Books

A DISAPPEARANCE IN DAMASCUS

Winner of the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize, The Freedom to Read Award, and The Hubert Evans Prize

Named a Best Book of the Year by
National Post • Chatelaine • CBC Books • The Walrus • The Hill Times

 

A Disappearance in DamascusThe story begins in 2007 when Deborah Campbell travels undercover to Damascus to report on the exodus of Iraqis into Syria following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. There she meets and hires Ahlam, a refugee working as a “fixer”—providing Western media with trustworthy information and contacts to help get the news out. Ahlam, who fled her home in Iraq after being kidnapped while running a humanitarian centre, not only supports her husband and two children through her work with foreign journalists but is setting up a makeshift school for displaced girls. She has become a charismatic, unofficial leader of the refugee community in Damascus, and Campbell is inspired by her determination to create something good amid so much suffering. Ahlam soon becomes her friend as well as her guide. But one morning Ahlam is seized from her home in front of Campbell’s eyes. Haunted by the prospect that their work together has led to her friend’s arrest, Campbell spends the months that follow desperately trying to find her—all the while fearing she could be next.

Through its compelling story of two women caught up in the shadowy politics behind today’s conflict, A Disappearance in Damascus reminds us of the courage of those who risk their lives to bring us the world’s news.

Praise for A Disappearance in Damascus

“In a seamless blend of storytelling and reportage, Deborah Campbell’s A Disappearance in Damascus draws us into the struggles of Iraqi refugees settled in Syria after the fall of Baghdad. The principal character, an Iraqi ‘fixer’ who is also a grieving mother and a nurturing humanitarian, is taken by secret police. Campbell’s account of the search to find her, written with compelling prose, nuanced context, and intimate narration, illuminates the dangers of life and work in a conflict zone through a riveting tale of courage, loss, love, and friendship.”—2016 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction jury

“Paced like a good novel…. A Disappearance in Damascus is vivid, provocative and timely. High-profile kidnappings, arrests and deaths of journalists and their assistants in conflict zones in the last few years have increased public awareness of the role that fixers play and the perils they face…. While institutional efforts may improve protection for fixers, A Disappearance in Damascus illustrates how individual conscience and courage may also be necessary to confront the dangers of bringing news from hot spots around the world.”—Literary Review of Canada

“A compelling first-person story that takes us into the heart of Syria. . . . Illuminating.” —Toronto Star

“Campbell’s exploration of ‘hidden’ worlds, where past and future conflicts converge and confront the intricacies of human relationships, invests A Disappearance in Damascus with the kind of immediacy rarely found in war reporting. . . . On the surface, it is a detective novel, a eulogy to the dying art of immersive journalism. Slightly deeper is a story of love and friendship, and the forces that can tear them apart or make them stronger. Deeper still is a political exegesis exposing the arrogance and folly of the great (and not so great) powers. . . . Campbell deftly unravels all of these complexities, gives them a face, makes them human, so we can finally start to make sense of the incomprehensibility of the world’s most intractable conflict.” —Adnan R. Khan, Maclean’s

“Riveting. . . . Campbell’s book weaves the global into the utmost personal. . . . Laced with reflections on friendship, duty, imperialism and love strained by ambition. . . . This book took a long time to write—and clearly the results were worth the wait!”—The Tyee

“An exceptional read….utterly compelling and consuming.” —Ottawa Review of Books

“A vivid portrait…. A must-read for people wanting to further their understanding of the Syrian civil war and refugee crisis, and about the deep ramifications that the Iraq war had on the rest of the Middle East. Especially now that the worst-case scenario that many Syrians have feared has come to pass, the book is essential to understanding the circumstances that societies lived with before their countries fell into chaos.”—Vancouver Observer

“Deborah Campbell…sees it as her goal to ‘bridge the gap between the readers of magazines I write for… and people in troubled places who such readers would never otherwise meet.’ … A Disappearance in Damascus is an absorbing testament to how successful that approach can be when undertaken by a sympathetic, informed, and committed investigator. It offers a detailed, personal look at the consequences of disruptive global events on the individuals most affected by them.” —Quill & Quire

“Compelling. . . . [Campbell] captures the fear and frustration she felt, the impact on Ahlam’s family and the journey of Ahlam herself, in prison and beyond. . . . It is a bold snapshot of the Assad regime prior to the start of the war, and will give readers an idea of why so many have fought to be rid of that dictator.” —Pique

“Thoroughly reported and deeply felt. . . . an exploration of friendship, obsession and belonging. It also provides essential context for Syria’s civil war.” —Chatelaine

“A Disappearance in Damascus is at once an engrossing mystery and a portal into the Syrian civil war.” —National Post 

“A powerful book….the effect on readers will be transformative.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Captivating.”—Booklist (starred review)

“Gripping, inspiring and at times intensely sorrowful, A Disappearance in Damascus provides a portrait of tremendous courage and resourcefulness within the community of Iraqi war survivors in Syria, the devastation war wreaks upon civilians and a remarkable friendship between two women.”—Phil Klay, winner of the 2014 National Book Award for Redeployment

“In this compelling, moving book, Deborah Campbell unearths so much of what could have disappeared in Damascus―the outcome of the misguided and illegal war on Iraq, a fractured refugee community, reporters risking their lives to get the news out―but mainly the story of Ahlam: a brave, ironic, brilliant Iraqi fixer who bridges worlds and is mother to a community. This is a book about the power of friendship between women, about raw courage, and the political and deeply personal devastations of war.”―Eve Ensler, author of In the Body of the World and The Vagina Monologues

“An extraordinary story of a journalist and her translator as they report on the exodus of Iraqis into Syria following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. They both unwillingly become part of the drama which exposes the legacy of the US invasion of Iraq, the perils of reporting, the bonds of friendship and the undoing of Syria. I could not put this book down.”―Anne Garrels, author of Putin Country: A Journey into the Real Russia and Naked in Baghdad

A Disappearance in Damascus is not just a thriller looking for a missing person but an urgent moral tale about a journalist’s responsibility to their sources and fixers. To her credit, Campbell goes back and does not let go.”―Ben Rawlence, author of City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp

Read an excerpt

Other Books By Deborah Campbell

This Heated Place