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Wendy Pearlman Brings Syrian Voices to American Readers

The author will discuss her book, "We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled," in DC this week

A woman walks near a destroyed house in the city of Homs. Photograph via iStock.

It has been more than seven years since the Arab Spring spurred uprisings throughout the Middle East. Of all the countries where political protests occurred, Syria has faced perhaps the harshest backlash from its government. The Syrian Civil War, which arose from Arab Spring protests, has pitted civilian rebel forces against President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal regime. Hundreds of thousands of civilians have lost their lives, and more than five million have fled the country, contributing to one of the largest migration crises in history.

From the start of the Arab Spring, Wendy Pearlman, a comparative politics professor specializing in the Middle East, was captivated by the “shows of people power” taking place across the region. She says this was particularly true in Syria, where citizens had long lived under a centralized, secular regime that fostered a culture of fear–in Pearlman’s words, “the sense that if you crossed a line with the government, your entire life and your family’s life could be put in danger.”

In Washington, where Syria is often talked about in terms of geopolitical strategy rather than human cost, the crisis can seem distant; even insignificant. But in We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled, Pearlman’s recent book about the six-year conflict, the author seeks to bring human voices to the forefront of the conversation.

For the book, Pearlman spent five years interviewing Syrians who had fled their homes into neighboring countries such as Lebanon and Turkey. More recently, she spoke with those who sought asylum in Europe. The end result is a compelling collection of oral histories from Syrians across a number of generations.

Older generations of Syrians remember living under Hafez al-Assad, whose secular Baath party created a pervading sense of fear so that, as one Syrian, Iliyas, remembers, even school principals were afraid of “janitors sweeping the floor, because they’re all government informants.” Under Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Musa, a professor, notes that “the poor got poorer and the people got angrier, day after day.” Pearlman’s interview subjects talk about the thrill that citizens felt protesting the government when the revolution first started. Those who were imprisoned by the Assad regime remember harrowing scenes of torture, and those who escaped recount terrifying journeys on inflatable boats to Turkey, a scene that became all too common when the migration crisis intensified in 2015.   

Pearlman says she hopes readers walk away with a more nuanced view of a conflict that is often painted as a war on terror, or a purely sectarian conflict, by American media outlets and politicians. Like so many conflicts in which the US has intervened, Pearlman says it’s more complicated than that. “I do think one of the main misconceptions is…in thinking that the real problem is fundamentalist or Jihadist groups. The Syrians see them as a symptom, not the cause,” says Pearlman of groups such as ISIS, which have gained strength as the country has lost stability. “The cause is an authoritarian regime willing to do anything to stay in power.”

In writing about a conflict in which myriad foreign interests–from Russia and Iran to the U.S. and Europe–are pitted against one another, Pearlman hopes readers pay attention to the human stories at the heart of the revolution. “There’s no greater way to understand the human dimension, the human toll of conflict, than through human stories,” she says.

Pearlman will speak about her book at Busboys and Poets on Tuesday, and at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs on Thursday.   

Courtney Vinopal is a former Washingtonian editorial fellow. She holds a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University, and previously worked as a press attaché for the Embassy of France in Washington, where she ran the institution’s social media accounts and newsletters. She lives in Woodley Park.