganda, satellite 
imagery, and whatever other sources are available, is a crucial part of 
twenty-first-century conflict reporting. It feels very far from William 
Howard Russell, usually considered the first modern war correspondent, 
who famously covered the Charge of the Light Brigade, describing the 
British cavalry in Crimea as “glittering in the morning sun in all the 
pride and splendour of war.”

Russell saw himself as “the miserable parent of a luckless tribe,” and 
those correspondents chained to computers in Beirut, Istanbul, or London 
feel luckless indeed. In Libya in 2011, you could drive to the war in 
the morning and return to your hotel in Benghazi at night because much 
of the fighting occurred, conveniently enough, on the main coast road. 
In Iraq in 2003, you could embed with invading Western troops or stay in 
Baghdad as Saddam Hussein launched his doomed resistance. You were 
always an eyewitness to something, while relying on the accounts of 
others to fill in the bigger picture. One might look back with even more 
nostalgia to a late summer day in 1939, when the young Clare 
Hollingworth, in her first week as a correspondent for the Daily 
Telegraph, borrowed the car of the British consul in the Polish town of 
Katowice, talked her way past the guards at the German frontier post, 
and happened to be driving along the right road when a gust of wind 
lifted burlap curtains the Germans had strung up, revealing ten Panzer 
divisions ready to roll across the border.

Syria is different. The government learned from the experience of Sri 
Lanka, where in 2009 the regime banned journalists and aid workers so it 
could impose a military solution to the long war with the Tamil Tigers 
in the north of the country with no regard for civilian life. Syria 
gives visas to a select few and monitors their movements. Recently it 
has tried to make visiting journalists sign a form that includes the 
following statement: “The Ministry of Information has the right to take 
legal action against me if lies were published or if I have contributed 
to instigating or provoking sectarian strife, and has the right to 
prosecute me in my country or where I live.”

At first, reporters got smugglers to take them into rebel-held areas, 
but relentless bombardment by the Syrian regime and its allies, combined 
with the vindictive cruelty of ISIS, made covering the war especially 
perilous. The Committee to Protect Journalists lists 115 journalists 
killed in Syria since 2011, the highest-profile being The Sunday Times 
of London correspondent Marie Colvin, who was killed by a government 
mortar targeted on the rebel media center where she was staying, in the 
Baba Amr district of Homs, in February 2012. The same year, the American 
journalist James Foley was kidnapped by ISIS, as was Steven Sotloff in 
2013; both were later murdered. Most foreign journalists then confined 
themselves to sojourns on the Turkish border to interrogate refugees, 
fighters, and smugglers, plus—after the demise of ISIS last 
year—occasional short forays into rebel-held territory.

There are more Syrians than foreigners on the CPJ list, but their names 
are less well known. This gap between the unknown local and the famous 
foreign war correspondent, survivor, and hero of previous battles, both 
courting peril to get the story, is a growing tension in modern war 
reporting. Rania Abouzeid, a freelance Lebanese-Australian reporter who 
has written for The New Yorker and other publications, hints at this at 
the beginning of her excellent book, No Turning Back: Life, Loss, and 
Hope in Wartime Syria. “This book is not another reporter’s war 
journal,” she writes. “I went to Syria to see, to investigate, to 
listen—not to talk over people who can speak for themselves. They are 
not voiceless. It is not my story. It is theirs.” That might chasten 
flak jacket–clad TV reporters (declaration of interest: I am one) who 
regard their own week in the war zone as of particular note. To rub it 
in, she adds: “I did my own fixing, translating, transcribing, 
logistics, security, research and fact-checking.” The result is probably 
the most perceptive journalistic account of the war so far, highlighting 
individual stories while never losing sight of the broader situation and 

A white Western reporter could not have written this book, but while 
Abouzeid’s identity is an integral part of her journalistic method, her 
skills as a reporter and writer should not be underestimated. Over seven 
years of conflict, she has followed a dozen or so Syrians, assembling 
their stories like Lego bricks, each slotting into the next, until the 
shape of the structure becomes apparent. Her technique is to hang out 
with people, quietly watching and listening, spending so much time with 
them that they forget that she is there. Being a woman helps because she 
is not seen as a threat. Her presence authenticates the story—she must 
have been there, for example, to observe the home life of Mohammed, a 
fighter with a rebel group allied with al-Qaeda, and his wife, Sara:

Her husband had returned home after prayers and headed into the shower. 
“Hand me the nail clippers!” he yelled from the bathroom.

“Where are they?” Sara bellowed.

“Next to the grenades,” he said. She reached into the walnut-colored 
wood-and-glass display cabinet for nail clippers and pulled out a bottle 
of moisturizer she applied to her hands.

“Look at my hands!” she said. “When did my nails ever look like this? I 
feel like I’m on a front too. I have to do everything here, and all by 
hand—the laundry, the dishes. I used to use cucumber face masks, take 
afternoon naps, comb my hair, wear makeup. My whole life has changed.”

This is war but not as we generally know it. On another occasion, 
Abouzeid joins a family being smuggled across the border into Turkey, 
but although we know she’s there (“seven of us squeezed into the 
smuggler’s car”) she never draws attention to the danger she faces. The 
drama is entirely that of the family, especially one of the daughters, 
Ruha, whom she follows throughout the book as she grows from a little 
girl worshiping her father, who has joined the rebellion in their 
hometown of Saraqeb, to a teenager beginning to question her parents’ 

One of the few times that Abouzeid highlights her own presence is when 
Syrian aid workers on the Turkish border ask her to translate in a 
meeting with two British “diplomats.” Mohammed, the al-Qaeda-linked 
rebel, is there posing as a refugee. Abouzeid can guess who the 
diplomats really are as they try to trade intelligence for food and 
tents, but they do not know that she is a journalist. For a moment she 
has become part of the story, another person with an assumed identity, 
in a conflict where deception and disguise may be the key to survival.

If Abouzeid is an outsider who can pass for an insider, Marwan Hisham is 
an insider who has learned to tell his story in a way outsiders can 
understand. An English teacher in Raqqa when ISIS seized control of the 
city, he started to report on Twitter in English—Marwan Hisham is not 
his real name, of course. It was a dangerous occupation, but for a while 
he got away with it. Brothers of the Gun: A Memoir of the Syrian War is 
the product of his collaboration with the artist Molly Crabapple, whom 
he met on Twitter while he was in Raqqa and she was in New York. He 
would send her photographs taken with a smartphone begged from a friend, 
which she would transform into paintings and drawings.

Their initial pieces were published in Vanity Fair. It was, as he puts 
it, an “art crime” for which he would probably have been executed had he 
been discovered by ISIS. A body hanging from a lamppost, a small child 
with an enormous rifle, people running down a rubble-strewn street—such 
images rendered beautiful by the pen are disturbing. Crabapple used 
vibrant, sometimes lurid color in the original magazine pieces, but the 
black-and-white illustrations in the book, carefully blotched and 
smudged, invite more thought, not least the cover illustration of a 
violinist playing an instrument that, on closer inspection, turns out to 
be a Kalashnikov.

Hisham, who, after attending a religious school in a village near 
Aleppo, became fascinated by European soccer and literature, is the 
ideal interlocutor for Western readers, but the reasons he and his 
friends had for rising against the repressive regime of Bashar al-Assad 
were far from typical:

We were an extreme minority within Raqqa. The values we held marked us, 
in the eyes of our neighbors, as dangerous, un-Islamic agents of the West.

electoral rights
respect for the ballot box,
as a basis for representation
and legitimacy

Could these words be more alien to most Syrians? Could these so-called 
universal values, the values my friends and I screamed for between our 
gas-choked curses at security officers, be far from universal indeed? 
Perhaps they are parochial mores, speculated about in the university 
campuses of European capitals. Perhaps they are as insubstantial as ghosts.

A Western reader might see Hisham as a hero for holding on to such 
beliefs, but he learns that no one stays pure in the face of war. Close 
friends become not only rebels but Islamists, reaching for some way to 
make sense of the degradation around them. Everyone compromises in order 
to survive, including him. Working in an Internet café in Raqqa enables 
him to get the news out but also benefits the ISIS fighters who use it. 
When the jihadis bring in two terrified Yazidi slave women, he 
understands that, in their eyes, he is just the same as all the other 
men: “I felt a weight of guilt descend on me for working at the café. I 
will always feel it.” When fleeing across the border into Turkey, he 
helps a refugee couple to carry their heavy bags, but when they are 
turned back by border guards he loses track of them before making 
another attempt to cross. “War is harsh on the compassionate and the 
weak,” he writes. “I did one of the many terrible things I’ve done in my 
life. I left them and their bags behind.”

The war in Syria has occurred at a time when the first response of many 
caught up in a crisis, be it a school shooting in the US or a 
demonstration in Damascus, is to get out their phones and start filming. 
Back in 2011, Hisham and his friends in northern Syria were among those 
who alerted the world to the uprising in Syria by filming protests 
against the regime and uploading the videos. Abouzeid writes about a 
young man in Rastan, a town halfway between Aleppo and Damascus, who 
does the same as his initial act of rebellion. The immediacy of such 
footage is gripping, but in Syria it has at times also become foreign 
journalists’ sole window onto what is happening.

The authentication of found video has become a journalistic speciality 
in its own right. “There are more hours of online video footage of the 
Syrian conflict than the actual time elapsed since the war began,” write 
Christiaan Triebert and Hadi Al-Khatib in the chapter “Digital 
Sherlocks” in Journalism in Times of War. They explain techniques such 
as the reverse image search, by which you check that a piece of footage 
that is said to be from, say, eastern Ghouta today is not in fact from 
Fallujah last year.

Increasingly, human rights organizations and journalists are using the 
same online tools. Amnesty International has developed the YouTube 
DataViewer, which allows you to find the exact date and time a video was 
uploaded and do a reverse image search of stills from it. Others have 
developed methods of geolocation. In the London newsroom where I work, 
an Arabic-speaking journalist spends his days combing through this 
material, checking authenticity and curating the results for TV and the 
Internet. He finds feeds from Syrian soldiers and is in touch with 
dozens of activists and rebels, developing reliable long-distance sources.

The journalists interviewed in Journalism in Times of War do not doubt 
traditional methods: being an eyewitness, developing sources, listening 
to as many views as possible, “trying to find the truth in a sandstorm 
of propaganda,” as Colvin once put it. However, some challenge Western 
assumptions of “balance.” Zaina Erhaim, a Syrian journalist who used to 
live in Aleppo, describes how she and others became disillusioned 
because their reporting on the cruelty of the Assad regime provoked 
little international response. Syrian “media activists,” as they style 
themselves, “are not considered as actual journalists by most, if not 
all, international media outlets,” she writes.

We are told this is because they are not “objective” or “neutral.” What 
does “objective” mean in the Syrian context? Does being “objective” when 
covering Syria mean giving voice to a war criminal and his propaganda, 
and allowing the regime to justify their bombing of civilian areas, 
schools and hospitals?

Most reporters for Western media who cover Syria are clear that the 
Assad regime is committing appalling atrocities. However, Syrian “media 
activists” tend to show only the part of the story that bolsters their 
cause. Footage of bombings and suffering is not faked, as the 
propagandists for the regime claim, but activists know that if they want 
international sympathy—they have largely given up on international 
action—it’s better to show exclusively civilians, especially children. 
Moreover, rebel fighters, whether Islamist or more secular, do not like 
to be filmed except on their own terms, and they have the guns. Uploaded 
videos show rebels of all stripes firing weapons and winning battles, 
not squabbling among themselves and losing territory. What we see may be 
the truth, but it is not the whole truth, which is why many Western 
readers and viewers still turn to visiting war correspondents for what 
they hope will be a fair version of events.

At their best, correspondents who are parachuted in have a certain 
skepticism and distance and can provide an understanding of how the 
conflict compares to previous wars and fits into the geopolitics of the 
day. Unfortunately, according to Lindsay Palmer’s academic study 
Becoming the Story: War Correspondents since 9/11, increasingly it’s the 
correspondent, not the war, that is the focus of attention. “The 
mainstream, English-language news organizations tend to place their 
white, western reporters most firmly within the frame, representing them 
as the heros of melodrama,” she writes. American newspapers have only 
recently allowed their correspondents to say “I saw” rather than “this 
correspondent saw” or “an eyewitness saw,” but the personalization of TV 
reporting is a feature on both sides of the Atlantic.

Palmer’s chapter on Bob Woodruff, a correspondent and anchorman for ABC 
News, who was injured while embedded with US forces in Iraq in 2006, is 
a case in point. Palmer sees negative political forces at work—to her, 
individualism is always “neoliberal,” which is not a compliment. She 
sharply criticizes coverage that consigns Iraqis to bit parts in their 
own drama and “overtly aligned Woodruff with the US soldiers whose 
actions he had been covering in the field.” Academic language 
aside—journalists tell stories, they don’t “narrativize”—she is on to 
something as she examines how Western audiences and readers are 
encouraged to empathize with war correspondents as heroes, victims, or 

Although the syndrome is less pronounced when it comes to print 
journalists, Marie Colvin’s killing in Baba Amr received far more 
attention than that of Rami al-Sayed, a Syrian videographer, who was 
killed in the same place the previous day. It’s easy to understand: 
Colvin was an internationally renowned correspondent, famous for the 
eyepatch she wore after losing an eye to shrapnel from a government 
grenade in Sri Lanka, while al-Sayed had only picked up a camera a few 
months earlier and was as much an activist as a journalist. But 
according to Palmer, al-Sayed’s videos were “crucial to the mainstream 
English-language news coverage of the 2011–2012 conflict in Homs,” and 
the two deaths point up a hierarchy familiar to all who work in war zones.

Palmer shows how non-Western journalists, many of them freelancers, are 
frequently undervalued and underpaid, receiving less training and safety 
equipment such as body armor. Local fixers and stringers often feel that 
their expertise is mined for the glory of Western correspondents who 
then jet off, leaving them to face the fury of the authorities if the 
report is deemed damaging or inaccurate. Reporters who go in and out 
inevitably know less than local journalists, but knowledge is not an 
editor’s sole criterion. Conventional wisdom among TV executives has it 
that the reporter must build up a relationship with the audience, hence 
stars like Woodruff who roam from conflict to conflict, popping up all 
over the world. Regular TV viewers have strong opinions on which 
onscreen reporters they trust, and substituting another who might speak 
Arabic or know more about the conflict at hand will not automatically 
convince them. Regular newspaper readers feel similarly.

Yet this may be changing. Younger viewers appear to be less concerned 
about the face, or even the voice, as they watch news on devices, often 
with subtitles rather than voiceover. When it comes to conflict, the 
trend is toward raw, dramatic video, shot by local activists and 
journalists, showing bombs exploding and children being pulled from the 
rubble, often filmed by rescuers with helmet cameras. On the whole, the 
online viewer does not seem to mind that none of this is mediated by an 
on-the-spot reporter—when your story is competing with video games and 
Netflix, video is the draw rather than sober explication. The era of the 
star war correspondent who can stand in front of a camera and talk 
fluently while things go bang all around may be coming to an end.

As Western publications and channels economize by cutting back on 
foreign bureaus, it’s tempting to see digital forms of reporting as a 
substitute for sending in foreign correspondents. No reporter can 
discount WhatsApp, YouTube, and the myriad of modern ways to keep 
abreast of the story as it happens beyond our view, but “being there” 
remains of the essence. Arab-American reporters told Palmer that they 
operated at a huge advantage because they could emphasize whichever part 
of their cultural and linguistic identity helps them get the story, from 
expressing empathy (“I’m an Arab like you—I understand”) to pretending 
not to understand the language in the hope that people will speak to one 
another more freely, safe in the knowledge that the idiot reporter has 
no clue about what is going on. They have the equivalent cultural 
understanding to communicate to a Western audience.

The future of war corresponding, then, is hyphenated—Syrian- American, 
Lebanese-British, Iranian-French, Nigerian-Canadian—and probably more 
self-effacing. With their personal chronicle of war enhanced by 
evocative illustrations, initially forged through the medium of Twitter, 
Hisham and Crabapple show the potential of new methods of storytelling. 
Abouzeid’s understated bravery and ability to merge into the background 
speak to the power of immersive eyewitness reporting, foregrounding the 
experience of the people she meets and writing with modesty.

As Hollingworth once said, “I like the smell of the breezes. But you 
can’t smell the breezes on a computer.”

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