Margaret Litvin Reviews We Crossed a Bridge and it Trembled: Voices from Syria by Wendy Pearlman
To an academic, any collection of “voices” from the Middle East stirs some doubts. Are the Arab speakers presented as stuck in childlike orality, needing the writer’s help to export their raw testimonies as a finished literary product? How were the interviewees chosen and their stories translated, edited, and labeled? Why is the only name on the cover that of the academically credentialed editor/author?
Several recent “voices” books have met this dilemma at different angles: Mark Kukis’ Voices from Iraq: A People’s History, 2003-2009, recorded in the claustrophobic closing days of Newsweek’s Baghdad bureau; Syrian theatre scholar Assad al-Saleh’s Facebook-sourced Voices of the Arab Spring: Personal Stories from the Arab Revolutions; and the pointedly literary translated anthology Writing Revolution: The Voices from Tunis to Damascus. A flurry of plays and documentary films from and on the region have fed the same audience hungers and faced the same ethical risks.
Such works promise insight into the ongoing regional upheaval sparked by the US-led invasion of Iraq, among other causes. For many idealistic Arabs (of varied ideological stripes) the last fifteen years have brought a rollercoaster of hopes and violent disillusionments, most recently with the 2010-11 Arab uprisings and their collapse into Egypt’s brutally incompetent military dictatorship, in Libya and Syria’s civil wars, and with the rise and metastasis of ISIS. But we could also trace this cycle of hope and betrayal further back, for instance to the US-encouraged and -abandoned Iraqi uprising against Saddam Hussein in 1991. Come join us, sing the sirens of the comfortable anti-authoritarian West. We will help you. The help never comes, or it comes and makes everything worse.
For political scientist Wendy Pearlman, who traveled to eight countries to record the interviews in We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria, the urgency of this moral accounting outweighs the orality-literacy problem. Her book does not worry about speaking for the subaltern; rather, like Horatio surviving to tell Hamlet’s story, it is an act of solidarity. It takes sides and uses Syrians’ words – with the speakers’ agreement – to make a purposeful argument about a brave fight for justice and why it has degenerated into such bloodshed. You may find yourself tearing through this grimly beautiful book in two sittings, giving it to people, wishing there were more of it. But on a policy level it will shake all your points of reference: humanitarianism, hard realism, and all the thoughtful dithering in between.
The eight sections trace the Syrian uprising from Authoritarianism (1982-2000) and Hope Disappointed through the arc of Uprising, Crackdown, Militarization and Living War, then Flight (leaving Syria) and some self-lacerating Reflections. Every stage poses the question: Was the next inevitable? Once Bashar al-Assad’s army opened fire, was the rest inescapable? Despite the toxic legacies of both Assad regimes, Pearlman’s most haunting interlocutors believe that it was not. They argue, instead, that at crucial moments Western countries egged them on but failed to support them. We drew red lines and waffled. We misapplied the lessons of Iraq and swallowed Assad’s self-fulfilling lie that the movement was a Sunni Islamist war on Syria itself. We let a regional proxy war grow.
Pearlman builds her argument through several strategies. Most important is her choice of interviewees. They tend to be people more or less like your friends: engineers or web designers, doctors or physical therapists, playwrights or university professors. Before the 2011 uprising many of them had jobs, prospects, middle-class lives. Well-educated or not, they are ferociously articulate and insightful. Some speakers recognize dictatorship’s warping effects on the mind: “When you meet somebody coming out of Syria for the first time,” one émigré says, “it’ll take him like six months, up to one year, to become a normal human being, to say what he thinks, what he feels”, yet despite these pressures they have somehow achieved a lucidity that many uncensored activists should envy. They are nobody’s huddled masses.
Offering important context left out of many “Arab spring” books, Pearlman shows where Syria’s uprising came from and why it did not come sooner. A Syrian professor helps her trace the divide-and-rule dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, and his regime’s 1982 massacre of the Muslim Brotherhood and other opponents in Hama. Activists born in the 1980s describe how waves of fear silenced their parents’ entire generation and helped wall off terrified minority communities. Several recall watching the 2011 events in Tunisia, Egypt, and especially Libya: “This is when Syrians really got interested… the international community intervened, saying, ‘we’ll protect the Libyans.’ And everybody in Syria got the message: If shit hits the fan, people will back us up.”
Once you have locked eyes with these thoughtful protagonists, it is indescribably moving to see them gradually learn to do things you have never done. Their accounts speed up, as though finishing each other’s sentences. They face live ammunition at protests. They use their gender, protesting in white wedding dresses in the street or with red roses at their mother’s funeral. Some take up arms. They forage weeds to feed their children not from foodie curiosity but because their city is strangled under siege. Eventually they mop stairwells in Beirut. They pay smugglers and board rubber dinghies across the Aegean or the Mediterranean, risking the very dignity for whose sake they rose.
Editing and translation choices help de-exoticize Syrian society. Speakers are labeled only by pseudonym, profession, and hometown, not by religious or sectarian affiliation unless they choose to bring it up. Islamic terms are quietly explained in the text, not marked for expert help; one testimony renders Eid simply as “the holiday at the end of Ramadan.” Instead, Pearlman saves her glossary for the sick lexicon of regime abuse. To be taken to bayt khalto (“Auntie’s house”), one speaker explains, means an activist has been arrested and disappeared. Gruesome torture methods such as “the tire” and “the German chair” are footnoted in matter-of-fact detail. We learn new codes along with the Syrian revolutionaries and Pearlman herself. A texted minus sign means congregants went home after Friday prayers; a plus sign means they are starting a protest. In a phone call home, “raining” and “storming” denote police activity and shelling.
Societal assumptions are neither edited out nor foregrounded, leaving a range of attitudes on sect and gender. “Aziza,” a Hama school principal who remembers 1982, recalls warning her activist neighbors against taking up arms. But they responded: “We have been patient. We’ve endured and endured, but they have ripped our women from our hands. How can we sit by and do nothing?”
Transcription and translation choices also build empathy. Oral testimonies are punctuated into tight paragraphs made of short declarative sentences and simple words. One good example gives the book its title, describing not a refugee flight but a protest on Good Friday 2011: “We crossed a bridge and it trembled underneath our feet because we were so many people.” Another is this statement by a former student interviewed in Stockholm:
Two months ago, twenty-seven people in my village were killed while waiting in line for bread. Coalition planes killed them. It’s airstrikes that have destroyed the country. Planes do the most damage, and ISIS doesn’t have planes.
The front matter of We Crossed a Bridge misses some opportunities. The speaker-list that opens the book could have used page numbers to help the reader trace particular speakers across different sections. Speakers’ ages, where known, could have been mentioned. The introduction is helpful but seems hastily written, conveying a whirlwind of conversations and some background but not much of Pearlman’s argument, which may be intentional. Because the book surveys an admittedly partial slice of the Syrian community, naming the actual number of interviews conducted or transcribed might have carried more rhetorical weight than the word “countless.”
Yet above all the introduction confirms the basic decency of this project, as Pearlman describes joining “meals as exquisite as they were tightly budgeted” among Syrians in shelters or sparse apartments from Beirut and Gaziantep to Stockohlm, Copenhagen, and Berlin. This paradox – refugees offering hospitality – is poignant and well known. We are fortunate that they offered Pearlman their stories, too.
Margaret Litvin is associate professor of Arabic and comparative literature at Boston University and founding director of the BU Middle East & North Africa Studies program. Read her previously contributed work here.