Rania Abouzeid's book 'No Turning Back,' about the Syrian civil war, is eloquent and devastating

Abouzeid gives voice to a handful of the millions of Syrians whose lives were tragically upended by war.

No Turning Back By Rania Abouzeid Norton, W. W. & Company 400 pp.

The Syrian Civil War has been raging without letup for seven years with no hope of resolution or end in sight. Hundreds of thousands of people have fled, the warring sides have fractured and multiplied, and reports of atrocities have mounted as all combatants grow more desperate. As award-winning international journalist Rania Abouzeid puts it in her eloquent and devastating new book No Turning Back: Life, Loss, and Hope in Wartime Syria, “The war there has become a conflict where the dead are not merely nameless, reduced to figures. They are not even numbers.”

Those numbers are all the more staggering for being maddeningly vague. In 2013, Abouzeid writes, “the United Nations abandoned trying to count Syria's casualties due to the difficulty of verifying information, although estimates put the death toll at well over 500,000 people.” Half of Syria's population of about 23 million have been displaced; even if the war were to end tomorrow, it would be decades before anything even close to firm numbers could be placed on the sheer human toll of these years.

Abouzeid has not written a history of that war in these pages, although she knows the subject as well as anybody. Rather, through a great amount of direct and dangerous reporting (including sneaking into northern Syria on missions for which she would certainly have been arrested and perhaps executed had she been discovered), she has assembled a handful of personal stories of lives uprooted by the war. “I went to Syria to see, to investigate, to listen,” she writes, “not to talk over people who can speak for themselves.” 

The bulk of "No Turning Back" is Abouzeid's assemblage of these stories, following a small cast of characters from the “Arab Spring” of 2011 to the present. These characters come from all parts of Syrian society and from many regions and factions – in Rastan, in Saraqeb, in the Free Syrian Army, in  the ranks of Non-Free Syrian Army Islamists, and elsewhere. There's Abu Othman, an Islamic legal scholar from Aleppo; Mohammed Darwish, a student who led protests in the early days of the war; Abu Azzam, an Arabic literature student from Homs; his roommate, Bandar; Dr. Rami Habib, a field clinic doctor; and a dozen others. Abouzeid patiently listens to them as they relate a kind of chaos most of this book's readers will have difficulty imagining. 

Abouzeid relates the drama of this chaos in gripping prose. “The quick pop! Pop! Of two shots, followed by an abrupt single volley of gunfire,” one typical passage reads. “Suleiman hit the ground. A bullet whizzed past his ear so close he heard it whistle, its sound caught on camera. On his stomach, still filming.”

Some of the book's most vivid flashes are moments of peace rather than violence. When Bandar is stopped at an ISIS checkpoint outside of Aleppo, for instance, his memory of what drew his eye is vivid: “Bandar was ordered to drive … to a nondescript concrete office adjacent to the dam, some five minutes away. He remembered looking at the still waters on either side of him, the way the morning sun glinted off the surface like a mirror.”

But by far the book is also steeped in terror, which seeps into every story and can be smothering in its offhand universality. In one story, for example, we're told about 18-year-old Mohammed Ayman Alrad, son of a judge and an aspiring law student himself. He was living in Daraa City and heading to a soccer game with his friends when he noticed anti-Assad graffiti on a school wall. He was later arrested, apparently on suspicion that he'd made the graffiti himself; he's plunged into an endless parody of a penal system, beaten with thick cables, and electroshocked so repeatedly that he begins to doubt his own innocence. 

His story is replicated endlessly in Syria's last decade, and the outline this book draws of that conflict is as murky as it is stark. “You forget all other affiliations,” one of her characters says, “ – tribal, national, family, or geographic – you just have Islam.”

The subtitle of "No Turning Back" offers life, loss … and also hope. But Abouzeid herself makes the case for optimism very faint. Syria's revolutionaries, she writes, wanted to bring down the Assad regime but not necessarily destroy the state, to “dissect a regime from institutions that were a reflection of its corruption and paranoia.” Even Abouzeid, clinging tenaciously to a brighter future for Syria, admits that there isn't much hope for such an outcome. Any such hope, the reader is left to infer, will come from people like the ones living their lives in this book.

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