A Disappearance in Damascus

Deborah Campbell, on assignment for Harper’s, arrived in Damascus in 2007 to begin researching an article on Syria’s Iraqi refugee community. How does a Western reporter show up in an impoverished and insular neighborhood like Damascus’s Little Baghdad, home to hundreds of thousands of refugees from neighboring Iraq, and figure out what the story is and how to gain access to it? The first answer, as Campbell explains in her gripping new book, A Disappearance in Damascus, is in locating a good fixer. Campbell was exceedingly lucky in finding Ahlam, herself an Iraqi refugee, but after they had worked together for months, her fixer, who was by then her friend, was seized by the Syrian authorities. The book is Campbell’s account of her relationship with Ahlam and her efforts to find her during her months-long disappearance.

Campbell deftly deploys memoir and reporting to numerous ends: not only to describe her search for Ahlam but also to capture the damage wrought by the American-led invasion of Iraq and to put in context the devastating civil war that would soon have Syria sending refugees out to the world rather than taking them in. Along the way, Campbell, a Canadian now teaching at the University of British Columbia, provides a fascinating look at how journalists work, an inside perspective that feels particularly useful at a time when the profession is under fire.

A fixer, the author writes, works “in murky times and murky places.” He or she “is the local person who makes journalism possible in places where the outsider cannot go alone. Arranging interviews, interpreting, providing context and background, sensing with their fingertips the direction of the winds, fixers are conduits of information and connections. And when they say, ‘It’s time to leave,’ it is always time to leave.”

Ahlam, fearless, tireless, and fiercely independent, “a cigarette in one hand and a phone in the other,” had been a fixer in Baghdad for the Wall Street Journal during the early months of the Iraq war. Fluent in English (she was the first person in her village, male or female, to earn a university degree), she then began working for an Iraqi humanitarian organization overseen by the U.S. military. Rumors circulated that she was a spy for the Americans, and she was kidnapped, beaten, and interrogated for three days. After her family raised a hefty ransom, she fled an increasingly lawless Iraq for Syria with her husband and children.

Ahlam resumed working with journalists while also getting a school for displaced girls off the ground. She was so well connected in Damascus that Campbell could simply spend the day in her living room, a hub for refugees, in order to get her fill of neighborhood news. But some of the problems Ahlam had faced in Iraq followed her to Syria. Her arrest was in part related to her association with the American military back in her home country. Her work with journalists was risky, too (the authorities believed Campbell was an agent of the CIA or Mossad), leading the author to worry that she was in part responsible for Ahlam’s arrest.

Campbell, whose writing is direct and unguarded, is aware that she has “the status of a lucky birth in a lucky country at a lucky time for women,” while Ahlam is “one of history’s casualties.” Her inability to glean any information about Ahlam’s whereabouts from the Syrian bureaucracy gives Campbell a sense of life on the other side of the divide. “The sense of powerlessness was humbling,” she writes. “It is how most of the world lives.” The depth of the friendship between two women from such different circumstances is both poignant and hopeful, even as the contrast between them is stark. In addition to experiencing the horrors of war, Ahlam has suffered the death of a young child and exile from her country. Campbell’s problems, primarily her protracted breakup with a boyfriend back in Canada who’s upset by her long absences, don’t compare, as she acknowledges. She devotes too many pages to the dissolution of that relationship when the one with Ahlam will be the most interesting to readers.

As I was reaching the end of the book, the president of the United States referred to journalists, in a tweet, as “truly bad people.” As a result of Trump’s original travel ban in January, Iraqis who had worked with the American military were prohibited from entering the country (the revised order removed Iraq from the list of targeted countries). What woefully upside-down times we live in. A segment of the population, from the president on down, sees reporters and Iraqi refugees as villains. One wishes they would read Campbell’s book, in which a reporter and a refugee, each devoted to healing the world in her own way, come off as heroes.