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Blacklisted From Syria, A Journalist Says: 'I Couldn't Imagine Staying Away

Rania Abouzeid has been covering Syria since 2011 — despite the fact that she's been called a spy, placed on wanted lists by Syrian intelligence and banned from entering the country.


Other segments from the episode on March 12, 2018

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 12, 2018: Interview with Rania Abouzeid; Review of book 'The Sparsholt Affair.'



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest has put herself in great danger to report on the Syrian civil war. The danger comes from the exposure to bombs and bullets as well as from threats from the government. Rania Abouzeid was placed on the wanted list of three of the four main intelligence directorates in Damascus. She was banned from entering the country. So she's trekked in from the Turkish border. Syria is the world's deadliest country for journalists, according to the group Reporters Without Borders. Half of Syria's population has been displaced by the war. The death toll has been estimated at half a million. Abouzeid started reporting on Syria in 2011 when the uprising against the Assad regime began.

And she continued when the conflict turned into civil war. Civil war was part of her childhood. Abouzeid grew up in Australia, the daughter of Lebanese immigrants who left the country during Lebanon's civil war. As a child, she spent time in Beirut during the war, visiting her grandparents. Now Abouzeid lives in Lebanon. Her new book "No Turning Back: Life, Loss, And Hope In Wartime Syria," tells the story of Syria's civil war through her reporting on members of rival radical Islamist groups, prisoners and families who have been victims of the war. Her reporting has been published in The New Yorker, Politico, Time and Foreign Policy.

Rania Abouzeid, welcome to FRESH AIR. So this week marks the seventh anniversary of the uprising in Syria of the start of the Syrian revolution, which turned into a civil war. Why has the civil war gone on so long?

RANIA ABOUZEID: Because like most civil wars, it became a proxy war for international powers with the Russians and the Iranians, Lebanese Hezbollah, Iraqi Shiite militias and Afghan mercenaries on Assad's side and Qatar, Saudi Arabia, other Gulf states, Turkey, the U.S. and the European states backing the Syrian opposition.

GROSS: So in addition to this being a proxy war, what is it about? Is it just about a fight for power? Is it still about overthrowing Assad?

ABOUZEID: The thing about the Syrian uprising is that it was existential from the beginning. The protesters knew that when they took to the streets. And the Assad regime knew that. This was a fight to the end for both sides. And it is one that is sadly continuing, as you say, seven years on.

GROSS: So you say in your book that Syria has ceased to be a unified state, except in memories and on maps. So what is it?

ABOUZEID: It's a collection of shards. It is a broken place. It is a place where Syrians talk about territory that they have liberated from other Syrians. It is a place that is very fragmented. There are parts that Assad controls, parts that the fragmented rebels control. There was, of course, Raqqa - city that, until recently, Islamic State controlled. There is a Kurdish canton that is under attack now by Turkish forces. And there is the southern front. So it is a very fragmented place.

GROSS: So in the summer of 2011, when the protests against the Assad regime was still going strong, but Syria hadn't yet collapsed into civil war, you were blacklisted by the Syrian regime. You were called a spy for several foreign states. You were placed on the wanted list of three of the four main intelligence directorates in Damascus. You were banned from entering the country. Why did you decide to keep returning in spite of that?

ABOUZEID: I couldn't imagine staying away from it. And, you know, to be clear, I'm not an adrenaline junkie by any means. But it was the story and the importance of the story and my ability to also move clandestinely in a community and in a culture that I understood very well.

GROSS: So what can you tell us - if anything - about how you clandestinely kept entering Syria?

ABOUZEID: In summer 2011, I started entering Syria from the Turkish border - smuggled across the border. And it was a pretty porous border at that time. It wasn't difficult to get into Syria from Turkey. And that's what I did. I'd move very low-profile, go by myself. I speak the language. I am of Lebanese heritage, so I look the part. And I just tried not to draw attention to myself as I went about my work.

GROSS: Do you have an accent when you speak?

ABOUZEID: I do, unfortunately. I speak with a Lebanese accent. And I say unfortunately because Lebanese parties were involved in the Syrian conflict from very early on. Lebanese - the Lebanese group Hezbollah was with Assad. It's pro-Assad. And it came to be fighting alongside Assad. And there are - Hezbollah's domestic opponents were backing the opposition. So when I opened my mouth, and Lebanese Arabic came out, the accusation of spy, for one side or the other, pretty quickly followed.

GROSS: So that must've been difficult for you to overcome.

ABOUZEID: It was. It was. But it was happening so often that I, you know - I figured out a way to get out of it. And as people came to know me more, as commanders - rebel commanders came to know me, as my contacts grew in the country, there were always people who would, you know, pop up if I were pulled aside. And somebody said, hey, you know, she's speaking with a Lebanese accent. Maybe she's a Hezbollah spy. It's amazing how many times there would be a man in the room or on the battlefield who would put his hand up and say, actually, no. She's a journalist. I saw her on this front. And she is what she says she is.

GROSS: So were you able to get the trust of different sides, different militias?

ABOUZEID: Yes, yes. And that's one of the reasons that enabled me to continue going back for as long as I did on the rebel side.

GROSS: So you write that initially, you were forced to focus on the rebel side because you were...


GROSS: ...Crossing the border illegally. So - because it's the government that wanted you arrested. So you had to stay with the rebels?

ABOUZEID: Yes. And I physically couldn't get into Damascus. I - you know, my name was at the border. I couldn't cross it. And to be smuggled from Lebanon at the time into Damascus was a very dangerous thing for me to do, given that one of my nationalities is also Lebanese. So I couldn't do it. I would have wanted to do it. I'm a journalist. I want to talk to everybody. But unfortunately, that blacklist early on meant that I couldn't. Although, I still managed a few trips into government-held Damascus and to tell part of that side of the story.

GROSS: Are you still on a blacklist? Is there still warrants out for your arrest?

ABOUZEID: Yeah. That hasn't changed, unfortunately.

GROSS: So you've spoken to people. You've reported on people from different competing militias. Did you worry that someone from a rival militia would turn you in?

ABOUZEID: To the government?

GROSS: To the government or to another militia, to their own militia. It seems like everybody's at war with each other in Syria. So there's so many options for you to either be kidnapped or imprisoned or harmed in some way.

ABOUZEID: Yes. I mean, kidnapping threats were made a few times. And it was my relationships on the ground that prevented them. Once again, you know, if I dropped the right name, I would be OK in certain areas. So for me, staying safe meant building a network of - that was based on relationships. And it was a pretty vast network. And it meant that I had to keep track of the nitty-gritty. I had to understand the terrain that I was entering - the political, social, cultural, religious, military terrain that I was entering - because if I got into trouble, I needed to know whose name I could drop where and that it would keep me safe.

When I report - and it doesn't matter where it is - I have one question that I must answer before I enter the field. And that question is, if I get into trouble, who can get me out? And if I don't have an answer, I simply don't go. So, you know, getting that answer means that you really, really have to know where you're entering and what you're doing.

GROSS: I have to say that depends on the person who you've decided is the person who can bail you out still being alive because in Syria, you never know...


GROSS: ...Who's going to be...


GROSS: ...Alive the next day.

ABOUZEID: Yes, yes. That's very true. And that sadly happened a number of times. And that's the reality of war. I mean, I remember there was one time when I was going to go in for a story. And before I did, the group of young rebels who were going to come from Syria across the border into Turkey to escort me into Syria - about six of them were killed in an airstrike. That happened. And it happened more than once.

GROSS: How did you protect your notes? Because I'm sure you wanted to protect the confidence of people who were talking to you and not give anything away.

ABOUZEID: That is my - of paramount concern - that protecting my sources is utmost in my mind all the time. Well, first of all, frankly, I don't think anybody can read my handwriting.

GROSS: (Laughter).

ABOUZEID: I can't read my handwriting. And I would take my notes, keep them on a digital recorder and hide it in various places - never use full names. I would use descriptors. Like I said, that is the most important thing for me. And that is another thing that also kept me safe because people knew that my word was good. If I said I wasn't going to reveal their identities, I really meant it.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Rania Abouzeid who's been covering the civil war in Syria since the protests started there in 2011. She's the author of the new book "No Turning Back: Life, Loss And Hope In Wartime Syria." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, we're talking about covering the civil war in Syria. My guest is journalist Rania Abouzeid. Her new book is called "No Turning Back: Life, Loss And Hope In Wartime Syria."

What was it like for you to interview radicals who wanted an Islamic state in which there would be - I'm sure - no rights for women? These are not your views, but you're trying to accurately present the point of view of the people who are the radicals - who are the extremists. So can you talk a little bit about developing a relationship of trust with them, where they trusted you with their story and you trusted them not to harm you.

ABOUZEID: You know, I'm a journalist. I want to talk to everybody. And my goal in speaking with people is to - not to judge them, not to turn them into caricatures but to try and understand them because I think that's what we need to do. We need to understand what makes some of these characters tick. And that was my approach. And when I was talking to some of these al-Qaida members, they slowly came to know me. It took some time for them to trust me. And when they did, we - like any relationship, it went from there - any professional reporting relationship - it went from there. And it was - you know, I knew some of these men from the beginning. And....

GROSS: From the beginning of the war?

ABOUZEID: From the beginning of the uprising, yes. And I just pursued them the way that I would pursue any journalistic relationship with a source.

GROSS: I imagine some of these men in al-Qaida admired your bravery and were also baffled by it because you're a woman.

ABOUZEID: Yeah. You know, it's - you'd be surprised how - the Syrians were one thing, and the foreigners in the group were different. The Syrians at the end of the day were still Syrians. And I could talk to them, and they would look me in the face. And, you know, we could have an hours-long conversation sometimes. The foreigners in Jabal al-Druze were more conservative. And many of them would turn away from me when they looked at me because they didn't want to be looking at a woman - or would just, you know, sort of flat-out refuse to speak to me or would - they were just more conservative. But, in general, I managed to go to a lot of places and to get access to this group - some would say - despite the fact I was a woman.

And it didn't really pose a problem for me except in one place where I went. And it was a town that had been taken by an Islamist coalition. And I was there to interview a senior al-Qaida cleric - a sheikh. But there was an al-Qaida checkpoint at the entrance to the town, and they weren't letting in anybody who - even men - who hadn't - who weren't in the fighting groups that had taken the town. So I mentioned the sheikh's name, so they let me pass. But I could only - it was almost nightfall. And I couldn't stay there in the evening because there weren't any women in the town. And so as conservative - ultra-conservative Islamists, they weren't - they wouldn't let me stay in the town overnight because there wasn't a woman for me to stay with. So I had to do the interview and leave before it got too late.

GROSS: I have to say. It sounds strange to be in a town with no women.

ABOUZEID: Yeah, I mean, it was. It was a frontline town.

GROSS: Yeah. So you mentioned that the foreign fighters would not want to look you in the eye, but the fighters who were from Syria, who are more comfortable around women, could converse with you more easily. So I know Syrian fighters had gone to Iraq.


GROSS: Like, radicalized Syrians had gone to Iraq to fight with the radical groups there. So did a lot of - have a lot of radical fighters from other countries come to Syria to fight in the civil war?

ABOUZEID: So many - so many different nationalities I can't even begin to count them. Just the ones that I would see crossing the borders or at airports - Albanians, Moroccans, Iraqis, Egyptians, Libyans. It drew in - Syria was a magnet for foreign fighters - for Islamist foreign fighters. And there were some towns that were almost - I'm thinking of Doreen, which is a town in the Latakia countryside. And that was - there were so many foreign fighters in this town. I remember once I was going to meet in Jabal al-Druze an al-Qaeda source there. I was invited to go to Doreen by this source. And I'd smuggled myself across the Syrian border, and I was in a car with an al-Qaida driver - the Jabal al-Druze driver. And we were almost at Doreen when he got a call. And my source told him, can you thank the sister but can she head back because the foreign fighters have vetoed her visit. So the foreigners - the foreign Islamists had basically sort of overruled the views of their Syrian guests and told me to go home.

GROSS: Did you go home when you were told to go home?

ABOUZEID: Yeah, I did because, I mean, that's why I went there to see them. And frankly, I was a little bit peeved. So I was like, OK, fine, I'll go back this time. And I'll plan a different trip because I'd also done the logistics and the security for that trip. So I wasn't about to just mosey on, you know, around in northern Syria without having properly planned a trip.

GROSS: So are the foreign fighters in Syria hoping to build a caliphate or just an Islamic State in Syria?

ABOUZEID: Well, the first state would be - the first step would be an Islamic state and then from there, you know, an Islamic state that expands. That's their ideal.

GROSS: You know, in the U.S., we used to be so focused on al-Qaida. And now we're really focused on ISIS. But are there are lots of other groups of various names that are not called ISIS or al-Qaida that pose the same threat?

ABOUZEID: A threat to the West, you mean?

GROSS: A threat to, you know, the Middle East and to the West.

ABOUZEID: Islamism is a spectrum. And it's a very vast and broad spectrum. Even the idea of a Salafi, you know, a conservative Sunni Muslim - they're also a spectrum. They're not all the same. And I think that we lump these groups all together. And that's to our detriment because it hinders our understanding of these groups and these movements and the ideologies behind them.

GROSS: What are some of the differences?

ABOUZEID: Well, there are some Salafis, for example, who believe that they shouldn't get involved in politics and that they should be subservient to the leader. There are some who say that they will get involved in politics, but they are against violence. And then there are the Salafi jihadis who are characterized by al-Qaida, who are - who want to bring about political change through violence. So even within that subgroup, you've got at least three - even within that group - Salafis - you have at least three subgroups. And they're very different - from not wanting to get involved in politics to wanting to use violence to change politics. So that's what I mean by a spectrum. And it's very, very broad.

GROSS: Your ability to get around and be protected in Syria depends on people vouching for you, people from different sides, people from different militias. And their vouching for you depends on their feeling that you are treating them fairly in your reporting. Did you have any journalism - like, official journalism training, or did you kind of learn the rules of journalism on your own or come up with your own rules for what kind of journalist you wanted to be?

ABOUZEID: I'll answer that in a bit. But before I do, I just want to say that, yes, I did depend, in part, on them vouching for me and also on my ability to move around and just do what I wanted to do. But I was often hauled in for questioning after my articles appeared because they weren't happy about something that I wrote. And every time, I'd point to the article, and I'd say, tell me what part isn't right. Tell me where I misquoted you. Tell me where I said I was going to do something that I didn't. Did I reveal your identity? And they'd say, no, you didn't. And I said, is that what you said? And they said, yes, that's what I said. I was like, then what's the problem? So they knew. And I came to have that reputation that I would push back against this kind of stuff, so don't try and intimidate me.

And that would happen often. Sometimes, I'd get calls from Syrians who would tell me, hey, listen. You know, the commander in whatever place is really upset with your story, so maybe don't go there for a little bit until he cools down. And I would heed that advice because, you know, sometimes, you push back, and sometimes you just stay away. It's smarter to stay away. You have to decide how you're going to react to something based on the person who is - who you're dealing with, you know?

In terms of my journalism training, no, I wasn't trained as a journalist. And I learned by seeing. I learned by doing. I learned by reading. And I learned by doing.

GROSS: So the people who pulled you in for questioning - you're talking about militia leaders?

ABOUZEID: Yes. I'm talking about rebels from - whether they were the leaders or the media officer or whoever it might be - all sorts of different people.

GROSS: My guest is journalist Rania Abouzeid, author of the new book "No Turning Back: Life, Loss, And Hope In Wartime Syria." Coming up, we'll talk about how the civil war in Lebanon, where her parents are from, affected her childhood and her reporting. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with journalist Rania Abouzeid, author of the new book "No Turning Back: Life, Loss, And Hope In Wartime Syria." She started covering Syria in 2011 when the uprising against the Assad regime began. She continued covering Syria as the conflict turned into civil war. Abouzeid is the daughter of Lebanese parents who raised her in Australia at the time of the civil war in Lebanon. She now lives in Lebanon. Just a heads-up before we get back to the interview - she's going to give an unsettling description of a child who was seriously injured in the Syrian civil war.

So one of the people you profile is a 9-year-old girl - at least, she starts out being 9 when you start writing about her. Her name is Ruha. And why did you want to write from the point of view of a child experiencing the war?

ABOUZEID: I wanted to show the effects of revolution and war from a child's eyes and from a family's perspective. I wanted to present the family unit. But I wanted to focus on this young girl because she was just so precocious. And she would say things sometimes that would just, you know, blindside me in terms of how much she was absorbing, in terms of - she was just soaking things up around her and trying to understand what was happening. And I wanted to present that perspective to remind people that there are families, there are young girls, there are young boys who are living through these momentous, horrendous, epic events.

GROSS: So you grew up in Australia and New Zealand, but your parents are from Lebanon.


GROSS: And you spent time there with extended family during the civil war in Lebanon.


GROSS: So were you interested in talking to Ruha, the 9-year-old girl who became older as you covered her over the years - were you interested in talking to her in part because you witnessed civil war as a child yourself?

ABOUZEID: My parents used to bring us for holidays during Beirut's war - which sounds crazy. I know. But the thing about civil war is that it can be raging in one neighborhood, and there can be nothing in the adjoining neighborhood. And so when there was relative calm in the areas that we would go to, we would go back to Beirut to, you know, reconnect to our heritage. And so I saw what war can do, and I saw that at a young age. And these days, I'm grateful for it because I think it helped sort of build up my resilience to conflict and my understanding of it. And I was - there were some things that Ruha and her family would talk about that I understood on a deep level. And it connected back to my childhood. For example, when Ruha's mother Manal (ph) talks about living a half-life in exile in Turkey - the family escapes to Turkey at one point in the book - I understood what that meant because my family lived a half-life.

We were Lebanese living in Australia while there was a civil war in Lebanon. And we followed the news as closely as Ruha's mother followed the news from Syria because she wanted to go back home. And my parents initially wanted to go back home as well, as soon as the war ended. And I knew what it meant to live a half-life. I knew what it meant when all of your decisions were based on what is the politics of the day. And is peace going to happen? Are there peace talks? Might we go back home soon? And, you know, I grew up in a house where politics wasn't abstract. It wasn't some theory that you saw - you studied in school. Politics meant the difference between whether or not my grandparents were safe. It was something that was very real, and it was something with real-world implications.

GROSS: Did your parents move back to Lebanon after the civil war?

ABOUZEID: They did some years later - not immediately after the civil war. And when they returned, it was to a country that they didn't recognize anymore and one that they couldn't live in. So they went back home to Australia.

GROSS: Why did you return to Lebanon?

ABOUZEID: I think my parents put you up to that question.


ABOUZEID: They're always asking me why I, quote, "reverse-migrated." I went back because I felt drawn to the news from this region. I felt drawn to the region. And it was the place of my heritage, and I wanted to learn more about that. And I guess some part of me is still that kid who is listening to news reports about Lebanon or from the region and who now wants to contribute to news reports about a region that I know. I can speak the language. I'm both Eastern and Western. And if I can help, you know, contribute to some form of understanding about what's happening - translate one for the other - then that's what I want to do.

GROSS: So you weren't terrified of the things that you saw in the civil war when you were a child visiting relatives?

ABOUZEID: I wasn't terrified because, at the time, I wasn't - I didn't really know what some of them were. I remember evenings when I would watch the red tracer bullets, and they would go from one neighborhood to the other. And I thought they were fireworks, and that's what my relatives told me at the time because I was just a kid. So, you know, I saw things through a young girl's eyes, but in a very different way from Ruha. Ruha was much smarter than I ever was, and she was much more aware of what was happening around her and to her and to her family and to her community.

GROSS: You know, while talking about children in civil war, there's an image in your book that's really hard to shake. It's of a girl whose head has been split open. There's shrapnel in her neck, shrapnel in her eye. And a doctor is working on her without anesthesia.


GROSS: And I'm thinking what it is like to be a child experiencing that level of civil war and being wounded - and I don't even know what situation her parents were in at that moment.

ABOUZEID: Yes. She was calling out to her mother, and she was crying out for her mother. And her mother wasn't there, but her father was. He held her hand as the doctor operated on her without anesthetic, and her screams filled the hospital that night. And they intermingled with all the other screams that were in the hospital that evening.

GROSS: Did you talk to her directly at all?

ABOUZEID: No, no. I - it wasn't the time to talk to her. It was a mad, mad night. Something like 25, 35 people were killed in air strikes that night, and they were coming into the hospital. The dead, the wounded - it was just absolute pandemonium. It wasn't the time to talk to a little girl who was being operated on. Instead, I stood in the corner next to the doctor, and I watched what happened. And I listened, and I wrote it all down.

GROSS: I can't imagine what it's like to be a parent in a situation like that.

ABOUZEID: Yeah, heartbreaking - heartbreaking to see your child in pain. And there's nothing you can do about it. You just - her father just held her hand and told her she'd be OK. That was all that he could do. I mean, this little girl was having the base of her skull stitched without anesthetic, without anything. And it was just heartbreaking.

GROSS: Did you experience any barrel bombs being dropped?

ABOUZEID: Yes, yes - many times, many, many times. You know, barrel bombs are particularly horrific. They're unguided weapons. And they're dropped from helicopter gunships. So so many times, you could see it. So Syrians would stop what they were doing. And they'd stare at the sky, watch the barrel falling because it was guided only by gravity and by the wind. So you're looking at it wondering which way is it going to fall so that you know which way to run - or you think you know which way to run. So it's quite surreal to just see people all around you stop and stare at the sky while this thing tears through the air. It has a sound that is unmistakable. It rips the air as it's coming down with a buh, buh, buh (ph) kind of intensity. And then it lands somewhere, and it explodes. And the splinters and the nails and whatever else is in it, you know, disperse. But it's particularly nasty.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Rania Abouzeid. Her new book is called "No Turning Back: Life, Loss And Hope In Wartime Syria." And she's covered the war since 2011 when the uprising started. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and we're talking about the war in Syria. My guest journalist Rania Abouzeid has covered the war since 2011 when the uprising against Bashar al-Assad first started. Her new book is called "No Turning Back: Life, Loss And Hope In Wartime Syria."

When you're being bombed, unlike the Syrians who actually live in Syria, you'll be able to get out. Assuming you're not injured, you'll be able to get out and get back home. But are you concerned about post-traumatic stress?

ABOUZEID: It's a thing. It's a thing. And it's something that our community needs to take seriously, and it does. I - you know, thank God - don't suffer from it. And I think in part it might be because of that resilience that I built up from childhood in that I was exposed to these things. I didn't sort of - I wasn't dropped into a war zone all of a sudden and was faced with the reality of a war zone. It's almost like an immunization if you'd like. You get small shots of it, and then you get used to it to a certain degree - although you never really get used to it. You can never get used to a little girl screaming in a hospital because she's being operated on without an anesthetic. As a human being, you just can't immunize yourself from that sort of pain.

And it's just - you know, it's a reality. And it's sadly happening to them. That's the other thing. I mean, this is happening to them. What about Syrians and their post - they're not even in post-traumatic. They're still in that traumatic phase. They're still being bombed. They're still being wounded. They're still being besieged. The barrel bombs are still falling from the sky. So I wonder more about them and their trauma and their mental state.

GROSS: The dedication in your book about the Syrian civil war reads (reading) for my parents, my sisters, my family. I carried your love and support in my heart every time I crossed the mountains while on my shoulders I bore the guilt of taking you with me. What's the guilt you're referring to there?

ABOUZEID: The guilt that they were worried. They were concerned. I knew that I was relatively okay when I was inside, but they didn't. They spent their hours, days, weeks wondering if I was okay. And even if I did check in every day, they still spent all of the time between those check-ins wondering if I was okay. And I sometimes wonder if we're not a little bit selfish - journalists who do what I do - because of the effect that it has on our families, on our loved ones, on our friends who worry about us. And that dedication actually was the first thing that I wrote in the book. They were the first lines that I wrote in the book because that was the first message that I needed to send.

GROSS: You've taken great risks to cover the civil war in Syria over these past seven years. Right now, so many Americans are obsessed with the Trump presidency and with investigations into the Trump campaign and the Trump White House. And it's kind of filling a lot of the news mental capacity of a lot of Americans.


GROSS: And it's shutting out a lot of stories.


GROSS: And I'm wondering if as a journalist you're feeling that.

ABOUZEID: Yes. And it shut out one of my Syria stories.

GROSS: Like literally?

ABOUZEID: Literally shut out one of my Syria stories. And it was an exclusive, and it was in a place that no journalist has yet been to. And because of Trump-mania, the story sat on an editor's desk for five months before it was killed. There wasn't space. It was all Trump all the time. And that story still burns my heart - that I didn't manage to run it - because I felt that it was important. And it was something that just got caught up in Trump-mania.

GROSS: What was the story?

ABOUZEID: The story - I went to Idlib City, which is the provincial capital of Idlib province. And at the time, it was run by a conservative Islamist coalition. They had imposed a dress code on the women. They had roving patrols of morality police in the streets. It was kind of like Raqqa-lite. But this story was about acts of resistance - of people who were pushing back against these extremists. And they were pushing back in ways big and small - from the women's group that was teaching women about their rights under the guise of literacy lessons and the women who were flouting the dress code by wearing red hijabs instead of black or brown or blue, to the Christians - the handful of Christians who remained in the town and who were protected by their Muslim neighbors because their neighbors said that the Christians were their brothers. They were the sons of their town - so many different acts of of resistance. And that was a story that - it burns my heart because it showcases the resilience of Syrians to overcome anyone that they feel is oppressing them. And, sadly, that story wasn't told.

GROSS: One more thing - I'm wondering since you've interviewed so many people in the various militias in the Syrian civil war, have you come across a lot of people who just end up disillusioned, who think, like...


GROSS: ...This is an unwinnable war? We're just destroying the country. The people heading the militia are extremists, or they're not really idealists.


GROSS: I'm out.

ABOUZEID: So many times, so many different examples of this. And the thing is that, you know, we say rebels, and it's a catch-all phrase. But there were many different types of rebels. There were men who just picked up guns because they wanted to protect their families and their hometowns. And they stayed in their hometowns. And they coalesced around each other and eventually used the military nomenclature. And there were others who were more ideological, who extended beyond their hometowns and who had bigger goals - might be their province or even beyond their province. So there were a range of different rebels with different ideas.

But I met many who were disillusioned - some who left the fight because it, quote, "became too dirty" because the rebel commanders were corrupt, because they didn't see the point of it anymore, because they were sick of killing Syrians, because they didn't see a point to it anymore, because they feared men on their own side in some cases. So there were many, many people who were disillusioned, who lost their ideals and their idealism over these seven years.

GROSS: You've covered the war in Iraq. You've covered the civil war in Syria. You're doing a documentary on Afghanistan. You've spent so much time in broken countries. How does that affect the way you see the world and the way that you see humanity? I mean, you've witnessed people doing, you know, heroic things, and you've witnessed people like really doing terrible things.

ABOUZEID: Yeah. It's the flip side of a coin, I guess. It's the spectrum of humanity but - yet on overdrive. And it's always a - it's a privilege. It really is a privilege to be entrusted with somebody's story. And I'm never sure why people talk to journalists because, I mean, really think about what we do. We stick a microphone in somebody's face or a camera or a notepad and pen. We ask them to tell us about things that are often very difficult or very painful. Or we encounter these people in a hospital when they're being operated on without anesthetic or, you know, in the aftermath of a barrel bomb attack or something like that. And we ask them to talk about that. It's a really difficult thing. And I often wonder if I were in their shoes, if I would speak to a journalist. But they talk to us, and we tell their stories. And it's a privilege, and it's a responsibility. And it's one that I don't, for a second, take for granted.

GROSS: Well, Rania Abouzeid, I want to thank you for taking the risk that you take to report the story in Syria. And thank you for joining us on FRESH AIR.

ABOUZEID: Thank you very much.

GROSS: Rania Abouzeid is the author of the new book "No Turning Back: Life, Loss And Hope In Wartime Syria." She lives in Lebanon. After we take a short break, John Powers will review a new book by one of his favorite authors. This is FRESH AIR.



This is FRESH AIR. Our critic at large John Powers has a review of a new book by one of his favorite authors - the Booker Prize-winning English writer Alan Hollinghurst. It's called "The Sparsholt Affair." And it centers on how the laws of social propriety shape the destinies of a father and son, spanning the decades from the 1940s until now.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: When it comes to writers, I'm a bit of a cad. After a few books, I tend to move on even when I've enjoyed them. Still, I do remain loyal to a handful of writers whose work always excites me. One of them is Alan Hollinghurst. Ever since his 1988 debut, "The Swimming Pool Library," this gifted English novelist has been an unsurpassed chronicler of worldly gay lives. Yet to label him a great gay writer is diminishing, like calling Philip Roth a great Jewish writer or Toni Morrison a great African-American woman writer. As with them, his talent is so big it explodes the category. While gay life is his terrain, Hollinghurst uses it to investigate all manner of things - art, money, social class, the perils of family, the weight of history and the way sexual desire overrides them all - in the moment, anyway.

He explores all these themes in his new novel "The Sparsholt Affair," only his sixth in the last 30 years. Broken into five interlocked sections, this domestic epic leapfrogs across seven decades, from a luminous evocation of World War II Oxford during the blackout to today's diode-lit world in which hookups are arranged via apps. The first part puts us in Oxford, where a straight writer, Freddie Green, comes across a handsome fellow student, David Sparsholt, whose hunkiness draws the attention of Freddie's gay friends who are eager to bed him, despite the fact that he has a fiance. But could the laconic, bottled-up Sparsholt actually be interested in men but unwilling to admit it? By the second part, it's 20 years on. And David is a married manufacturer with a tween son, Johnny, who turns out to be the main character.

This we discover in part three, when Johnny, an aspiring artist who's gay, comes to '70s London and gets to know his father's old Oxford friends. Diffident and good looking, he must live under the shadow of what's known as the Sparsholt affair, a famous sex scandal involving his father that broke when Johnny was a teen. As we hop to the '90s and then onto the present decade, Johnny goes from being a young guy chewing over his dreams to a venerable figure able to lead a life freer than his father ever could've dreamt. Hollinghurst's literary hero Henry James once said that a writer must be one on whom nothing is lost, a phrase that hints at what makes Hollinghurst so extraordinary.

He's simply brilliant at capturing the nuance textures of life - everything from the enveloping hues of moonlight and the exact sounds of the street - like the great sneeze, as he calls it, of a truck braking to the insecurities, resentments and lusts that race through the guests at a party. "The Sparsholt Affair" is filled with scenes that let us feel what it is to stand atop a tower, watching for German bombers, bid at your first auction or paint a portrait of an entitled rich family you just can't stand.

Hollinghurst began writing when gayness was more marginalized and riskier than it is today. As he championed gay identity and desire, his early work was notorious for unblinkingly explicit sexual descriptions that, among other things, seemed to announce, this is what we do, and we like it. There's little such explicitness at any level of "The Sparsholt Affair," which, like his previous novel, "The Stranger's Child," often turns on things that aren't being said or shown. Most obviously - how Johnny's dad became tabloid fodder, the episode that most writers would spend the whole book detailing. Such deliberate obliqueness makes the novel fascinating. Yet at the risk of slowing its sales, I'd suggest that if you've never read any Hollinghurst, you're probably better off starting with "The Line Of Beauty," his tremendous Booker Prize-winning novel that's the great fictional portrait of the Thatcher era, or "The Swimming Pool Library," whose audacity makes the naughtiness of Martin Amis feel pallid.

Those books crackle with the rebellious energy that, here, has been harnessed to the more refined ends of a literary master, a master who, in his mid-60s, clearly hears the whispers of his own mortality. Jean-Paul Sartre once claimed that the greatest art is about the passing of time. And whether Hollinghurst is showing the decades-long erosion of repressive values or the flowering and slow fading of his characters, this magisterial novel offers evidence that Sartre was right.

GROSS: John Powers writes about film and TV for Vogue and He reviewed "The Sparsholt Affair" by Alan Hollinghurst. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guests will be investigative journalists Michael Isikoff and David Corn, the authors of the new book "Russian Roulette: The Inside Story Of Putin's War On America And The Election Of Donald Trump." They've both broken key stories about ties between Donald Trump, his campaign and Russia. I hope you'll join us. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.


Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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