Mixed Media: Books
No Turning Back – Life, Loss and Hope in Wartime Syria by Rania Abouzeid (One World, ISBN 9781786074171)
This is an astonishing work, in its ambition, its scope and its humanity. Rania Abouzeid’s aim is to show how Syria collapsed in a few short years from a country quiescent under the heel of Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship into the patchwork of bloody conflicts that we see today. Beginning in 2011 with the first small, tentative protests in Damascus, she traces the rise of the Free Syrian Army, the establishment of the Syrian wing of al-Qaeda and the ISIS declaration of a caliphate across vast swathes of Syria and Iraq. Syria, as she says has ‘ceased to exist as a unified state except in memories and on maps’.
Abouzeid’s focus is not on the macro level of politicking but resolutely on the people whose lives have been torn apart by this cataclysm. Over five years and innumerable visits to the region – often at great personal risk – she has pieced together the testimonies of over 30 individuals on all sides of the conflict. We hear the voice of Suleiman, a wealthy businessman whose activism takes him through the hell that is Assad’s prison network. We meet Ruha, a nine-year-old girl pitched from her peaceful village life into a world of exile and grief. We observe as Abu Azzam, a university student, is radicalized. These and many more stories are woven with consummate skill by Abouzeid who does not moralize and does not judge. Through their lived experiences she has shown the human faces, the human suffering behind the headlines and maps we see on the news in the ongoing tragedy that is the Syrian civil war.
Beside the Syrian Sea by James Wolff (Bitter Lemon Press, ISBN 9781 90852 4997)
The end of the Cold War presented thriller writers with a dilemma. Le Carré brilliantly segued into corporate malfeasance for his plotlines, and another promising espionage strand is explored by debut novelist James Wolff: the spy thriller in the age of ISIS.
Wolff’s central character is Jonas Worth, an MI6 operative whose expertise lies in data analysis rather than James Bond style fieldwork. When his father is kidnapped in Syria and held to ransom by ISIS, Jonas realizes that he cannot rely on the British government to negotiate a release. He steals intelligence documents from his employers and travels to Beirut to bargain with his father’s captors, enlisting as his go-between an alcoholic priest with a track record of securing the release of hostages. With MI6, the CIA and Hezbollah dogging his footsteps, Jonas plunges headfirst into the lies and duplicities of this murky world.
Wolff displays inside knowledge of the spy’s tradecraft, such as the complexities of a dead-letter-drop and the difficulties of the spook in the information age. Unfortunately, the book’s positives end there. Characterization is paper-thin and motivation varies from unbelievable to inexplicable. There is no sense of place and the plot lurches from implausible set-piece to lengthy philosophizing, ending with an absurd showdown in the desert. Beside the Syrian Sea has an interesting premise but takes it nowhere and, in the end, the book works neither as a thriller nor as an exploration of the labyrinth of Middle East politics.
Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi, translated by Jonathan Wright (OneWorld, ISBN 978 1 78607 060 9)
Junk dealer Hadi sews together body parts belonging to the victims of the daily explosions in Iraq’s war-torn capital. His aim in creating a corpse fit for burial is, he says, to force the government to recognize the pieces as human and to treat them with dignity. Meanwhile, the soul of Hasib, a young man killed by a suicide-bomber outside a hotel, searches for a body to occupy. Thus is born the monster known as Whatsitsname, who roams the city meting out justice on those who killed the people whose parts make up his body.
Attempting to make sense of the spate of mysterious murders is a colourful cast of characters, from Brigadier Majid, a government official in the shady Tracking and Pursuit Department, to eager journalist Mahmud and to Hadi himself. Some see the monster as a saviour come to avenge them; others consider him a creation of the occupying Americans. As a composite of people of all ethnicities, tribes and social classes, he is even portrayed as the first true Iraqi citizen.
Uncertainty pervades the novel, as it does the lives of its protagonists. Who can be trusted in this divided city? Who is innocent, and who guilty? Friends become enemies and lies become the truth. Award-winning author, poet and documentary filmmaker Ahmed Saadawi offers a modern-day parable that exposes the reality of living in 21st-century Baghdad, a city riven by fear and blame, but in which humanity and humour somehow endure.
Sara – My Whole Life was a Struggle by Sakine Cansiz, translated from German by Janet Biehl (Pluto Press, ISBN 978 074533 8019)
This is a fascinating glimpse into the making of a Kurdish woman revolutionary (codename ‘Sara’) and founding member of the PKK, the party established in 1978 to lead the Kurdish freedom struggle in Turkey. Although her life was tragically cut short, at the age 55, by an assassin’s bullet in Paris in 2013, her extensive mobilization of Kurdish women prepared the ground for the radical gender revolution of Rojava which began in 2012 in the vacuum created by the Syrian civil war.
Sakine becomes politicized at 16 and charts her struggle to live a disciplined, revolutionary life in the few years before her arrest at age 21. Ruthlessly dedicated to the cause of the Kurdish people, she cuts ties with anyone who stands in her way – family, husband and friends. She sets a deadline for her husband to come round to her political position and support an independent Kurdistan. When that doesn’t happen, she divorces him. None of the pussyfooting of post-modernist relativism for her!
Swimming against the tide of oppressive patriarchal traditions enforced by her mother, Sakine says: ‘My struggle with my mother prepared me for other struggles.’
The book ends with a gripping account of Sakine’s arrest in 1979 by the Turkish police. History tells us that she withstood the most brutal torture in the infamous Diyarbakir prison. I look forward to the next volume of Biehl’s seamlessly translated memoir, which deals with this transformative period in an extraordinary woman’s life.