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Coming of Age in the Syrian War: Memoir by Journalist Marwan Hisham & Illustrator Molly Crabapple

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Israel has bombed dozens of Iranian targets inside the country in the largest attack by Israel since fighting began in Syria in 2011. The bombing raid came a day after Israel accused Iranian forces in Syria of firing 20 rockets at Israeli forces in the occupied Golan Heights, a part of Syria that Israel has occupied since 1967. We spend the rest of the hour looking at the war in Syria with a Syrian journalist and a New York artist who have worked together for years. Marwan Hisham is a Syrian journalist from Raqqa, now living in exile in Turkey. He became a journalist after first taking part in the initial protests against Bashar al-Assad in 2011. His new book is illustrated and co-authored by the award-winning artist Molly Crabapple. They first started collaborating in 2014, when Hisham was still living in ISIS-occupied Raqqa. He would send her photographs of life under ISIS, and she would draw illustrations of them. Their book is titled “Brothers of the Gun: A Memoir of the Syrian War” and is out next week.

Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to Syria, where Israel has bombed dozens of Iranian targets inside the country in the largest attack by Israel since fighting began in Syria in 2011. The bombing raid came a day after Israel accused Iranian forces in Syria of firing 20 rockets at Israeli forces in the occupied Golan Heights, a part of Syria that Israel has occupied since 1967. Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman described Israel’s military assault.

AVIGDOR LIEBERMAN: [translated] We have, of course, hit all of the infrastructures—not all, but almost all, of the Iranian infrastructure in Syria. They must remember the saying, “If it rains here, it will pour over there.” And I hope that we finished this chapter and that everyone got the message.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: The proxy war between Israel and Iran in Syria has been escalating for months. Many analysts had predicted the fighting would increase following President Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear agreement. Soon after President Trump made his announcement on Tuesday, Israel put its troops on high alert and called up reservists. Israel was a leading critic of the Iran nuclear deal. The fighting between Israel and Iran is just one of several proxy wars now being fought inside Syria.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, today, we spend the rest of the hour looking at the fighting in Syria with a Syrian journalist and a New York artist who have worked together for years. Marwan Hisham—not his real name, but the name he goes by—is a Syrian journalist from Raqqa, now living in exile in Turkey. He became a journalist after first taking part in the initial protests against Bashar al-Assad in 2011. His new book illustrated and co-authored by the award-winning artist Molly Crabapple. They first started collaborating in 2014, when Hisham was still living in ISIS-occupied Raqqa. Their book is titled Brothers of the Gun: A Memoir of the Syrian War. It’s out next week.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Marwan, thank you for joining us from Ankara, Turkey. Can you start off by going back to 2011—

MARWAN HISHAM: Thank you for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: —and explaining how you and why you got involved, with your friends, with the Syrian revolution, against Assad, the uprising? And what happened next?

MARWAN HISHAM: So, well, when the Arab Spring began, in late 2010, it inspired people, especially young people, all over the Arab world. And somehow it was one fight against the Arab dictators. We do not have a functioning democracy in the Arab world, so—and there’s feeling of relation between people in those different countries. So people got inspired by that, and when—at the first opportunity to participate in the movement, in the protest against the Assad regime, people like us started to try to organize, join any protest, any sign of basically resistance against the regime. And then, yeah, with time, things started to change rapidly, especially when the regime started to crack down on protesters. So, those same people started to take arm, and it became this bloody struggle we’re seeing now.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Marwan Hisham, you dedicate the book to Nael and Tareq’s parents, the two brothers who were your friends, with whom you started to participate in the uprising. Could you explain what happened, what decisions they took and you took, once, as you said, the opposition became militarized, following Assad’s brutal response to the uprising?

MARWAN HISHAM: So, here, we took it from different perspectives, from different attitudes. I mean, I could never imagine myself—I could never imagine myself taking arm and fighting. The only experience for me was a military camp we were taken to in the—at the university. And I tried so hard to not, basically, participate in—especially like in a shooting. So, when the—we arrived at crossroad, when you either sit down or you take arms.

And for—Nael was very, very convinced that the—it was the only way to reach any kind of solution for this is basically to fight the regime, because, in his opinion, the regime was so brutal, and there’s no way, basically, to get rid of it but through power. His younger brother, Tareq, was basically more like me in his way of thinking, and he went to Beirut to continue his studies. But then, a few months later, Nael was killed, fighting at an army base near Raqqa. So, this drove Tareq to the armed rebellion. And a month—two months after, he took arm, out of revenge more than anything, basically. And he didn’t search, you know, for long to find the perfect armed group. The first available for him, that sounded better than the others, was Ahrar al-Sham, and he joined and started fighting in their ranks.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Molly Crabapple, you worked with Marwan Hisham on this remarkable, extremely powerful book, Brothers of the Gun: A Memoir of the Syrian War. Now, when you worked—when you started working on this book, you were in New York City, and Marwan was in Raqqa. So, could you explain, first of all, how you got in touch and, then, how you came up with the idea to collaborate on a book, with your beautiful illustrations and his text and also yours?

MOLLY CRABAPPLE: Thank you so much for the kind words on our work.

Me and Marwan have been actually collaborating for four years now. Around 2013, I started covering the Syrian war and the Syrian refugee crisis, and I got familiar with a group of people on Twitter. Some of them were Syrians, some of them were Syrian refugees, some of them were analysts, some were journalists, that would all talk about the war. And Marwan was a member of this group. Originally, I got to know him because he was a source for some of my articles about ISIS. But when I started studying Arabic, Marwan taught me a lot of Arabic. He has an amazing classical Arabic education. And we became quite close friends.

Our first collaboration was that Marwan sent me surreptitious photos that he had taken in Raqqa, taken at huge risk to himself. This was considered spying by ISIS, and that would have been a death penalty offense. He sent me these photos, and I drew from them. And then, Marwan, who at this point was writing political essays just for himself, he provided captions for the photos.

From there, we realized that we really liked working with each other, and we wanted to create images of Marwan’s city and of other cities under ISIS that weren’t like the cliché that was being foisted in the media. In the media, the only images you had of those cities was either ISIS propaganda or else just the typical images of bombed-out buildings, of torture, the horrors that people sometimes reduce the entire Middle East to. And Marwan and me, we wanted to show what daily life was like. So we did collaborations from Raqqa and from Mosul and also from rebel-held East Aleppo. And we became very, very close, and then we got the idea to do a book together.

AMY GOODMAN: The book is Brothers of the Gun: A Memoir of the Syrian War. We’re going to break for 30 seconds and then come back and also talk to Marwan about this bravery of taking his cellphone around, when everyone knew he couldn’t even use the cellphone—there wasn’t Wi-Fi, there wasn’t any way he could actually be using it as a phone, so that, of course, he was using it to take photographs—and where he stands on—I mean, opposition to ISIS, opposition to U.S. invasion, opposition to the Assad regime—what this all means for a Syrian, in and out of Syria. Marwan Hisham and Molly Crabapple are our guests. Their book is Brothers of the Gun. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “Undefined” by Hawa Dafi, here on Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Our guests are the authors of a new book, that is just coming out, Marwan Hisham and Molly Crabapple, Brothers of the Gun: A Memoir of the Syrian War. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Marwan Hisham, I wanted to ask you—as Amy and Molly both pointed out, you took an enormous risk to your life by taking these photographs. Could you talk about what it is that you wanted to convey about what life was like under ISIS-occupied Raqqa, and also your work there? I mean, you were effectively at—running or helping to run an internet café in Raqqa, where ISIS militants were in fact your principal customers.

MARWAN HISHAM: Yes, so, basically I wanted to portray certain scenes. Like, when Molly offered me this opportunity, I saw in it a perfect opportunity. And I had a rare accent—sorry, access. Not everyone can basically do that. So, when you have this gap, when journalists cannot come to areas occupied by jihadi groups, and a local, as me, have this—had this opportunity, yeah, I wouldn’t waste it. So, the risk always there. So, basically, I wanted to describe and depict life under ISIS in a way that is different, as Molly suggested we do that. And, yeah, it sounded—I mean, it’s risky, yes, but, then, every day was risky under ISIS.

AMY GOODMAN: Molly, you are an artist. Your cover artwork for Brothers of the Gun, explain it to us. And talk about a little more of the making of the images, as you relied on Marwan’s photographs, how the rest of the media depicts what’s going on there, and you tried to deconstruct that with this, your remarkable artistry.

MOLLY CRABAPPLE: Thank you so much.

Well, my initial collaborations with Marwan, as I said, were based on his surreptitious photos. But through most of the book, the images are not actually based on photos. Instead, they are almost montages, from hundreds of sources, from citizen video online, from blurry photos, sometimes even, in Turkey, from photos that I shot, but, most importantly, from Marwan’s memory. For photos—for images like the scenes that we did at protests, I would speak with Marwan, and he would describe it exactly to me. He would art direct it. He would even send me sketches or a pose, and he would tell me the exact things that he would remember. And I would draw them over and over again to try to make sure that they were true, and try to make sure that they were real. I was trying, as closely as I could, to see through his eyes. And the cover image, that actually is based on a self-portrait that was shot by Tareq.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Could you explain what it is on the cover?

MOLLY CRABAPPLE: And it’s a portrait of Tareq playing his gun as if it was a violin. And there was so much conveyed there. Tareq was studying poetry in Beirut, before he joined Ahrar, and he wrote poetry throughout the war, even as he was becoming essentially an assassin for Ahrar. And that image, it reminded me of someone who is in this world that was immersed in death and he was still holding on to this one bit of beauty.

AMY GOODMAN: Marwan, before we go, the description of Raqqa today, the city that you’ve lived in for so many years, the destruction of Raqqa, more than 11,000 buildings destroyed, not clear how many people were killed, in this last minute we have together?

MARWAN HISHAM: Yes. So, Raqqa is devastated. It’s now in a really tragic state. Although people now enjoy stability, but still they’re struggling for basic services. There is no electricity, no water, except through tankers. And the connection also is weak. But, most importantly, there is no—there is no serious effort from the anti-ISIS coalition to rebuild the city. And if—most of the streets still now blocked by piles of rubble. So, if the coalition, the United States and its allies, do not put in an effort to rebuild the city they destroyed, we’re going to risk a situation when chaos will come back again. I mean, ISIS prey on situations like this, on people’s desperation. And I’m afraid that if there’s no plan for what’s next, we won’t have stability for long in those areas.

AMY GOODMAN: Marwan Hisham, I want to thank you for being with us—we’re going to do Part 2 and put it online as a web exclusive—and Molly Crabapple. Their new book, Brothers of the Gun: A Memoir of the Syrian War.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracynow.org. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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