Book review: We crossed a bridge and it trembled by Wendy Pearlman (June, 2017) For its first six months, the Syrian uprising against the regime of Bashar Al-Assad remained largely peaceful. When violence broke out six months later in September, the Syrian conflict ceased to be about Syrians alone. Suddenly, attention shifted to geopolitics, international norms, and questions on the role of the international community. Media coverage of the Syrian war has focused heavily on the regional and global dimensions of the war while largely ignoring the voices of Syrians. Wendy Pearlman’s new book, We Crossed a Bridge and it Trembled, attempts to fill this gap with a series of profound and poignant testimonials from Syrian refugees who fled and lived to tell the tale. Over the span of four years, Pearlman traveled to meet Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Germany, Sweden, and Denmark. Pearlman, a professor of political science at Northwestern University, interviewed students, soldiers who had defected, merchants, and mothers. Although her interviewees came from diverse religious, political, and ethnic backgrounds, they all supported the 2011 uprising. While their views and experiences do not necessarily represent all Syrians, especially those who support Assad, they offer insight into how over six million internally displaced Syrians and five million Syrian refugees have been struggling to survive since the beginning of the uprising. Pearlman chose to focus on the human stories behind these numbers, making it a little easier to understand a very complicated situation. When the Syrian conflict globalized, it became hard to separate the conflict from global issues such as the Russian and Iranian intervention, the role of militant non-state actors, international terrorism, Europe’s policies on refugees and migrants, and the role of global institutions like the United Nations. These discussions lacked an exploration of the domestic dimension of the conflict and the agency of civilians as they bear the brunt of the war. Pearlman’s book allows a group of diverse Syrian voices to be heard, beyond media narratives that only view “Syrians as victims to be pitied, bodies to be sheltered, radicals to be denounced, or threats to be feared and blocked.” The Syrian conflict has been documented with an overwhelming flow of information, videos, and photos. Online video content of the Syrian conflict exceeds the duration of the actual conflict when comparing video minutes to minutes of real time. Despite this coverage, the conflict remains complex and hard to follow. Pearlman’s book presents succinct accounts of the conflict allowing readers to follow the impacts of the conflict on daily life without the overwhelming stream of information. Some stories are both horrifying and beautiful as they capture human resilience in the face of adversity. One mother described living in Aleppo as a “horror movie” unfolding in real life. Residents got used to news of daily deaths and injuries, but aerial bombardment caused most damage to civilian life. Sham, a Red Crescent relief worker, describes the challenges of working in active combat areas such as witnessing rockets shattering the bodies of “children into a million pieces” and when there were only hands or legs left to be buried. Amid these horrifying conditions, these vignettes convey stories of continued life, such as in one market in rural Idlib, which was bombed during Ramadan, but less than an hour later, people came back to the market “buying and selling.” Policy analysts often argue that the Middle East can either be ruled by “strong men” or chaos will ensue. These arguments often ignore the voice and agency of citizens like Issam, an accountant from rural Aleppo. He describes Syria as he remembers it pre-2011: “we were all just groups of strangers. A country of closed communities, held together by force.” Such authoritarian rule was, and remains, unsustainable. Charting a path where citizens can ensure their rights and prosperity is no easy task and there are no simple answers. In Syria, the balance of power is hardly equal. The Assad regime has been using systemic violence with the help of foreign allies, while Syrians have been denied the freedom and opportunity to organize during years of repression. Waddah, a graduate from Latakia, relates: “What did we want after dignity? We didn’t know. But we knew we needed more than just food.” Others did not share Waddah’s ambivalence and saw democracy as the uprising’s goal, but wondered at what price will it come. As Abu Ma’an, an activist from Daraa explains: “maybe we paid a price that is higher than freedom and higher than democracy. There is always a price for freedom. But not this much”. These accounts show the complexity of a group who knew what they wanted, but not the impact it could have. Through her book, Pearlman allows readers to directly hear from refugees on the Syrian crisis rather than through the lens of a security problem or a talking point in an election. This book provides a new context for those interested in Syria, one that is defined by the Syrians experiencing the conflict carrying both hope and despair for the future of Syria as events continue to unfold. About the author: Sumaya Almajdoub is a Middle East Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). Sumaya received her MA in Middle East Studies from George Washington University.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.