I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
The writers on their latest collaboration, Brothers of the Gun: A Memoir of the Syrian War.
The disaster in Syria has taken on many forms, and no singular experience can define it, except perhaps, heartbreak. Geography is one of the key factors that ultimately determines a Syrian’s experience during this war. Some towns were starved. Others were bombarded (by regime forces, as well as by– amongst others–Russian, American, and French fighter jets). Others yet were taken over by ISIS. The capital, Damascus, remained relatively tranquil while coastal cities like Latakia and Tartous enjoyed a wartime boom. In Brothers of the Gun (One World), Marwan Hisham and his co-author Molly Crabapple, textually and graphically recount Marwan’s experiences in the city of Raqqa, most likely known to Americans as the “capital” of the so-called Islamic State’s Caliphate. The book is a tightly told narrative that is relatively devoid of explication, focusing on the complexities of friendship and brotherhood in war, brought to life by Crabapple’s haunting illustrations. Brothers of the Gun convincingly demonstrates the importance of and the need for many more in-depth testimonials from Syrians, if we are ever to begin to piece together the magnitude and meaning of this calamity.
Alia Malek How did the idea for this book come about?
Marwan Hisham The idea came to us after we finished three collaborative projects for Vanity Fair in March 2015. Molly suggested we expand and make it a book. The first two pieces were just captions describing or giving context to the illustrations. But the third one was a bit about my personal experience in Aleppo.
AM What made you decide to make it a memoir and put yourself in the story?
MH I think it’s important to show the interested reader outside of Syria how wars affect people and what it means to live in a situation like that. We’re also in a kind of rhetoric war, and it’s important to shed light on things that are completely neglected, to fight stereotypes and try to show people the complicated reality. Because it’s not a normal situation, it’s an extraordinary experience and I’ve experienced many things in a very short time, I felt I was obligated to convey the story, and the written form is the best way for me. I wanted to portray people who had their own political views, their own understandings of life, and who changed over time. They were people just like other people in other countries. Their environment was probably different, but they’re still complicated people. There are no simple people.
AM Marwan, did you consider writing it in Arabic?
MH No, I never thought it would be directed to an Arab audience in the first place. I decided right from the beginning to do it in English. It’s not easy to get it published in the Arab world in Arabic because it’s more conservative and you cannot actually write what you really want to write without interference from editors. English was obviously a better choice and carried a wider audience. I also wanted to prove to myself that I could do it.
AM I personally wish a lot of this were being said in Arabic to an Arab audience because there is this general misconception that there’s some kind of consensus on what is “authentic.” Voices of dissent, or voices like yours, would be great. In the book you talk about having loved English before you even knew what the language was. And Molly, I know you’re super attracted to Arabic. Was this something that drew you to each other? Did you even note it or am I noting it for you?
Molly Crabapple Actually my friendship with Marwan got much closer because I was learning Arabic and he helped me so much. He gave me copies of Nizar Qabbani and an Arabic translation of the Kurdish epic Mem wa Zin by Ahmed Khani. He taught me so much in terms of poetry, music, novels, classical sayings. I really learned my Arabic at his hand. While we were writing the book, I would be sending pirated e-books to Marwan when he was in Raqqa, like Lolita, and Homage to Catalonia, and The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin. In return, Marwan would send me poems by Nizar Qabbani like “(Al deek), The Rooster.” He would correct all of my Arabic essays, and introduced me to different political figures and classical historians. We would argue about Ibn Khaldun and I would track specific lines down (laughter). Much of our friendship has really been based on loving each other’s literature.
AM Marwan, in the book you are obviously critical, and rightly so, of the west. How do reconcile that with your love of English?
MH My love for English started as wonderment for the outside world. I love many things about the west, even if I have issues with certain government policies, it has nothing to do with the country. As I mention in the book, my father was interested in politics and naturally I became interested at a very young age. So of course at the beginning I would kind of mix them together, you know, the notion than America is evil, that the West is evil in general, and English is western… but that did not last long, simply because it does not make sense.
AM Yes, even though it doesn’t make sense, do you think that, for whatever reason, it seems to be the consensus in many places? In the same way that people are so Islamophobic, they think there’s nothing beautiful to be learned from knowing Arabic?
MH One of the very negative things in the west is that these specific things make people ignorant about other countries and cultures. But you don’t need to read much about any other culture to see that there are many things, if not the summer or sand, you’re going to like too.
AM Molly, have you been to Syria?
Molly Crabapple I only went for one day. I was in Azaz in 2014. I’ve reported many times from the Middle East, including in Palestine, Iraq, Lebanon, Abu Dhabi. I’ve been to Turkey at least 12 times to write this book. The first time I went to the Middle East I was 18, and I traveled all around Turkey alone. I went right to the Syrian border, and I really wanted to get a visa but I wasn’t smart enough because I was 18, and I got detained a lot by Turkish Gendarmie, who didn’t understand why a teenage girl was wandering around alone in the east at that time.
AM What draws you there?
MCPart of why I kept covering Syria is that I made friends who were from there. I met people of astounding courage and dignity who were profoundly misrepresented and erased. In 2013, when I was reporting for the Times, I went to Tripoli and I met a lot of Syrian refugees. The reason I originally went was because so many people around me had many different opinions about the Syrian War and I had no idea what to think, and I thought maybe if I could speak to some people who are living repercussions of it, I would have a clearer understanding. I met a woman from Baba Amr, who was living in an abandoned building with her husband who had no legs, because he was a diabetic, and he couldn’t get insulin, and they had a bunch of kids and grandkids. She had worked as a field nurse for a rebel group and was just this tough working class woman. This was right after the Obama red-line speech, and she was like, What the hell man? Is he saying it’s okay when they kill us with bombs? And I didn’t really know what to say to her. I just wrote down what she said. But because I didn’t know what to say to her, and I still don’t know what to say. I think that’s perhaps why I keep covering Syria.
AM And what have you learned?
MC (Laughter) I don’t think I could answer that in a succinct and snappy way.
AM I know for me, I used to have a lot more hope, and I’ve changed a lot in the last seven years. Marwan, you were young seven years ago, but have you felt a change in yourself?
MH Definitely. I grew up intellectually. I had to face very important questions in my life, and so many things I had to question, starting with the very basic thing I took for granted, like the political views of the whole world. Also “universal values.” I have different opinions about where they do or don’t exist.
AM I noticed that you guys seldom digress from the narrative to give context. When I wrote my book, I remember feeling really burdened that I had to explain everything. How did you make that choice?
MC That was something Marwan and I disagreed about a lot. I said Western readers don’t know anything. They barely know that Syria is in the Middle East. They are so uneducated. Marwan said, ‘this is a literary book. It’s not written for morons, and they can Google.’ And if we keep doing digressions like, ‘Syria is a country in the Middle East,’ this book will have no literary value. In the end I think Marwan was right, and that it is a burden on a lot of people who are writing about Syria that they have to deal with Western readers’ not only ignorance, but reluctance to use Google and discover and research basic facts to understand the context.
AM I don’t trust the internet, especially with Syria. There are so many agents of misinformation. I remember thinking, ‘I want to control this.’ In my book, I would have liked to never have had to digress, but I also felt the need to do that. As I was reading your book, I was trying to decide where I landed on that. I obviously get all of the references, and I find the book very accessible, it’s very cinematic. Marwan’s personality comes through strongly and charismatically. I was trying to imagine having to Google Seferberlik or Hama or what other information another reader could find there that might not be correct. These are the risks. But I think you guys felt very unfettered by context.
MH It wouldn’t be as understandable as it is if it wasn’t for Molly, simply because as an author living in this region and writing for an entirely different audience, I had no idea what is known and what isn’t known, and what needs more explanation and not. I was writing with respect to people who are really following the news, and there are many references I took for granted as known. As Molly said, we had a lot of discussions and then Molly started to point out the things that needed more explanation, and the editor helped us also a lot with this. I’m glad it’s now pretty readable for an American, especially.
MC One of the funny things I remember was, before we wrote this, Marwan read Drawing Blood. And he was telling me there’s a certain passage where I was talking about the New York Burlesque scene, and he said, I had a hard time understanding this, because there are all of these words… What’s a Swarovski? What’s a dive bar? What’s go-go? And I thought, oh my god, this is all specialized jargon that if you aren’t a New York nightlife scenester, why the hell would you know what a Swarovski was, right? So I think when we were writing this we were trying to keep in mind what you didn’t need context for, and what was the technical jargon at the level of Swarovski. In terms of craft, I was also looking at novels that present totally new worlds, and we were reading The Handmaid’s Tale, and it presents so many new terms, like, an Aunt or a Commander, or a Ceremony. And it doesn’t define like, An Aunt is a woman who wears green, and she carries a taser, and she is chosen to control. That’s one choice you can make when you are writing about a foreign country, you can use a similar tool as a novelist does, except you’re doing it with facts.
AM Marwan, at one point you write about arguing with people you loathe who represent the views of the majority, “As we spoke my thoughts circled back to the thing we all knew but would not say. We were an extreme minority within Raqqa,” the “we” referring to secular society. There are so many people who feel the need to defend the revolution uncritically. I don’t know if the secular part of the opposition is the extreme minority overall or if we’re 50-50, but it does feel like there are Syrians who feel like they can’t even afford to admit that a significant part of the uprising might not be secular or civil society-minded lest they delegitimize the revolution completely.
MHI don’t think I was speaking for all Syrians here as much as I was for the people in my environment, and my experience in Raqqa. But still, there are so many principles that we activist and protestors started to call for. I think understanding, first of all, that there was no general outlook of what we want as protesters, and no one can basically represent this movement. So obviously people who were involved in these protests had conversations about these things. Things like, everyone has heard of democracy, but what’s democracy? There are so many explanations and understandings of this in our society, but so many of them are wrong. You can barely find two people who would agree on how our country should be governed or changed. And there were so many people who were just like photographers. Some had no interest in any of those words, and what they mean, and what should happen next, they just had their own reasons to join this movement.
AM In one of the scenes with Tareq you wrote, “Regardless of our fierce disagreements over priorities and objectives, we liked to discuss everything. But the old Tareq with whom Nael and I discussed over a year earlier was another person now. I feared he was slipping into a Jihadi’s ideology…” Do you believe these conversations are possible, even among family and friends, and do you think there’s ever a transformation? Is there room for us to disagree?
MHThe only reason Tareq and I had this relationship was because we were old friends. If we weren’t, we definitely would have separated a long time ago without having any of these conversations, without being so angry with each other. I sat with many people, either when I was in Syria, or here in Turkey, and as we talk about this war, I do not hear any conversation that it intended to resolve the situation. People express their political views, no one is flexible to adapt another idea, to say they were wrong or that they need to research something more, especially since many of the ideas are not correct. We do not have this culture of debating and having conversations that could reach us. Mostly it’s arguing for the sake of arguing.
AM I would say we don’t have that culture now, I don’t know if that’s historically the case. Molly, does any of this feel similar to what’s going on in the U.S.?
MC Oh man. In some ways I hesitate to draw parallels. I will say this about the Americans that congratulate themselves about [being different from] the Middle East. If you had to look at Christianist politicians and the influence of Christianist politicians on America, and Ben Carson talking about the secularists and how they’re tied to the devil, and how truly fundamentalist people have to be honored in our political discourse, it is worth noting that the will of the majority in America often isn’t a secular one either, and the only thing that keeps that back is that we have a constitution in addition to a democracy. We are increasingly unable to speak to each other, and there is an increasing isolation inside people’s ideological bubbles. This isn’t just because people are bad people and people can’t tolerate dissent, it’s very often for safety. Being a queer kid from an intolerant, rural area, there are a lot of reasons why you wouldn’t necessarily want to express yourself or try to gently convince people who hate your humanity. I also think that there’s a huge gulf in America between people who are able to get a certain type of elite university education and then join the media class, and then people who don’t have access to that.
Class disparities have grown and part of why it’s been easy to demonize the press is because the press is much less working class than it was just a generation or two ago. One thing that always amazed me when I was looking at discourse on Syria was that a lot of “woke leftists” for lack of a better word, view looting during protests by disenfranchised or poor people in Western countries as the language of the “unlistened to,” and certainly not as something to be demonized. But when those same people saw, for instance, the way some people who lived in say, the slums of Aleppo, might have looted the factories they worked at, they suddenly had an entirely different view on it, in part because they’re viewing everything through Islam. One thing that I really thought was important in the book that was ignored in a lot of western discussions about Syria (I’m not sure about Arabic ones), was class. And I don’t know, please correct me if I’m wrong, if there have been any books written by a working class Syrian who lived through the war, in English at least.
AM How much room do you think there is for more books about Syria? That’s the way publishing works here. They’re always looking for the one book on the insert-ethnic-experience that they can point to and that’s it.
MH I think they can’t find any that tell the whole story because it’s not just one country. This war has been going on for seven years and so many countries are involved. It’s impossible to find just one book that will explain all these things to you. It started with people against the government but then it changed to a million other things. Now there are many parties, and within each party there are more parties fighting each other.
MC Part of the reason I wanted to do this book with Marwan was because I got so sick of how books about war were either by an American soldier or an American journalist, or perhaps by someone whose family was from the same country that the war happened in but who had lived in America most of their lives. There’s a certain type of person that gets access to the New York publishing industry and that type of person isn’t necessarily the one who had the longest or truest experience with the war they’re writing about. I wanted to work with Marwan because he is brilliant, totally his own person, as opposed to someone who’s prescribed to any particular dogma, but also because he lived through the war, and he had seen things in Raqqa first hand and I really believe that voices like his need to have big books with access to those sort of platforms.
AM To shift gears a bit, can you each tell me what your favorite image here is? I love the cover. Will you explain it?
MH It’s a photo of Tareq. It was taken by his friend, and he posted it on Instagram. I don’t know exactly what he was thinking in that moment, but knowing him as someone who loved to write poetry, who had a different life in Beirut, and then spent time in the trenches, I can guess that he felt nostalgic, maybe. It’s tragic that he became fully militarized. This was my favorite image and we asked the publisher to use it as the cover for the same reason.
AM Molly, do you have a favorite?
MC I have a few that I love. I want to talk about the picture of the Yazidi women because it’s a good example of how Marwan and I work together. Marwan obviously did not take photos of enslaved Yazidi women, and we were very frustrated, both of us, at the way the Yazidi women were sensationalized in the press, and very often not given the same protection that a western rape survivor would have been given. We wanted to do something that would be real, that would get beyond cliché. We did so many sketches. Marwan would say, “Make her hands careless.” And I’d say, “What does that mean, careless? What does that mean?”
We were hard on each other, we were parsing words, not because of a problem with English, but because art direction is always like this. You have an art director say, “I want something cheerful,” and you’re like “what does cheerful mean?” That conversion between words and visuals, is one of the hardest translations I think. Initially I had this really stupid way of doing it actually, it looked very Madonna and Childish, and Marwan’s looking at it like, “It’s so cliche, don’t do it like this, this is wrong.” I did sketch after sketch, and Marwan was like, “she’s too old, she’s too young.” It was also very important to us not to use photos of real women because we didn’t want to violate anyone’s privacy.
AM I also love this picture.
MC That’s of the first civilian killed in Raqqa by American bombs and it’s from a video Marwan shot and they were digging him out —
AM And he was this white?
MC Yes, from dust. And his clothes were torn off. It was hard to tell because the video was blurry and it was at night, but I was inspired stylistically by traditional Pietas.
AM I thought so. Which are often carved from white marble.
MC Exactly. What I would do with something like this is I would take lots and lots of screenshots and because they’re so blurry and you can’t draw directly from them, I would repose people to get the anatomy right, and try to get the light and the shadow to make a certain emotional point. Because, you know, no one in America is going to know that name of the first Raqqan civilian that American bombs killed. He’s never going to have a name in America. And now he does. His name’s Ismail. Now he has a face.
AM Marwan, in the epilogue you referred to yourself and said that an air of detachment set you free and you were destined to be centerless. Do you still feel like that?
MHI do, because even if I find people with the same views of life as my own, they’re not going to be Syrian. It’s unlikely. So I’m alone and I have this type of identity I can’t get rid of.
Alia Malek is a former civil rights lawyer, journalist, and the author of The Home That Was Our Country: A Memoir of Syria (Nation Books 2017), A Country Called Amreeka: US History Re-Told Through Arab American Lives (Simon & Schuster 2009) and editor of Patriot Acts: Narratives of Post 9/11 Injustices (McSweeney’s 2011) and EUROPA أوروپا : An Illustrated Introduction to Europe for Migrants and Refugees (2016). Her reportage has appeared in the New York Times, Foreign Policy, the New Yorker online, McSweeney’s, Guernica and other publications. She is a recipient of fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and the New York Foundation for the Arts. In November 2016, she was honored with the 12th annual Hiett Prize in the Humanities.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee