Dr Shruti Das

P.G. Department of English, Berhampur University
([email protected])

Mirza Ibrahim Beg

Research Scholar,P G department of English, Berhampur University


The Syrian civil war and the ensuing crisis is one of the largest humanitarian and geopolitical problems since World War II. Civil wars tear countries apart and the major casualties are the common people. Syria, a country in the Middle East, was being grossly inflicted with the absence of freedom in the political expression, dearth of employment and a widespread corruption in the administrative system under the presidentship of Bashar-al-Assad. An uprising of the people in March 2011 against the dictator, inspired by the “Arab Spring” was crushed ruthlessly by the regime and went on to become a civil war creating a multitude of homeless and refugees. Wendy Pearlman’s We Crossed a Bridge and it Trembled: Voices from Syria (2017) is a collection of first-person testimonies of the war ravaged people of Syria. This paper attempts to analyse the psychological condition and the physical predicament of these refugees compelled to leave their homes and homeland by way of  understanding the trauma of the victims of civil wars. The analysis is done within the framework of trauma theory.

Keywords :Syria, civil war, displacement, testimonies, trauma.


The Syrian civil war is one of the largest humanitarian and geopolitical crises since World War II.The uprising of the people in March 2011 against the dictator, inspired by the “Arab Spring” movement, crushed ruthlessly by the regime, descended to become a civil war and religious fundamentalism further divided and devastated the Syrians causing unfathomable trauma. This paper attempts to read Wendy Pearlman’s We Crossed a Bridge and it Trembled: Voices from Syria (2017), a collection of first-person testimonies, in the framework of trauma theory to reveal the psychological and physical trauma of forcibly displaced humans.Although trauma studies began in the 1860s it gained currency and momentum in the 1990s when critics like Cathy Caruth and others began to study the cultural and psychological effects of trauma.

Narratives of civil wars have mostly overlooked the Syriancrisis. We find in Yassin al-Haj Saleh’s The Impossible Revolution(2017) a political analysis of the decade long war and its impact on Syria and its people; inAlia Malek’s The Home that was our Country: A Memoir of Syria(2017), a fictionalised account of the exile of her family and in Ingrid Loland’s article “Negotiating paradise lost: Refugee narratives of pre-war Syria – A discursive approach to memory, metaphors and religious identifications” (2019) the Syrian crisis discussed within the framework of memory, metaphors and sectarian religious identifications.Writers have discussed various aspects of the war but the impact of the psychological trauma faced by the people, whichtake the reader to the heart of the conflict, in Pearlman’s carefully chosen testimonials is unique. Hence this paper will move away from the medical discourse of trauma and engage in discussing psychological trauma in Pearlman’s testimonials.

Syrian civil war caused the death of half a million people and forced more than four million people to flee the country with minimum possessions. Reviewing Pearlman’s book for the Irish Timeson Nov 26, 2018, Riona McCormack says that the executions and arrests of the people were arbitrary; and that the loss of loved ones agonized the people who fled the country (no page).The narratives in the testimonials appear larger than liferepresenting the voices of traumatized people caught in the snare of war. The charactershave traveled in dangerous circumstances to seek asylum, and have been living in settlements or refugee camps for years bringing up crucial questions of self, culture and the native land.The feeling of emotional vacuum and alienationfrom the homeland is internalized primarily because the separation is not voluntary but a forced choice. While circumstances of migrationgenerally encourage endurance by developing the power of social adjustability and cultural adaptability, in the environment of traumatic expulsion from homeland, the lost home always remains firmly installed in the psyche as an anguished disintegration of self.

Trauma and displacement

Raymond Corsini states that trauma is “the result of a painful event, physical or mental, causing immediate damage to the body or shock to the mind” (qtd. in Swart 3: 48). David Spiegel defines trauma and argues that “the mental imprint of … frightening experiences sometimes takes the form of loss of control over parts of one’s mind – identity, memory, and consciousness – just as physical control is regained”(qtd. in Swart 3: 47). An event when it remains without any complete sustainable solution is classified as traumatic.The real perception of the toxic nature of the event produces anxiety.Intense anxiety causes absolute helplessness and a loss of control leading to trauma.

Monica Luci in her article(2020) investigates the effects of displacement, trauma and lost identity in refugees. She argues that refugee lives are marked by forced migration and the resultant trauma redefines their exterior and internal self. Considering the effect of displacement, M. Fazel and A. Stein propose the usage of a three-phased model to document the refugee migratory experience. The pre-flight phase period refers to the time spent by refugees in their country of origin, prior to fleeing to another region. They are typically entangled in strife zones and are observer to atrocities like mistreatment, viciousness, torment, physical and sexual assaults and the loss of relatives and separations from communities. The Flight Phase alludes to the unknown excursion of dislocation that a refugee experiences in her journey from the nation of origin towards the site of resettlement. Lastly, during the Resettlement phase, the refugee waits and endures stress due to the strenuous procedures of obtaining asylum and protection of an alien land. However palliative the resettlement maybe, it poses new sets of challenges frequently referred to as secondary trauma, whereby refugees have to undergo and withstand the acculturation processes of integration into an alien society, and are expected to adopt cultural norms different to theirs, all the while lamenting the permanent loss of their homeland.

Pearlman’s We Crossed a Bridge and it Trembled is a powerful document of traumatic experiences based on real interviews of the authorwith more than 400 displaced Syrians in Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, and the United States, between 2012 and 2017. It records accounts of the Syrian resistance, war, and the crisis of refugees solely through the testimonies of individuals who have lived it.War time dilemma of a loved one lost or missing brings in insecurity, fear and anxiety and thoughts of death and imprisonment become a foreboding. People are stripped of their agency in camps and prisons anddeprived of the right to ask about their family members. Kareem, the narrator in one such testimony, belongs to a generation where dozens of his friends “didn’t know whether their fathers were dead or alive”(12). Incidentally, when the army kidnapped four of Abdul Rahman’s uncles, his father was clueless about the reason of arrest and uncertain about the fate of his brothers and went around asking people and searching for them. In a harrowing depiction of his trauma we read that he even went to the symmetry, where he saw mountains of shoes. “He dug and dug in the hope of finding his brother’s shoes, just so he could have some evidence that they were killed” (9).

Pearlman’s narrative portrays prisons as the most frightening sites of trauma in Syria depicting that human lifewas inconsequential. People were victimized without valid reasons, trail, lawyers and even without any specific charges of offence butonly on the simple basis of suspicion. Prison guards manipulated and coerced Syrians into submission. They extorted money from families and took away all the gifts they had got for the inmate. The condition of hygiene and food were appalling. Tayseer shares his morbid prison memory narrating how difficult it was for him to live without his sonand the anxiety of losing family members one after the other without being able to bid farewell to them.Children were tortured inside the prison and families were told simply, “Forget your children. Go home to your wives and make more children. And if you don’t know, bring your wives and we’ll show you how” (62). The narrator tells us that when Abdel Samed’s cousin was released, his body was full of cigarette burns and stab marks and that his neck was broken. His genitals had been cut off. Peace eluded people even when they were released as they were haunted by the memory of torture inside the prison. The “traumatic events often repeated, prolonged and interpersonal in nature, and have been demonstrated to have a deleterious effect on mental health”(ISTSS 3) by the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies (ISTSS2017).

The guards remove the clothes of the victims before the interrogation, mock and spit on them and thrash them which is extremely dehumanizing and humiliating leading to trauma and post-traumatic disorder. Anxious prisoners hear the sounds of other prisoners being tortured: “Every time you heard it, you thought, it must be my turn. And all others thought it must be my turn. Everyone was scared. The noise was harder than the torture itself. Sound enters you in a different way. It felt like the sounds themselves were killing you” (Pearlman130).  We read that three different bells were used in the prison to indicate three different levels of torture. The ringing of the first bell indicated that the victim be taken to the room with the tire while the second bell was rung to take the victim to the room with the electric cables, and the third and final bell was rung to transfer the victim to the room enacting the most extreme form of torture, a near to death experience.  They beat the prisoner twice a day; once in the morning and again in the evening and refused the prisoners permission to use the bathroom “You had until the count of ten to return in and out; if you didn’t finish in time, you got hit” (131).The Syrian regime tortured and killed people, mutilating their bodies beyond recognition. When Abu Firas got the dead body of his brother after 18 days, his family failed to recognize it: “His toenails were ripped out. His bones had been pierced with a drill. There were marks from being beaten and burned. His nose was beaten so severely that it was flat” (127). And three months later they learnt that the dead body they buried belonged to someone else and that his brother was still alive inside the prison. Uncertainty of life and death reinforces trauma.

Kinda, a woman narrator relates terrifying conversations between the officers that she has overheard.They demean women as whores and say, “Were they looking for someone to ride them?”( 171). Paul Bloom in The New Yorker notes the cruelty of the perpetrators of State sponsored violence, “The inhibitions against murdering fellow human beings are generally so strong that the victims must be deprived of their human status if systematic killing is to proceed in a smooth and orderly fashion.” The Nazis used bureaucratic euphemisms such as “transfer” and “selection” to sanitize different forms of murder” (The New Yorker,27 Nov. 2017).In a similar fashion the Syrian military regime perpetrated terror and sanitized themselves by dehumanizing their victims.

After each protest, the Syrian government sent dead bodies to every village and each funeral became a terrorizing demonstration. Supply of water, electricity, and all forms of communications were stopped. Children starved to death in front of their parents. The regime took over the main public hospital creating shortage of medicine and bandages so that people died in front of doctors who failed to save them. Granaries were destroyed,cities divided into grids and checkpoints and snipers werepositioned at public places to throw bombs at will. Soldiers arrested people from the streets and their homes andraided houses and raped women. People panicked from sound and for them the waiting was harder than the actual attack. Insecurity was rife and people finally decided to leave their country and find asylum elsewhere. In this context Rana’s testimony in the book states that, “We spent eight months living in different places. Sometimes we found places to rent and sometimes we didn’t. It was like a vacation, but with bombing”(176). This provides us an insider’s view of the traumatic predicament of the Syrians. “Packing, running, packing, sometimes running without even packing is their life” (176).  The start of a new life abroad was a succession of traumas:the trauma of war followed by the trauma of death-defying journeys and the trauma of disappointment.Most refugees remained overwhelmed by the legal and economic problems of survival. Waiting became perpetual and integral and a definable trait of their life.The refugees fell prey to smugglers and traffickers who cheated people. The smuggled boats sank and many refugees succumbed. People got separated from their families during the journey. Asylum seekers were unwelcome and had to compromise their dignity in alien lands. Nur laments that, “We don’t have problem with death. Our problem is life without dignity. If we’d known what was in store for us, we never would have come. But we did come, and now we can’t just return. There is no way back”(Pearlman229). For Hakem, “If I’d known this was life here I would have stayed in Syria and handed myself over to ISIS. It’s better to die once than to die slowly every day” (252). Samar Yazbek ruefully comments, “Even in exile, people today were no longer cut off with such finality from their places of origin” (270) as are the refugees.

Pearlman’s book parades the chroniclers of trauma one after the other to accentuate the actual experience of the Syrians who sought asylum in foreign lands, cut off with finality from their homeland. In Lebanon, Um Khalid found a storage space where her family could live that had no water, no electricity, nothing; there was only just enough space to sleep. Safa too found life in Lebanon pathetic: the neighborhood of shacks, the lack of hygiene, and the germs making life miserable. The metal roof leaked whenever it rained. The heater puffed and filled the house with debris. The tap water was so polluted that one couldn’t even use it to wash vegetables. Children got allergy from the filth. The landlords used to hike rents at will. People spent all their savings fixing up the house which didn’t even belong to them. When Safa repaired the house she rented, the landlord increased the rent and told her, “If you don’t like it, go live on the streets” (216). Compelled to sell all the equipment of her office, Ghassan felt as if she was selling a part of her life. Severed from a dignified past the Syrian refugees had to endure dehumanization and the consequent trauma.


Refugees and asylum seekers experience significant traumatic events which can be related to generalized anxiety, sleeplessness, and nightmares. The victims are likely to exhibit neurological and behavioral dysfunction, including juvenile delinquency and criminal behavioras seen in most cases.They face discrimination in all quarters and live under the most severe traumatic conditions which according to the psychology of trauma is “understood as a displacement of the central axis of Self, in which the ego complex yields its position to other complexes, with a deep change in the organization and functioning of self”(Luci 260).  Pearlman’s narrative describes how people and state machinery of the host country complicate the trauma of the destitute Syrians. They were cheated and deprived in all spheres including humanitarian aid. In the hospitals, their visits were registered without providing them with any treatment so that hospitals could charge the fees to the UN. Wendy Pearlman’s book is a pointer to the atrocities suffered by people, here Syrians, who have been displaced from their homelands and have been dehumanized in a world posing to be sympathetic to fellow humans. The ‘central axis of Self’ is dislocated and psychological trauma is passed on to later generations as refugees try to find their bearing in adverse situations.

References :

Abouzeid, Rania. No Turning Back. W. W. Norton & Company Press, 2018.

Bloom, Paul. The Root of All Cruelty? : Perpetrators of violence, we’re told, dehumanize their victims. The truth is worse. The New Yorker. Nov. 27, 2017 https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/11/27/the-root-of-all-cruelty

Fazel, M and A. Stein. “The mental health of refugee children.” Archives of Diseases in Childhood,Vol. 87, no. 5, 2002, pp. 366-370.

Loland, Ingrid. “Negotiating paradise lost: Refugee narratives of pre-war Syria – A discursive approach to memory, metaphors and religious identifications” European Journal of Cultural Studies August 2019https://doi.org/10.1177/1367549419869352

Luci, Monica. Displacement as trauma and trauma as displacement in the experience of refugees

The Journal of Analytical Psychology Volume 65, Issue2. April 2020 Pp. 260-280https://doi.org/10.1111/1468-5922.12590

Malek, Alia. The Home that was our Country: A Memoir of Syria. Hachette, 2017.

Mc Cormack, Riona Judge. “We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria, by Wendy Pearlman. “Some lines threaten to haunt the reader long after the book is set down. Perhaps they should”, Book Review. The Irish Times. Mon, Nov 26, 2018, 05:17.

Pearlman,Wendy. “Narratives of Fear in Syria” Perspectives on Politics.Volume 14, Issue 1 March 2016 , pp. 21-37 https://www.camb ridge.org/core/journals/perspectives-on-politics/article/narratives-of-fear-in-syria/4ABF48BEE7D4796DD1EA4554D55A2566

Pearlman, Wendy. We Crossed a Bridge and it Trembled. Customs House Press, 2017.

Saleh, Yassin al-Haj. The Impossible Revolution: Making Sense of the Syrian Tragedy By, C. Hurst and co.,2017

Swart, Inette. The influence of trauma on musicians. Diss.University of Pretoria, 2009.University of Pretoria: privately published, 2009,pp. 47-48.

Trauma and Mental Health in Forcibly Displaced Population. Briefing Paper. 2017.https://istss.org/getattachment/Education-Research/Briefing-Papers/Trauma-and-Mental-Health-in-Forcibly-Displaced-Pop/Displaced-Populations-Briefing-Paper_Final.pdf.aspx  accessed 23Aug.2020.

Why is there a war in Syria? https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-35806229  25.2.2019. accessed 20Aug.2020.

Yazbek, Samar. The Crossing. Rider Book Press, 2016.

About Drishti: the Sight

Drishti:the Sight is a National refereed Bi-annual Research Journal in the disciplines of Arts and Humanities founded in the year 2012 publishing articles in the subjects of English Literature, Assamese Literature, Folklore, Culture.The journal has been enlisted in the UGC-CARE list (Sr.No. 42) in Arts and Humanities section.The journal is dedicated to the cause of young upcoming scholars of the nation.The journal publishes only authentic research articles. It tries to follow the research ethics to the core.