Syrian author Samar Yazbek cries for her beloved country
London - “I n my mind, I hold a portrait of Syria but it is no ordinary image. It shows a dismembered collection of body parts, the head missing and the right arm dangling precariously…
“Then you notice a few drops of blood slowly dripping from the frame, then disappearing as they are absorbed by the dusty soil below. This is the calamity that Syrians live with every day. This century will not witness a greater tragedy than Syria.”
These are some of the reflections made by self-exiled Syrian journalist Samar Yazbek about her clandestine trips to her homeland that she documented in a recently published book, The Crossing: My Journey to the Shattered Heart of Syria.
Yazbek was a presenter on Syrian television and a celebrated novelist when she fell out with the Syrian regime, leaving her no choice but to flee in 2011 after taking part in anti-government protests.
From her exile in Paris, Yazbek decided to return Syria and made three clandestine trips in 2012 and 2013.
The Crossing is more than a memoir recounting Yazbek’s experiences during the trips. It is powerful testimony to the tragedy of Syria’s sectarian war.
The book is about ordinary men and women as well as fighters who tell Yazbek their stories, pouring out their grief with dignity and showing an indomitable spirit to overcome the horrors of war and rebuild their country.
“This book wasn’t planned at all,” Yazbek said at London’s Frontline Club during a symposium on her work. “The project was to publish some articles about what was really happening inside Syria, especially that … [Syrian President Bashar] Assad regime’s media was broadcasting a lot of lies.”
She said misinformation about developments in Syria started from the beginning of the conflict with regime claims that the Syrian opposition was made up only of jihadists and Islamic State (ISIS) fighters.
“This unfortunately changed into reality thanks to the international community’s silence,” she said.
“Writing this book was like magic: It just happened.”
The opening paragraph in which Yazbek describes her first return journey to Syria sets the tone:
“The barbed wire lacerated my back. I was trembling uncontrollably. Under the wire fence marking the line of the [Turkish] border, a tiny burrow had been dug out just big enough for one person. My feet sank into the soil and the barbs mauled my back as I crawled [into Syria] across the line of separation between the two countries.”
Yazbek’s base for her clandestine visits was the village of Saraqib in north-western Syria.
Describing the life of a family whose home was on a front line and in direct view of a sniper, she said: “The day I visited her, as we nervously dashed about, the mother told me that when she moved between rooms and needed to cross the yard outside, she sometimes stood still for a moment, watching the sniper. She would pretend not to notice him, then run on to get a glass of water to drink, or get the children’s dinner or go to the toilet.”
The 45-year-old author said she is convinced that the Syria of her childhood and youth is gone forever. “Syria will never be the same again,” she writes in the epilogue. “It has been hung, drawn and quartered.”
When asked about Syria’s future and the rebuilding of the country, Yazbek said: “Syria is not Syria anymore. It is divided into provinces. What I witnessed is that Syria is completely destroyed.”
However, she added: “Yet, I have hope that we, the Syrian people, will be able to rebuild Syria the way we dreamt.
“The dream is very difficult to achieve now because we are still in hell. We can’t do anything before the Assad regime falls and ISIS is stopped. But it is very important for us, as Syrian intellectuals and activists, to build a democratic and civil society movement either in exile or around the Syrian border.”
Yazbek used the money from the Pen Pinter Prize ($1,540) she won in 2012 for her courage to help set up learning centres for women and young people. The centres are equipped with a library and cinema and offer English and French lessons and IT instruction. There are seven of them in Syria and two in Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon.
“I am a permanent volunteer,” she jokes, brushing aside her long blond hair as she prepares to answer another question from the audience. The Crossing: My Journey to the Shattered Heart of Syria, Penguin Random House, 2015, $30.