Haunting memoir of an unwanted season in the hellish combat of civil war.
Syrian writer and filmmaker Yazbek, a member of the literary movement called the Beirut39, will be new to most readers outside the Middle East. Both beautifully written—sometimes incongruously so, given the subject matter—and relentless, her narrative opens with the heady days of the Arab Spring, when the rulers of Tunisia and Egypt were giving way to popular uprisings and the edifice of Syria’s security state was being shaken by an awakened people. “They could not and would not believe that this army of slaves, whom they called ‘insects’ or ‘rats,’ could ever rise up against them,” writes the Syrian-German novelist Rafik Schami in his foreword of the stunningly corrupt Assad regime. But on March 15 of last year, the “slaves” did revolt. The regime hit back hard, spraying crowds of unarmed, peaceful demonstrators with bullets. As Yazbek writes, almost by way of prelude to this terrible chronicle of events experienced firsthand, “Death is no longer a question. Death is a window we open up to our questions.” Death is also a constant, grim companion in these pages; it drew close as undercover agents interrogated and harassed Yazbek, receding as, eventually, she fled the country. The images she paints are indelible, pictures of “men on their stomachs in handcuffs, humiliated and insulted,” and of youngsters defiantly baring their chests to the security police before being gunned down. “Sure, I was panicked,” she writes, “but through that panic I learned how to cultivate a dark patch in my heart, a zone that no one can reach, one that remains fixed, where not even death can penetrate.”
An essential eyewitness account, and with luck an inaugural document in a Syrian literature that is uncensored and unchained.