June 29, 2015
The Observer: Yazbek “crosses the line from journalism to high literary art”

The Observer: Yazbek “crosses the line from journalism to high literary art”

This piece is by Andrew Hussey, for The Observer, published June 28th 2015. Read the full article here.

Photo credit: Ed Alcock for The Observer.

As she sits at a cafe table in the 7th arrondissement – elegant and intense, waving around a Gitane for emphasis – it’s hard to imagine a more Parisian figure than the writer Samar Yazbek. Except that she is speaking to me mostly in her native Syrian Arabic (we use an interpreter). And for all her wit and charm, the stories she is telling me are horrifying. Over the past few years, Yazbek has been an eyewitness to the unfolding chaos and misery in Syria and she can’t stop telling me about it – sentences tumble over one another and my questions are constantly interrupted by her flow.

The drama of the situation is heightened by the fact that our conversation is taking place less than 10 minutes’ walk from the Syrian embassy in the rue Vaneau. For the past few years, I have cycled past this place almost every day on the way to my office, noting the anti-Assad graffiti and the occasional obliteration of the official signage, depending on the Assad regime’s fortunes in the war. The only constant has been the unmarked cars with blacked-out windows that stand guard. Today the signs are back, declaring that this is the Embassy of the Syrian Republic. As we sit and chat, Yazbek is all too well aware that these are people who would kill her if they could.

This is mainly because of her long-standing opposition to the Assad government before the uprising of 2011 and her activism during what she still calls, with shining eyes, the “Revolution”.


One of the problems she faced as she journeyed through Syria was to disguise her origins when confronted by non-Alawites – the Alawites are not only considered as pro-Assad but also as Shia infidels by Sunnis. She learned to shift her accent around whenever she became the object of suspicion: “I am from everywhere,” she said to one surly fighter who questioned her background.

“But this is true,” she said to me. “Above all, I am Syrian and it is only now that the war has deepened these sectarian divisions that were never there in this way when I was a girl. I can still remember when Syria was a true country of the Levant, as was Lebanon, with all religions and groups part of what it means to be Syrian. Now it is as if you can only be Syrian if you are Sunni or Shia or whatever. From the outside, the Syrian war looks like a battle between dictators and people in revolt – which it is – but from the inside it is like a family conflict, with all the bitter hatreds that you can imagine that come to the surface.”

She reserves special contempt for Isis, whom she describes as an occupying army of foreigners, and then corrects herself and says they are more like a group of thugs and bullies. In The Crossing, she notes with anger the Yemeni, Saudi, Somali and Chechen faces that man the Isis checkpoints, harass Syrians and have turned a place such as Raqqa into a hellhole. “I can remember how it was,” she says, “and now it is something dehumanising, disgusting. You have a generation that is being lost to this cruelty.”

She is especially angry with young Muslim women who have travelled from the west to join Isis. “Of course I am a feminist,” she says, “and what they are doing is sending the condition of women in Syria back to some terrible place. But also what they are doing is to ‘Orientalise’ Syria – these young girls are Muslims but they are creatures of the west. They know nothing of Syria and its ways. But they love the fantasy of the virile Arab warrior on a horse with a gun. This is a cliche and a fantasy and they come because it’s erotic and exotic – they are bored in the west and they need to rebel. But they do not understand Islam or Syria and that they are making things worse for the women who live here.”

One of the most gripping sections of the book is a conversation between Yazbek and the “Hajii’’, a commander of the Ahrar Latakia (Free Men of Latakia) battalion who had spent his life on the move, living between the Turkish-Syrian border and Syria’s coastal strip. Yazbek and the Hajii are from the same part of world but now they couldn’t be further apart. Depressingly, the Hajii says the conflict in Syria is now a religious war that will last decades and where genocide is a necessary weapon of war. “Are you a murderer?” she asks him. “Yes,” he replies unhesitatingly, this son of a taxi driver. And he will commit more murders. “I won’t kill you,” he says. He tells her to stay away from this “vile war” and he pities the future for all Alawites in Syria.


Her technique is to let people tell the stories themselves, and to this extent the book recalls Anna Funder’s Stasiland, an account of how a country can go mad under the burden of lies and the promise of violence. In Syria right now, however, the violence is not just a threat but an ever-present reality. Yazbek makes the point that this is only partly about geopolitics – from Isis to US foreign policy, Syria is being used as a laboratory for experiments in how to destroy a nation. On the ground, as she explains in The Crossing, the result is to break human beings, literally and metaphorically, into pieces: “Syria will never be the same again,” she writes in the epilogue. “It has been hung, drawn and quartered.”

The Crossing is not simply reportage or political analysis. It bears comparison with George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia as a work of literature. Yazbek is a superb narrator who knows how to pace her text, craft dialogue and convey a universal sense of grief; this is how she crosses the line from journalism to high literary art. When I put this to her she blushes and lights another Gitane. But she is not falsely modest. “Certainly I wanted to write literature. For one thing, so much is written about Syria that it is easy to be bored with war stories, but I think as well that only literature can convey the complexity of what is happening there.”


The Crossing is published on 2 July by Rider