Winner of the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Non-Fiction:
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.
About the author
Deborah Campbell is a freelance writer who complements her work with audio recording and photography. Born and raised in Canada, she has lived in France and Israel. She has chronicled experiences for print and broadcast from Paris, St. Petersburg, Havana, Tel Aviv and the Gaza Strip. Her writing has appeared in Report on Business, the National Post, Geist and Elle magazine. Her radio documentaries have aired on CBC and National Public Radio. In 1999-2000, she received a BC Arts Council Senior Award for Creative Non-Fiction. She teaches at Capilano College.
- Winner, BC Book Prize's Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize
- Long-listed, British Columbia's National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction
- Winner, Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Non-Fiction Prize
Excerpt: A Disappearance in Damascus: A Story of Friendship and Survival in the Shadow of War (by (author) Deborah Campbell)
The day began like any other. Awakened at dawn by the call to prayer, I fell back asleep for another hour. When I woke again I felt along the wall for the light switch, scanning for cockroaches before stepping barefoot to the kerosene stove, where I struck a match to heat water for coffee. I took a quick shower, since the water in this part of Damascus was not only undrinkable but in short supply, then pulled on a pair of jeans and a long-sleeved shirt that covered my arms to the wrist—there was no need to stand out any more than necessary. Descending the empty stairwell I entered the marvellous cacophony of a perfect late-spring day.
The morning light ignited the gold dome of the shrine. The rattle of taxis, motorcycle carts, vendors rolling up the metal shutters on their shops. Already the Internet cafés were filling up with Iraqi boys who spent all day playing first-person shooter games, pretending to be American soldiers on urban combat missions in neighbourhoods that must have reminded them of home. Outside a storefront, a swarm of happy little schoolgirls in uniform were lined up to buy sweets, giggling and jostling. A boy swerved past on an adult-sized bicycle, weaving precariously on through the gathering crowd.
As I wended my way through the alleyways towards Ahlam’s apartment, I thought I felt something. A pair of eyes, a man standing next to a motorcycle, staring intently. The sense of being followed occurred to me but I abandoned it like a whim. After years spent working undercover in places where journalists were unwelcome, my radar could be oversensitive; as the only Westerner in the neighbourhood, I shrugged off curious stares.
By nine a.m. we were drinking tea alone at Ahlam’s apartment—the teaspoons of sugar dissolving into a glass, my notebook as usual on my lap—when a man knocked at the door. Ahlam went to answer it and stepped out into the stairwell. I could hear them speaking but not their words. Nevertheless I felt an immediate shift in the atmospheric pressure of the room. Without getting up I looked around, wondering where I might hide my notebook, estimating how long it would take to find something that had been concealed in here. Not long. The living room was a box except for a doorless closet crammed with her two children’s belongings. I placed the notebook back into my bag and sat there, waiting for her to return. The minutes stretched out, timed to the beating of my heart.
When she returned, the man walked into the room ahead of her. He was short, unsmiling, a vain little moustache like a hyphen above his mouth. The kind of man who, whatever he is wearing, always appears to be in uniform. I knew, without a word from either of them, that he was one of those responsible for keeping order among the newcomers, to ensure that the war did not come with them to Syria. A man of limited powers and yet—for those under his authority—unlimited.
She was to accompany him to their headquarters to answer some questions. Men were waiting downstairs to escort her in a car. They told her she would be gone for a few hours. This had happened before, such official summonings, at least half a dozen times. When she was sick in bed for a week after her husband left, they had panicked and sent a man to check on her: why was she staying at home, changing her patterns? But never before had a group of men come for her.
By now I was on my feet. It was a long and awkward moment as the three of us stood stock-still in the room, none of us moving or meeting the others’ eyes. Finally the man broke the silence. “Get rid of her,” he said to Ahlam in Arabic.
She had been standing beside him and now she walked over to me. “Go,” she said, her face close to mine. “Go now.” In her voice was an urgency I had never heard before, though her face betrayed nothing. Her expression was flat as a becalmed lake. This vacancy, this flatness in someone always so animated, someone whose face I knew as a stage on which every sort of emotion played, was far more menacing than the presence of the stranger.
I took my bag with my notebook and left, retracing my steps of earlier that morning. I barely recall the walk back. Only the acid flush that carried up my face like a rash, the pulse in my ears, the sensation of being watched. And yet, when I looked around, no one was paying me the least attention. The locals were used to me now, a neighbourhood fixture. “Doktorah!” A shopkeeper I knew shouted greetings from the shadowy interior of his shop. His voice was friendly, unaffected. That feeling I had of being watched earlier this morning—was it as fabricated as the one I felt now?
At the door of my hotel, I studied the face of the young security guard who slept at night on a mattress inside the front door. He smiled, greeted me as usual, asked after my health. Up the flight of stairs, taken two at a time. In the glass-panelled office across from my room, the hotel manager was playing solitaire on his computer with his little son on his lap. He waved to me, indicating that I should join them for tea.
No one had been here to ask about me.
My room was like a cave, self-contained and insular. Inside, everything was as I had left it: my audio recorder still lying in a tangle of cords, books pell-mell, a half-made single bed, a towel drying on the door of the wardrobe that I never used. Through the window high up on the wall I could hear the sounds of the day unfolding as it should, horns honking, children laughing, the clatter of working life.
How strange that I had come to love it here.
The air-conditioning unit had a leak. The pot I had placed below it was about to overflow, so I emptied it into the sink and then lay down on the bed with the lights off.
Before, the leak had not bothered me but now each drop was a question that rippled outward. Drip—She is gone. Drip—Where has she been taken? Drip—Just a few hours, he had said.
This had happened before. It was nothing unusual. Was it my presence that had drawn them this time? Did they take me for a spy? Perhaps I had set off a tripwire. For all my bullshit lectures to her about not working with journalists and putting herself in needless danger, I had overlooked something. I was a journalist.
I thought it wise not to sleep in my room that night. Instead I stayed at an American friend’s apartment in downtown Damascus. Awakening in the middle of the night in the dark, I couldn’t remember where I was. The air was hot and sticky, claustrophobic, a ceiling fan barely nudging the air. The next morning she asked me to leave. She was a freelance journalist and didn’t want trouble. For the first time I understood something that had managed to evade me all of my life: trouble is a contagious disease.
Winner of the 2017 Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize (BC Book Awards)
Recipient of the 2017 Freedom to Read Award
Winner of the 2016 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Non-Fiction
Longlisted for the 2016 British Columbia National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction
“Campbell’s text races along—catching readers’ hearts as it goes . . . A powerful book. In the stormwater’s swirl, Campbell has found a bright and tender leaf to follow, and the effect on readers will be transformative.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“[S]tunning.” —Emily Urquhart, author of Beyond the Pale: Folklore, Family and the Mystery of Our Hidden Genes, The Walrus
“[A]t once an engrossing mystery and a portal into the Syrian civil war.” —National Post
“A compelling, illuminating read.” —Toronto Star
“In a seamless blend of storytelling and reportage, Deborah Campbell’s A Disappearance in Damascus draws us into the struggles of Iraqi refugees settled in Syria after the fall of Baghdad. The principal character, an Iraqi ‘fixer’ who is also a grieving mother and a nurturing humanitarian, is taken by secret police. Campbell’s account of the search to find her, written with compelling prose, nuanced context and intimate narration, illuminates the dangers of life and work in a conflict zone through a riveting tale of courage, loss, love and friendship.” —2016 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Non-fiction jury Carolyn Abraham, Stephen Kimber and Emily Urquhart
“A thoroughly reported and deeply felt book. . . . [A]n exploration of friendship, obsession and belonging. It also provides essential context for Syria’s civil war, now approaching its sixth year.” —Chatelaine
“Gripping, inspiring and at times intensely sorrowful, A Disappearance in Damascus provides a portrait of tremendous courage and resourcefulness within the community of Iraqi war survivors in Syria, the devastation war wreaks upon civilians, and a remarkable friendship between two women.” —Phil Klay, winner of the 2014 National Book Award for Redeployment
“Deborah Campbell . . . sees it as her goal to ‘bridge the gap between the readers of magazines I write for . . . people in troubled places who such readers would never otherwise meet.’ . . . A Disappearance in Damascus is an absorbing testament to how successful that approach can be when undertaken by a sympathetic, informed, and committed investigator. It offers a detailed, personal look at the consequences of disruptive global events on the individuals most affected by them. . . . A Disappearance in Damascus strikes a deft balance between the present and the recent past. The suspense in Campbell’s investigation of Ahlam is never overplayed. . . . Early on in A Disappearance in Damascus, Campbell warns against the imperial impulse to create policies that affect people ‘while knowing almost nothing of who they are or what consequences our actions might have.’ Her book successfully counters that arrogant inclination by showing us how the continuing spread of chaos has real consequences for real people.” —Quill & Quire
“The narrative of this memoir . . . [is] paced like a good novel. . . . It is this realization of responsibility [for Ahlam’s fate] that gives A Disappearance in Damascus so much heart. . . . While bringing the reader into her own turmoil, Campbell tells Ahlam’s side of the story with clarity, compassion and suspense. . . . A Disappearance in Damascus is vivid, provocative and timely. High-profile kidnappings, arrests and deaths of journalists and their assistants in conflict zones in the last few years have increased public awareness of the role that fixers play and the perils they face. . . . While institutional efforts may improve protection for fixers, A Disappearance in Damascus illustrates how individual conscience and courage may also be necessary to confront the dangers of bringing news from hot spots around the world.” —Literary Review of Canada
“Campbell’s ability to note the details of . . . the people she encountered with journalistic clarity makes A Disappearance in Damascus compelling. She captures the fear and frustration she felt, the impact on Ahlam’s family and the journey of Ahlam herself, in prison and beyond. . . . It is a bold snapshot of the Assad regime prior to the start of the war, and will give readers an idea of why so many have fought to be rid of that dictator.” —Pique
“Campbell paints a vivid portrait. . . . The book is a must-read for people wanting to further their understanding of the Syrian civil war and refugee crisis, and about the deep ramifications that the Iraq war had on the rest of the Middle East. Especially now that the worst-case scenario that many Syrians have feared has come to pass, the book is essential to understanding the circumstances that societies lived with before their countries fell into chaos.” —Vancouver Observer
“Campbell’s exploration of ‘hidden’ worlds, where past and future conflicts converge and confront the intricacies of human relationships, invests A Disappearance in Damascus with the kind of immediacy rarely found in war reporting. . . . On the surface, it is a detective novel, a eulogy to the dying art of immersive journalism. Slightly deeper is a story of love and friendship, and the forces that can tear them apart or make them stronger. Deeper still is a political exegesis exposing the arrogance and folly of the great (and not so great) powers. . . . Campbell deftly unravels all of these complexities, gives them a face, makes them human, so we can finally start to make sense of the incomprehensibility of the world’s most intractable conflict.” —Maclean’s
“[R]iveting. . . . Campbell’s book weaves the global into the utmost personal—a story of friendship flowering, then frighteningly uprooted. . . . Campbell’s urgency to find and free Ahlam drives a narrative laced with reflections on friendship, duty, imperialism and love strained by ambition. . . . This book took a long time to write—and clearly the results were worth the wait!” —The Tyee