Rania Abouzeid represents that new generation of Arab, in this case Lebanese, journalists who in the years before the 2011 revolutions learned to view the region with a hard eye. They were unmoved by political rhetoric and unconvinced by fantastical conspiracy theories.
They learned to trust what they saw, the ordinary people they spoke to, and that sense that the truth is always concrete, even if it is not what you want to hear.
This journalism flourished during the Arab Spring, and was marked above all by its deep sympathy for genuine movements and revolts that began in 2011. At the time when people lost the fear, and could speak freely, it was vital to hear what they had to say.
The revolutions created unprecedented optimism, and for a brief period we saw that the popular and natural instinct of the mass of people was genuinely open, anti-sectarian and desired above all else social justice and real change.
In No Turning Back, Rania Abouzeid follows the lives of Syrians involved in the revolution from its onset, and traces the tragic decisions, unbearable foreign interference, ferocious regime sieges, division, infighting and the tragic defeat that followed.
Her brave on-the-ground reporting placed her in the thick of the events, often in great personal danger. In the process she reveals in great detail the mechanics of life during wartime, the almost naive sense of hope, followed by the sectarianisation of Syrian society, the process of Islamic radicalisation, destruction at the hands of the regime, exile and the deep sense of betrayal.
This makes a very hard, yet compelling read. What do we learn? Firstly that this was a genuine uprising whose aims, although never clearly defined, sprung from the hopes generated by the Arab Spring.
The early chapters that cover the high point of the revolution, 2011-12, are full of the desire for peaceful change and compelling personal transformation. The later chapters cover the military stalemate, degeneration, depression and defeat.
The characters reveal, in a series of interviews spread over six years, how as the revolutionaries took up the gun they lost control over the fate of the revolution.
One character, who emerged out of the leadership of the 2011 Homs uprising, describes how by refusing to accept Saudi or Qatari patronage his alliance of rebel fighters was first targeted by foreign powers, then eventually destroyed by ISIS. He by chance escapes execution by his Islamic State captors.
Many of his former comrades joined US-funded groups whose main aim was to collect intelligence on Islamist groups, not fight the regime.
Others who had met Rania at the beginning of the revolution, were rounded up in the first waves of mass arrests, and contacted her following their release. Despite the grim details of life in regime prisons hope survived, even as many eventually died under torture or neglect.
Despite some official clearance to report in regime-controlled areas, Rania would eventually be listed as an “enemy” by the regime. Despite this direct threat to her life she still reported on the impact of sectarian kidnappings by rebels of women and children from pro-regime Allawi villages.
Of particular interest to socialists are the sections that cover the split between al-Qaeda and ISIS Salafi movements: al-Qaeda attempted to learn the lesson of its defeat in Iraq by adapting itself to the mass uprising, while the Islamic State considered the revolution as an enemy. Inside this story is the contradictory nature of Islamist movements, and its consequences for any rebellion.
Rania Abousaid’s journalism represents some of the best reporting to emerge out of the Arab Spring. Her book is a must-read for those who want to look beyond the chaff of disinformation around Syria.
She shows that journalism at its best is the one that reveals the truth, however unpalatable it may be.
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A pick of the highlights