19 women: Tales of resilience from Syria

19 women: Tales of resilience from Syria

Publication Date: 2018

Publisher: Manshourat al Mutawassit

Country of Publication: Italy, Milano

Pages: 280

19 imra’a: souriyyat yarwayn

In this non-fiction book, Samar Yazbek tackles two topics that are close to her heart: Syria, and women. In her previous works on the Syrian uprising, Yazbek gave us an unprecedented view on the Syrian conflict, reminding the world that those who were suffering the civil war were ordinary people who just want to get by and lead dignified normal lives.

In 19 women: Stories of resilience from Syria, Yazbek focuses on the silent, or silenced, actors of the revolution: Women. While they were massively present on the field, and often even on the frontline, the women of Syria had to fight not only the Regime, or ISIS or other Islamist rebels; they had to fight the whole of a patriarchal society, including male revolutionaries.

For 3 years, Yazbek recorded testimonies of over 60 women. She would meet them in the various European cities where they had fled, or over skype. All these women are from the former middle class, they are all educated and hold university degrees. They all took part in the uprising, because they all had a dream for their country, their families, and for themselves, as women. Yazbek’s book sheds a different, complex, light on the revolution, raising important questions pertaining to Syria’s social structure, and the role it played in the failure of the uprising.

Apart from the introduction where she explains her project and how she went about it, Yazbek willingly pulls herself out of this book. Each chapter is written by a different narrator, and while Yazbek rewrites the testimonies to give them coherence, she respects each woman’s voice and particularities.

[More details available upon request]

Translated by Robin Moger

We had no experience of dealing with something like this. The smell from the hospital was like the stench of rotten eggs. We gave people the standard facemasks but it did no good. Across the street women were fitting and screaming hysterically, and so were the men. We poured water over them and some people brought vinegar and lemons they’d plucked from the trees, but the numbers of those affected just grew. People came to assist us.

I was affected by the chemicals myself, but it didn’t happen straight away: it was a while before I lost my sight, which lasted for a week, and I suffered from asphyxiation, but at the time I could move about.

There was a doctor there, standing next to me. He handed me a baby and I assumed he wanted me to treat it, so I switched on the artificial respirator. Then I saw that it was dead. I was terrified. People were in a state of hysteria, screaming. I tried to find out who the baby belonged to and was told that the whole family were dead. It made me feel better. Now the child would sleep peacefully. He had lost his entire family and he wouldn’t be alone in this cruel world. After I had put the baby down a woman approached me and tugged at my hand. She seemed dazed, and I thought that she must have been driven out of her wits. She gripped me hard and said, “Look! This is my daughter, and that’s my brother, and that’s my daughter Maryam, and this is my husband,” then gestured at a group of the dead. She wasn’t crying. She was asking me to look at them. Then she said, “And this is my mother. Look how beautiful she is! Look at them! They’re only sleeping!”

They distributed those affected by the gas between the houses next to the hospital, and in one of the houses I saw roomfuls of the dead. Most of them I knew. Our friends, our neighbors, our relatives: some of them had swollen up. Then I went into one of the buildings where some of the injured were lying and I saw my close friend twitching and fitting. He was badly hurt. He had been rescuing people and he had inhaled the gas.

The planes had been dropping Sarin gas on us. About eighty people were killed. The medical team told us to wash our faces continuously and suck on lemons but I started finding it difficult to see in front of me. I had no idea how long we had been working. At some point during all this I made contact with the international media, and appeared on camera, talking about what had happened in Madamiya and showing images of the victims. Then they bombed the house next to the hospital that contained only the bodies of the dead. It was as though they wanted to kill them twice over. I was drenched with water and had lost control of myself, and the doctor asked us to go and change our clothes and wash to prevent the poison leaching through our skin. I went home and discovered that some of our family had been killed and my brother’s house bombed. I spent a week unable to move. I was completely blind and suffering the effects of asphyxiation, barely able to breathe.

On August 26, international inspectors entered Madamiya to take samples and look for evidence that chemical weapons had been used against civilians. I was furious. I had only just recovered my sight and I didn’t care what they wanted. They just strolled in to see us. We were starving, under chemical bombardment, and they just strolled in as though we were a cage of lab rats. I felt powerless and furious at a world which watched us die as though we were nothing. I didn’t speak to the inspectors. There was something about their presence that was morally worse than the massacre itself. They had decided that we were creatures destined to be killed.

Stock, France, French, 2019

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Sellerio, Italy, Italian, 2019

Nika-Center Publishing House, Ukraine, Ukrainian, 2021

19 women: Tales of resilience from Syria