A Disappearance in Damascus

Deborah Campbell's memoir won the 2016 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction.

Deborah Campbell

In the midst of an unfolding international crisis, the renowned journalist Deborah Campbell finds herself swept up in the mysterious disappearance of Ahlam, her guide, "fixer," and friend. Her frank, personal account of her journey to rescue her, and the triumph of friendship and courage over terrorism, is as riveting as it is illuminating. 

The story begins in 2007 when Deborah Campbell travels undercover to Damascus to report on the exodus of Iraqis into Syria following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. There she meets and hires Ahlam, a refugee working as a "fixer" — providing Western media with trustworthy information and contacts to help get the news out. Ahlam, who fled her home in Iraq after being kidnapped while running a humanitarian centre, not only supports her husband and two children through her work with foreign journalists but is setting up a makeshift school for displaced girls. She has become a charismatic, unofficial leader of the refugee community in Damascus, and Campbell is inspired by her determination to create something good amid so much suffering. Ahlam soon becomes her friend as well as her guide. But one morning Ahlam is seized from her home in front of Campbell's eyes. Haunted by the prospect that their work together has led to her friend's arrest, Campbell spends the months that follow desperately trying to find her — all the while fearing she could be next. 

Through its compelling story of two women caught up in the shadowy politics behind today's conflict, A Disappearance in Damascus reminds us of the courage of those who risk their lives to bring us the world's news. (From Knopf Canada)

A Disappearance in Damascus won the 2016 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction.

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From the book

Did I find her or did she find me? I wrote that question in my reporter's notebook soon after I met Ahlam, the Iraqi woman who was to change my life. It was 2007 and we had only recently begun working together in Damascus. I was the journalist; she was my interpreter and guide — my "fixer" — connecting me to refugees from Iraq. An irrepressible extrovert with a keen sense of the absurd, she was the sort of person who appeared at ease in chaos  always with a dozen projects on the go, always with a cigarette in one hand and a phone in the other. In her early forties, she had a university education and the instincts of a street fighter. As she led me ever deeper inside the hidden world of the war she had fled, and into the increasingly unstable country of Syria where she had sought refuge from Iraq, she showed me what survival looks like with all the scaffolding of normal life ripped away. When I wrote that question, I had no idea what it would come to mean nearly a year later, when she was taken from me by agents of the secret police. How had I lost her? Was her disappearance somehow my fault? Caught in a web of fear and suspicion, I wanted to run for cover but knew I had to stay to look for her, so I began to question myself as a journalist would, wondering what I really knew — about her, about trust and friendship and betrayal, about the deepening crisis overtaking Syria, about the friends and strangers who surrounded me, about the thin line between courage and recklessness in the face of danger — as I struggled to put together the pieces that would tell me who had taken her and why she had disappeared.

From A Disappearance in Damascus by Deborah Campbell ©2016. Published by Knopf Canada.

Author interviews

In "A Disappearance in Damascus," journalist Deborah Campbell tells the story of what happened when her fixer disappeared from right in front of her. 6:51