In 2011, thousands of Syrians took to the streets in a wave of protests, called for basic freedoms and human rights for their country. The Syrian regime’s response to its chanting and protesting citizens was brutal, which has led to half a million deaths and over half the population being displaced. "We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria" is an impressive collection of testimonies from Syrian refugees providing a narrative of the Syrian war from the view of Syrians who made the events, suffered the consequences, paid a huge personal cost.
Wendy Pearlman Custom House, 2018. ISBN: 978-0062654618
Sara Firth Middle East Correspondent at TRT World 19 February 2021
Wendy Pearlman dedicates this book ‘to those who did not live to complete their stories’. Human rights organizations stopped counting the number of dead in Syria at 400,000. The author in her introduction tells the reader she ‘chose to reserve the text completely for Syrian’s own words’. She elaborates that the narrative lies in the sequencing of entries such that each builds on what precedes it. Pearlman used pseudonyms for all speakers unless she received permission to identify them by name. A sign of the intense danger that still haunts those who oppose the Assad regime however far from home they have fled.
Pearlman has organized the book into eight parts that she says ‘reflect the major phases of the Syrian revolutionary experience’. Under Hafez al-Assad parents feared children on the saying ‘whisper the walls have ears’. We learn how first his father and then Bashar al - Assad himself, a trained eye doctor came to power in 2000. The introduction is long but takes you through the eight stages of the book starting by giving you the backstory and history of how citizens living under one of the world’s most repressive regimes came to take to the streets to demand the overthrow of the Assad regime. It also explains to you the sectarian divide that came about as ‘the country’s Sunni Muslim majority tended to view the revolt as a struggle that bring freedom’ and members of minority communities ‘that feared the rebellion threatened their very existence’.
The author examines the militarization of the rebellion in detail. Nearly two thousand people were killed we are told in what was mostly until then a non-violent protest before citizens and army defectors took up arms. The ‘Free Syrian Army’ a disorganized haphazard force was soon being conflated with al-Qaeda affiliated groups like Al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Pearlman describes how the regime ‘cunningly’ infused the rebellion with Islamist fighters granted amnesties from Syrian prisons.
It was around this time in 2012 that I began reporting on the ground. Pearlman has the gift of hindsight and through her huge body of interviews is able to make sense of what at the time was a haze of confusion as to who the ‘legitimate opposition’ was. In this book you’ll met Syrians like Abdel Naser from Douma who’ll provide you with some historical context to the brutality under the previous Syrian President Hafez al-Assad. He tells us the reader, that under his son Bashar “it wasn’t a new Assad regime, after all. The torture was the same, the secret police were the same, the government was the same. It was the same regime as under Hafez al-Assad, just with a new face.”
You’ll be taken through the beginning stages of the revolution and the hope. In this context, I’ll never forget the feeling of reporting in Syria and seeing people taking to the street to call for the downfall of the regime. They were some of the bravest people I’ve ever met.
The author unveils the expectations of Syrians in the face of Arab Spring that began in Tunisia. Abu Tha’ir, an engineer from Daraa, for example felt the glimpse of change could also reach Syria. He tells us “the forced resignation of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia was like a dream. I was one of those Syrians with tears in his eyes. People just couldn’t believe it. Impossible! Im- possible! My goodness! Was it real? It seemed like a miracle from God . . . we wondered: Could a revolution happen in another country, too?” Adam, a media organiser from Latakia describes the overthrow of Gaddafi and the way in which the international community backed that revolution inspired those in Syria. ‘Libyans started calling for help, and we thought, “Exactly. This is us.” And the inter- national community intervened, saying, “We’ll protect the Libyans.” And everybody in Syria got the message: If shit hits the fan, people will back us up.’ For anyone with even a fleeting knowledge of Syria there are moments of genuine heartbreak reading of the hope and knowing with hindsight that the intervention in Libya that so inspired Syrian’s to take to the streets was an intervention that made the West wary of intervening again.
Pearlman’s book and her interviewees present you with a stark account of the consequences that occur when the world fails to act to stop injustice. You can drop in and out of chapters and meet characters along the way that give a brutal first-hand account of the suffering. Given the reality of ongoing war and position of regime and its main supporters, hope for a change is still there but chances are thin. We all aspire for that in our work: bringing about real change. That’s the best case scenario. The worst and sadly the more realistic is that these people who have taken their time to relive that trauma and tell their story will once again be ignored. Which leads me to the one main criticism I have of the book, which is a charge I level at myself as a journalist reporting on Syria. It’s that by taking the story (even when you are giving voice to Syrians themselves) there’s an unease to being the arbiter of someone else’s story. It’s not nice to admit but for me personally in my own work and in that of the author in this book it is a truth that I have to give voice to. I’m not sure we will ever truly understand the gravity of what the Syrian people have hoped for, lost, suffered and survived.
Pearlman is clearly dedicated to her work and the huge time and energy she has put into the interviews and her experiences conducting them, shines through. It is impossible not to be moved this book. In a war that has produced such misinformation and an uprising that has been so brutally crushed this book walks you back to the beginning of the revolution, to the hopes and dreams of Syrians who dared defy the Assad regime.
Having reported from the ground in Syria throughout the course of the war I’ve seen first-hand the disillusionment over the years of Syrians who thought the world would listen and act and instead were met with ambiguity and reticence. This book gives the reader a chance to listen and unflinchingly look at the way the Syrian war has impacted Syrians, in their own voice. It shouldn’t be so rare to find a narrative about Syria by Syrians but it is rare and this book and Pearlman does a huge service to those who risked and the many who lost their lives fighting for freedom.