Guest Blog: Wendy Pearlman on Storytelling in Syria

The Hilton Prize Coalition invited scholar and author Wendy Pearlman to offer some insights from her work interviewing hundreds of displaced Syrians across the Middle East and Europe. Pearlman is the Martin and Patricia Koldyke Outstanding Teaching Associate Professor of Political Science at Northwestern University, where she specializes in Middle East politics. She is the author of We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria (HarperCollins, 2017), Violence, Nonviolence, and the Palestinian National Movement (Cambridge University Press, 2011), and Occupied Voices: Stories of Everyday Life from the Second Intifada (Nation Books, 2003).

In this post, Pearlman describes her journey to present the voices of everyday Syrians navigating through years of conflict and violence, and reinforces the importance of storytelling in humanitarian work. The resulting book has been hailed as “essential reading” by the New York Times and selected by the American Library Association for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction longlist. Views are the author’s own.

Author Wendy Pearlman

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

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. My new book, We Crossed A Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria, weaves these individual testimonials into a collective narrative that chronicles the lived experience of the Syrian uprising, war, and refugee crisis.

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 bring to life the same chronology through first-hand testimonials.

  • In Part I, Syrians’ stories and reflections convey the silence, fear, and sense of suffocated possibility that gripped Syria under the authoritarian regime established by Hafez al-Assad in 1970.
  • In Part II, testimonials track citizens’ hopes for change after the young Bashar al-Assad assumed power in 2000, as well as their frustration as promises of reform went unfulfilled.
  • In Part III, Syrians’ memories recreate the tentative steps and then euphoric leaps through which they, inspired by the budding Arab spring, launched mass peaceful protests early 2011.
  • In Part IV, testimonials reveal the shocking violence of the regime’s efforts to repress the protest movement, as well as the protesters’ efforts to sustain the movement, nonetheless.
  • In Part V, rebels who took up arms explain that decision, while other citizens reflect on the escalation of an increasingly multidimensional war.
  • In Part VI, ordinary people recount everyday stories that paint a portrait of the lived experience of war.
  • In Part VII, a cross-section of society describes how they fled their homeland as refugees, the dangerous journeys that brought them to exile, and the challenges of making life anew.
  • In Part VIII, Syrians of different backgrounds take stock of the conflict, reflecting on how it has transformed them, and what it means for the future of the region.

To write this book, I journeyed deep into the spaces where refugees were making their lives 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. Inside 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 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.

As a whole, the book aims to give Western readers the knowledge they need to form educated judgments about critical current events. Moreover, it serves as a platform for Syrians to make their own interventions. After decades under a state that used fear to silence its population, Syrians talking is itself an assertion of dignity and a call for freedom.

If my work offers any lessons for NGOs or others engaged in humanitarian activities, it is something that most people who have spent time with refugees already know well: the importance of listening. And here I would add that it is important not only to listen to accounts of the horrors of how refugees were forced from their homes and their current plights in exile, but also to open a space for the displaced to tell the longer stories of their lives, hopes, and dreams. That past forms part of the legacy that refugees carry with them when they flee. Aid agencies must understand it if they are to serve refugees adequately, and new host societies must understand it if they are truly to welcome refugees as new neighbors.

Stay tuned for more stories from Syria as the next project of the Hilton Prize Coalition Storytelling Program launches in Fall 2017.  

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