REVISED–Deborah Campbell Explains How Her New Book Chose Her


Deborah Campbell
Campbell Speaking on Friday night at Politics and Prose. Credit: Nicole Schaller

September 28, 2017

Reporter: Nicole Schaller

Washington D.C.—Deborah Campbell, a Vancouver-based freelancer for Harper’s Magazine, went undercover to Syria in 2007 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 focuses on finding Ahlam, after she had been kidnapped by the Syrian government.

The three-time National Magazine Award winner for foreign correspondence told the audience that Ahlam is an Iraqi refugee. She fled to Syria during the Iraq war, and was kidnapped by the Syrian government for helping journalist of multiple publications get information. Some of the journalists’ publications Ahlam 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 by the Syrian government in a prison for five months.

Campbell expressed her guilt and paranoia during that time when looking for Ahlam, because she feared she was the cause of her disappearance. Campbell had lied to get into Syria saying she was an academic, when she was truly a journalist, and Ahlam was working to help her.

“It’s [Syria] a place where journalism is sort of the ‘J-word’ that you don’t want to use,” said Campbell when explaining the risk she and Ahlam were both taking. “Weak governments like Syria fear journalism, because what you write can actually make a difference.”

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.

Campbell further explained that Ahlam took it upon herself to network with many of the Iraqi refugees in Syria. Along with the humanitarian center she led, Ahlam became a spokesperson for the displaced Iraqi population.

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

Campbell explained that through many meetings, where they sat drinking tea, and talking for hours at each other’s apartments, she and Ahlam became close friends. They were together at Ahlam’s apartment chatting and sipping tea, when the government agents came and took Ahlam away.

Despite her efforts, Campbell did not find out exactly where Ahlam was before she was released by the Syrian government from prison. When released, Ahlam contacted Campbell, and explained where she went and what her time was like in prison. Ahlam was interrogated by the government not because of her involvement with Campbell—who was still believed by authorities to be an academic—but because of her involvement with American journalists and agencies. As a result, Ahlam in 2008 relocated to Chicago with her husband and children immediately after being released from Syrian prison, and has lived there since. Campbell refrained telling the audience at the event these details to entice them to read the book for answers.

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,” said Campbell. “And it certainly wasn’t on the radar of international NGOs, but at the same time as the Iraqi refugees, there was a massive drought on the countryside.”

Campbell emphasized that 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,” said Campbell. “There might’ve been housing for them, and low wage jobs. 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 book creates a unique  and intimate angle by trying to find Ahlam—while indirectly telling the story of Syria’s in-between phase of two wars. 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,” read Campbell. “I had been swarmed by a group of Iraqi men. 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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