Reading as Witness

I am in the middle of reading Samar Yazbek’s A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution (trans. Max Weiss, available next month), and it is very possibly the most painful book-experience I have ever had. Every few pages, I am so overwhelmed that I need to put the book down and stare out the window.

I am usually a fairly hardy reader: My husband resented me for giving him Elias Khoury’s award-winning Yalo (2000), trans. Humphrey Davies (2009), which unrelentingly explores the nature of — and relationship between — torture, violence, and story. I feel a bit cold-hearted to say it, but I appreciate the book’s art. Algerian author Anouar Benmalek’s Abduction, trans. Simon Pare (2011), is based on a true story. The book piles horror atop horror. But it’s a discussion of horror, a look at horror.

Because of the level of craft and shaping in those books, I was able to read them at a critical distance. Even though they discussed (real, and real-seeming) horrors, they also gave me a sort of philosophical…enjoyment, I suppose.

A Woman in the Crossfire is not shaped. This is not because it’s nonfiction: If you read Cairo: My City, Our Revolution, you’ll find that Ahdaf Soueif’s revolution diary received careful and thoughtful shaping. Perhaps this is all the shaping Yazbek could manage. Or perhaps it’s her diary’s most fitting form.

Yes, yes, books about horrors — let’s say Primo Levi’s If This is a Man can be pleasurable readerly and philosophical experiences. But reading A Woman in the Crossfire is not pleasurable in any straightforward way. Or at least not in the first 130 pages.

I suppose, in many other books of witness, there is a pleasure in seeing “how things turned out” and “learning from the experience” and having a catharsis of one’s own.

But Crossfire has not “turned out,” of course. It feels like a writer’s thoughtful but hurried diary smuggled out of a situation that’s currently ongoing. It’s not quite news; it’s not quite art. We are listening to witness testimonies along with Yazbek. We hear about a fight with her daughter, about how Yazbek woke up in the middle of the night screaming. We follow her, stumbling, into prison. We follow her, stumbling, back out again.

Somehow, reading this feels like I, too, am now participating.

Of course, when I write that, it feels ridiculous.  I am not participating.  Perhaps I have learned something (although I already had a pretty strong sense that one should neither give PR assistance to Bashar al-Assad nor sell him fancy shoes or weapons). But mostly, I have shared in some people’s pain. Is there some point to secretly, in my own home, sharing in people’s pain? I don’t know. But once you’ve started, and you’ve found that you care about these people — these characters, these people — it’s also difficult to stop.


  1. Thank you Marcia. Of all your reviews this is the most touching one. Maybe because it’s still an ongoing struggle, maybe because we don’t know how things really are and how they will turn out and how this woman, in the mids of all this suffering, still managed to focus and write it all down in a coherent way, that I want to run out and buy the book.

    1. As Samar Yazbek’s publisher I would be happy to send you a book or, if you are in London, do come to the bookHaus (70 Cadogan Court, SW1) where we have advance copies for sale.

      1. Barbara, I hope there will be copies on sale in Cairo? Our book market isn’t huge, but this book will matter.

        1. The Egyptian book market is very important to us and we will do our best to get you books there as soon as possible – I promise!

  2. I am deeply interested in the ongoing political upheaval in Arab states and was wondering if it would be possible for you to compile a list of books related to the different countries affected by the Arab spring and the current situation in Syria.

    1. OP, I try to only deal in creative writing (memoir, fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry), but I can do my best.

  3. For several years after the Lebanese War(s) ended, many of us bemoaned the dearth of literary output about what we lived through for 15 years. I believe there is a process of reflection that needs to take place leading to the objectivity necessary to write about one’s pain. I salute Yazbeck- and I understand your quandary. One cannot make sense of suffering prior to closure- only endure it

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