WENDY PEARLMAN, 2 SEPTEMBER 2019
The war in Syria can seem bewilderingly complex. Over more than eight years, a dozen states supported hundreds of rival groups that competed on the ground in a kaleidoscope of shifting alliances and rivalries. A web of sectarian tensions, economic interests, ideological clashes, and geopolitical jockeying overlay a fundamentally political struggle between a popular revolution and an authoritarian regime unwilling to cede power.
As a political scientist, I research these intricacies by using the conventional tools of my discipline to disentangle variables and processes. As a Middle East specialist who has traveled in the region for more than half her life, however, I am also convinced that there is no better way to understand what is really at stake in politics than through the stories of ordinary people. My book, We Crossed A Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria, aims to convey that understanding. A book of testimonials, it chronicles the origins and evolution of the Syrian uprising, war, and refugee crisis exclusively through the words of Syrians who have themselves lived and been transformed by the conflict.
My mission to collect Syrian’s stories took shape in 2011, as I watched the Arab Spring unfold from my base at Northwestern University. I became captivated by the bravery of Syrian demonstrators who defied mortal danger to call for freedom and dignity. I wanted to know what drove them to face such risk, what it was like to endure the brutal violence that subsequently engulfed the country, and how they were making sense of such immense loss. Given the perilous conditions inside Syria, I searched for stories among the more than five million Syrians who have fled their country as refugees.
Between 2012 and 2016, I traveled across Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates, Denmark, Sweden, and Germany, interviewing more than three hundred displaced Syrians about their experiences, feelings, and reflections on the conflict ravaging their country. Along the way, I journeyed deep into the spaces where refugees were making their live anew. In a makeshift rehabilitation center, I met with civilians, injured in the crossfire, who told jokes to keep up their spirits as they nursed their wounds with ice and ragged bandages. In a one-room apartment in Jordan, I admired the wares of a housewife who crocheted scarves in revolutionary colors and gradually established a knitting collective teaching some fifty women to produce crafts for export. In an outdoor café on the Turkish-Syrian border, I spoke with rebel fighters enjoying an evening of leisure before they headed back to the frontlines. In tents in an unofficial refugee camp in Lebanon, I sat with mothers who battled gravel and mud to give beauty to the space that their children now called home. In a defunct airport in central Berlin, I learned how other families had smuggled themselves come across the Mediterranean in rubber dinghies, trekked through the Balkans for weeks on end, and were now living in hangars. In northern Sweden, I joined still other families to break the sunrise-to-sundown Ramadan fast, which in June ended after 10:00 pm.
In these and other settings, I interviewed any Syrian I could about their personal experiences. Sometimes interviewees did not need an initial question to jump-start their testimonial. For those who required more prompting, I asked a first question designed to provide a temporal starting point. I was struck both by how many people told me that they had never before recounted their life story, and how eloquently they did so, once given the chance.
We Crossed A Bridge and It Trembled weaves together these testimonials in a volume that both serves as an oral history and reads like a collection of intimate conversations. An introduction offers a mini-primer on Syria, providing factual background on the full sweep of the conflict from its historic origins until the present day. The next eight sections use first-hand testimonials to bring to life the same chronology, from suffocating fear and silence under the authoritarian regime of Hafez al-Assad (1970-2000), through the rise and fall of hope for change after his son Bashar’s assumption of power in 2000, the euphoric launch of peaceful protests in 2011, and the subsequent militarization of the conflict into the brutal war and mass displacement that we see today.
I hope that the power of We Crossed A Bridge and It Trembled lies in the synergy between the raw, poignant testimonials and the academic understanding that I pulled upon in curating them into a collective narrative. I crafted the book to be the source to which general readers, including undergraduates, can turn for an account that both answers their questions about Syria and moves them personally. Apart from documenting Syria’s present, the book aims to make an enduring contribution to elucidating its past. For decades, writing on Syria has been hampered by the difficulty of accessing the perspectives of ordinary citizens who, given ubiquitous surveillance and threat of punishment, were afraid to talk about politics. The revolt that began in 2011 shattered this silence, encouraging millions of Syrians to share their stories. Their willingness to speak is akin to opening a long-hidden archive into attitudes and experiences under repressive rule.
We Crossed A Bridge and It Trembled introduces some of this archive to the English-speaking world. I hope that students and researchers of contemporary history, the social sciences, and the humanities will find in the book a valuable source of understanding about protest and conflict, as well as a way of honoring the courage and resilience of the human spirit.
Wendy Pearlman is Associate Professor of Political Science at Northwestern University, where she specializes in Middle East politics. She is the author of four books, We Crossed A Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria, Violence, Nonviolence, and the Palestinian National Movement, Occupied Voices: Stories of Everyday Life from the Second Intifada, and Triadic Coercion: Israel’s Targeting of States that Host Nonstate Actors. Follow her on Twitter @Wendy_Pearlman
Photo Credit: Rostyslav Savchyn on Unsplash The publication of this essay is supported by Goldstein Center for Human Rights at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. The views and opinions expressed in the articles on this website are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Goldstein Center for Human Rights.