“We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria” is a moving collection of personal accounts from Syrians covering the time before the conflict with Bashar Al-Assad to now. The accounts are the result of years of interviews done by Dr. Wendy Pearlman, a Middle Eastern Politics professor at Northwestern University.
In her introduction, Pearlman writes:
“The people with whom I spoke do not represent all of Syria’s complex religious-political landscape, and in particular those who support Assad. Nevertheless, they are a population that meets with too few opportunities to represent itself. Politicians and commentators throughout the world talk about Syrians as victims to be pitied, bodies to be sheltered, radicals to be denounced, or threats to be feared and blocked. In the whirlwind of words spoken about Syrians as a global problem, it can be difficult to find chances to listen to actual Syrians, as humans beings.”
You can join Dr. Pearlman for her book launch party at Women and Children First on Tuesday, June 6, at 7 p.m.
JB: I was struck by the similarities in how people spoke about Bashar, and how we speak about Trump: “It became painfully clear: This person should not be ruling us. He is too stupid to deserve to be our president” (Jamal, doctor).” After spending so much time studying what happened in the Middle East, do you have similar fears for the U.S.?
WP: I’m very dismayed about politics in the U.S. today, but I think there’s no comparison with what is happening in Syria or the broader Middle East. In Syria, the problem is not simply the questionable competence of the person of the president. The problem is an entire authoritarian regime that came to power in 1970 and has, since that time, not hesitated to use violence against citizens who dared to criticize the government.
In 2011, Syrians went into the streets in nonviolent demonstrations to call for reform, accountability and freedom. The regime of Bashar al-Assad responded with bullets, beatings and mass arrests. The opposition eventually took up arms, and the regime responded with even more brutal force, including aerial bombardment, putting entire communities under siege to starve them into submission, and the torture and execution of up to hundreds of thousands of prisoners. War has left more than 500,000 people dead and forced about 11 million people to flee their homes.
America’s democracy is profoundly flawed in many respects, but the situation in Syria is of a different magnitude. I hope that my book can help Americans understand the Syrian conflict, and also feel moved to do more to support Syrians.
You spent months in different countries around the Middle East and Europe speaking to Syrian refugees. What was it like to return to the U.S. each time after months abroad?
For this project, I spent about 11 months in the Middle East and Europe between 2012 and 2016. My experience in the Middle East began much earlier, during a college semester abroad in Morocco in 1995. I’ve been traveling, studying and doing research in the Arab world since then.
Each time I return from the Middle East to the U.S., it is with a mix of emotions. Returning from my interviewing trips for this book has carried another layer of sadness, given the suffering that I witnessed and the tragedy of the stories that I recorded. It makes me appreciate how enormously lucky I am to be able to live with security and dignity. It also gives me enormous respect for those around the world who risk their lives to demand those basic rights.
It’s so easy to completely “other” people in situations we cannot imagine. To me, the book is so powerful because, in reading Syrians’ own words, it’s much easier to relate to them and re-humanize their experience. What responses have you gotten so far from your readers about their experience with the book, and what do you hope they take from it?
The book is officially published on June 6, so it’s only been read by the few who have received advanced copies. But the responses so far have exceeded my expectations. All four reviewers on goodreads.com gave it five stars. One is a bookstore owner in a town in Vermont that witnessed a contentious debate over their plan to resettle a large number of Syrian refugee families. He wrote, “We Crossed A Bridge And It Trembled is the book I wish I could have been putting in people’s hands for the past year … This book, more than any I have encountered, preserves the humanity of Syrian refugees …and in doing so provides a great benefit to the refugees themselves and the communities working to welcome them.” Another wrote, “Moving, heart-breaking, inspiring, and breathtaking. This book is what everyone needs to be reading right now … This book taught me so much more than any news program or newspaper article has about what is happening in Syria.”
Most gratifying to me has been the positive responses of Syrians themselves, indicating that the book has really captured their own experiences and feelings. Some Syrians told me that reading excerpts took them back to their own memories of having lived events that the speakers in the book describe. Lina Sergie Attar, co-founder and chief executive of the Karam Foundation wrote that, “The disparate voices, ranging from defiant, funny, mournful, wistful, and tragic, form a complex narrative of the Syrian tragedy—my story, my family’s stories, the stories of the people and lives that we lost.” Yassin al-Haj Saleh, a prominent Syrian dissident, intellectual, and writer, wrote a long review of the book in Arabic in which he said that, some day in the future, readings from the book should be integrated into the school curriculum for Syrian children.
For me, most important of all is the enthusiasm of the Syrians whose voices comprise the book. I keep in touch with as many of them as possible and am hoping to deliver copies of the book to everyone I can.
Of the individuals you spoke to, what have you found they continue to place their hope in?
For sure, they no longer place hope in the international community, international law, or claims about human rights or states’ “responsibility to protect” civilians from war crimes. They rightfully believe that those norms have been shredded as the world has stood back and watched atrocity after atrocity in Syria.
I think that if there’s anything in which Syrians place hope, it is their own resilience as a people. Despite having been subjected to unspeakable injustices, people have not given up. Rescue workers risk their lives to pull people from the rubble of collapsed buildings, citizen journalists brave mortal danger to document what is happening, parents risk drowning in the hope of giving their children a better future, and some refugee children work 12 hours a day to support their families. These are people who have defied death with courage, resourcefulness and creativity. The world has failed them, so there is nothing left to give them hope but their own determination to live. And that is what gives me hope, too.