A Disappearance in Damascus - A Story of Friendship and Survival in the Shadow of War

A Disappearance in Damascus

A Story of Friendship and Survival in the Shadow of War

Hide Details By Deborah Campbell
Categories: Biography & Autobiography
Series: Challenge
Paperback : 9780345809308, 352 pages, Knopf Canada
June 2017


Winner of the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Non-Fiction:
In the midst of an unfolding international crisis, the renowned journalist Deborah Campbell finds herself swept up in the mysterious disappearance of Ahlam, her guide, "fixer," and friend. Her frank, personal account of her journey to rescue her, and the triumph of friendship and courage over terrorism, is as riveting as it is illuminating.
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 to help get the news out. Ahlam, who fled her home in Iraq after being kidnapped while running a humanitarian centre, not only supports her husband and two children through her work with foreign journalists but is setting up a makeshift school for displaced girls. She has become a charismatic, unofficial leader of the refugee community in Damascus, and Campbell is inspired by her determination to create something good amid so much suffering. Ahlam soon becomes her friend as well as her guide. But one morning Ahlam is seized from her home in front of Campbell’s eyes. Haunted by the prospect that their work together has led to her friend’s arrest, Campbell spends the months that follow desperately trying to find her—all the while fearing she could be next.
Through its compelling story of two women caught up in the shadowy politics behind today’s conflict, A Disappearance in Damascus reminds us of the courage of those who risk their lives to bring us the world’s news.

From the Hardcover edition.


  • Long-listed, British Columbia's National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction 2016
  • Winner, Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Non-Fiction Prize 2016
  • Winner, BC Book Prize's Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize 2017


Winner of the 2017 Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize (BC Book Awards)
Recipient of the 2017 Freedom to Read Award
Winner of the 2016 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Non-Fiction
Longlisted for the 2016 British Columbia National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction
“Campbell’s text races along—catching readers’ hearts as it goes . . . A powerful book. In the stormwater’s swirl, Campbell has found a bright and tender leaf to follow, and the effect on readers will be transformative.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“[S]tunning.” —Emily Urquhart, author of Beyond the Pale: Folklore, Family and the Mystery of Our Hidden Genes, The Walrus

“[A]t once an engrossing mystery and a portal into the Syrian civil war.” —National Post
“A compelling, illuminating read.” —Toronto Star

“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

“A thoroughly reported and deeply felt book. . . . [A]n exploration of friendship, obsession and belonging. It also provides essential context for Syria’s civil war, now approaching its sixth year.” —Chatelaine

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, winner of the 2014 National Book Award for Redeployment

“Deborah Campbell . . . sees it as her goal to ‘bridge the gap between the readers of magazines I write for . . . 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. The suspense in Campbell’s investigation of Ahlam is never overplayed. . . . 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
The narrative of this memoir . . . [is] paced like a good novel. . . . It is this realization of responsibility [for Ahlam’s fate] that gives A Disappearance in Damascus so much heart. . . . While bringing the reader into her own turmoil, Campbell tells Ahlam’s side of the story with clarity, compassion and suspense. . . . 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

“Campbell’s ability to note the details of . . . the people she encountered with journalistic clarity makes A Disappearance in Damascus compelling. She captures the fear and frustration she felt, the impact on Ahlam’s family and the journey of Ahlam herself, in prison and beyond. . . . It is 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 
“Campbell paints a vivid portrait. . . . The book is 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
“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 

“[R]iveting. . . . 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