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.
In riveting, heartbreaking detail, Campbell seamlessly weaves together her own search and investigation with Ahlam’s horrific imprisonment and interrogation. Campbell also provides an excellent primer on how the Middle East’s complex history has contributed to the area’s strife. This is an important, chilling book that explores the ongoing plight of Syria’s citizens and refugees, as well as the perilous struggles of the journalists who deliver their stories to the rest of the world.
...[a] riveting detective story ... Campbell reveals the intimate relationship between journalist and fixer — and, more tellingly, unravels a darker truth about how a paranoid security service can terrorize those on both sides of a prison wall ... even for those who don't have a personal connection to the Syrian story, Disappearance is a great read. It's a taut detective story, and an intimate account of friendship in the paranoia of a coming war.
Disappearance in Damascus tells Ahlam’s remarkable story of tragedy and resilience while situating her experience within the larger context of the war in Iraq. Campbell’s captivating writing allows readers to see inside the life of a foreign correspondent and the bonds forged and broken through investigative reporting.
Baghdad, home to hundreds of thousands of refugees from neighboring Iraq, and figure out what the story is and how to gain access to it? The first answer, as Campbell explains in her gripping new book, A Disappearance in Damascus, is in locating a good fixer ... The book is Campbell’s account of her relationship with Ahlam and her efforts to find her during her months-long disappearance ...provides a fascinating look at how journalists work, an inside perspective that feels particularly useful at a time when the profession is under fire ... The depth of the friendship between two women from such different circumstances is both poignant and hopeful, even as the contrast between them is stark ... She devotes too many pages to the dissolution of that relationship when the one with Ahlam will be the most interesting to readers.
A seasoned immersive journalist, she goes undercover as an academic to move about more freely and avoid suspicion. For a while, this approach works well: She doggedly pursues her work, describing refugees’ current suffering and survivors’ haunting memories of kidnappings, torture, and shootings with clear-eyed resolve and an empathetic touch … The thriller, mystery novel quality kept me turning pages, but of course, it isn’t fiction, even if truth has been obscured by war and the passage of time. Campbell takes time to dispel beliefs about what is now history … Throughout her story, Campbell conveys both authority and humility — a refreshing combination of traits.
Campbell’s text races along—catching readers’ hearts as it goes—and after the arrest, the author includes sections of 'Ahlam’s Story,' grim third-person accounts about the experience of prison: deprivation, interrogations, violence, and terror. These sections increase the tension in readers, who have known since the beginning that dark things were on the way. The author sometimes veers a little toward the melodramatic near the ends of chapters, but it’s a small quibble in a powerful book. In the stormwater’s swirl, Campbell has found a bright and tender leaf to follow, and the effect on readers will be transformative.