‘[…] she held out a hand above my head.
“Do you swear by God that you’ll tell the world what I have to say?” she asked.
“Swear by the thing you hold most dearly deep in your heart.”
I swore quietly, and as her palm came down on my head it felt like a rock might have shattered from the force.’
Falling foul of Assad’s regime and pursued by the Syrian intelligence services, journalist and writer Samar Yazbek fled to France in 2011. A year later, with what comes across as a feeling of unfinished business, she re-entered Syria illegally three times, determined to do whatever she could to help her homeland and its people, doing what she believed was right. Her aim was to set up small schemes to train women to become financially independent and provide education to children. During her three crossings from Turkey into Syria, she met men, women and children who gave her warm hospitality even when it meant giving her the little they possessed. They looked after her, protected her, told her about themselves, their neighbours, and the price they had paid and were still paying for what had begun as a peaceful protest against the president. She also encountered men who had come from other countries, who were fighting for different, less clear causes, in a country where various powers and interests have turned neighbour against neighbour.
The Crossing is not a book you “enjoy”– it is far too profoundly horrifying, and yet from the very opening sentences (“The barbed wire lacerated my back. I was trembling uncontrollably.”) you are pulled into the narrative with a force you just can’t withstand, and, once you’ve finished reading, you suddenly realise that you have been holding your breath for nearly 300 pages. Samar Yazbek writes comparatively little about her projects with women and children, and, instead, becomes a mouthpiece for all the suffering, horrors, despair and individual human experiences that we don’t get to see in the brief, flashing images we watch nightly on the news. After all, images on a screen are flat. You can’t smell the blood, the fear, you can’t hear the deafening explosions of barrel bombs, you can’t possibly imagine the grief, the sense of utter loss, of overpowering anger and the courage that animates all these individuals. It comes as a surprise to register that the book is written in the past tense.
Samar Yazbek conveys everything as though it’s happening in real time, right before you, and there’s nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. And, practically on every page, you do feel the urge to hide, not to read about any more hallucinating cruelty and pain – but you tell yourself: I must keep on reading. It’s all I can do, so I must do it. This brave woman has risked her life to tell me this, so I must listen without shying away. People knocking down walls between houses in order to go from one part of the street to the other and avoid the sniper who has recently shot a twelve-year-old child. Children with limbs blown off. An innocent man murdered for refusing to rape a girl. A man not killed but with his eyes gouged out and his fingers chopped off. And so you read on, feeling nauseous at times, shocked by how easily people can be capable of such animal brutality.
But then, no, no animal has ever reached the height of cruelty and sadism humans are capable of. It inevitably leads you to wonder about human nature and what people who, in peace time, are perhaps perfectly pleasant, could potentially be capable of. People in your own city. Even people you might know, perhaps. And yet something The Crossing shows us is that not all people sink into the kind of self-loathing and fear that turns them into unconscionable butchers. There are those who, no matter what, keep their dignity, their integrity, their courage and their compassion. And for this alone, this book is an inspiration.
The translation from the Arabic by Nashwa Gowanlock and Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp is limpid, seamless, uncompromising. The bridge they have built between two different languages and cultures is invisible. You are instantly involved in the lives of people you’ve never met, and your heart breaks for them.
After I finished reading The Crossing, someone asked me if I was traumatised by it. The answer is not important. What is important is to read this book. We owe it to Samar Yazbek for having had the courage to write it, and to all those men, women and children – some, sadly, probably now dead, but others, we hope, alive – who have had the courage to tell her their stories. Because reading this book is all we can do for them, it’s the least we can do for them.
Katherine Gregor translates fiction and non-fiction from Italian, French and Russian. She also writes plays, fiction and a regular blog (scribedoll.wordpress.com)