Talking with Rania Abouzeid about ‘Loss and Hope in Wartime Syria’

Rania Abouzeid was born in New Zealand to Lebanese immigrants, grew up in Australia and is based in Beirut as a journalist.

Sunday 12/08/2018
A nostalgia for hope. Journalist and writer Rania Abouzeid.               (Courtesy of Rania   Abouzeid)
A nostalgia for hope. Journalist and writer Rania Abouzeid. (Courtesy of Rania Abouzeid)

Rania Abouzeid was born in New Zealand to Lebanese immigrants, grew up in Australia and travelled to Beirut during the civil war for family holidays. She is a journalist in Beirut.

Abouzeid’s book, “No Turning Back: Life, Loss and Hope in Wartime Syria,” has won accolades for its depiction of the Syrian war through the stories of four young people.

There is Suleiman, who was a wealthy manager of an insurance office in the city of Hama but faced tragic consequences for his involvement in the Syrian uprising. Mohammad, who was sympathetic to radical Islamism after spending years in Syria’s jails and torture chambers and became a commander for Jabhat al-Nusra, an offshoot of al-Qaeda. Ruha is a 9-year-old girl whose family suffers from bombardment and deprivations. Abu Azzam is a literature student who ends up fighting with the Free Syrian Army.

The Arab Weekly (TAW) spoke with Abouzeid via Skype about the book and the situation in Syria:

TAW: How did you learn and maintain your Arabic growing up in Australia?

Rania Abouzeid (RA): “Growing up, I was very aware of my Lebanese heritage, it was a point of pride for my family but also one of pain because at the time Lebanon was in the middle of a civil war. We used to come out to Lebanon during breaks in the civil war to deepen our ties to the land of our heritage and Arabic was an integral part of that but it was mainly kitchen-table Arabic, speaking with my grandmother. It certainly wasn’t the formal Arabic of news broadcasts or anything like that. I independently studied that element of the language.”

TAW: How difficult was it to access the people you write about in the book?

RA: “There were a lot of difficulties. These were just some of the people I met in the many years that I covered Syria and it was very difficult to choose whose stories to tell. It’s all about trust. It’s all about sticking with a story and it’s about being able to physically get there, which, regarding Syria, became increasingly difficult as anybody who’s covered the story or who’s read about what’s happening in Syria knows. It was a very delicate and difficult story to cover.”

TAW: How did you come up with the idea of the book?

RA: “My literary agent had been asking for a proposal for a while and it wasn’t something I wanted to do. I never covered Syria with the intent of turning my reporting into a book. I felt the journalism was enough.

“But when we read a news story, you see a person in a moment in time or you see a place in a moment in time or you read about an event. I felt that with the book I might have the ability to present a longer timeframe and I tried to do that, starting in 2011 and going all the way up to 2016, mid-2017 for some storylines. A bomb attack on a village can be horrifying but when you realise it’s happening every few days you can perhaps get a greater sense of the emotional and physical toll that it can take on people.”

TAW: Do you plan to follow through with what happens to the book’s characters?

RA: “Perhaps in later editions I will add an afterword but not at this point. I’m going to let a little bit more time, more space pass. The book hasn’t been published in Arabic but I am still in contact with the people in the book as well as other people who aren’t in the book but they were behind all of the words as well, their stories infused my understanding of Syria. I try to keep in touch just because these people are people, they’re not quotes.

“I haven’t been back since the spring of 2016 for a number of reasons. Sadly, access to the

non-Kurdish areas is very difficult and, sadly, the level of interest is very slim. On my last trip I was in Idlib city, which at the time no other journalist had been there and this story ended up being spiked by a magazine.”

TAW: Are there any grounds for any optimism in Syria?

RA: “That all depends on your political views. People who back the Assad government see him retaking huge parts of the country with the assistance of his foreign backers. Those who are in the rebel camp who are not Kurdish are obviously dismayed. They see Idlib turning into a holding pen where all of Assad’s enemies have been corralled into. In southern Syria, we’re seeing the offensive begin, particularly around Daraa. Raqqa has been destroyed but who is going to rebuild it? It’s a very fragmented place with a very different prognosis in every part.”