Northwestern University Associate Professor Wendy Pearlman discussed her critically acclaimed new book about the human impact of the Syrian civil war and took questions from a crowd Wednesday night at the George Bush Library Orientation Theater.
Pearlman, associate professor of political science at Northwestern, is the author of We Crossed the Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria, a recently published oral history that explores the human dimension of the Syrian war, uprising and refugee crisis through more than 300 interviews conducted across Europe, the Middle East and in the U.S between 2012 and 2017.
Pearlman told the dozens gathered for the lecture Wednesday that the project was much different than her "day job" as a political scientist, likening it to "curating an exhibit of words." She said that after the introduction, which she wrote in her own voice, the rest of the book was "exclusively in the words of Syrians themselves."
Pearlman said her goal was to "get to the human level" to find "what made Syrians, in spite of everything, to go out and protest."
Before taking questions, Pearlman's lecture was split into five parts -- authoritarianism, revolution, militarization and war, displacement and exile and reflections -- which loosely mimicked the structure of her book and contextualized the substance of her open-ended interviews and personal testimonials included in the book.
Quoting Syrians she had interviewed, Pearlman explained Syria's history and the way the Arab Spring brought hope to Syrians eager for change:
"We are living thanks to the grace of the Assad family," Pearlman said, quoting a Syrian.
"To hope for change seemed foolish. To fight for change seemed reckless," she said, quoting another.
She said that for many Syrians, finally taking to the streets and protesting was "not simply emotional, but transformative," but war and bloodshed quickly normalized death for Syrians and their families.
Discussing the displacement and exile of Syrians as they fled their country, Pearlman said 6.8 million Syrians had been internally displaced since 2011, 5.4 million had fled to border countries, 1 million are seeking asylum in Europe and 20,000 have been resettled in the U.S. Escaping the bloodshed, Pearlman said, began a "new cycle of challenges," as Syrians have had to try to restart their lives under constant threat of their visas expiring while family and friends remain in their home country, dead or alive.
Pearlman said it was important to listen to Syrian testimonials for the historical value, to form policy stances "informed by empathy," to get to know new neighbors -- Pearlman said Texas is the third largest recipient of Syrian refugees in the country -- and to respect the courage of Syrians willing to speak out and tell their story.
In a discussion moderated by Gregory Gause, professor in the Bush School of Government and Public Service, Pearlman took several questions from the audience Wednesday night, including one from U.S. Rep. Bill Flores, who asked her if there was a sense of resignation in the Syrians she interviewed after Russia had begun to back the Assad regime.
Pearlman said there was a "growing sense of desperation" because it feels as if "the conflict isn't even in our hands anymore," quoting a Syrian she interviewed.
"This regime would have fallen were it not for the allies that propped it up," she said, adding that there was a "lot of bitterness towards the West," including the U.S., for not standing up for its professed democratic values and protecting vulnerable citizens from a violent government.
"The 'day after' the Assad regime seems increasingly far away," Pearlman said, noting that she believes the war's outcome will be "primarily determined on the battlefield."
"Military pressure might be the only kind of viable pressure at this point," she said.