Yazbek’s The Crossing, the Financial Times’ review “The new book is at its best in its closely observed storytelling”

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TheCrossing-UK-CoverA review by Roula Khalaf, for the Financial Times, July 17, 2015

Samar Yazbek is no ordinary Syrian dissident. Brave, rebellious and passionate in her advocacy of democratic change, she was born into the Alawite sect, the minority to which the Assad clan belongs. Branded as a traitor by Assad loyalists, this novelist, journalist and screenwriter has become a chronicler of the civil war that ravages a country now trapped between a brutal but resilient regime and an equally vicious jihadi insurgency.
In The Crossing, Yazbek recounts her trips back to the ruins of northern Syria in 2012 and 2013 to set up small women’s projects. Along the way, she bears witness to indiscriminate barrel bombing by the regime but also to the mutation of a once-peaceful revolt into a monstrous jihadi assault whose aims are repugnant and unrecognisable to secular activists such as her. “The only victor in Syria is death: no one talks of anything else,” she writes. “Everything is relative and open to doubt; the only certainty is that death will triumph.”

The Crossing is the continuation of a deeply personal story. Yazbek’s last work of non-fiction, A Woman in the Crossfire (2012), was a diary of the revolution’s early days. It documented four months of protest that ended with her detention and beating, after which she was forced to take her daughter and move to Paris.
The new book is at its best in its closely observed storytelling, a collection of first-hand accounts of the lives of people under siege who feel the world has abandoned them. The Syria she describes is appalling and yet so desperate and needy that it constantly calls her back. She explains how she straddled two worlds, Syria and Europe, feeling lost in the first and always longing for the second even when she knew that every trip was a brush with death.
“I gave lectures in many cities around the world trying to explain the truth of what was taking place in Syria and trying to understand how other people saw us,” she writes. “I’d find myself tumbling into a deep and futile pit of emptiness that nothing could rescue me from except the prospect of returning to Syria. Then I’d come back here and live with the revolutionaries and the ordinary civilians, and be struck by a sense of despondency and anger at the great injustice that had fallen on us as a people and a cause.”
At a time when Syria is seen largely through the lens of the campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the group known as Isis that controls almost half of the country’s territory, The Crossing is a reminder of — and a tribute to — the early revolutionaries. They believed they were fighting for democracy and warned from the start that without outside support, the revolution would be hijacked by jihadis.
Yazbek makes the point repeatedly that those she spent time with throughout 2012 and early 2013 were seeking a civil, not a religious state. Amid constant bombardment, the jihadi takeover was a predictable outcome: civil society, she tells us, was powerless in the face of gradual radicalisation. It is on the desperation of Syrians that well-oiled extremist groups fed.  (…)

Gradually, northern Syria fragments into independently run villages and towns controlled by different rebels dividing the spoils of war. By her third and most perilous crossing, in July 2013, Isis is well established in northern Syria and extremists are inserting themselves into society by providing services and even marrying the widows of deceased rebels. She flirts with death more than once. And she discovers that areas liberated from the regime have become inaccessible zones where activists are gunned down and foreign journalists kidnapped. Syria, she concludes, is one of the great tragedies of the 21st century and Syrians’ suffering is overwhelming proof of “humanity’s moral fall from grace”. She leaves behind her a country that will never be the same: Syria has been “hanged, drawn and quartered”.

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