Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group
A Disappearance in Damascus

A Disappearance in Damascus

Friendship and Survival in the Shadow of War

Deborah Campbell




Winner of the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction
Longlisted for the B.C. National Award for Canadian Nonfiction

In the midst of an unfolding international crisis, renowned journalist Deborah Campbell finds herself swept up in the mysterious disappearance of Ahlam, her guide and friend.

The story begins in 2007, when Deborah Campbell travels undercover to Damascus to report on the exodus of Iraqis into Syria, following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. There she meets and hires Ahlam, a refugee working as a “fixer”—providing Western media with trustworthy information and contacts. Strong and charismatic, Ahlam has become an unofficial leader of the refugee community. She supports her husband and two children while working to set up a makeshift school for displaced girls. Campbell is inspired by Ahlam’s determination, and the two women become close friends. But when Campbell witnesses Ahlam seized from her home, she becomes haunted by the prospect that their work together has led to her friend’s arrest, and spends the months that follow trying to find her.

The compelling story of two women caught up in the shadowy politics behind today’s most searing conflict, A Disappearance in Damascus reminds us of the courage of those who risk their lives to bring us the world’s news.


Praise for A Disappearance in Damascus

“Gripping, inspiring, and at times intensely sorrowful, A Disappearance in Damascus provides a portrait of tremendous courage and resourcefulness within the community of Iraqi war survivors in Syria, the devastation war wreaks upon civilians, and a remarkable friendship between two women.”—Phil Klay, National Book Award-winning author of Redeployment

“Campbell’s exploration of ‘hidden’ worlds, where past and future conflicts converge and confront the intricacies of human relationships, invests A Disappearance in Damascus with the kind of immediacy rarely found in war reporting.... On the surface, it is a detective novel, a eulogy to the dying art of immersive journalism. Slightly deeper is a story of love and friendship, and the forces that can tear them apart or make them stronger. Deeper still is a political exegesis exposing the arrogance and folly of the great (and not so great) powers....Campbell deftly unravels all of these complexities, gives them a face, makes them human, so we can finally start to make sense of the incomprehensibility of the world’s most intractable conflict.”—Maclean’s (Canada)

“In a seamless blend of storytelling and reportage, Deborah Campbell’s A Disappearance in Damascus draws us into the struggles of Iraqi refugees settled in Syria after the fall of Baghdad. The principal character, an Iraqi ‘fixer’ who is also a grieving mother and a nurturing humanitarian, is taken by secret police. Campbell’s account of the search to find her, written with compelling prose, nuanced context, and intimate narration, illuminates the dangers of life and work in a conflict zone through a riveting tale of courage, loss, love, and friendship.”—2016 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Non-fiction jury (Carolyn Abraham, Stephen Kimber, and Emily Urquhart)

“Compelling...A bold snapshot of the Assad regime prior to the start of the war, and will give readers an idea of why so many have fought to be rid of that dictator.”—Pique (Canada)

“A vivid portrait...A must-read for people wanting to further their understanding of the Syrian civil war and refugee crisis, and about the deep ramifications that the Iraq war had on the rest of the Middle East. Especially now that the worst-case scenario that many Syrians have feared has come to pass, the book is essential to understanding the circumstances that societies lived with before their countries fell into chaos.”—Vancouver Observer (Canada)

“Paced like a good novel...A Disappearance in Damascus is vivid, provocative and timely. High-profile kidnappings, arrests and deaths of journalists and their assistants in conflict zones in the last few years have increased public awareness of the role that fixers play and the perils they face....While institutional efforts may improve protection for fixers, A Disappearance in Damascus illustrates how individual conscience and courage may also be necessary to confront the dangers of bringing news from hot spots around the world.”—Literary Review of Canada

“Deborah Campbell...sees it as her goal to ‘bridge the gap between the readers of magazines I write for [and] people in troubled places who such readers would never otherwise meet.’...A Disappearance in Damascus is an absorbing testament to how successful that approach can be when undertaken by a sympathetic, informed, and committed investigator. It offers a detailed, personal look at the consequences of disruptive global events on the individuals most affected by them....A Disappearance in Damascus strikes a deft balance between the present and the recent past....Early on in A Disappearance in Damascus, Campbell warns against the imperial impulse to create policies that affect people ‘while knowing almost nothing of who they are or what consequences our actions might have.’ Her book successfully counters that arrogant inclination by showing us how the continuing spread of chaos has real consequences for real people.”—Quill & Quire (Canada)

“Riveting...Campbell’s book weaves the global into the utmost personal—a story of friendship flowering, then frighteningly uprooted....Campbell’s urgency to find and free Ahlam drives a narrative laced with reflections on friendship, duty, imperialism and love strained by ambition....This book took a long time to write—and clearly the results were worth the wait!”—The Tyee (Canada)

About the author

Deborah Campbell

DEBORAH CAMPBELL is an award-winning writer who has reported from many countries around the world, including Iran, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Mexico, Cuba and Russia. Her work, much of which involves spending long periods of time in the societies she covers, has appeared in Harper's, The Economist, The Guardian, New Scientist, and Foreign Policy, and she is the recipient of three National Magazine Awards for her foreign correspondence. A Disappearance in Damascus won the 2016 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Non-Fiction. Campbell has guest lectured at Harvard, Berkeley, Zayed University in Dubai, and the National Press Club in Washington. She teaches at the University of British Columbia.

Deborah Campbell

J. L. Campbell

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