Wendy Pearlman’s book chronicling the plight of Syrians from the beginning of the revolution to being refugees in foreign lands, is now published in Turkish. TRT World interviewed the author.
‘We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled’, written by political science professor Wendy Pearlman, is a candid and often heartbreaking account of Syrian interviewees who have had to flee their homeland because of the turmoil and ensuing war.
The multitude and diversity of Syrian voices, and their deeply affecting stories make the book a must-read. Pearlman, who's based in the American city Chicago, conducted the interviews over a few years in Arabic, which she is fluent in, and compiled the book to reflect Syrian experiences from all walks of life. She spoke to TRT World on the occasion of the first Turkish printing of her book, called ‘Bir Kopruden Gectik’.
TRT WORLD: What is the significance of the title, “We Crossed a Bridge and it Trembled”?
WENDY PEARLMAN: As the book itself is based completely on excerpts from these interviews ––the content of the book is all the voices of the Syrians themselves–– it was really important for me to make the title also come directly from the words of Syrians.
I don’t know if reading the book if you came across the excerpt when a man in the course of his interview used the words but it is an interview by a man called Annas and it’s from the part of the book about the revolution. He’s describing a protest, a really really large protest in spring 2011 and he was participating in the protest in the suburbs of Damascus.
There was a crowd that was so large [that when] they went from one town to another and then he said they crossed a bridge and it trembled under the weight of so many people. So it’s literally a very happy and positive memory about people’s power and the sheer weight of people coming together was enough to shake a bridge.
People thought that anything was possible and they could change the world. So it’s literally a happy memory about the uprising but the title is in many ways also a metaphor that Syrians crossed many bridges. They crossed a bridge from authoritarianism to protest and from protest to war and from the homeland to exile as refugees and they are trembling themselves as Syrians under the weight of these momentous events and transformations.
In many ways the world is trembling too, in terms of the refugee outflows, in terms of all sorts of issues the Syrian conflict has given rise to, if the world isn’t trembling, then it should be because people aren’t paying enough attention. They should be trembling given how terrific this conflict has been and how much suffering it’s caused so many people.
What compelled you to start this book project?
WP: I’m a political scientist who researches the Middle East and I have a long-time focus on social movements. Before I even started this project, I’d written two books about the Palestinians with a focus on social movements and uprisings.
When the Arab Spring began, the Arab uprisings of 2011, like most people in my field I became extremely interested in trying to understand these uprisings. I was especially interested in the human experience of what it felt like to go out and protest and especially to go out and protest for the first time; especially when the protest was extremely dangerous and risky.
I became really interested in this expression that people used throughout the Arab uprisings that the barrier of fear revoked that people went out to protest because they essentially mobilised and mustered the courage to overcome their own fear and go out and say “no”.
I began with an interest in that, about how people found the courage to go out and protest despite enormous risks. In part because I saw, I watched these protests, would I have the courage to go out and protest when the risks were so high? It was nowhere where this was more dramatic than in Syria, given the sheer amount of repression, the decades of fear that the regime had instilled in people, the readiness to use extreme force.
So I started studying Syria as a case to understand protest. The first year of the Arab uprisings I watched from afar in Chicago and then I had my first chance to go interview people in 2012. I was saying to myself if I want to understand the human experience of protest, there’s no better way to find out than to go and talk to people who’d experienced protest and participated in it.
I began wanting to interview Syrians about their experiences of protest. When I began I wasn’t really at all interested in Syrians as refugees. I wanted to talk to Syrians and gather their stories. I was simply too afraid to go inside Syria itself where I thought it was too dangerous, so the best and easiest way to access Syrian stories was to talk to Syrians who fled the country.
I began in Jordan interviewing Syrians there and asked people about their experiences of protest and what the uprising meant for them. That opened a world of really fascinating wonderful stories. Not just about the uprising but about people’s lives in general and about the regime in general. About politics and all sorts of things. I got hooked on these interviews and just continued doing them.
In 2014 I went back to Jordan and made my first trip to Turkey in 2013 and basically kept interviewing. When I began it was a project about the Arab uprising and Syrian revolution and about the human experience of protest but the Syrian conflict kept evolving.
It evolved into this war, it evolved into a refugee crisis and so forth and the stories I collected kept following these different stages of the conflict. It evolved and it became much larger. Protests became one part of the project but to put it in the context of what came before and what came after.
Do you feel people have forgotten what the war was actually about - and is that a motivation behind this project?
WP: Yes, for sure. I think that people now see Syrians as refugees so it’s primarily a refugee issue. Or they see it as a war. I’m always struck when people say “Oh the Syrian civil war began in 2011.”
No, it didn’t begin as a civil war. It began as unarmed people going out into the streets and calling for reform. They weren’t even calling for regime change. They were simply calling for the existing regime to make some changes so it would be a little bit less repressive. I think that absolutely is being forgotten.
I wouldn’t say it’s the motivation of my project because I began back then [rather than just recently]. It wasn’t a motivation that got me started, but by this time it’s definitely the motivation for me to try to keep the book alive. In many ways I feel what is the greatest contribution the book can make: That it documents and records that history that is forgotten.
At the time I didn’t know that when I was doing interviews in 2012 that what has never occurred to me that in 2020 that people may have forgotten that this ever happened. I just wanted to capture what people were experiencing at the time.
Now I feel very grateful that by chance I stumbled into doing precisely that: documenting people’s stories and people’s experiences what I continue to see as a heroic uprising, a courageous brave uprising of people, taking enormous risks, making enormous sacrifices to call for freedom, to call for justice, to demand living in dignity. I feel lucky that I was able to record people’s stories of that when I did.
One of your interview subjects says “[My friends and I] have an understanding: If you want to bring up the war, then do something about it. Go to a protest, take action. If not, keep your mouth shut.” Is this book your way of “doing something” about the Syrian uprising?
WP: Yes, yes! In some ways it’s a work of documentation. It’s not a traditional academic book but it explores ideas and themes that are also important for academic audiences about what explains uprisings, how do people come to participate, what makes non-violent protests evolve into violent conflict, and things of that sort but it’s also for me very much an act of political solidarity.
I’m not Syrian and I wasn’t there to protest but one thing I can do as a professor I have the luxury of time and the ability to travel; it happens to be having devoted decades to learning Arabic to understanding the region and so forth. What I’m able to do is listen and do something with what I hear. To take what I’ve heard and produce a kind of work that I hope can speak to non-Syrian audiences especially help them understand what Syrians have experienced.
And there’s certainly many other people who do this and Syrians’ direct expressions are much more valuable than anything I can do but as an act of solidarity in trying to do something this is what I was able to do.
You’ve interviewed hundreds of Syrians, dispersed across the world, from all walks of life, mothers and fighters, engineers and students. How were you able to piece together such a coherent narrative of their testimonies?
Well thank you! That’s for me the fun part, the creative part. In doing this work there’s the interviews then there’s sitting in front of a computer and for sure I had many many more stories than I was able to get into the book. Some interviews could be 20,000 words of a full transcript of an interview that lasted four or five hours. I may have whittled that down to one sentence or two sentences.
There was a lot of creative work in how to stitch this together and in doing so I guess I thought about a few different things: one is that over time so many of the Syrians I talked to, their own stories followed a certain arc which was basically this was how life was before 2011; then there was this momentous thing called the revolution; and then it became violent and here was all of our experiences living that violence. Then we came to flee; now we’re making new lives as refugees.
That basic chronological historical arc was again and again present when people told their own narratives of their lives. As I did many many of these interviews I could just see that same basic kind of structure of people’s stories. So that helped me to understand that that should be the structure of the collective story I would tell using all of their individual stories.
There are many different ways to do it, but that kind of chronological structure shows the logic of what people experience and why. Because I think one of the reasons why –– it’s forgotten –– people just see now is a war and a refugee crisis. This kind of presentist kind of bias of focusing only on the present.; the people forgot how we got here.
I wanted to write a book that showed how Syrians got here, how we got here. In that followed Syrians and their narratives about their lives so that keeping the idea of the basic structure and then along the way there were some people’s stories that were so especially moving, there were some people whose ways of expressing things that were so emotionally powerful I wanted to work in all of those important powerful bits.
There were also some issues that were really important that I felt I needed to present stories that could explain: Issues about sectarianism, issues of the question of violence and non-violence, and militarisation and the arming of the rebellion. Issues about the nature of the regime and corruption and fear and surveillance, informants, how protests began, how it spread, what people were calling for.
I felt like there were various issues and topics and questions that I wanted to make sure got addressed, myself thinking for the average person who’s not Syrian, what does he or she need to know in order to understand this conflict? What are the topics that need to be addressed? And how could I choose stories and structure them in a way that hit all those points? So somebody could leave with a basic understanding of what I think is really necessary for understanding the conflict.
In addition there was another choice in putting the book together that was trying to get that kind of diversity that you just mentioned. About making sure there were voices from people that were from rural backgrounds and urban backgrounds, and all the different regions in Syria and men and women and so forth. That also influenced how I put it together.
The book is a deeply moving account of what Syrians lived through during the protests and the civil war that followed. How did you find your interview subjects?
WP: A classic snowballing technique; I began in Jordan. I basically knew no one to get started. I searched on the internet for Jordanian journalists who were writing stories about Syrian refugees at that time which was still a pretty new phenomenon. I contacted several of them and two journalists were kind enough to meet with me and they understood my project. They said “Oh you should meet with so-and-so, a Syrian man, he’ll be a great contact for you”.
And I met with him and he was my first interview and he introduced me to other people and it just snowballed from there.I just asked everyone I could “Do you know anybody who might talk to me?” Sometimes I would do an interview in someone’s house and a cousin would stop by or a neighbour would stop by and that would become a new interviewee. I would do interviews in cafes, a friend would walk by, and that would lead to a new interviewee. It essentially meant asking every Syrian I met for favours. “Do you know anyone? Could you introduce me to someone?” And people were kind enough to sit down with me.
The book contains terrifying, exhilarating, bittersweet and sometimes even funny accounts. It is reminiscent of a documentary film with many interviewees where you happen to be both the director and editor. What was it like talking to all these people who confided in you with their stories?
WP: I think for me it was the same range of emotions that you just expressed. It was exhilarating, and terrifying, and emotional on many levels. There’s certainly the painful stories that affected me emotionally as a listener for sure. Especially stories about people enduring bombings, stories about prisoners talking about their experiences of torture in prison and the pain of families who have been arrested and disappeared, they haven’t heard from them since.
There’s a tremendous amount of pain in the Syrian conflict; there’s no avoiding that. It was painful for me to hear these stories of pain. But it was also such a tremendous honour and privilege that I was really lucky enough to be able to hear these stories.
People were tremendously inspiring; there was suffering but they still had the strength to get up in the morning and continue living and hope for a better day and try to make a better world for their children. Anyone who has endured this conflict and is still alive has some measure of hope and strength and has found within him- or herself to stay in the purpose, to keep trying, and hope that things will get better.
For me as a foreigner it puts my own non-existent problems in perspective. Their strength and their hopefulness inspires me. There are times that were painful but the overall experience was a feeling of gratitude of having the honour of people sharing their stories with me and allowing me to learn from them and be inspired by them.
What revelations, if any, did you have while interviewing these Syrian subjects?
WP: I think especially now when people see –I mention this in the introduction that there’s a lot of resentment towards Syrian refugees especially in countries with a huge number of Syrian refugees: that the [so-called] burden they might make on society you have the same thing in the United States too. Where people look at refugees with a sort of resentment that they’re somehow taking something away from locals or there’s this fear that they’re bringing something bad or dangerous to society.
There’s this kind of pity: “Oh these poor people who are just victims who have suffered and have nothing they’re helpless and powerless.” That’s not at all how I experienced the displaced Syrians I talked to. On the contrary, they’re strong, they’re inspiring, they have so much to teach us. At the very least I hope the book can help people to see Syrian refugees in a different light than they’re often portrayed.
You say your book offers a chance “to listen to actual Syrians, as human beings” even though, as you admit, they “do not represent all of Syria’s complex religious-political landscape.” How do you read the situation in Syria now, nine years after the rebellion began?
It’s so complicated and it’s constantly changing. If you had asked me the question five or six months ago, I would probably say “Oh, the biggest issue is this military assault on Idlib.” But if you’re asking now the biggest issue seems to be the total collapse of the economy and huge inflation and huge devaluing of the currency. An absolute economic crisis.
People are suffering tremendously whether that’s in the few areas that remain not under regime control, whether there’s still bombardment by the regime, the constant threat of violence, those areas under the control of the Assad regime where people are suffering total impoverishment and from an economy in shambles. It’s very bleak.
When people look at the map most people say militarily it appears that the Assad regime “won” the military battle but there’s a question of what it means now. Can it govern, can it rule, can it create prosperity for a decent life for those who remain? It does not seem possible with this regime remaining as it is.
The question of refugees, will they return –– that’s one of the things that very much scares me is this discourse about refugees and should they return or should they be deported, should they be returned. Many people who look at Syria say, “oh, the Syria war is over. There are no more bombs falling. Syrians can go home now.”
Well, it’s in no way safe for Syrians to go home. It can’t be safe as long as the Assad regime remains in power. There are many many stories of refugees who have gone home even those who got assurances that they would be fine. And they’ve been killed and they’ve been arrested. Or they’ve been ‘disappeared’ and haven’t been heard from again. That there is rampant abuse of power that anyone who has a gun abuses those who don’t. Anyone who has any bit of power abuses those who have lesser power. And it’s still tremendously unsafe and insecure for any Syrian.
The war has entered a new phase, but it’s still highly premature and illegal in any sense of international humanitarian law that refugees should be forced or coerced to go back.
The portrayal of the Syrian regime in the book is devastating, and as more players come into play in Syria, one of your interview subjects likens his country to a checkers board. How has the international community helped or failed Syrians in dire need of help?
WP: In most ways they’ve failed and this comes through very strongly in the book, of people saying “We believed that the international community stood up for these values like democracy and human rights and we thought if we went out and called for democracy and human rights that this world would stand by us; it wouldn’t just let us be slaughtered.”
There’s a sense of tremendous frustration that many people see as this hypocrisy of the West, of those countries who say they stand up for democracy and human rights having failed to stand by those values. There’s a sense that the world doesn’t care; that it’s indifferent. It’s apathetic and just not moved by Syrian deaths. So many people said things like “what is our lives, [do they] have no value, that they have lesser value than those in the West?”
I think [the book] has shown the failure, for example, of the United Nations to be effective. The failure of the United Nations Security Council where Russia especially vetoed resolution after resolution that might have made a difference.
Also [it’s] very critical of [the then US President Barack] Obama’s failure to take action after the chemical weapons attack of 2013. So whether at the national level or the international level, states in the entire international system have failed to protect Syrian civilians from the most brutal kinds of violence.
People rose up and they did all they could but civilians are defenceless against chemical weapons and airplanes and barrel bombs and the weapons of a full army and air force. States who have gotten involved that have often done it with their own interests first.
I think it’s very reasonable to assume that the Assad regime would have fallen without its allies: Russia, Iran, Hezbollah in Lebanon... that supported it militarily, economically, politically. If it had not had the support from the outside I think it would have fallen long ago.