Lind­sey Hilsum

No Turn­ing Back: Life, Loss, and Hope in Wartime Syria by Ra­nia Abouzeid Brothers of the Gun: A Mem­oir of the Syr­ian War by Mar­wan Hisham and Molly Crabap­ple Jour­nal­ism in Times of War edited by Awad Joumaa and Khaled Ra­madan Be­com­ing the Story: War Corre

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Lind­sey Hilsum

No Turn­ing Back:

Life, Loss, and Hope in Wartime Syria by Ra­nia Abouzeid. Nor­ton, 378 pp., $26.95

Brothers of the Gun: A Mem­oir of the Syr­ian War by Mar­wan Hisham and Molly Crabap­ple.

One World, 300 pp., $28.00 (to be pub­lished May 15)

Jour­nal­ism in Times of War edited by Awad Joumaa and Khaled Ra­madan. Al Jazeera Me­dia In­sti­tute, 170 pp., avail­able at­

Be­com­ing the Story:

War Cor­re­spon­dents since 9/11 by Lind­say Palmer.

Univer­sity of Illi­nois Press,

202 pp., $99.00; $25.95 (pa­per)

Ev­ery few sec­onds my iPhone lights up with new posts on a What­sApp group link­ing doc­tors in the Damascus sub­urb of east­ern Ghouta to jour­nal­ists in the out­side world. News of Rus­sian and Syr­ian govern­ment bom­bard­ment comes more or less in real time: “Be­fore three hours in Ghouta, Rus­sian plane tracked am­bu­lances and hit both am­bu­lances and hos­pi­tals.”

“Dr Hamza: I have treated twen­ty­nine cases so far, the ma­jor­ity are chil­dren.” Vi­su­als are cap­tioned in Ara­bic and English: “Pho­tos of shel­ters that lo­cal res­i­dents dug un­der their homes.” The jour­nal­ists, who in­clude cor­re­spon­dents from The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other in­ter­na­tional news­pa­pers, use the group to clar­ify the num­bers of ca­su­al­ties and check lo­ca­tions of at­tacks, while broad­cast me­dia re­quest Skype in­ter­views from in­side the war zone.

A metic­u­lous sift­ing of tes­ti­mony, videos, and pho­to­graphs con­veyed by so­cial me­dia, to be cross-checked with govern­ment pro­pa­ganda, satel­lite imagery, and what­ever other sources are avail­able, is a cru­cial part of twen­ty­first-cen­tury con­flict re­port­ing. It feels very far from Wil­liam Howard Russell, usu­ally con­sid­ered the first mod­ern war cor­re­spon­dent, who fa­mously cov­ered the Charge of the Light Brigade, de­scrib­ing the Bri­tish cavalry in Crimea as “glit­ter­ing in the morn­ing sun in all the pride and splen­dour of war.” Russell saw him­self as “the mis­er­able par­ent of a luck­less tribe,” and those cor­re­spon­dents chained to com­put­ers in Beirut, Is­tan­bul, or Lon­don feel luck­less in­deed. In Libya in 2011, you could drive to the war in the morn­ing and re­turn to your ho­tel in Beng­hazi at night be­cause much of the fight­ing oc­curred, con­ve­niently enough, on the main coast road. In Iraq in 2003, you could em­bed with in­vad­ing West­ern troops or stay in Baghdad as Sad­dam Hus­sein launched his doomed re­sis­tance. You were al­ways an eye­wit­ness to some­thing, while re­ly­ing on the ac­counts of oth­ers to fill in the big­ger pic­ture. One might look back with even more nos­tal­gia to a late sum­mer day in 1939, when the young Clare Holling­worth, in her first week as a cor­re­spon­dent for the Daily Telegraph, bor­rowed the car of the Bri­tish con­sul in the Pol­ish town of Ka­tow­ice, talked her way past the guards at the Ger­man fron­tier post, and hap­pened to be driv­ing along the right road when a gust of wind lifted burlap cur­tains the Ger­mans had strung up, re­veal­ing ten Panzer di­vi­sions ready to roll across the border.

Syria is dif­fer­ent. The govern­ment learned from the ex­pe­ri­ence of Sri Lanka, where in 2009 the regime banned jour­nal­ists and aid work­ers so it could im­pose a mil­i­tary so­lu­tion to the long war with the Tamil Tigers in the north of the coun­try with no re­gard for civil­ian life. Syria gives visas to a se­lect few and mon­i­tors their move­ments. Re­cently it has tried to make vis­it­ing jour­nal­ists sign a form that in­cludes the fol­low­ing state­ment: “The Min­istry of In­for­ma­tion has the right to take le­gal ac­tion against me if lies were pub­lished or if I have con­trib­uted to in­sti­gat­ing or pro­vok­ing sec­tar­ian strife, and has the right to pros­e­cute me in my coun­try or where I live.”

At first, re­porters got smug­glers to take them into rebel-held ar­eas, but re­lent­less bom­bard­ment by the Syr­ian regime and its al­lies, com­bined with the vin­dic­tive cru­elty of ISIS, made cov­er­ing the war es­pe­cially per­ilous. The Com­mit­tee to Pro­tect Jour­nal­ists lists 115 jour­nal­ists killed in Syria since 2011, the high­est-pro­file be­ing The Sun­day Times of Lon­don cor­re­spon­dent Marie Colvin, who was killed by a govern­ment mor­tar tar­geted on the rebel me­dia cen­ter where she was stay­ing, in the Baba Amr district of Homs, in Fe­bru­ary 2012. The same year, the Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist James Fo­ley was kid­napped by ISIS, as was Steven Sot­loff in 2013; both were later mur­dered. Most for­eign jour­nal­ists then con­fined them­selves to so­journs on the Turk­ish border to in­ter­ro­gate refugees, fight­ers, and smug­glers, plus—af­ter the demise of ISIS last year—oc­ca­sional short for­ays into rebel-held ter­ri­tory.

There are more Syr­i­ans than for­eign­ers on the CPJ list, but their names are less well known. This gap be­tween the unknown lo­cal and the fa­mous for­eign war cor­re­spon­dent, sur­vivor, and hero of pre­vi­ous bat­tles, both court­ing peril to get the story, is a grow­ing ten­sion in mod­ern war re­port­ing. Ra­nia Abouzeid, a free­lance Le­bane­seAus­tralian re­porter who has writ­ten for The New Yorker and other publi­ca­tions,

hints at this at the be­gin­ning of her ex­cel­lent book, No Turn­ing Back: Life, Loss, and Hope in Wartime Syria. “This book is not an­other re­porter’s war jour­nal,” she writes. “I went to Syria to see, to in­ves­ti­gate, to lis­ten—not to talk over peo­ple who can speak for them­selves. They are not voice­less. It is not my story. It is theirs.” That might chas­ten flak jacket–clad TV re­porters (dec­la­ra­tion of in­ter­est: I am one) who re­gard their own week in the war zone as of par­tic­u­lar note. To rub it in, she adds: “I did my own fix­ing, trans­lat­ing, tran­scrib­ing, lo­gis­tics, se­cu­rity, re­search and fact-check­ing.” The re­sult is prob­a­bly the most per­cep­tive jour­nal­is­tic ac­count of the war so far, high­light­ing in­di­vid­ual sto­ries while never los­ing sight of the broader sit­u­a­tion and his­tory.

A white West­ern re­porter could not have writ­ten this book, but while Abouzeid’s iden­tity is an in­te­gral part of her jour­nal­is­tic method, her skills as a re­porter and writer should not be un­der­es­ti­mated. Over seven years of con­flict, she has fol­lowed a dozen or so Syr­i­ans, as­sem­bling their sto­ries like Lego bricks, each slot­ting into the next, un­til the shape of the struc­ture be­comes ap­par­ent. Her tech­nique is to hang out with peo­ple, qui­etly watch­ing and lis­ten­ing, spend­ing so much time with them that they for­get that she is there. Be­ing a woman helps be­cause she is not seen as a threat. Her pres­ence au­then­ti­cates the story—she must have been there, for ex­am­ple, to ob­serve the home life of Mo­hammed, a fighter with a rebel group al­lied with al-Qaeda, and his wife, Sara:

Her hus­band had re­turned home af­ter prayers and headed into the shower. “Hand me the nail clip­pers!” he yelled from the bath­room. “Where are they?” Sara bel­lowed.

“Next to the grenades,” he said. She reached into the wal­nut­col­ored wood-and-glass dis­play cabi­net for nail clip­pers and pulled out a bot­tle of mois­tur­izer she ap­plied to her hands.

“Look at my hands!” she said. “When did my nails ever look like this? I feel like I’m on a front too. I have to do ev­ery­thing here, and all by hand—the laun­dry, the dishes. I used to use cu­cum­ber face masks, take af­ter­noon naps, comb my hair, wear makeup. My whole life has changed.”

This is war but not as we gen­er­ally know it. On an­other oc­ca­sion, Abouzeid joins a fam­ily be­ing smug­gled across the border into Turkey, but although we know she’s there (“seven of us squeezed into the smug­gler’s car”) she never draws at­ten­tion to the dan­ger she faces. The drama is en­tirely that of the fam­ily, es­pe­cially one of the daugh­ters, Ruha, whom she fol­lows through­out the book as she grows from a lit­tle girl wor­ship­ing her fa­ther, who has joined the re­bel­lion in their home­town of Saraqeb, to a teenager be­gin­ning to ques­tion her par­ents’ choices.

One of the few times that Abouzeid high­lights her own pres­ence is when Syr­ian aid work­ers on the Turk­ish border ask her to trans­late in a meet­ing with two Bri­tish “diplo­mats.” Mo­hammed, the al-Qaeda-linked rebel, is there pos­ing as a refugee. Abouzeid can guess who the diplo­mats re­ally are as they try to trade in­tel­li­gence for food and tents, but they do not know that she is a jour­nal­ist. For a mo­ment she has be­come part of the story, an­other per­son with an as­sumed iden­tity, in a con­flict where de­cep­tion and dis­guise may be the key to sur­vival.


Abouzeid is an out­sider who can pass for an in­sider, Mar­wan Hisham is an in­sider who has learned to tell his story in a way out­siders can un­der­stand. An English teacher in Raqqa when ISIS seized con­trol of the city, he started to re­port on Twit­ter in English—Mar­wan Hisham is not his real name, of course. It was a dan­ger­ous oc­cu­pa­tion, but for a while he got away with it. Brothers of the Gun: A Mem­oir of the Syr­ian War is the prod­uct of his col­lab­o­ra­tion with the artist Molly Crabap­ple, whom he met on Twit­ter while he was in Raqqa and she was in New York. He would send her pho­to­graphs taken with a smart­phone begged from a friend, which she would trans­form into paint­ings and draw­ings.

Their ini­tial pieces were pub­lished in Van­ity Fair. It was, as he puts it, an “art crime” for which he would prob-

ably have been ex­e­cuted had he been dis­cov­ered by ISIS. A body hang­ing from a lamp­post, a small child with an enor­mous ri­fle, peo­ple run­ning down a rub­ble-strewn street—such images ren­dered beau­ti­ful by the pen are dis­turb­ing. Crabap­ple used vi­brant, some­times lurid color in the orig­i­nal mag­a­zine pieces, but the black-and-white il­lus­tra­tions in the book, care­fully blotched and smudged, in­vite more thought, not least the cover il­lus­tra­tion of a vi­o­lin­ist play­ing an in­stru­ment that, on closer in­spec­tion, turns out to be a Kalash­nikov.

Hisham, who, af­ter at­tend­ing a re­li­gious school in a vil­lage near Aleppo, be­came fas­ci­nated by Euro­pean soc­cer and lit­er­a­ture, is the ideal in­ter­locu­tor for West­ern read­ers, but the rea­sons he and his friends had for ris­ing against the re­pres­sive regime of Bashar alAs­sad were far from typ­i­cal:

We were an ex­treme mi­nor­ity within Raqqa. The values we held marked us, in the eyes of our neigh­bors, as dan­ger­ous, un-Is­lamic agents of the West.

grass­roots democ­racy elec­toral rights re­spect for the bal­lot box, as a ba­sis for rep­re­sen­ta­tion and le­git­i­macy

Could these words be more alien to most Syr­i­ans? Could these so­called univer­sal values, the values my friends and I screamed for be­tween our gas-choked curses at se­cu­rity of­fi­cers, be far from univer­sal in­deed? Per­haps they are parochial mores, spec­u­lated about in the univer­sity cam­puses of Euro­pean cap­i­tals. Per­haps they are as in­sub­stan­tial as ghosts.

A West­ern reader might see Hisham as a hero for hold­ing on to such be­liefs, but he learns that no one stays pure in the face of war. Close friends be­come not only rebels but Is­lamists, reach­ing for some way to make sense of the degra­da­tion around them. Ev­ery­one com­pro­mises in or­der to sur­vive, in­clud­ing him. Work­ing in an In­ter­net café in Raqqa en­ables him to get the news out but also ben­e­fits the ISIS fight­ers who use it. When the ji­hadis bring in two ter­ri­fied Yazidi slave women, he un­der­stands that, in their eyes, he is just the same as all the other men: “I felt a weight of guilt de­scend on me for work­ing at the café. I will al­ways feel it.” When flee­ing across the border into Turkey, he helps a refugee cou­ple to carry their heavy bags, but when they are turned back by border guards he loses track of them be­fore mak­ing an­other at­tempt to cross. “War is harsh on the com­pas­sion­ate and the weak,” he writes. “I did one of the many ter­ri­ble things I’ve done in my life. I left them and their bags be­hind.”

The war in Syria has oc­curred at a time when the first re­sponse of many caught up in a cri­sis, be it a school shoot­ing in the US or a demon­stra­tion in Damascus, is to get out their phones and start film­ing. Back in 2011, Hisham and his friends in north­ern Syria were among those who alerted the world to the up­ris­ing in Syria by film­ing protests against the regime and upload­ing the videos. Abouzeid writes about a young man in Ras­tan, a town half­way be­tween Aleppo and Damascus, who does the same as his ini­tial act of re­bel­lion. The im­me­di­acy of such footage is grip­ping, but in Syria it has at times also be­come for­eign jour­nal­ists’ sole win­dow onto what is hap­pen­ing.

The au­then­ti­ca­tion of found video has be­come a jour­nal­is­tic spe­cial­ity in its own right. “There are more hours of on­line video footage of the Syr­ian con­flict than the ac­tual time elapsed since the war be­gan,” write Chris­ti­aan Triebert and Hadi Al-Khatib in the chap­ter “Dig­i­tal Sher­locks” in Jour­nal­ism in Times of War. They ex­plain tech­niques such as the re­verse im­age search, by which you check that a piece of footage that is said to be from, say, east­ern Ghouta to­day is not in fact from Fal­lu­jah last year. In­creas­ingly, hu­man rights or­ga­ni­za­tions and jour­nal­ists are us­ing the same on­line tools. Amnesty In­ter­na­tional has de­vel­oped the YouTube DataViewer, which al­lows you to find the ex­act date and time a video was up­loaded and do a re­verse im­age search of stills from it. Oth­ers have de­vel­oped meth­ods of ge­olo­ca­tion. In the Lon­don news­room where I work, an Ara­bic­s­peak­ing jour­nal­ist spends his days comb­ing through this ma­te­rial, check­ing au­then­tic­ity and cu­rat­ing the re­sults for TV and the In­ter­net. He finds feeds from Syr­ian sol­diers and is in touch with dozens of ac­tivists and rebels, de­vel­op­ing re­li­able long-dis­tance sources. The jour­nal­ists in­ter­viewed in Jour­nal­ism in Times of War do not doubt tra­di­tional meth­ods: be­ing an eye­wit­ness, de­vel­op­ing sources, lis­ten­ing to as many views as pos­si­ble, “try­ing to find the truth in a sand­storm of pro­pa­ganda,” as Colvin once put it. How­ever, some chal­lenge West­ern as­sump­tions of “bal­ance.” Zaina Erhaim, a Syr­ian jour­nal­ist who used to live in Aleppo, de­scribes how she and oth­ers be­came dis­il­lu­sioned be­cause their re­port­ing on the cru­elty of the As­sad regime pro­voked lit­tle in­ter­na­tional re­sponse. Syr­ian “me­dia ac­tivists,” as they style them­selves, “are not con­sid­ered as ac­tual jour­nal­ists by most, if not all, in­ter­na­tional me­dia out­lets,” she writes.

We are told this is be­cause they are not “ob­jec­tive” or “neu­tral.” What does “ob­jec­tive” mean in the Syr­ian con­text? Does be­ing “ob­jec­tive” when cov­er­ing Syria mean giv­ing voice to a war crim­i­nal and his pro­pa­ganda, and al­low­ing the regime to jus­tify their bomb­ing of civil­ian ar­eas, schools and hos­pi­tals? Most re­porters for West­ern me­dia who cover Syria are clear that the As­sad regime is com­mit­ting ap­palling atroc­i­ties. How­ever, Syr­ian “me­dia ac­tivists” tend to show only the part of the story that bol­sters their cause. Footage of bomb­ings and suf­fer­ing is not faked, as the pro­pa­gan­dists for the regime claim, but ac­tivists know that if they want in­ter­na­tional sym­pa­thy—they have largely given up on in­ter­na­tional ac­tion—it’s bet­ter to show ex­clu­sively civil­ians, es­pe­cially chil­dren. More­over, rebel fight­ers, whether Is­lamist or more sec­u­lar, do not like to be filmed ex­cept on their own terms, and they have the guns. Up­loaded videos show rebels of all stripes fir­ing weapons and win­ning bat­tles, not squab­bling among them­selves and los­ing ter­ri­tory. What we see may be the truth, but it is not the whole truth, which is why many West­ern read­ers and view­ers still turn to vis­it­ing war cor­re­spon­dents for what they hope will be a fair ver­sion of events.

At their best, cor­re­spon­dents who are parachuted in have a cer­tain skep­ti­cism and dis­tance and can pro­vide an un­der­stand­ing of how the con­flict com­pares to pre­vi­ous wars and fits into the geopol­i­tics of the day. Un­for­tu­nately, ac­cord­ing to Lind­say Palmer’s aca­demic study Be­com­ing the Story: War Cor­re­spon­dents since 9/11, in­creas­ingly it’s the cor­re­spon­dent, not the war, that is the fo­cus of at­ten­tion. “The main­stream, English-lan­guage news or­ga­ni­za­tions tend to place their white, west­ern re­porters most firmly within the frame, rep­re­sent­ing them as the heros of melo­drama,” she writes. Amer­i­can news­pa­pers have only re­cently al­lowed their cor­re­spon­dents to say “I saw” rather than “this cor­re­spon­dent saw” or “an eye­wit­ness saw,” but the per­son­al­iza­tion of TV re­port­ing is a fea­ture on both sides of the At­lantic.

Palmer’s chap­ter on Bob Woodruff, a cor­re­spon­dent and an­chor­man for ABC News, who was in­jured while em­bed­ded with US forces in Iraq in 2006, is a case in point. Palmer sees neg­a­tive po­lit­i­cal forces at work—to her, in­di­vid­u­al­ism is al­ways “ne­olib­eral,” which is not a com­pli­ment. She sharply crit­i­cizes cov­er­age that consigns Iraqis to bit parts in their own drama and “overtly aligned Woodruff with the US sol­diers whose ac­tions he had been cov­er­ing in the field.” Aca­demic lan­guage aside—jour­nal­ists tell sto­ries, they don’t “nar­ra­tivize”—she is on to some­thing as she ex­am­ines how West­ern au­di­ences and read­ers are en­cour­aged to em­pathize with war cor­re­spon­dents as he­roes, victims, or mar­tyrs. Although the syn­drome is less pro­nounced when it comes to print jour­nal­ists, Marie Colvin’s killing in Baba Amr re­ceived far more at­ten­tion than that of Rami al-Sayed, a Syr­ian videog­ra­pher, who was killed in the same place the pre­vi­ous day. It’s easy to un­der­stand: Colvin was an in­ter­na­tion­ally renowned cor­re­spon­dent, fa­mous for the eye­patch she wore af­ter los­ing an eye to shrap­nel from a govern­ment grenade in Sri Lanka, while al-Sayed had only picked up a cam­era a few months ear­lier and was as much an ac­tivist as a jour­nal­ist. But ac­cord­ing to Palmer, al-Sayed’s videos were “cru­cial to the main­stream English-lan­guage news cov­er­age of the 2011–2012 con­flict in Homs,” and the two deaths point up a hi­er­ar­chy fa­mil­iar to all who work in war zones. Palmer shows how non-West­ern jour­nal­ists, many of them free­lancers, are fre­quently un­der­val­ued and un­der­paid, re­ceiv­ing less train­ing and safety equip­ment such as body ar­mor. Lo­cal fix­ers and stringers of­ten feel that their ex­per­tise is mined for the glory of West­ern cor­re­spon­dents who then jet off, leav­ing them to face the fury of the au­thor­i­ties if the re­port is deemed dam­ag­ing or in­ac­cu­rate. Re­porters who go in and out in­evitably know less than lo­cal jour­nal­ists, but knowl­edge is not an ed­i­tor’s sole cri­te­rion. Con­ven­tional wis­dom among TV ex­ec­u­tives has it that the re­porter must build up a re­la­tion­ship with the au­di­ence, hence stars like Woodruff who roam from con­flict to con­flict, pop­ping up all over the world. Reg­u­lar TV view­ers have strong opin­ions on which on­screen re­porters they trust, and sub­sti­tut­ing an­other who might speak Ara­bic or know more about the con­flict at hand will not au­to­mat­i­cally con­vince them. Reg­u­lar news­pa­per read­ers feel sim­i­larly.

Yet this may be chang­ing. Younger view­ers ap­pear to be less con­cerned about the face, or even the voice, as they watch news on de­vices, of­ten with sub­ti­tles rather than voiceover. When it comes to con­flict, the trend is to­ward raw, dra­matic video, shot by lo­cal ac­tivists and jour­nal­ists, show­ing bombs ex­plod­ing and chil­dren be­ing pulled from the rub­ble, of­ten filmed by res­cuers with hel­met cam­eras. On the whole, the on­line viewer does not seem to mind that none of this is me­di­ated by an on-the-spot re­porter—when your story is com­pet­ing with video games and Net­flix, video is the draw rather than sober ex­pli­ca­tion. The era of the star war cor­re­spon­dent who can stand in front of a cam­era and talk flu­ently while things go bang all around may be com­ing to an end. As West­ern publi­ca­tions and chan­nels econ­o­mize by cut­ting back on for­eign bu­reaus, it’s tempt­ing to see dig­i­tal forms of re­port­ing as a sub­sti­tute for send­ing in for­eign cor­re­spon­dents. No re­porter can dis­count What­sApp, YouTube, and the myr­iad of mod­ern ways to keep abreast of the story as it hap­pens be­yond our view, but “be­ing there” re­mains of the essence. ArabAmer­i­can re­porters told Palmer that they op­er­ated at a huge ad­van­tage be­cause they could em­pha­size whichever part of their cul­tural and lin­guis­tic iden­tity helps them get the story, from ex­press­ing em­pa­thy (“I’m an Arab like you—I un­der­stand”) to pre­tend­ing not to un­der­stand the lan­guage in the hope that peo­ple will speak to one an­other more freely, safe in the knowl­edge that the id­iot re­porter has no clue about what is go­ing on. They have the equiv­a­lent cul­tural un­der­stand­ing to com­mu­ni­cate to a West­ern au­di­ence.

The fu­ture of war cor­re­spond­ing, then, is hy­phen­ated—Syr­i­anAmer­i­can, Le­banese-Bri­tish, Ira­ni­anFrench, Nige­rian-Cana­dian—and prob­a­bly more self-ef­fac­ing. With their per­sonal chron­i­cle of war en­hanced by evoca­tive il­lus­tra­tions, ini­tially forged through the medium of Twit­ter, Hisham and Crabap­ple show the po­ten­tial of new meth­ods of sto­ry­telling. Abouzeid’s un­der­stated brav­ery and abil­ity to merge into the back­ground speak to the power of im­mer­sive eye­wit­ness re­port­ing, fore­ground­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence of the peo­ple she meets and writ­ing with mod­esty. As Holling­worth once said, “I like the smell of the breezes. But you can’t smell the breezes on a com­puter.”

Syr­ian refugees hid­ing from Turk­ish border guards near Afrin, north­ern Syria, June 2015; il­lus­tra­tion from Mar­wan Hisham and Molly Crabap­ple’s Brothers of the Gun

Rami al-Sayed, a Syr­ian videog­ra­pher who was killed while cov­er­ing the govern­ment’s siege of Homs, Fe­bru­ary 2012; il­lus­tra­tion by Molly Crabap­ple

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