Canadian journalist Deborah Campbell traveled to Damascus, Syria, in 2007 to report on the mass exodus of Iraqis into Syria in the wake of sectarian violence after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. There, she met an Iraqi woman named Ahlam who would not only change her life but also draw her into the very story on which she was reporting.
Campbell hired Ahlam as a “fixer,” a local who helps journalists arrange interviews, interprets and provides context to what journalists see and hear. Ahlam was one of the best: A smart, bold and kind mother of two, she spent her life helping others, even starting a school in her apartment for refugee girls. Not only was she an invaluable resource, she quickly became Campbell’s cherished friend.
A Disappearance in Damascus: Friendship and Survival in the Shadow of War is the fascinating account of both Ahlam’s story and Campbell’s life posing as a professor while working as an “undercover” journalist in Syria. Although the country’s civil war had yet to start, Syria was a dangerous place. One day, Ahlam was suddenly arrested and imprisoned, whisked away to an uncertain fate. Desperately worried and fearing that their work together may have contributed to Ahlam’s arrest, Campbell upended her life to try to help her friend. “Caught in a web of fear and suspicion,” she writes, “I wanted to run for cover but knew I had to stay and look for her.” In riveting, heartbreaking detail, Campbell seamlessly weaves together her own search and investigation with Ahlam’s horrific imprisonment and interrogation.
Campbell also provides an excellent primer on how the Middle East’s complex history has contributed to the area’s strife. This is an important, chilling book that explores the ongoing plight of Syria’s citizens and refugees, as well as the perilous struggles of the journalists who deliver their stories to the rest of the world.