by Humera Afridi
I have just finished reading The Morning They Came for Us by Janine Di Giovanni and, in its wake, Dreaming of Baghdad by Haifa Zangana. I can't recall the last time I had such a powerful and visceral reading experience—needing to physically move my body into air and sunlight, taking myself from the quiet of my living room to a bench at a pier in Manhattan where I gained solace in uninterrupted views of the boundless sky and and the oddly comforting presence of insouciant yachts docked in the marina. I looked up from the harrowing accounts on the page to the bustle of the Farmer's Market and the fountain where Uversa, the self-professed Oracle of Union Square, unveils the future in artful tarot cards. I felt dizzy, disoriented, and, at the same time, reassured.
Ensconced in the knowing that the world familiar to me still reliably exists, I wondered, but, for how long? I read first one book and then the other, compulsively. I am acutely aware that my position as a reader of these books is privileged, precarious—vicariously experiencing the trauma of ongoing wars, through the written word, and at a safe distance, on the shores of a country that has its own dubious hand in the strife-riven lands of these magnificent narratives. Here I am, a person in command of her body, with the freedom to move, in safety, to places of her own choosing, needing the assistance of the sky and deep inhalations of fresh air to get through descriptions of unspeakable torture and imprisonment.
I looked at my surroundings with new eyes. Every person bumping past me in the crowded public spaces in which I chose to read these intimate portraits of war—amid chatter and laughter, and freshly harvested bunches of tender dandelion greens—carries within them a hidden world. How many of these hands, these feet, passing me have touched the skein of war? How many harbor memories of trauma, of elsewheres that shadow them here, in the present of this life, in this city, in this square?
In the Morning They Came For Us Di Giovanni offers a devastating and lucid account of the early years of war in Syria. She limns that in-between space when Thursday pool parties at the Dama Rose Hotel defied the reality of car bombs going off in adjacent neighborhoods, as if the louder the music played and the more beautiful the partygoers, the likelier the conflict could be snuffed out by the sheer will of joie de vivre. And then she takes herself, and us, into the shattered heart of an unmistakable full-on civil war, which precipitates with calamitous velocity and is merciless in its trajectory of destruction. She shares the harrowing experiences of ordinary citizens ineluctably caught in the turmoil. Those who survived, despite the odds, and who Di Giovanni met or sought out on her trips to Syria speak poignantly, in their own voices, of the horrors they experienced.
What is striking in many of the accounts, both in di Giovanni's book, as well as in Zangana's lyrical, elliptical memoir, is the prevalence of the universal desire for freedom. Freedom at all costs, freedom no matter the extent of the sacrifice. Liberation from authoritarian regimes, from occupation—at all costs. And, then, afterwards, after the unspeakable has happened, when life persists miraculously, despite the bestial, inhumane treatment, that breaks you and takes you to the edge of death and back, again and then again, and you think how is it possible I am still alive: what then does freedom mean, what then does freedom look like?
One such testimonial is from Nada, a young activist who grew up in the Alawite triangle of Syria, as a minority Sunni. Her home is very close to the mountain town of Qardaha, the birthplace of Hafez al-Assad, (the father of Bashar al-Assad) who ruled Syria for three decades. From her family she heard stories of the Hama Massacre of 1982 in which thousands were killed after the Syrian Army and the Defence Companies, under the orders of Hafez al-Assad besieged Hama, in addition to countless stories of imprisonment and persecution of religious Sunnis. But Nada joins the opposition, not for religious reasons, she tells Di Giovanni, but because “she ‘wanted the chance to live in a democracy. As you do.'” She joined as a volunteer, at first acting as a runner, bringing sandwiches and medical supplies to the frontlines where fellow students—opposition ‘soldiers,'— were fighting to overthrow Assad. Then she went on to social media and began broadcasting the opposition's message and strategy.
Months into her activism work, Nada receives a phone call from a colleague. It is clear he's been captured and, under duress, has released her name. She thinks of the phone call as a mercy, an alert that will give her time to escape. But she has no passport, nowhere to hide, and her parents with whom she lives have no idea about her activism. So she stays, destroying her notes and every possible shred of evidence, and waits for the inevitable.
“Everyone remembers their last morning of normality,” writes Janine di Giovanni with heartbreaking acuity. “The shaft of early morning light streamed through Nada's window onto her bed, making a small pool on her blanket. She remembers her mother's hurried knock on her door. She remembers the whiteness of her mother's face against her hijab and the tenseness of her mouth as she leaned over her daughter, still in bed, and whispered: ‘There are six police cars outside; they are shouting out your name.”
Frozen with fear, Nada locks herself in the bathroom and remains huddled on the cold floor, until the thunderous knocking begins and the police kick the door in. Di Giovanni's eye for detail is precise, her portrayal of character nuanced and compelling. We witness the utter horror and helplessness of Nada's position in that dreadful moment.
“Nada is tiny. Her bones are delicate, and her face is almost doll-like, with large blue eyes that make her seem younger than her twenty-five years. She covers her hair with a hijab, but the strands that escape are baby-fine, and a quiet brown.
One of the men half-lifted her off the ground…”
Nada's father insists on his right to accompany his daughter to the military police station. But once there, he is sent home. Nada's ordeal begins immediately and lingers interminably. She is kicked, beaten, tortured and raped for eight months and three days. In all that time, she is kept in a small, dark filthy cell—so small that she was unable to stretch her body out—not far from her childhood home.
Writes Di Giovanni: “She had never thought this would happen to her, never considered the potential consequences if she got caught working with the opposition. ‘I just did it. I did not think—maybe I did not let myself think—of what could happen.'
Still, Nada did not cry, at least not at first. She just lay on the ground wishing she were dead.”
The stories of resilience in the face of excruciating pain and loss and trauma populate Di Giovanni's book. She covers the war comprehensively as an embedded journalist, gaining insight into the various factions and points of view of of those involved in the fighting— the opposition as well as the government. What comes through, poignantly, is the universal human desire for freedom and peace, and yet, how tragically elusive it seems.
I am in awe of Di Giovanni's own courage and willingness to sacrifice safety and the joys of motherhood as she persists in covering a brutal war where at any moment, and at every corner, lurk the threat of snipers and kidnappers. Driven by the will to show and remember all those who lost their lives and to bring to justice those who have committed atrocities, she is as compelled to cover this war as those fighting in it are fuelled by the desire for freedom. And, yet, “freedom” is the mantra the torturers spit in the faces of their victims. Di Giovanni recounts how Nada and others were subjected to a similar pattern as that described by a man whom she spoke to in a town in Northern Lebanon who was strapped to a board, his spinal cord fractured by Assad's men.
‘Every time they hit me,' he said, ‘they screamed at me, “You want freedom! Okay, take this! Here is your great freedom!'”
In the prologue to her poetic and riveting memoir, Dreaming of Baghdad, Haifa Zangana, who was born in Baghdad to a middle class family, declares: “This may be the first published book written by an Iraqi woman to address the experience of imprisonment and struggle against the Baath regime, which lasted from 1968 to 2003.” Destined to be either a doctor or pharmacist, she chose instead to be politically active and joined a group of revolutionaries “dreaming of a better Iraq for everyone regardless of their religion, race or political belief.” She was arrested, imprisoned, and tortured, moved from Qasr al-Nihaya, the detention center for political prisoners, to Abu Ghraib, the general prison, to Al-Za'afaraniya, “a prison for prostitutes.”
Zangana employs both the first and third person in her book—the first person as a record of her memories and the third person as she often saw herself, “… standing outside of my own life, trying to remember things and events as correctly and completely as possible.” She says of the book, ” I wrote it about her—not always about me—because I wanted to avoid the illusion of self at the center of events or history.”
The memoir has been written, too, to break the silence on torture, Zangana says. She tells of her own experience. “Silence becomes your refuge from the shame and guilt you feel for being alive. How do you talk about humiliation? About weakness and the fear of letting yourself and others down? About being reduced to an animal sleeping with urine and feces? Thirty years later I still often wake at two a.m., the time when they used to lead me out of my cell for interrogation.”
Dreaming of Baghdad recollects the author's youthful dreams and her work for a free homeland— which turns into a nightmarish ordeal— yet remains empty of self-pity. The narrative is creatively structured—succinct and elliptical, grounded in realism, but all the while bathed in the lyrical evocations of a visionary soul. There is a wretched moment in prison when Zangana touches her hair, matted with dried blood, all too aware of the odors emanating from her broken and bruised body. She thinks:
“Can the soul be separated from its shell and leave it behind and wander the open fields? I gaze into the darkness. I see a green mountain, heavy with bushes and cypress trees. At its foot are vineyards, overlooking a village. The tinkling of water can be heard inside its houses. I see a group of children picking chamomile leaves, putting them in cotton bags, competing with each other to fill them up. I see them eating figs on their way home and throwing walnuts at each other. I see myself laughing happily with them.”
The beauty of such imaginings juxtaposed with the utter brutality of Zangana's experiences of torture is startling and breathtaking. The resilience—the very mystery and marvel of the resilience of the human spirit—resounds powerfully, page after page, in Dreaming of Baghdad.
Reading Haifa Zangana and recalling Nada from The Morning They Came For Us, I am reminded of Noorunissa Inayat Khan—daughter of an American mother and an Indian father—who chose to work for the Resistance in World War II, as a radio operator, a highly dangerous job, and one at which she was extremely proficient. She, too, believed in freedom, the cause of spiritual liberty and was one of the first women radio operators to be flown into Nazi occupied France. Gentle and quiet, a musician and author of children's stories, often described as a dreamer, Noorunisa Inayat Khan did not fit the profile of a typical war heroine and yet she defied every stereotype of female roles and aptitude, displaying even after her capture, a heroic spirit, that refused to break in the cruel hands of her torturers. It has been recorded that her last word uttered at the Dachau Concentration Camp where she was executed was liberte'.
Noorunissa's testimonial is lost to history and the bloodied walls of the crematorium in Dachau. Reading the graphic, candid accounts narrated in The Morning They Came For Us and in Haifa's memoir, I sense some of Noorunissa's story, as I do of all those who did not survive to tell their own stories, their recollections of that last morning before their understanding of life and humanity altered forever. Zangana writes: “Somewhere I read this sentence, but can't recall the writer: I am leaving but I promise to return when I am master of darkness and light. Do you know who wrote it?”
The presence of those who have lost their lives in the injustice and cruelty of war hovers spectral, urging us to remember.
I sense I have been drawn intuitively to read The Morning They Came For Us and Dreaming of Baghdad in the days surrounding the fifteen-year anniversary of September 11, the death anniversary of Noorunisa Inayat Khan on September 13, and in the surreal aftermath of the coup attempt in Turkey. Through each these seemingly disparate narratives runs the leitmotif of freedom—and its perversity.
I look up at the New York sky, humming with benign helicopters, and am reminded ruefully of the barrel bombs in Syria of which I have just read, and where the war, tragically, continues to blaze on. I can't help but wonder about the price of 'freedom.'