We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria, by Wendy Pearlman

Some lines threaten to haunt the reader long after the book is set down. Perhaps they should

A Syrian boy in a refugee camp in Greecve with his  painting book. The writing on the left says “Europe the land of peace and love” and on the right “Syria the land of monsters”

A Syrian boy in a refugee camp in Greecve with his painting book. The writing on the left says “Europe the land of peace and love” and on the right “Syria the land of monsters”

 

Since the first stirrings of revolution seven years ago, a great deal has been written about the situation in Syria, a conflict of such proportions that the United Nations has given up tallying the dead. But most coverage of the war has fallen short in one important way: by failing to give a voice to the millions of ordinary people it has consumed and displaced.

Wendy Pearlman’s collection of first-person testimonies, We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria, attempts to fill this gap. In lieu of numbers, we are offered names.

Pearlman – a professor at Northwestern University who spent four years conducting the interviews collected here – wisely steps back from view. Instead, she lets a selection of short, carefully-chosen testimonials take the reader into the very heart of a conflict that has raged since 2011, killing an estimated half a million people and propelling another four million to flee its borders.

The result is something closer to poetry than reportage. The voices that speak to us here are all too close, only a step away from our own lives.

Here is a theatre set designer, a civil servant, a dentist. Here are PR managers, professors, computer programmers.

Here is the owner of a paint store in Latakia, asked to record his customers’ names in an attempt to stop anti-regime graffiti from appearing. The shop was forced to close a few months later, its customers frightened away; the graffiti continued.

Here is Tayseer, imprisoned during the first Assad regime, reflecting on what he lost during that time – from his son’s childhood to much simpler sorrows: “In eight years I didn’t see a tree.”

Each excerpt is brief – running from a single sentence to three short pages – and in one sense at least are easy to read.

Through the eyes of those who were there, we learn of the arbitrary nature of executions and arrests, and how the waiting can be worse than the bombing itself. We see what it means to be the parent of a child in these circumstances, trapped inside for the first years of their lives or pushed into an overcrowded boat by night. We are privy to the agonising questions those who escaped must ask each day of their new lives, thinking about those left behind.

Included, too, are those who can no longer speak for themselves. We are introduced to Jaber, a volunteer with the ad hoc clinics set up when the main hospitals became unsafe, who would drive around the city in search of ice to keep dead bodies from spoiling. “And then Jaber was killed,” we are told. “And we couldn’t find any ice for him.”

It is in these smallest of details that the reality of life in a state of war is brought home. There are countless examples of what Eliza Griswold in her review for the New York Times calls “the extraordinary heroism of ordinary Syrians”. But the accounts don’t shy away, either, from how morally compromised decisions can become during wartime. Many of the interviewees confess to being deeply disturbed by what happened as the conflict ground on, as early idealism was overtaken by cycles of violence and self-interest.

Prefaced by a short history of the country, the testimony presented here covers a period of 50 years. Recollections of daily life in the 1970s and ’80s set the scene for the tumultuous events of 2000 onwards, touching on the internal and external forces that combined to spark a revolution: decades of state-enforced silence and repression; debilitating drought and unemployment; the televised nature of the Arab Spring; even the legacy of French colonial rule, which lasted until 1946.

This is not simply a Syrian story, because this is not simply a Syrian war. There is anger evident in many of the accounts, at how the wider world left promises unfulfilled or funded certain factions at the expense of a unified response. Oil and other interests have profoundly shaped the international response – including whether help was offered, and to whom. As Pearlman put it in one interview, “atrocities have happened on our watch”.

We Crossed a Bridge does not explore how deeply the Syrian war is embedded in these wider dynamics, nor how it has driven further violence in Afghanistan and other neighbouring countries. No one book can hope to tell all sides of such a complex situation. But for anyone looking to learn more, it provides a powerful start.

In a time when a sense of exhaustion can creep into coverage of Syria, We Crossed a Bridge is an urgent call for our attention. The voices captured here insist on being heard.

Inevitably, they force us to ask essential questions of ourselves. Would we dare to speak out in protest, if doing so carried the risk of death? How would we respond if the lives of our families were threatened? And when things begin to fall apart, would we flee, or stay?

It also prompts us to take a hard look at our own actions. Last year, Ireland took in just 261 refugees from Syria, while part of an EU that has shut down its borders and outsourced its responsibilities to Turkey.

It is impossible, reading these accounts, not to place oneself in the shoes of Wael, politely thanking the Swedish neighbour who tells him to “go home”. Or Talia, the television correspondent from Aleppo, waking her two children to put pieces of paper in their pockets so that they might be identified if found dead. “I kissed the walls on the street,” she tells us, “because I knew I was never coming back to them.”

Lines like this threaten to haunt the reader long after Pearlman’s book is set down. Perhaps they should.
Riona Judge McCormack is a writer and editor from Dublin. She has just returned from six weeks in Greece and Turkey, meeting with refugees from Syria and elsewhere.

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