Deborah Campbell shares the story of her fixer's disappearance in Syria

At the height of the Iraqi civil war, journalist Deborah Campbell travelled to Syria in search of a story. A story emerged in the form of Ahlam, a fearless fixer for foreign journalists. When Ahlam is suddenly arrested, Campbell strives to bring her safely home to her family.

Campbell tells Ahlam's story in A Disappearance in Damascus, taking readers through her defiant girlhood in Iraq and life as a refugee in Syria. The book won the 2016 Hilary Weston Prize.

hiwi-campbell.png

Finding the words
I had no idea I would write this book when I first went to Syria. My goal in going there was to write a magazine account of the human face of the war in Iraq. I wanted to get really close to the civilians who were running from the war. It was the height of Iraq's civil war. That's how I met Ahlam and the events that followed formed the basis of the book. It didn't occur to me to write about her until after the events had taken place.

In fact, when Ahlam was arrested I had decided I was going to stop writing. I was going through something of an existential crisis, wondering about the power of writing to make change in the world. Her arrest compounded that sense of futility. No matter what you do, you can't stop this juggernaut of war. The level of human suffering that I was witnessing was so extreme, words failed me.

Shared story
After Ahlam was released from prison in Syria and moved to Chicago, I went to visit her. I immediately started interviewing her about her prison experiences. I wanted to capture everything while it was very fresh. It was a day or two later that she said to me, "You should write a book about this." In a sense, her willingness was an open door. It told me that I needed to bear witness to everything that we had experienced.

It was very painful. The things that we witnessed together were dark. They were also funny and vivid and many other things, but I was writing about a difficult time for me and for her. I sat down and confronted these stories again and again. I was encouraged by the moments of light and humour, and also the example of this remarkable person who stood in for millions of other voiceless people. Ahlam's so resilient and wise. Her example of perseverance was one that I took as a model.

New mantra
Shortly after I decided to start writing again, I ran into a writer. I told him about my despair, about the inability of writing to change the world. He said that the point of writing isn't to change the world. It's to keep the truth alive. It was something I thought about a lot while I was writing.

In some ways, I think the impulse to change the world can be very egocentric. It's almost a saviour impulse and it means that you're focused on the results of the work, instead of the work itself.

The book chooses you
I interviewed Ahlam for about a month straight after she emerged from prison. I went back every year or so and spent four or five days re-interviewing her about specific moments to get more detail. When I had a nearly complete manuscript, I went to Chicago. I read to her all the parts that concerned her. It was really emotional because we were reliving these powerful events. This went on for days. It was exhausting. We would sit for five or six or seven hours and then both of us would go to sleep, get back up and continue.

I think your books choose you. You don't choose them. It's more about putting yourself in proximity to the story and letting the story tell you what it is. This is different from getting an assignment where you have a fixed idea of what the outcome will look like. This is more of a quest. In this case, the quest took me places I had no idea I would go and wouldn't necessarily have chosen to go, but from which I learned a great deal.


Thumbnail image for whitespace-620.jpg HIWI-readmore-banner.png Thumbnail image for whitespace-620.jpg

Get book recommendations, stay up-to-date on CanLit news, discover the best author interviews on CBC and more with the CBC Books newsletter.