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A Disappearance in Damascus by Deborah Campbell

Reviewed by Menaka Raman-Wilms

A Disappearance in Damascus, by Deborah Campbell, is an exceptional read. The story, which is non-fiction, is based on Campbell’s work as a journalist in Damascus, where she was completing research. While she was working in the city, she employed Ahlam as a fixer, someone to help facilitate connections and interpret nuances in the region. The two women eventually became close friends, and when Ahlam was then kidnapped, Campbell did everything in her power to try and get her back.

The book is utterly compelling and consuming. Set in an incredibly vibrant and unpredictable city, A Disappearance in Damascus presents Syria before the civil war broke out, before the world knew the country for its destruction and refugees. The book showcases a multifaceted society that no longer exists in the same form.

The story centres around Ahlam, the author’s colleague and friend, who was a leading figure in her neighbourhood of Iraqi refugees. Having been forced to flee to Syria after being already kidnapped and threatened in Iraq, Ahlam worked to make life better for the people around her, though that desire could sometimes place her in dangerous situations. Like many others, Campbell was drawn to Ahlam.

At its core, this story is one of friendship, of what it’s like to find someone and slowly learn to depend on one another. It’s about two lives becoming intertwined without either person initially realizing it.

While the book focuses on Ahlam though, it also does a wonderful job of depicting the place in which she lives. Rather than merely describing and interpreting, the story creates a true feeling of being in Damascus, a visceral experience that isn’t always easy to achieve with a book. The story begins by creating a feeling of comfort, a sense of companionship and community in the apartments of the city, and then, as things develop, drops the reader into intense anxiety and paranoia. Such a reading experience is usually a sign of superb writing, and this book is no exception. Campbell’s prose is thoughtful and thought-provoking, exceptional without really drawing attention to itself.

The book also does an excellent job of educating the reader on the politics of the region without being overwhelming or heavy-handed. Power dynamics and sectarian alliances are explained within the context of the story, and as a result fit in easily. The history is presented in a way that naturally leads the reader towards understanding the current situation in Syria, and highlights how events in one place can easily affect the future of another.

In essence, however, the book is a tribute to Campbell’s friend—Ahlam was a woman who was confident, kind, smart and brave when Campbell met her in Damascus, who knew what was important and knew how to operate in the world around her. A Disappearance in Damascus can be seen as a means to save some part of that person, save the things that can be remembered, before the circumstances of Ahlam’s life were drastically changed.

And, just as it aims to preserve Ahlam’s memory, the book is also a tribute to the city of Damascus itself, capturing its essence before it became permanently altered. In this sense, the book is really a project of preservation—it cements in place specific memories of a person and city, both of which would soon find themselves irrevocably changed.

A Disappearance in Damascus is published by Knopf Canada.

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