Since the Syrian uprising began in 2011, over half of the country’s population has fled the homeland—6.5 million people displaced. Middle East expert and Northwestern University political scientist Wendy Pearlman interviewed more than 300 of them between 2012 and 2016, artfully composing them into the new book We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria (Custom House).
Equal parts heroic epic and tragedy, her book covers the events leading up to and following the Syrian uprising, stitching together the collective journey of Syrians to Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, and countries throughout Europe. The result is a people’s history of activists, mothers, doctors, students, actors, fighters, and therapists who describe life and loss during this tumultuous period.
Pearlman sat down with Chicago to discuss what we she learned from curating Syrians’ personal stories in an age of displacement.
You are known for your fluency in Arabic. What’s your favorite expression in the Arabic language?
Yani يَعْنِي which is a party of a word that captures the soul of a conversation. In some situations it translates to “it means,” but it literally can have a million different meanings depending on context and intonation: from yes to no, to like, maybe, even no way in hell.
How does it feel to cover the Middle East from Chicago as female writer and academic?
Let’s just say the women’s bathroom is full in the academic world of political science. I’ve found it’s a remarkably female field full of support. Regarding field work, I think CUNY Hunter College’s Jillian Schwedler describes it best in The Third Gender: as a foreign woman you float between male and female spaces in the Arab world. I can go to coffee shops and ride in taxis alone engaging in a very male world while at the same time I can be alone with women in a kitchen or prayer space in a way that foreign or local men can’t; it’s a blessing.
Where does the intimacy of conversations captured in We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled come from?
My relationship with Syrians is grounded in spending a lot of time in Arab society since college. Doing research for me has always been about hanging out in living rooms, making dinner, going grocery shopping, or riding in packed shared taxis. Sometimes I look back and I think I should have gone in, and out, and analyzed data, but my approach is just a lot of being and observing of what society is like; there are social and cultural norms that you can’t learn as a political scientist by just reading.
Why write a book on the Syrian uprising in 2017?
When Arab Spring began in 2010, many observers believed protests would never spread to Syria: It was a society too silent, too oppressed to ever rise up. When Syrians did peacefully protest for democratic reforms in 2011, it captivated my mind and heart. I asked myself, would I have the courage to go out into the streets to protest for the first time ever and risk my life for an elusive political dream? That’s a question I want readers to ask themselves as well.
The more I talked to Syrians, the more I came to appreciate everything this uprising was and why they risked so much for it. I don’t want to romanticize things—no one comes out clean from what eventually evolved into an armed conflict—but my hope is that We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled encourages people to not look at Syrians with fear, or pity, but with respect for their resilience, hope, and grit. As one interviewee told me, “We aren’t angels or devils; we’re just human beings.”
What was your intention in shaping your book as a collection of first-person narratives?
Journalists have the pressures of rapid response times and word count without space to deep dive into the historical context. From a political scientist point of view, to understand what is happening in Syria today, it’s crucial for readers to understand what happened before 2011. There’s no better way to do that than for Syrians themselves to explain the role of religion, sex, social media, gender, the mechanics of demonstration, and trauma in uprising, war, and mass displacement.
Why split We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled into eight parts?
Readers need to understand historical phases to understand the whole Syria conflict. When you hear Syria today, you often hear “refugee.” But the mass exodus of people is really the last stage of this conflict. It’s equally crucial for readers to know how the regime changed when Bashar al-Assad came to power in 2000, and the impact of the first demonstrations in 2011.
Phrases such as “the walls have ears” or the disappearance of family members are commonplace in your book. Why include graphic and often violent stories?
These experiences are so incredibly widespread among Syrians. Something would be missing if I didn’t include them. Though the book has a few stories recounting torture and imprisionment, I heard many, many more. Mental and physical violence is reflective of what I had heard, and unfortunately forced disappearances and torture are a huge parts of the Syrian experience.
Using only one word, how would you describe We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled?