The Levy Lecture Series speaker on April 6 was Dr. Wendy Pearlman, a professor of political science at Northwestern University specializing in the Middle East. She described the presentation as a “microcosm” of her third book, We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria. Published in 2017, the book is a “curation of excerpts” from the hundreds of interviews Dr. Pearlman conducted with Syrian refugees between 2012 and 2016.
Dr. Pearlman’s fluency in Arabic allowed her to interview refugees without the assistance of a translator. Open-ended in-person interviews took place in Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Germany, Sweden, United Arab Emirates, Denmark, Norway, United Kingdom, and the United States. It was too risky and unsafe to try to interview people in Syria, she said.
The goal of the book was to represent the voices of the ordinary human beings caught in the Syrian conflict. The pre-war population of Syria was 23 million; since then, between 11 million and 12 million Syrians have been forcibly displaced from their homes. Approximately seven million of these displaced people have reached other countries in the Middle East (5.6 million), Europe (1 million) or North America. Most of these refugees, but not all, do not support the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
More than a half million Syrians – the vast majority of whom are civilians – have been killed in the conflict.
Dr. Pearlman arranged her presentation chronologically. The first stage, what Dr. Pearlman called “authoritarianism,” established the fear many Syrians felt living under the policies established by Hafez al-Assad, Syria’s former president, who came to power in a bloodless coup in November 1970.
For 30 years, until his death in 2000, he provided Syrians with economic assistance and subsidies while he created an atmosphere of terror. Assad did not tolerate criticism. He established a single-party security state, set up multiple internal intelligence agencies, and “monitored, vetted, and punished” ordinary citizens and government workers who dared to criticize his policies. There were spies and informants everywhere. The maxim was “don’t talk – the walls have ears.”
Assad filled the country’s security forces with his personal loyalists and reserved leadership positions for fellow Alawites, members of a minority religious sect within Shia Islam. He ruled through fear and obedience. No one trusted anyone else; the threat of physical harm subdued most critics.
That changed in 1982. The most organized rebel group in Syria, the Muslim Brotherhood, led an insurrection in the city of Hama. Assad’s response was to flatten entire sections of the city with aerial bombing, tanks, and hordes of soldiers going door-to-door looking for rebels. Tens of thousands of civilians perished. The trauma inflicted by the destruction of Hamas, called “the events,” scared and scarred at least one generation of Syrians into silence and compliance.
Hafez died in 2000 and was succeeded by his son, Bashar al-Assad. Initially, the country was hopeful. He instituted more “modern” policies including economic reform, trade liberalization, and privatization. Within months, Assad’s inner circle and extended family became conspicuously wealthy while the rest of the country grappled with reduced government subsidies, meager salaries, a drought, and rising unemployment. Poverty was widespread.
Corruption, nepotism, and bribes rewarded those who were more connected than qualified. The only way to get ahead was to demonstrate loyalty to the regime. Aspirations died as repression flourished. Some Syrians dared to demand more economic opportunities and freedoms, but most were too afraid to do so.
The Arab Spring, a series of anti-government uprisings, began in late 2010 and early 2011 in Tunisia, then Egypt, followed by Libya. The Syrian people watched … and began to dream. There were peaceful demonstrations demanding more freedoms. Facebook helped share information, and the demonstrations spread to all parts of the country, lasting for days at a time, drawing larger and larger crowds. The barrier of fear had broken.
Over and over, the refugees described the experience of attending a demonstration and shouting “Freedom!” as “transformative.” One man told her it was better than his wedding day. (When his wife heard what he had said, she stopped talking to him for a month.) There was a palpable sense of optimism. Another person confided how he, his wife, and their daughter went to a demonstration and became “addicted” to protesting.
For the first few months of demonstrations, the Assad regime responded with militarization and violence: police beatings, torture, rape as a weapon of war, house searches, and imprisonment. Then the security forces attacked with guns, and the rebel groups responded in kind. Groups outside of Syria got involved, sending weaponry and financial support, and the conflict expanded into a full-fledged war.
The Assad regime went after its citizens with aerial bombings, barrel bombs (dumpsters filled with explosives), tanks, and chemical weapons. The attacks were so commonplace that living in a war zone became “normalized.”
Dr. Pearlman showed a photo of a mother and child peeling potatoes on the terrace of their city apartment; every structure behind them was missing the outward facing wall, each apartment exposed to the elements, empty of any signs of life.
Those who made it out of Syria are trying to acclimate to their new countries, learning new languages, and trying to eke out a living. One woman told Dr. Pearlman, “We don’t have a problem with death. Our problem is life without dignity. If we’d known what was in store for us, we never would have come. But we did come, and now we can’t just return. There’s no way back.”
After 10 years, the war is technically over. Assad and his forces have regained control of territory formerly controlled by rebels. But at what cost? Much of the country’s structures have been destroyed, millions of Syrians have left, half a million or more are dead, and hyperinflation is rampant. Those refugees who do return run the risk of arrest, imprisonment, torture, or “being disappeared,” never to be heard from again.
There are no easy answers and no clear path about what will happen next. Those who would like to watch a video of Dr. Pearlman’s compelling video may go to the Foundation’s YouTube channel.
By Wendi Kromash as published in the Evanston RoundTable. Ms. Kromash is a member of the Levy Center Foundation Board; she manages and moderates the Levy Lecture Series.