Researching for the Narrative Thread

Posted on: September 11, 2014

Professor Phoebe Zerwick, a faculty member in the Writing Program, recently traveled to the Middle East. What came from her travels, Fleeing Syria, is a a powerful account of the stories she gathered and the people she met.


photo by Phoebe Zerwick

I spent the month of June traveling in Jordan and Istanbul with a group of other college professors who had signed up for an exchange program called “Borders, Identity, and Displacement: The Evolving Syrian Crisis.” There were 12 of us, from at least eight disciplines. And we all had different projects in mind, all involving writing in one way or another. Some of us were there looking for lecture material or content for a new course. The biologist in the group was interested in water shortage and its impact on regional conflicts. And I was there to report a series of newspaper stories on the refugee crisis.

We met with government officials, human rights activists, scholars and refugees, each time our questions a hodgepodge, defined by our different and sometimes competing writing projects. I often felt like the odd one out. Others were asking lofty questions about political theory, military maneuvering and urban planning and there I was, asking for the simplest details.

“How many children do you have,” I asked a man named Mayzeid, who had found refuge for his family in a village in northern Jordan. “And how old are they?” ”And what did the border look like, when you crossed?” “How much did you pay the man who smuggled you across?”

With every question, I could sense my colleagues’ growing impatience. They didn’t know that I was searching for human stories, for stories that would reveal something larger about the refugee crisis. They didn’t know that my writing project was different from theirs. What difference could the ages of Mayzeid’s children or the bus route he drove back home in Syria possibly make to the study of a civil war?

That night, after our visit with the refugee families in the village of Al Dafyaneh, David Campbell, the biologist in the group, and I got to talking. Campbell is also a writer, of nature and travel books, who understands storytelling. “I know what you were up to,” he said.  “You’re looking for the narrative thread.”

He was absolutely right. Lectures on politics require a knowledge of political theory. But stories require details. I learned that day that Mayzeid and 72 relatives crossed the border between Syria and Jordan walking through the night. His mother was 75. A Bedouin guided them across streams and fighters with the Free Syrian Army protected them from soldiers with the regime who controlled the border. See what I mean about the details? Without them there is no narrative, only broad strokes and generalities, and no real understanding of what it’s like to flee a civil war.

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