Wendy Pearlman, We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria (New York: Custom House, 2017)
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Wendy Pearlman (WP): When I began studying Middle East politics in the mid-1990s, the main question dominating the discipline was how to explain the durability of authoritarian regimes. So, like other people in my field, or most people on the planet for that matter, I was captivated by the 2011 uprisings. Having specialized in the study of social movements, I was especially drawn to the puzzle of what brings people to participate in high-risk dissent. I wondered what Syrians’ experiences could teach us about that question, and I figured there was no better way to find out then to ask them.
I got my first chance to do fieldwork interviewing Syrians in 2012. As it was already dangerous to do that type of research inside Syria, I concentrated on interviewing Syrians who had fled. Over the next four year, I carried out open-ended interviews with more than three hundred displaced Syrians in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, the UAE, and the United States.
Along the way, I tried to speak to people of different backgrounds, hometowns, social classes, ages, etc.. But given my initial interest in dissent, my research networks became strongest with people who are critical of the Assad regime. I decided to delve deeper into that slice of the Syrian population, including its own diversity and debates.
With time, my interviews came to focus not only on protest, but also on people’s lives before 2011, and their experiences since. I wrote this book to present these personal stories, using only speakers’ own words, and arranged it in a way that could help readers both understand Syria better and also be moved to care.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
WP: The book is something of an oral history of the Syrian conflict, with a special emphasis on what the uprising means to those who championed it.
The book begins with a short introduction, in my voice, providing an historic context. After that, it consists entirely of a curation of excerpts from the testimonials I collected. The first section features memories of life under the regime of Hafez al-Assad. The next sections describe changes after Bashar al-Assad’s assumption of power, the launch of protests in 2011, the government’s subsequent crackdown, the escalation and militarization of the rebellion, everyday life under conditions of war, and experiences of forced migration. Some of the entries are as short as a sentence and some are several pages in length. Some are hopeful, some funny, some viscerally painful, some contemplative.
As I crafted the book for general readers, it does not explicitly engage particular literatures. Rather, it seeks to offer an accessible introduction to Syria and a human complement to texts written in a more conventional, analytical style. At the same time, the speakers in the book offer analysis of their own. Their stories are filled with insight into major questions for students of politics, including how authoritarian regimes endure, what drives dissent, how repression affects protest, the relationship between nonviolent resistance and armed insurgency, and how communities withstand, and are transformed by, violence.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
WP: Looking back, I can see that all of my work over the past 15 years has fed into what became We Crossed A Bridge. My dissertation examined Palestinian history with a focus on how movements’ organizational structures affect their use of violent or nonviolent protest strategies. That became the basis of my book Violence, Nonviolence, and the Palestinian National Movement, as well as related academic articles and book chapters on Palestine.
2011 inspired me to think beyond the organizational aspects of protest and explore its personally transformative dimensions. That led me to write a 2013 article on emotions and the Arab uprisings in Perspectives on Politics. It was against that backdrop that I began interviewing Syrians about their experiences of political fear and acting through and despite fear.
When I began collecting testimonials, I did not know what book format would best communicate and showcase that rich material. After experimenting with different styles, I eventually circled back to the oral history approach that I had used in my first book, Occupied Voices: Stories of Everyday Life from the Second Intifada, which was based on interviews that I did in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 2000-01. But here there is also an important difference. Occupied Voices is organized by speaker, with a series of individuals telling their personal stories from start to finish. In We Crossed A Bridge, I instead wove together fragments of personal stories to construct a joint history that moves chronologically through time.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
WP: I wrote this book mostly with a general American reader in mind. I think that many of them feel bewildered and overwhelmed by news from Syria. They are not sure where to begin to learn about it and might not have patience to slog through a lot of heavy history and politics.
I wanted the book to be a readable, human entry point for readers of that sort: a book that would raise awareness and create empathy by encouraging non-Syrians to try to imagine, to whatever extent possible, what it might be like to live a conflict of this sort. That is, to ask themselves: “What would I do if I were there? How would I cope? Would I protest? Would I fight? Would I support the government? Would I flee? Would I stay?”
I hope that those who read the book will gain new respect for the painful and courageous journey that so many Syrians have traversed in order to tell their own stories. Moreover, I hope that readers will do something in solidarity with Syrians’ ongoing struggle to live with freedom, security, and dignity. I hope that they will continue to learn more, especially by seeking out the amazing outpouring of creative works in every medium produced by Syrian writers and artists themselves.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
WP: I have a co-authored book coming out this fall that is a more conventional academic monograph. It examines Israel’s policy of militarily targeting states that host non-state actors to coerce those states to act against non-state actors. My co-author and I began this project nearly ten years ago because we were both dismayed and bewildered by the 2006 War in which Israel, in addition to striking Hezbollah, bombarded Lebanese state assets and civilian neighborhoods in the demand that the Lebanese government “restrain” Hezbollah. We wondered both what drove the adoption of such a strategy, which we came to call “triadic coercion,” and under what conditions it could possibly achieve the claimed objectives. Exploring those questions, the book probes the causes and consequences of Israel’s use of triadic coercion against Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and the Palestinian Authority, looking at evidence from 1949 to the present.
The bulk of my current work, however, continues to center on Syria. I continue to interview Syrians whenever and wherever I can. Thanks to a fellowship from a German foundation, I spent the last two summers interviewing Syrian asylum seekers in Germany and plan to do the same during another four summers through 2020. The interviews I do remain open-ended, which I love as a way of learning answers to questions that I would never even know to ask.
Based on these ongoing interviews, I see my research as proceeding on two tracks. In the short term, I am writing stand-alone article-length pieces on issues that emerge as salient to the people I meet. This has led me to write about topics such as refugees’ experiences of socio-economic class or their navigation of European social welfare bureaucracies. Longer term, I hope to write something larger about how people wrestle with issues of identity, belonging, and exile in contexts of mass violence, destruction, and displacement. I keep finding myself asking, “Given all that has happened and continues to happen, what does it mean to be Syrian?” I want to see what individuals’ narration of their lives can offer toward answers to that question.
J: Can you say more about the process of writing this book?
WP: As I did interviews, got them transcribed and translated, and then started analyzing them, I was struck by how the personal narratives coalesced into a collective narrative passing. Even when people disagreed with each other, their life stories were marked by the stages of authoritarian, revolution, war, and exile.
I made this the arc of the book, and culled excerpts from testimonials that I believed could best walk readers through that trajectory. In editing testimonials for length and readability, my challenge was to capture speakers’ voices in the literal sense of using their own words and in the figurative sense of relaying something of their distinct personalities through those words. I selected stories that described events and issues that I heard repeatedly, but also brought them to life with human detail.
I like to say that I approached writing the book as if making a mosaic. For me, each interview was akin to a precious stone. My mission was to cut from it a piece that captured its unique gem-like properties and arrange those gems in such a way that they completed each other and produced a sum greater than its parts.
Excerpt from the Book:
Talia, TV correspondent from Aleppo
We were living under dictatorship for forty years and we were tired. Tired of hypocrisy. Tired of only getting a job if you have connections. We wanted to know this famous thing called freedom. But now if you sit with one thousand Syrians, they’ll each give you their own sense of freedom. Some women ask themselves, “If I take off my headscarf, will I be free? If I change my religion,
will I be free?” In my opinion, that’s not what freedom is about. For me, freedom is living in a society that respects me. Freedom is being able to express myself. Freedom is the chance to do something for which people will remember me.
In Syria, women were dependent on men. The root of the problem was our failed government. There weren’t any laws to protect women. They didn’t know their rights or their worth. This changed with the revolution. People no longer had the barrier of fear, and women no longer feared their husbands. Now a woman can say no and say yes. She can rebel.
When I got to Turkey I sat at home for the first year. My mental state was at rock bottom. I had wanted to separate from my husband for years, but I delayed the decision. Then I got stronger and became financially stable. I was living in a country where the law defended me. And so I left him and the house and everything. All I took was my kids. I started again from zero.
I had worked for a few months in radio, and then a job opened at a major TV network. Ten other people applied for it, and they all had degrees in journalism. I didn’t, but I wanted the job. For three months, I practiced how to speak before the camera. I’d stand in front of the mirror and talk to myself. I would record my voice and say words this way and that way to figure out how to make them sound better.
I did an interview with the manager. She told me she didn’t want to hire me, but that I have a kind of talent that not all journalists have. She said, “Talia, I wish you weren’t this good.” And, just like that, I got stuck in her head. And I got the job.
I discovered that I’m a person who can have an impact on others. It was the revolution that taught me to be impactful in this way. And it was the revolution that allowed me to see people for who they really are. It showed me that every Syrian has a hundred stories in his heart. Every Syrian is himself a story.