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'A Disappearance in Damascus' is the story of a journalist’s hunt for a kidnapped Iraqi colleague

The thriller, mystery novel-quality of this true story will keep readers turning pages.

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A Disappearance in Damascus
By Deborah Campbell
Picador
352 pp.

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Deborah Campbell’s clear, compassionate voice pierces war’s fog and woe in her new memoir, A Disappearance in Damascus: Friendship and Survival in the Shadow of War.

We meet Campbell in 2007 in Damascus, Syria, where she’s reporting for Harper’s magazine on the refugees fleeing war-ravaged Iraq. A seasoned immersive journalist, she goes undercover as an academic to move about more freely and avoid suspicion. For a while, this approach works well: She doggedly pursues her work, describing refugees’ current suffering and survivors’ haunting memories of kidnappings, torture, and shootings with clear-eyed resolve and an empathetic touch. She even opens up to us about the toll such work takes on her own romantic relationship.  

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When Campbell meets Ahlam – a name meaning dreams – we see a walking example of resilience. (Campbell identities her only as Ahlam for her family's sake.) After the Iraq war began in 2003, Ahlam worked as a fixer for The Wall Street Journal and then at the Americans’ civil-military affairs office. It was dangerous, she knew, but she didn’t see other options for work. In 2005, she was kidnapped by al-Qaeda in Baghdad, considered a traitor for working with the Americans. Freedom’s price: a $50,000 ransom and a promise to leave Iraq permanently. But tragedy followed when she, her husband, and three children started a new life in Syria. Ahlam’s 11-year-old son died in 2006 after an illness was mistreated.

Despite these circumstances, Ahlam remains a force of nature – and for good. She becomes the de facto mayor of the refugee community, Little Baghdad, and houses young men in her cramped quarters. In her work as a fixer helping reputable journalists get out the news, she earns a reputation for maneuvering through sticky situations with her fluency in English and Arabic, street smarts, and caring ways. Campbell quickly becomes one of her many admirers and friends. Early on, Campbell asks Ahlam what she wants to achieve through her work. Ahlam replies, “Someone has to open the door and show the world what is happening.”

It’s one of several bonds the two women share. Their friendship is forged in “shared risk,” Campbell writes. Their love of learning and their commitment to serve humanity shine through as well. “You’re a free bird…. Don’t let anyone put you in a cage,” Ahlam’s father once told her. Raised in a Sunni farming village, Ahlam described how her father taught her to see beyond sectarian differences, to see Sunni and Shia Muslims as brothers. He encouraged her to continue her schooling and she became the first girl from her village to finish high school and the first person there to earn a college degree. Campbell recounts the moment that Ahlam brought her college diploma to her father’s grave to show him she had accomplished their goal. Ahlam pays this gift forward by opening a school for young girls in her small Damascus apartment, where Campbell witnesses – and marvels at – the moment of hope. 

The women’s friendship is tested when Ahlam is taken away right in front of Campbell. For the first time, perhaps in her entire life, Campbell feels helpless and grows paranoid that she is being watched. Who is Ahlam really? Why was she arrested? And is Campbell next? Even while she worries, she doesn’t stop searching for her friend. She taps her contacts and draws on her wits and knowledge of the area to guide her steps. Meanwhile, Ahlam is meeting challenges in prison, and we see the force of her spirit.

The thriller, mystery novel quality kept me turning pages, but of course, it isn’t fiction, even if truth has been obscured by war and the passage of time. Campbell takes time to dispel beliefs about what is now history. She reports that the civil war in Syria did not spark in 2011 because of sectarian divides but from a simmering class divide between the city and the countryside. Iraqi middle-class refugees poured into the Syrian cities, a famine in the poor farming areas drove Syrians to the same cities looking for work, and President Bashar al-Assad sought to liberalize the economy by privatizing state lands and services and cutting subsidies to the poor. After urban progressives protested the ruling elite, a sectarian proxy war spiraled as regional powers seized on the chaos to advance their interests.

Throughout her story, Campbell conveys both authority and humility — a refreshing combination of traits. At a few points, she questions whether she is making a positive impact with her writing. With her ability to open up, educate, and empathize, I would submit that she is indeed.