A Canadian journalist covering the plight of Iraqis who fled to Syria a decade ago enlists the help of an Iraqi woman in Damascus—friendship and disaster ensue.
In 2007, Campbell (Creative Writing/Univ. of British Columbia), a three-time National Magazine Award winner for foreign correspondence, was working on a major story for Harper’s about Iraqi refugees when she first made contact with Ahlam, an Iraqi woman who served as her “fixer” (one who clears paths for journalists). Their professional relationship soon grew personal, and the author chronicles what went well and what went terribly wrong. Told principally in the first person, Campbell’s story includes not only her stark and frightening experiences in Damascus, but also her fracturing love life back home as well as background on the Iraq War and ensuing civil war and the frangible stability in Syria, the only country to accept large numbers of Iraqi refugees. As she worked on her story, Campbell’s friendship with Ahlam flourished and continued when the author left the country. Then Campbell found out that Ahlam had been arrested. The author, feeling profound guilt (was it because of her?), employed numerous strategies to find out why she was arrested, where she was being held, and what the charges were. Campbell’s text races along—catching readers’ hearts as it goes—and after the arrest, the author includes sections of “Ahlam’s Story,” grim third-person accounts about the experience of prison: deprivation, interrogations, violence, and terror. These sections increase the tension in readers, who have known since the beginning that dark things were on the way. The author sometimes veers a little toward the melodramatic near the ends of chapters, but it’s a small quibble in a powerful book.
In the stormwater’s swirl, Campbell has found a bright and tender leaf to follow, and the effect on readers will be transformative.