Winner of the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction. A Canadian journalist covering the plight of Iraqis who fled to Syria a decade ago enlists the help of an Iraqi woman in Damascus, only for the woman to be arrested and disappeared.
Deborah Campbell has written a searing and extraordinarily affecting account of her experiences in Syria in the mid-2000s, one that reads in equal parts as memoir, history and mystery story ... The search for Ahlam, to find out why and where she has been taken, and how Campbell might win her release, forms the emotional heart of the book — and it is both riveting and devastating. The account also presents an unusual perspective on the grinding horror of the police state, not the all-too-familiar tale of one of its direct victims, but rather that of the outsider trying to navigate its treacherous shoals ... It is both ironic and a testament to Campbell’s skills as a storyteller that, despite her own very limited risk in the situation she describes, she has produced one of the more harrowing accounts of life inside a police state in recent memory ... If all this makes A Disappearance in Damascus sound like a depressing slog, it is not that at all. Instead, even in its darkest moments, there are bright flashes of humor, along with brief side stories that in the hands of a less accomplished writer would be annoying but are fascinating here.
Although occasionally marred by Campbell’s awe-struck view of her biographical subject, A Disappearance relates an unsettling true story with journalistic adroitness and novelistic flair ... Because of Campbell’s style of immersive journalism, the reader comes to know the author’s fixer-turned-friend intimately ... The author powerfully conveys Ahlam’s plight behind bars, injecting stark brutality into a story hitherto characterized by uncertainty and angst, and ushering the reader into a terrifying hidden dimension ... The wretchedness and trauma of Iraqi refugees languishing in Syria enrobe A Disappearance with an aura of melancholy. Moreover, the knowledge that, because of a looming civil war, millions of Syrians are fated to suffer similar displacement and attendant misery will surely trigger dread on the part of an empathic reader.
It’s a pity that Deborah Campbell’s new book has such a Nancy Drew-like title, because it is actually a serious, riveting work about a part of the world that too many of us know too little about ... One of Campbell’s great skills as a writer — besides her formidable reporting chops — is her ability to clearly explain complicated politics without oversimplifying ... The book is steeped in atmosphere and sensual details, bringing Damascus to vibrant life, a reminder that the war-torn neighborhoods we see in the news are only one part of a sophisticated ancient world ... This important book opens our eyes to the lives of the people who are trying to find peace in a world of chaos.