Deborah Campbell

Books & Other Writing

A DISAPPEARANCE IN DAMASCUS:
Friendship and Survival in the Shadow of War

WINNER, HILARY WESTON WRITERS’ TRUST PRIZE
WINNER, HUBERT EVANS AWARD

The 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 “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, has become a charismatic 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 she 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 dangerous politics, 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

“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…. Riveting and devastating…. [Campbell] has produced one of the more harrowing accounts of life inside a police state in recent memory.”―Scott Anderson, The New York Times Book Review

“Vivid, captivating, [A Disappearance in Damascus] raises some of the same questions about duty and loyalty, and evokes some of the same emotions [as The Killing Fields]… Campbell’s award-winning memoir-and-more offers a unique window into the life and work of foreign correspondents and the relationships they forge with those they rely on to help them do their jobs.”
—Nick Turse, The Nation

“A riveting detective 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.”―Deborah Amos, NPR

“A compelling story, a page-turner, and one that sheds light on the fraught political situation in the Mideast, the lives of ordinary citizens and the West’s culpability in the giant mess… One of Campbell’s great skills as a writer — besides her formidable reporting chops — is her ability to clearly explain complicated politics without oversimplifying … This important book opens our eyes to the lives of the people who are trying to find peace in a world of chaos.”―Laurie Hertzel, Minneapolis StarTribune

“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.” —Adnan R. Khan, Maclean’s

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

“Captivating.”—Booklist (starred review)

A Disappearance relates an unsettling true story with journalistic adroitness and novelistic flair.”―Rayyan Al-Shawaf, Washington Post

“The book is stellar for many reasons—the minute characterization, the narrative tension, the deft summary connecting the Iraq and Syrian wars….To write a story from a world apart is one thing; to have a reader feel that story is another.”—Ophelia John, Harvard Review

“Deborah Campbell’s clear, compassionate voice pierces war’s fog and woe…The thriller, mystery novel quality kept me turning pages.”—Ari Pinkus, Christian Science Monitor

A Disappearance in Damascus succeeds in delivering both a gripping tale and a sobering commentary on the devastating fallout of America’s war in Iraq.” —Frannie Jackson, Paste Magazine

“Fascinating and thrilling…Campbell’s book is a powerful account of determination and the strength of refugees….[The] friendship between two women from different worlds evolves and flourishes.” —Manal Shakir, Arab News

“The suspenseful tale highlights the strong friendship and resilience of women amidst the complicated politics of the Middle East.” —Tria Raimundo, Chicago Council on Global Affairs

“Harrowing, well told and deeply compassionate, Campbell’s narrative illuminates the hidden consequences of war and the tensile strength of an unlikely friendship….A vivid, compelling memoir.”Shelf Awareness (starred review)

A Disappearance in Damascus is the story of Campbell trying to find her friend in the shadowy city, the depths of female friendship, and the courage it takes to tell stories that the powers-that-be would prefer to remain buried.”—Elizabeth Kiefer, Refinery29

“Extraordinary… Riveting… Takes you deep into the eerie police state that was Damascus before the bombs began to fall in Syria.”—Ann Jones, TomDispatch.com

“Gripping… Campbell deftly deploys memoir and reporting to numerous ends: not only to describe her search for Ahlam but also to capture the damage wrought by the American-led invasion of Iraq and to put in context the devastating civil war that would soon have Syria sending refugees out to the world rather than taking them in.”—Barbara Spindel, Barnes &Noble Review

“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.”
BookPage

“Reads like a thriller but it’s more compelling because it’s true… an incredibly compelling read.”—Robyn Bresnahan, CBC Great Canadian Reading List

“Gripping, inspiring, and at times intensely sorrowful, A Disappearance in Damascus provides a portrait of tremendous courage,… 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

Picador USA Video on A Disappearance in Damascus

This Heated Place (2002)

In 1991 Deborah Campbell was a student of Middle Eastern studies at Tel Aviv University; ten years later she returned to the region seeking insights into one of the world’s most intractable conflicts. “I wanted to fill in the missing pieces, ask the questions I had been unable to formulate in the past,” she writes. “I arrived to an escalating crisis.”

This Heated Place takes readers on a literary journey into twenty-first century Israel and the occupied territories, as Campbell drives through the West Bank with an American-Israeli settler in his bombproof SUV; visits a Palestinian family in Hebron in the aftermath of an army raid; meets students of a girls’ school in Gaza; and talks to Israeli refuseniks who have spent time in prison for their stance. As she travels, she is mindful of the words of someone she meets along the way. When it comes to understanding this terrible conflict, he tells her, what you see depends on where you are standing.

This Heated Place skillfully combines elements of political reporting, travel writing and personal observation. In recounting her journey, Campbell creates an unforgettable portrait of the people caught up in this complex and bloody struggle.

Praise for This Heated Place

“A beautiful book.”
―Vicki Gabereau, Vicki Gabereau Show, CTV

“Revealing insights…admirably non-judgmental.”
Globe and Mail

“An honest work that excellently captures this intractable situation in the Middle East… Brilliant. You have to get this book.”
―Michael Harris, author of Party of One and Justice Denied

This Heated Place, by Deborah Campbell, offers a variety of perspectives on the region as the author encounters gay Tel Avivians, West Bank settlers and Gaza schoolgirls.”
―Lonely Planet Recommended Reading, Israel and the Palestinian Territories

“A unique piece of work that doesn’t just deserve to be read, it needs to be read. Boldly written and poignantly told, This Heated Place is a truly moving experience that offers a great deal of insight…A riveting nonfiction tale…standing on the side of humanity.”
―Edmonton Jewish News