Syrian Dust: Reporting from the Heart of the Battle for Aleppo (Borri)

Like others, I think, I’ve paid a great deal of attention to the struggles immigrants face in trying to get here. I’ve even read some about the difficulty that some face getting here, like Enrique’s Journey. But I wanted to understand the “mouth of [the] shark”* that is prompting so many to try to escape Syria. And thanks to Borri, for whom it is very important that she be writing from the heart of the battle, I do. She heaps disdain on those experts (some since discredited) who write about Syria without ever having been in the country. She is told at one point that she could just as easily (and much more safely) write about Syria from Rome. And she admits that journalism is about the right distance and that she may be too close. She also acknowledges that even with Aleppo, it is not possible to understand fully the Syrian experience. She knows she is right, though, that the media, and especially photographers, are key to this story. One girl tells her, “Don’t write useless things.” Another example:

Today is [Ayman Haj Jaaed’s] second day at the front. Write this, he tells me: ‘Assad is at the end of his rope.’ He crosses the street at a run waving his Kalashnikov, shooting as fast as he can. ‘Write, write!’ he yells at me from across the street: ‘Two more months, and Aleppo will be free.’ Only he fired to the left. And the sniper was on his right.

This is in Autumn of 2012. Ayman is 18.

The impression I take away from this book is similar to that moment in Apocalypse Now when the Martin Sheen character asks a soldier who is in charge. The soldier has no idea.  “Who’s the commanding officer here?” “Ain’t you?”

The Syrian situation seems incredibly complex. Most of the rebels are not even Syrian. And there is a great deal of in-fighting among the rebels. No one from the outside knows who to support, especially with Al-Qaeda counting itself among the rebels. In the end, I don’t think Borri blames Obama for not intervening. She has no such forgiveness for NGO’s that don’t show and especially those who collect funds based on a promise they are not fulfilling. It is expensive, Borri reports, to be a refugee.

Borri’s details and insights are as powerful as they are poetic. This is apparently her first book that has been translated into English. I hope the other two find their way into English soon. For the elegance of the language here, at least some of the credit must go to her translator, Anne Milano Appel.

The photographs that inspired Francesca Borri

The White Helmets

The White Helmets: trailer

“Lullaby” (for Dead Syrian Children) by Shalan Alhamwy

from “Home” by Warsan Shire


The Book of Unknown Americans (Henriquez)

This book has been widely praised as a story of the immigrant (legal and otherwise) experience. There is a site filled with amazing and important stories ( And I enjoyed the fact that the main characters are legal because the focus becomes on how and how difficult it is to stay in the United States. Everything – from shopping for food to getting and keeping a job to simply just getting from one place to another – becomes a challenge, and these challenges are complicated by stereotypes, language differences, even rivalries among immigrants who have their origins in different places and have found themselves in the same apartment complex in what seems to be a remote section of Delaware. (And a bravo to Ms. Henriquez for choosing Delaware.)

But to say this book is only about the immigrant experience is to limit its breadth. I thought Henriquez handled the issue of how parents try to adjust to a child who has suffered a brain injury was nuanced and honest. And the depiction of the child in question is excellent as well.

I also think that books that address an important issue well often get overlooked when it comes to the quality of their writing. Henriquez’s prose – especially her verb choices – are wonderful. And the passage that explains the title has to be read out loud to be appreciated.

This book would be an excellent companation for Enrique’s Journey or even The Grapes of Wrath. It has that documentary feel thanks to Henriquez’s use of detail and intermediary chapters that resonate with honesty and clarity.

Enrique’s Journey (Nazario)

This book, revised and updated by the author and subtitled “The story of a boy’s dangerous odyssey to reunite with his mother,” is an incredible eye-opener. Nazario, a Pulitzer Prize winner for the series that inspired this book, does an impressive job of just telling the story. She also tells us how she can tell it, and how and why she became a part of her own story.

The use of the word ‘odyssey’ is intriguing. This is definitely a journey story. Enrique is not returning home, per se, but to a kind of home, namely his mother, who, like a just astonishing number of mothers (an increasing number of whom who are being abandoned by their husbands), leaves her child behind in order to go to the United States.

Nazario does not shy away from the flaws of Enrique and those who surround him, but it’s clear her seemingly dispassionate presentation is meant for us to see the absolute, unmitigated wrongness of this situation. Her commentary, when it finally comes, seems tacked on. I wondered what it would it have done to the book if the background information was interspersed at appropriate intervals throughout the book. But perhaps that would have interrupted the momentum (and suspense) of the story. After all, once Homer sets his story in motion, he gets out of the way.

This book will change you.