On Reading Brothers of the Gun: A Memoir of the Syrian War

I’ve just finished reading Brothers of the Gun, by Marwan Hisham and Molly Crabapple. I’m not reviewing it here; this review in the CJR is a good place to start if you want to learn more about the book, the account of four or five years in the life of Raqqa resident-turned-international-journalist Marwan Hisham: Graphic memoir illustrates new frontiers in ISIS coverage – Columbia Journalism Review.

My interest in Syria began through the work of British-Syrian writer Robin Yassin Kassab, who I met six years ago in Karachi at the literature festival. The revolution was a year old, and it hadn’t yet been horribly overtaken by Islamist groups, jihadis, and then ISIS and foreign players. I followed the events in Syria, met more Syrians, became interested in the work of the Karam Foundation. I have no personal investment in the Syrian War, or the country itself, but what has happened to Syria is the biggest tragedy of the 21st century, and it is impossible to ignore.

Brothers of the Gun is the story of that takeover, seen through the eyes of a young man, who along with his friends Nael and Tareq, finds his life turned upside-down by revolution and then war. This is the story of people who attempted to live normal lives, as their homes were being blown to bits around them, as enslaved women were paraded in front of them, as European jihadis invaded their land and established the Islamic State.

Hisham quickly switches into survival mode, to match “Raqqa settings”, where you have to think ten steps ahead of the jihadis and ISIS in order to stay alive. All this while dodging aerial bombardments and the indignities of siege, starvation, exodus. I turned every page wondering how it was possible that this young man managed to stay alive. His answer would be “destiny”, but not in the romanticized imagining of destiny. As he defines it, destiny is “what I could have avoided but dared not.”

The story is enthralling. The language is simple, concise, clear. It is not sentimental or romantic, although once in a while Hisham goes into an extended rhapsody for something made all the more beautiful for having lost it: freedom, family, normality, life. He is matter-of-fact about his cynicism. Nothing is sacred to him – not religion, not the rules of ISIS, not the time he spent in religious school. Everything is observed wryly, with the occasional wicked swerve into gallows humor or just the absurdity of everyday life. I almost felt guilty for laughing while reading this book.

The exquisite artwork of Molly Crabapple brings an extra layer of depth to the story. The CJR review rightly says that with the inclusion of the drawings: “The resulting collaboration hacks war reporting as many of us have known it, and grants new access for an audience whose members include art lovers and Islamic State analysts. Together, they breathe life into a crucial period of history and ensure that it will never be forgotten.”

Crabapple has done something extraordinary with these illustrations, beyond the approving words of the CJR. While Hisham’s voice is a wearily cynical one, Crabapple’s — through her pen — is warm, empathetic, and outraged. Every drawing is a mini-Guernica, showcasing the horrors of the war, big and small. The portraits of the people are what hurt the most: the Yazidi woman with the red shawl, a baby at her breast, captured and forced into sex slavery. Tareq, on the cover, playing the violin on his modified Kalashnikov. The child toting his father’s weapon, being groomed as a future lion cub of the Caliphate.

There is no fairy-tale happy ending to this book. There is an exit, there is an ending, there is a new beginning for Hisham, and there is an end to ISIS in Raqqa. Not all of these things happen in the pages of this memoir. There are many things that happen in its pages that you wish you had never read. But for those of you who are brave enough not to look away, this is the book for you.


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