Watching a Country Unravel, One Person at a Time: An Intimate Account of Syria’s Civil War

By Najwa al-QattanAugust 3, 2018

Watching a Country Unravel, One Person at a Time: An Intimate Account of Syria’s Civil War

No Turning Back by Rania Abouzeid

IN EARLY 2011, the Arab Spring was at a zenith. Tunisians, Egyptians, and Libyans demanded the resignation of their leaders, and it looked like the protest movements might succeed. In the midst of the excitement, Syrians spoke a common refrain: “This will never happen here.” The revolt against Bashir al-Assad arrived only a few weeks later.

Rania Abouzeid’s No Turning Back: Life, Loss, and Hope in Wartime Syria explains how the impossible happened, and how it went so tragically awry. Abouzeid, a well-known journalist, spent six years traveling in Syria (and many other Middle Eastern and European countries) gathering the material for this compassionate account of the Syrian uprising and civil war.

On a broad level, she tracks the complex trajectory of events and helps the reader navigate the dizzying array of local, regional, and international actors and the shifting allegiances. Abouzeid also provides extensive coverage of the role of social media in the Syrian uprising, particularly the role of young people, the “seeds of a grassroots civil society, young Internet-savvy volunteers working in their hometowns and learning as they went.” She invites us to consider the dynamic processes that connected local communities and transformed them into citizen rebels across Syria.

Picture this: in the government-besieged town of Rastan, activists drape sheets against the wall of a mosque that stands across the street from the State Security Building (its own wall graffitied with “Bashir is a donkey”). These sheets transform the wall of the mosque into a huge screen, onto which they project news footage of the protests happening throughout Syria so that Rastan knows it is not alone.

But at the heart of the book are the transformations that were taking place in the everyday lives of Syrian men, women, and children. To this end, Abouzeid expertly moves between succinct commentary on the context and the lives of a “cast of characters” who anchor her narrative and humanize it. These stories are a powerful reminder of the countless Syrian civilians who started a peaceful uprising, only to be both devoured and forgotten by most of the actors involved, many of whom were supposedly waging a revolution on their behalf.

Abouzeid’s “characters” cross ideological, religious, gender, age, and class divides. They all experience the upheaval and violence. From bewildered civilians to active participants and rebels: all are changed, but differently. In her “Note to Readers,” Abouzeid writes that her book is about “how a country unraveled one person at a time.”

Hence the book is about the reluctant activist; the rebel who became a commander; the prisoner who became an Islamist; the Islamist who became a radical; and even an erstwhile jihadist who ended up a content busboy in a restaurant in an unnamed European city. Abouzeid registers the small and big ways in which her characters were changed: some, it is true, appear to have forsaken their humanity to extremism and power, but most find creative ways to stay anchored, or to retrieve a measure of what had been lost.

Abouzeid’s eye and ear for the telling detail, the pregnant anecdote, the overheard phone conversation are testimony to her narrative skills. The writing is searing and sparingly beautiful, without ever trivializing the destruction and suffering it attempts to capture. War, she reminds us, alters the architecture of the city as much as it scrambles the human psyche. War’s destruction changes people’s relationship with space and movement, even inside the private space of the home. Abouzeid’s reporting is filled with evocative snapshots: front doors purposely left open during bombings to dampen the blasts; a little girl fearfully running across an open courtyard, a playing space now filled with danger. And from minarets, calls to prayer, calls to revolution, calls to defection. Explaining why they cannot return home to Saraqeb, a mother tells her daughter: “Now the planes are as permanent as the birds in the air.” Down on the ground, the author adds, the dead moved closer to the living ­­­— parks became new cemeteries, cemeteries became homes for internal refugees.

She shows us the new smells and sounds of violence that became normalized: “acoustic obituaries” from minarets; a young girl smirking in embarrassment that her mother still flinches at the sound of bullets; government shelling so predictable that Syrians called it the “nightly schedule,” as “regimented as a television viewing guide.” War also alters people’s relationship with time. In government-besieged Saraqeb, she notes, “the rebels called ahead to the gravedigger before they went on a mission,” often prepaying to save their families the expense.

Abouzeid does not shy away from the horrific realities of life under the regime, inside and out of its maze of prisons. Relaying these embodied, visceral, and often violent experiences allows her to illustrate the long-term processes at work in the making of rebels, revolutionaries, and Islamists. Through these stories we see how the excesses of the regime planted the seeds of the uprising long before 2011.

Mohammad, for example, was a boy of seven when the security service arrived in the village of Jisr al-Shaghour in early August 1986. He and everyone else in the village were ordered to watch as a neighbor, accused of connections to the Muslim Brotherhood, was beaten and his elderly mother stripped naked, beaten, and threatened with rape. “They planted hatred in me that day, it became rooted.”

Witnessing state violence against Islamists was only the first step. Mohammad tells Abouzeid that even though he was a secret admirer of al-Qaeda, it was his numerous stints in prison that radicalized him, making him an active member rather than a secret fan. He notes sardonically that after so many “sleeping” incidents for doing nothing, he decided to do something to make imprisonment worth his while. But it was the experience in prison and the connections he and others made there that were most transformative: prison, according to Mohammad, was his “greatest school.”

In the sections of the book that linger on the prison experience, the reader cannot but note what historians have long known: that prison is a catalyst for radicalization, as well as organizing. When I teach the history of the Middle East in the 20th century, I have a running joke of posing this question to my students: if you grow up to become an authoritarian leader and you want to hold on to your power, what things should you avoid doing? One thing is for certain: you should not release political prisoners, and you should certainly not reimprison them with like-minded activists. It seems that Bashir al-Assad, much like other members of the Middle Eastern club of dictators, does not care for history books. In a sense, this is good, for whoever is ignorant about the past is doomed to repeat past mistakes.

At another level, many of the prison experiences are testimony to human beings’ capacity for monstrosity as well as endurance. Suleiman, for example, was a carefree, apolitical young man who became a cyber-activist during the uprising. After he was detained, he was swallowed into a dark hole of imprisonment and torture almost too harrowing to read about.

Suleiman was “released” several times, only to be rearrested by a different state agency within minutes of being freed. At one point, he “marveled at the artistic cruelty of his guards. Who thought up those things?” He notes that one of his interrogators was nicknamed Abu Khatem (“the father of the ring”) because of the rings that cut the flesh of the prisoners he tortured or, in his words, “turned [them] into art.” One is tempted to add that Abu Khatem’s was art for art’s sake, with a nod to Kafka: randomly selected prisoners were subjected to extreme torture on a systematic basis, but never interrogated. Those who survived lived in overcrowded and utterly filthy conditions.

Yet, in the spirit of Solzhenitsyn’s Ivan Denisovich and Sinan Antoon’s Furat — prisoners in Stalin’s USSR and Saddam’s Iraq, respectively — there is also plenty of humanity and of the human spirit on display. Abouzeid recounts numerous acts of small kindness, particularly in the way that prisoners took care of their sickly and wounded. As one of hundreds of prisoners, sitting in rows upon rows in mind-numbing and bone-breaking silent agony, Suleiman fashions prayer beads from olive pits and string. He prays as he sits. He had learned to pray from other inmates. And what better act of small defiance in a prison where the guards ask, “Who is your God?” and where there are only two acceptable responses: “Bashir al-Assad, or you, sidi [master].”


Abouzeid writes that “revolution is an intimate, multipart act. First you silence the policeman in your head, then you face the policemen in the streets.” No Turning Back manages to convey the mixture of disbelief and newborn hope that drove thousands of people to take to the streets across Syria in March 2011. Among the most poignant examples of the stories she relates is about an 18-year-old student named Mohammad Darwish who, on April 1, 2011, dared to shout, “We want freedom,” in the middle of a crowd of men leaving a mosque in the town of Rastan. To paraphrase Charles Kurzman on the Iranian Revolution, this brave act illustrates the moment at which the unimaginable becomes possible. And in the spirit of Kurzman’s study, Abouzeid’s narrative forces the reader to ask: what comes first, revolution or revolutionaries?

The heroic acts of everyday protest that Abouzeid recounts only take on their full meaning when we understand the years of terrified silence that preceded the uprising. Abouzeid is careful to investigate the tortuous methods of Syria’s “republic of fear,” to borrow Kanan Makiya’s description of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Under the Assads, fear became a constant “physical presence” engrained in people’s minds, in their very bones. And no wonder: Syrians were all too familiar with the state’s complex and multi-branched security apparatus, scores of “men in black leather jackets who could make people disappear.” They remembered well Hafez al-Assad’s scorched earth war against the Muslim Brotherhood, and the destruction of the old city of Hama in 1982 (up to 30,000 people were killed, most of them civilians).

Hence, although the narrative is replete with heart-stopping moments of agony and terror, Abouzeid is rightly compelled by Syrians who manage to break the walls of fear with dignity and determination. The detail with which Abouzeid charts the transformation of civilians into rebels, fighters, Islamists, and radicals is one of the most powerful accomplishments of this book. Scholars have long analyzed the processes of revolution and rebellion, but sometimes forget to address the most important first step: at what point does the wall of fear crack, at what point does a person step out of their home and march against a government that they know will, without a doubt, butcher them?

Among the poems that Abouzeid includes is one by Bassem, a poet “who became a warrior.” His poem clearly registers an intense interest in historical action and memory, and is a needed reminder of the complex role that Islam has played in this conflict. It ends:

[W]e are entering the future clear-eyed
Demanding that history testify and that our grandchildren know
That Muslims, rightly named, spoke and acted
Those who knew, who know, that if they spoke they would die, acted.

Bassem’s poem offers an interesting contrast to the sentiments expressed a century ago, by another Syrian poet who shared his concern with history. In October 1916, Nasib cArida, a Syrian immigrant and editor of the New York City magazine al-Funun, wrote with bitterness about the humiliation and passivity of the people in his home country during World War I:

A people without courage reaps only death as its reward
Let history fold over the page
And from its book erase
This tale of weakness and disgrace. [1]

The tragic irony is that now, when Syrians have found the courage to act, it is precisely the brave who are dying.

Indeed, a sense of irony pervades Abouzeid’s narrative. She takes us back to February 2011, when Damascus, “the beating heart of Arabism,” banned a pan-Arab vigil against the Libyan embassy. The ban ended in violence, and was one of many sparks that led to the uprising. We learn, too, of a roundabout in Raqqa called Paradise, which ISIS decorated with long spikes topped with the heads of men it had executed. The irony is apt, for irony’s essence is the dashing of expectations. And if anything defines the events of the Arab Spring, it is precisely their unspring-like and devastating consequences.

One such consequence is exile. At what point does the involuntary refugee come to terms with extended homelessness, and with the more bitter reality that there is no longer a home at all? To paraphrase Suleiman, home is where you don’t have to explain yourself. But what to do if you no longer recognize the place you left behind? One answer — to my mind, the most defiant and inspiring — comes from a man named Maysaara. After fleeing to Turkey with his family, he returns alone to Saraqeb in 2015. After years fighting the regime, he goes home to work his land and provide employment to men who might otherwise fight for pay. He explains to Abouzeid: “If you leave it, you don’t deserve to return. […] What am I if I leave?”

For many Syrians, the years of war meant long periods of deprivation and starvation in besieged cities and towns. In Homs, Aleppo, Ghouta, and other locations, Syrians were reduced to eating grass, cats, and dogs. In fact, by 2013, muftis (men learned in sharia) in several Syrian locales began issuing fatwas (opinions) allowing for the consumption of unlawful food in cases of starvation. This is not the first time that war has driven Syrian civilians to survive on the flesh of animals prohibited by Islamic law. Just over a century ago, during the Great War, Syrians experienced a famine so devastating that, in the apocryphal memory of one writer, “mothers ate children; they became like cats and ate their children.” [2]

Nevertheless, Abouzeid’s title mentions “hope.” So let us not forget the Syrian who became known as the “cat man of Aleppo” for his commitment to saving animals in a destroyed city. Among the litany of evils Abouzeid bears witness to, such small acts of mercy shine a spotlight on humanity’s enduring resilience.


Najwa al-Qattan is professor of Ottoman and modern Middle Eastern History at Loyola Marymount University. Her areas of research include: the Jews and Christians of the Ottoman Empire, the Ottoman sharia courts, and Syria and Lebanon in the Great War.


[1] Nasib cArida, in Mustafa Badawi, Mukhtarat min al-shicr al-hadith [Selections from Contemporary Poetry] (Dar al-Nahar li’l-Nashr, Beirut, Lebanon: 1969), pp 111–112. The translation is the author’s.

[2] Hanna Mina, Fragments of Memory: A Story of a Syrian Family, trans., Olive Kenny and Lorne Kenny (Texas: University of Texas at Austin, 1993), p. 173.

LARB Contributor

Najwa al-Qattan is professor of Middle Eastern History at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. She holds a BA in philosophy from the American University of Beirut, an MA in philosophy from Georgetown University, and a PhD in history from Harvard University. She is the recipient of awards and grants from SSRC, NEH, the Middle East Studies Association, and the Turkish Studies Association. She has published on the Ottoman Muslim court in Damascus and Beirut, the Jews and Christians of the Ottoman Empire, and the Ottoman Great War in journals and books, including the International Journal of Middle East Studies and Comparative Studies in Society and History.


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