By Ashley Fantz, for CNN 
September 16th, 2012
This book was translated with the help of the Sharjah International Book Fair Translation Grant.
By the time the officer slapped her across the face, she already felt dead.
I’m not getting up. Let him do what he wants.
Samar Yazbek, a woman lauded as one of Syria’s most gifted novelists, had fallen to her knees. She was a lump of snot and blood, girding herself for the next blow.
Syrian novelist Samar Yazbek risked it all to stay in her country and document the opposition’s stories.
“Well, well, well, what a hero,” the officer laughed. “You went down with just one slap. Isn’t it awful when such an angelic face gets hit?”
He spat on her and cursed. Her ears rang.
“Get up!” he ordered.
She inhaled, pressing her ribcage against a switchblade tucked under her bra. She’d kept it with her everywhere. It was a tiny thing, really, a laughable defense against a sniper that had, just a few weeks before, killed a young man standing not even an inch from her at a protest.
Still, the blade was a comfort. She liked to imagine plunging it into the necks of men like the officer breathing in her face.
“Cat got your tongue?” he sneered. “Your tongue should be torn out.”
Did she not understand family and loyalty? he lectured. She was from a prominent Alawite family. They were the same sect as the president. Where was her pride? Why had she written things against Bashar al-Assad on her Facebook page? he demanded. She had brought shame on everyone around her.
The officer reached out again, this time brushing his palm against her cheek. Tauntingly light, this slap was enough. It ignited a rage in her.
She got to her feet and pulled out the knife.
Wild, she pressed the blade against her own heart.
“What do you want!?” she howled.
Shocked, he stepped back.
“Put the knife down, you lunatic,” he said, taking a seat behind his desk.
This is the deal we have for you, he explained: Go on Syrian state TV. Use that famous, pretty face, your prestige as a novelist and noted screenwriter, and pledge allegiance to al-Assad.
No way, she said.
The officer’s phone rang, and he walked away to take it.
“This is your last warning,” he told her.
A few beats later, two muscled men, both in regular clothes, walked in. They blindfolded her.
“Where are you taking me?!” she shouted.
“Just a short trip,” one answered. “So you’ll write better.”
That was a single day of the almost 100 that Samar Yazbek spent defying people ready and willing to end her last year. She recounts it in great detail in her new memoir, “A Woman Caught in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution.”
The 42-year-old writer is a very unlikely revolutionary, certainly an unexpected presence among the Free Syrian Army. Yazbek is the odd branch on her family tree. Her family is prominent in Syria. She’s even distantly related to Osama bin Laden.
Throughout much of her life, she moved in a rarefied world. An intellectual, she’s been lauded for her poetry, acclaimed fiction and screenwriting. She even hosted a daily television talk show.
Yazbek was part of a community of creative Syrians who, for years, loathed President Bashar al-Assad and his father, Hafez, who took control in 1970. Yet those artists, if they wanted their work to be seen, had to submit to government censorship committees. Either that, or most likely, their work would not be seen.
So when al-Assad’s forces began cracking down on anti-government protesters last year, some of those artists moved to Beirut or some other nearby cosmopolitan city.
Who could have known that the months of street violence would have become an all-out horror movie in 2012?
Yazbek couldn’t have seen it coming. Like that young man standing next to her at a rally.
“We were at a peaceful protest, standing and suddenly bullets were fired from a sniper, killing a guy — he was not even one centimeter from me,” Yazbek explained through an Arabic translator in a recent CNN interview.
The crowd dissolved into chaos.
“This was my first experience seeing a man getting killed,” she remembered, her voice faint. “It was very painful. I carried him in my arms.
“These protesters (were unarmed),” Yazbek said. “They were carrying roses.
“This regime … they are monstrous people.”
Rather than scare her, the experience emboldened Yazbek. She felt she had a job she could and must do: document.
She began to travel around Syria, usually obscuring her face with a headscarf. With the help of brave drivers and friends who risked their own lives, she made it into villages shelled half to oblivion. In one, she hunkered down with the men fighting in the Free Syrian Army. They ate together as bombs exploded nearby.
“Crossfire” is a diary of the first few months of the uprising, from March 25 to July 9, 2011, containing interviews with people fighting the regime and innocents caught in the middle.
The reader watches brave women in Damascus who keep hold of signs, “No to Death, Yes to Life” while male security officers attack them. They listen in on conversations among Alawite who meet, in secret, at a friend’s home to sing and post anti-al-Assad songs online. They hear the story of a journalist who was in hiding, afraid the regime will punish him for documenting protests and a doctor horrified by not having enough space to store so many dead bodies.
A volunteer in the security forces tells Yazbek that during a siege in Jisr al-Shughur near Aleppo, he got confused about who the enemy was.
“I no longer knew what I was supposed to do. Suddenly I was along amidst the rubble and I started running, trying to hide my identity,” he said.
He tried to disappear down an alleyway, but panicked when he saw a man holding a bag walking toward him. As the man got closer, it was clear there was food in the bag.
The man, afraid too, asked, “Are you with security?”
The officer said he was and waited to be killed.
Instead, the man took the officer to his home, hid him and later drove the volunteer officer at a secure location.
“We aren’t animals,” the man explained, “and I know you’re not a killer.”
Yazbek is careful not to give details about her daughter (her name is not included in the book), but the girl does make heartbreaking cameos — mostly fights with her mother. The girl pleaded with her mother to stop going to protests.
Yazbek writes about one of their fights:
She tells me impatiently, ‘They’re going to kill you. In the village, they said they’re going to kill you. Everybody’s saying that, everybody’s cursing you and insulting you, and in Jableh (Yazbek’s hometown) they were handing out flyers accusing you of treason!'”
I fall silent and I go to my room and cry. I don’t want her to see my tears, even as she continues yelling.
The teen begged her mother to do what the security forces kept asking her to do — go on television and say she supports the regime.
“I won’t do it!” Yazbek snapped.
“And I won’t leave with you,” her daughter cried.
Yazbek heard her daughter stomped to her room, scream and break things.
“I would be wracked with crying fits in the middle of the night … the images …(of) my daughter with her throat slit from ear to ear and bathed in strange colours flickered in front of my eyes as I awoke,” she writes.
From a distance
Yazbek says now her daughter has come around. She sees clearer what her mother felt she had to do.
“There were a lot of incidents that she did not understand and she would feel angry about how her life has changed,” she answered. “She has read (my book), and (she) changed. I believe she is proud now. She is standing by me.”
Yazbek and her daughter now live in Europe. She did not want to leave Syria. But so many friends, even those with an ear close to al-Assad, told her to get out. Luck could only last for so long. She’d done what she could.
It had to be about her daughter, their survival together.
It’s so easy for outsiders to say — Well, just leave. It’s more complicated than that.
To leave your country is to give up part of your identity.