Deborah Campbell Explains How Her New Book Chose Her

Reporter: Nicole Schaller

Deborah Campbell
Campbell Speaking on Friday night at Politics and Prose

Washington D.C.—Back in 2007, journalist Deborah Campbell went undercover and ventured to Syria to report on the Iraqi refugee conflict. However, her story took a turn when the Iraqi women helping her access information for her story—known as a fixer in journalism—was kidnapped.

“A couple of weeks into my time in Syria I met Ahlam,” said Campbell. “Of course, I didn’t know I’d end up writing about her, but of course your books choose you, you don’t necessarily choose them. Ahlam not only became my fixer, but my dear friend.”

Campbell, on September 15th at Politics and Prose, spoke about her newly released book, “A Disappearance in Damascus”, which revolves around finding her fixer, Ahlam, after she had been kidnapped.

Ahlam is an Iraqi woman refugee who fled to Syria during the Iraq war. She was kidnapped for helping journalist of multiple publications get information. Some of the journalists’ publications she assisted with included, The Wall Street Journal, NPR, and Al Jazeera. She was working for the US Civil-Military affairs in running a humanitarian center, when kidnapped and held for ransom.

In describing Ahlam, Campbell noted that she wore men’s clothing, no hijab, and cared little about her vanity.  In addition to appearance, her qualities of fearlessness and charisma made her not only a great fixer for Western journalists, but also a true leader of her community.

“She [Ahlam] was rather like the mayor of the largest community of Iraqi refugees in the world at the time,” said Campbell.

Campbell did note to the audience that Ahlam is alive and since been found, but held back details to not give too much away from the book.

Beyond Ahlam’s story, Campbell, during her talk, focused on discussing what Syria was like at the time she was there.

“This was a time that was in the shadows of the Iraq war,” said Campbell. “But also, the presence of the war to come, which was already there.”

Breaking the crisis down into three “dynamics at play”, Campbell explained how the Syrian War that is currently going on, was evident back in 2007.

The first dynamic was the massive influx of refugees that were fleeing Iraq.  Campbell emphasized that most of the refugees were of middle class, and were leaving jobs in well-educated and esteemed positions.

“These people were doctors, lawyers, accountants, hospital administrators, engineers, novelists, filmmakers,” said Campbell. “They had come carrying their life savings in cash and sold houses or cars if they could—or just taken what they could to Syria.”

The humanitarian crisis of refugees coincided with an environmental crisis. Campbell brought up that this was the second dynamic. A massive drought in 2007 occurred on Syrian farmlands, and was a poorly covered or widely known internationally.

“I saw almost nothing of it in the press, and it certainly wasn’t on the radar of international NGOs,” said Campbell. “At the same time as the Iraqi refugees, there was a massive drought on the countryside.”

Campbell emphasized that based on studies done on tree trunk rings, this drought was the worst Syria had seen in over 900 years. As a result, about a million Syrian farmers left the countryside and moved to the Syrian cities, like Damascus, where many Iraqi refugees were fleeing into as well.

“Now if they [Syrian farmers] were coming in at a different time, there might’ve been housing for them, and low wage jobs,” said Campbell. “But because they were arriving at exactly the same time as the refugees—whose presence meant rents had tripled, housing prices tripled, and in many cases food had tripled as well—this caused social distress.”

Counterintuitively, the increase of populations in cities created a boom for cities economically and socially. The economic success in the cities though, created a greater divide between rural and urban populations in Syria, which was only further instigated by Syrian President’s, Bashar al-Assad, policies.

The third dynamic that led to the Syrian War was Assad’s austerity measures. Campbell criticized Assad’s mass privatization of land and companies that occurred in 2007, and the cutbacks to subsidiaries that greatly affected rural areas.

“Unlike [Assad’s] father [former president of Syria],” said Campbell. “Who understood that the base of his power was in the country side where half the population makes a living, Assad had forgotten that and was focused on the urban population. He had essentially left the countryside to its own devices.”

The unique angle of trying to find Ahlam—while indirectly telling the story of Syria’s in-between phase of two wars—illustrates a human quality and a tangible connection to the reader’s understanding of the complex situation. When Campbell read excerpts from the book at the event, she included details of the tensions in the streets when waiting to meet up with Ahlam.

“Once when I’d come here before meeting Ahlam, I had been swarmed by a group of Iraqi men” read Campbell. “They were angry. ‘I have a question for you,’ said one of the men, his face inches from mine. ‘If people come and tell you to get out of your home, if they are killing you based on your identity card, if the international community does nothing—tell me, what will be your destiny?’”

The person who worked to help Campbell find people to get information for her story, paradoxically became the center of the story herself. Campbell ended the speech by emphasizing her gratitude in meeting Ahlam.

“She was, and is, a remarkable person,” said Campbell.  “She was the way I was able to tell this story of not only the war in Iraq, but the war to come in Syria, and the human cost of all this which is ongoing.”

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