We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices From Syria
chronicles the origins and evolution of the Syrian conflict in a way that no other book has done: exclusively through the words of a cross-section of Syrians who have themselves lived the conflict. My mission to collect Syrians' stories of protest, war, and exile took shape in 2011, as I watched the Arab Spring unfold from afar. As a professor of Middle East politics who has studied and traveled in the region for more than half her life, I became captivated by the courage of Syrian demonstrators who defied mortal danger to call for freedom and dignity. I wanted to know what drove them to face such risk, what it was like to endure the brutal violence that subsequently engulfed the country, and how they were now making sense of immense destruction and loss. Given the perilous conditions inside Syria, I searched for stories among the more than five million Syrians who have fled their country as refugees.
In the summer of 2012 I traveled to Jordan, where I spent weeks interviewing every Syrian refugee I could find. In 2013 I returned to Jordan and also spent several months in Turkey, where I conducted interviews with a broader mix of people from Syria. In 2015-2016 I returned to spend several months in Turkey and then moved on to do even more interviews in Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates, Denmark, Sweden, and Germany. Each country I visited allowed me to gather the testimonials of ever-wider circles of Syrians, and bring my chronicling of their country’s pain into the present.
My interviews ranged from 20-minute chats, to extended group discussions, to life histories recorded over the course of days, or sometimes over years and continents. I conducted the majority of interviews in Arabic, a language to which I have dedicated two decades to attaining fluency. The ability to do interviews in Arabic was essential for this work, as it enabled a kind of personal interviewer-interviewee connection, as well as unobstructed comprehension of nuance that would be impossible had I relied on an interpreter.
Along the way, I immersed myself in refugee communities. I roomed with families for days on end, visited the injured in hospitals, trekked through dusty camps, and did volunteer work in schools and refugee shelters. I listened to Syrians’ debates about violence, religion, and why Jordanian falafel paled in comparison to that back home in Damascus. I played with children, peeled potatoes, and joined families for long meals, walks, and minibus rides. I saw the anguish of mothers who grieved lost children and the quiet dignity of wives who waited for disappeared husbands, not knowing whether or not they were widows. I observed as refugees navigated new host societies in the Middle East and Europe, wrestled with learning new languages and customs, struggled to make do as the last of their savings ran out, and yearned for some good news from home.
The testimonials that I collected, ranging from the inspiring to the heartbreaking, take readers deep into Syrians’ lives and allow them to understand the conflict as they have lived it. From bohemian poets to rural grandmothers to shop owners, readers get to know them as individuals with families and loved ones, aspirations and flaws, insight and humor, and life-stories shaped by joy and pain. In curating the testimonials, I aimed to produce a collection that is something of an oral history explaining a bewilderingly complex conflict and also a mosaic of intimate stories probing the search for meaning.
The book’s introduction is the only section in my voice. It offers a mini-primer on Syria, providing factual background on the conflict from its historic origins until the present day. The next eight sections bring to life the same chronology through firsthand testimonials. In Part I, Syrians’ stories and reflections describe the silence, fear, and sense of suffocated possibility that gripped Syria under the authoritarian regime established by Hafez al-Assad in 1970. In Part II, testimonials track citizens’ hopes for change after the young Bashar al-Assad assumed power in 2000, as well as their frustration as promises of reform went unfulfilled. In Part III, stories re-create the tentative steps and then euphoric leaps through which, against the backdrop of the budding Arab Spring, Syrians launched mass peaceful protests in early 2011. In Part IV, testimonials reveal the Assad regime’s shockingly violent efforts to repress the protest movement and protestors’ efforts to sustain that movement, nonetheless. In Part V, rebels who took up arms explain that decision, while other citizens reflect on the escalation of an increasingly multidimensional war. In Part VI, ordinary people recount everyday stories that paint a portrait of the lived experience of war. In Part VII, a cross-section of society describes how they fled their homeland as refugees, the dangerous journeys that brought them to exile, and the challenges of making life anew. In Part VIII, Syrians of different backgrounds take stock of the conflict, how it has transformed them, and what it means for the future of the region.
The sum of these parts is a book that both traces the origins and evolution of events in Syria and puts a human face to the conflict. Some of its passages are visceral, such as those in which protestors articulate the nearly transcendental euphoria of early nonviolent demonstrations, the bone-rattling thunder of barrel bombs, or their weariness after marching miles as refugees seeking new homes. Other passages are contemplative, such as refugees’ meditations on the corrosive influence of dictatorship upon culture, future prospects for sectarian coexistence, or the menace of religious extremism. As a whole, the text lays bare how individuals — and a nation — have been transformed by revolution and violence, and challenges us to imagine what we would do in their place.
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is the Martin and Patricia Koldyke Outstanding Teaching Associate Professor of Political Science at Northwestern University, where she specializes in Middle East politics. She is the author of We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Syrian Chronicles
, Violence, Nonviolence, and the Palestinian National Movement
, and Occupied Voices: Stories of Everyday Life From the Second Intifada