Political science lecture emphasizes Syrian citizens’ perspective on conflict

When politicians pontificate and bombs abound, the world may miss the voices of the people. Northwestern University political scientist Wendy Pearlman sought to elevate those voices in her 2017 book We Crossed A Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria

Pearlman’s book centered around the past decade of the Syrian conflict and her talk, “Living Syria: Citizens’ stories of revolution, war, and exile,” on Wednesday April 11 in Newton 202 provided the audience with an overview. Dividing the decade into periods of strong state control, protest and revolution, Pearlman included quotes from some of the 300 Syrian people she interviewed between 2012 and her book’s publication in 2017. 

These interviews demonstrated some of the characteristics of different periods in contemporary Syrian history, such as the totalitarian government, according to Pearlman. 

“Syria is a regime based in command and obedience, as every state institution recreated the same kind of power. The president had absolute power in the country. The principal in a school had absolute power in the school. But at the same time, the principal is terrified of the janitor sweeping the floor because they’re all government informants,” Pearlman said.  

Throughout her presentation, Pearlman emphasized the different ways broad political and social changes to the Syrian government affected Syrians at a personal level. 

The totalitarian regimes of Syrian Presidents Hafez and Bashar al-Assad made people feel restricted and without recourse, Pearlman said. One of the first quotes in her book came from a Syrian man named Fadi, who described the deep seeded sense of hopelessness that accompanied totalitarianism.  

Pearlman was asked to come to the college by the Department of Political Science and International Relations from funds provided by alumni donors, according to acting Chair of the department and lecturer in international relations Jeremy Grace. Assistant professor of international relations and political science Raslan Ibrahim had the idea to invite Pearlman specifically due to Ibrahim’s expertise in the Middle East. 

The interviews Pearlman included in both the book and the lecture impressed Ibrahim the most. 

“It was a very powerful presentation of the human aspect to the revolution in Syria and later the war in Syria,” Ibrahim said. “We had the whole story of the conflict, the revolution, the uprising via the words and the feelings and the emotions of Syrians themselves . . . That’s the unique perspective of her presentation and book that I’m glad she brought to our campus.” 

Business administration major junior Wasima Syeda expressed that the talk proved beneficial not only because it shed light on Syrian voices, but also because it revealed information regarding events the audience likely knew little about. Syeda cited one specific report that Pearlman mentioned about the possibility that the Syrian government covertly executed as many as 13,000 citizens in jails.  

“I thought the talk was really useful, how someone like her came to Geneseo to talk to students who don’t really know about this stuff that isn’t in the media,” Syeda said. 

The presentation and events in Syria also reminded those in attendance about the way the United States treats the Syrian crisis, according to political science and economics double major senior Abdur Rahaman. 

“I think with the refugee crisis, especially since the United States isn’t taking that many in anymore and [President] Donald Trump’s whole Muslim ban, it shows the U.S.’s whole attitude toward the Syrian crisis,” Rahaman said. “I think she did a really good job humanizing something that ordinary citizens wouldn’t really care about otherwise.”