' “I lived in a country where dying was taught to us from childhood,” the writer Svetlana Alexievich said in her 2015 Nobel Prize acceptance speech. “We were taught death.” Alexievich was speaking of Belarus, where she grew up and where, during World War II, 2.2 million people died — nearly one person in four. The scale of this suffering seems impossible to fathom, numbers so large that the mind snaps shut. Yet one needn’t cast back in history for such figures. Since the war in Syria began six years ago, 6.5 million people — more than one in three Syrians — have been internally displaced, and another 470,000 are dead. Now, as the war grinds into its seventh horrifying year, literature written in English and borne out of the conflict is finally beginning to reach the rest of the world.
Alia Malek’s memoir, “The Home That Was Our Country,” is one of the finest examples of this new testimonial writing. Born in Baltimore to Syrian-American parents, Malek is a journalist and attorney who landed a job in the civil rights division of the Justice Department less than a year before 9/11. Unable to endure the political climate under President George W. Bush, she quit the United States for the Middle East, where she traveled and taught human rights for the better part of a decade. Her political and cultural fluency, as well as her deep familiarity with the landscape, allow her to become “a human ear” as Svetlana Alexievich calls it, recording the tragic absurdities of daily life that give way to dark humor. On an earlier trip, she had visited southern Lebanon and toured a prison that was recently closed. Her guide, a former inmate, instructed the group’s members to cover their noses and mouths, “so as not to inhale the germs of diseases that he was convinced still lingered.” The disease that lingered, of course, was despair. She spotted a sign for the “suffering yard” — suffering, she writes, “was their translation for torture.”
In April 2011, Malek moved to the Syrian capital of Damascus to report in secret for The Nation and The New York Times. The country was in the initial throes of what many hoped would become a democratic uprising born out of the Arab Spring. Yet there were already terrible signs that the regime of Bashar al-Assad wasn’t going to give up without bloody reprisals. In February, his security forces had rounded up and tortured at least 15 children for anti-Assad graffiti in their town of Dara’a. Ordinary Syrians, long oppressed by two generations of the Assad family’s brutality, were taking to the streets in protest. In an attempt to quell reports of dissent, the regime banned many foreign journalists. Malek went to work anyway. As a cover story, she tells her Syrian cousins that she’s writing a book about her maternal grandmother, Salma, the daughter of a Christian businessman, Sheikh Abdeljawwad al-Mir, born in the Ottoman Empire in 1889.
Her cover story wasn’t entirely false, as that book becomes this one, and Malek grounds her narrative throughout in her grandmother’s story. Salma, a charismatic and embittered matriarch, grew up as the chain-smoking daughter in a family that prized only men, and after suffering a stroke, spends the last seven years of her life in her Damascus apartment, “locked in” her body, paralyzed yet alert, able to communicate only with her eyes. When Salma dies, she leaves behind a chic flat for Malek’s family, which, after decades of feuding with a hostile tenant, they succeed in reclaiming.
As Syria burns, it falls to Malek to renovate the flat — haggling for light fixtures from the Electricity Souk during a blackout, and keeping an eye on a corrupt contractor while the Assad regime gasses its own people, drops barrel bombs — oil drums loaded with shrapnel — from helicopters, and disappears thousands to be tortured in underground prisons.
Malek observes almost none of this firsthand. Instead, her war is largely made up of what she can’t see. She lives day to day under the cloud of claustrophobia and menace that dominates the Syrian capital, where her presence poses a significant risk both to herself and to her Syrian family. Attempting, at one point, to communicate to Malek the kind of danger she’s putting her family in, a beloved cousin grabs her own hair, imitating the treatment the security forces mete out upon women, which can include gang rape. “That’s what they will do,” she tells Malek. “They will take all of us if you do something.”
Although it becomes increasingly clear that her family would prefer that Malek leave Syria immediately, she stays on for two years, conducting clandestine interviews with ordinary Syrians undertaking extreme acts of courage — from those shuttling medical supplies to besieged areas to others launching ingenious and nonviolent protests against the regime. Some have survived unspeakable horrors in the basement of the nearby office of the security forces. Malek often walks past “with a shudder.” Its cells, she learns from torture survivors, are smeared with blood.
This office dominates her waking life, as Malek, both insider and outsider, is forced to pass it most days, thinking about much that others would rather ignore. In her neighborhood, as elsewhere, she realizes, the proximity of the mukhabarat, as the security forces are called, has a double purpose. Their nearness terrifies local civilians into submission. “But most insidiously, no matter how much we averted our gaze, the fact that we knew what was happening inside and yet went about our lives made us complicit.” This quotidian collusion takes a moral toll. By the time she leaves for good in May 2013, she realizes that, whether she likes it or not, she too has become an unwilling collaborator: “By going about our lives, we had become bit players in the regime’s effort to maintain that everything was normal.”
By contrast, “We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled” chronicles Syrian lives that are anything but normal. In it, Wendy Pearlman, a professor of politics at Northwestern University, collects the accounts of refugees, most of whom have fled the brutality of the Assad regime. Pearlman speaks fluent Arabic, and between 2012 and 2016, she travels to Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Europe to record their stories.
Many of these voices render themselves unforgettable. A doctor named Annas tells Pearlman during an interview in Turkey how he and others found unconventional ways to treat protesters gassed by the regime: “People were choking on tear gas and we’d pour cola on their faces, which counters the effect of gas. Their faces were sticky and glistening.” Another, Adam, a media organizer interviewed by Pearlman in Denmark, debunks facile Western talk about ancient religious divisions in Syria: “Our children are in prison ... and you’re talking about Shia and Sunnis?”
Amin, a physical therapist, shares an ingenious bit of activist tradecraft on how to elude security forces, who often dial the contacts in the phone of someone they capture in order to ensnare others. “If someone dies, don’t delete his number. Just change his name to ‘Martyr.’ That way, if you get a text from him, you know that someone else has gotten a hold of the phone.” He adds, “So I’d open my contact list, and it was all Martyr, Martyr, Martyr.”
These oral histories aren’t dutiful case studies. Instead, Pearlman shapes her subjects’ narratives, winnowing interviews down to stirring illustrations of human adaptation. In a tent in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, Pearlman finds a woman named Bushra, a mother who has, five years into the war, raised her children largely on the move and out of doors by necessity. One day, she took her young daughter to a woman’s center, which was in an actual building. “After living in a tent, she was amazed by the real walls and real floors,” Bushra tells Pearlman. Astonished, her daughter exclaimed, “Take a photo of me next to the wall!”
One slight issue, however, with these accounts: The more compelling they become, the more questions they raise about how exactly they were fashioned. Pearlman could tell us more about the process of deposition and translation. In the introduction, she describes working with more than 20 researchers to transcribe the interviews, which she then edited, she says, for “readability,” a word that calls for more explication. The stories would benefit from being framed by a detailed accounting of this process. In some places, their seamless beauty grows distracting, as we become unsure of where the speaker ends and where Pearlman’s editorial hand begins.
Nevertheless, Pearlman’s oral histories, like Malek’s memoir, will remain essential reading in the emerging body of literary reportage from Syria in English. (Two other memoirs that will be published here this fall include the journalist Deborah Campbell’s “A Disappearance in Damascus,” and the photojournalist Jonathan Alpeyrie’s account of his captivity, “The Shattered Lens.”) What makes Pearlman’s and Malek’s books particularly necessary is their insistence on foregrounding the extraordinary heroism of ordinary Syrians — both those who remain trapped in the yoke of an oppressive regime, and those struggling to make new lives in unwelcoming places. Such stories couldn’t be more urgent. “I was writing history through the stories of its unnoticed witnesses and participants,” Svetlana Alexievich tells us. “They had never been asked anything.” '