July 12, 2015
The Economist reviews Yazbek’s The Crossing: “The important job of putting faces to the numbing numbers of Syria’s crisis”

The Economist reviews Yazbek’s The Crossing: “The important job of putting faces to the numbing numbers of Syria’s crisis”

FEW dispute that the war in Syria is a tragedy. But the question of what people are fighting about has been bitterly contested since the crisis broke out in 2011. Among many narratives, some see it as a battle of jihadist rebels, including Islamic State, against the nominally secular Assad regime. Others view it as a regional sectarian war between Muslims, fuelled by the proxy conflict between Iran’s Shia rulers on one side and on the other the Sunni states of Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar.

One reason why views are so divergent is that it is very hard for anyone to gain access to all areas of the conflict, territory or individuals involved. The Assad regime only wants journalists to see its version of events, so anyone outside Syria has had to make a choice: to report using an official visa, which means being strictly controlled by the regime, or to sneak into rebel-held areas and then face being barred from government-controlled ones. Another is that commentators on the left have found it hard to criticise a regime that they believe belongs to the anti-imperialist camp.

Two new books illustrate this. “Syria Burning” by Charles Glass, an American-British journalist who has long covered the Middle East, is a pamphlet-sized overview of Syria past and present. He draws on trips into the government-held parts of Syria as well as years of reporting on the country. A second, “The Crossing”, is by Samar Yazbek, a Syrian writer forced into exile in 2011 for her anti-regime views. Now living in Paris, she recounts three trips she has made since then into rebel-held Syria. It is a personal account of her changing country as seen from the other side of the trenches.

Ms Yazbek’s book makes a valuable contribution to the attempt to explain the turmoil still unfolding in Syria (…)

Although Ms Yazbek’s book is written exclusively from the rebel-held area of the country, and she considers herself part of the opposition to Mr Assad, her account of weeks spent in the northern province of Idlib is more balanced. She lets people of all stripes speak for themselves: the rebel leader who threatens Alawites (the minority sect to which Ms Yazbek and the Assads belong…), Raed Fares, a well-known secular activist, as well as ordinary Syrians, male and female.

She is not blind to the changing nature of the war, as it has turned from a peaceful uprising to an armed, and increasingly religious, conflict. She fears the danger not just of jihadists but of the growing devoutness of ordinary civilians left with nothing to turn to but their faith. Yet in her book, bursting with Syrian voices, the revolution to overthrow the Assad regime continues. One woman, who pleads with Ms Yazbek to tell the world what is really happening, tells her she will never “kneel” to Mr Assad. “I’m going to get pregnant every nine months and keep having children so that we don’t become extinct,” she says.

Her trips show why: the brutality of the regime is evident on every page. In rebel-held Syria the unimaginable is now the norm: children without limbs; whole families wiped out in barrel bombs; playgrounds turned into burial grounds as cemeteries fill up. Through snippets of these people’s lives Ms Yazbek does the important job of putting faces to the numbing numbers of Syria’s crisis: over 200,000 dead and 10m displaced. Amid the rubble, many Syrians have an incredible sense of social solidarity and they find ingenious ways to survive. It is impossible not to share her anger at “the great injustice that had fallen on us as a people and a cause”.

Ms Yazbek does much to make Syria better understood; her book is gripping. Mr Glass’s feels more hastily written and polemical. One can only hope that more Syrians, with better access to and understanding of the country, write their stories. Their take on the war needs to be heard.