by Lauren Williams*
Susan Dabbous’s diary, written during her time in captivity with the Al-Nusra Front, offers an intelligent and important insight into the position of women in jihadist families
Rome, April 2014The flow of foreign jihadists into Syria has become a worrying problem. Over a year ago, the rate at which they were entering the country had surpassed that witnessed during the Afghanistan conflict of the 1980s, sending Western countries—who fear these Muslim citizens will return home radicalized and intent on launching terrorist attacks on home turf—into a spin. Western efforts to contain the phenomenon have exceeded even those aimed at toppling Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, who, it could well be argued, helped spur the problem in the first place.
The British, who have an estimated 400–700 nationals fighting in Syria, think they might have an answer to this problem. Following a European conference on how to stem the number of homegrown terrorists in Syria held in Belgium in April, the UK launched a massive counter-terrorism campaign targeting women, who, it was reasoned, hold a unique position of influence over their sons, husbands and brothers, and who could provide valuable incentives to convince their family members not to travel to Syria to fight.
Italian–Syrian journalist Susan Dabbous offers a different analysis regarding the effectiveness of such an initiative. “I am very sorry to be cynical, but I am not optimistic about the role of women in that kind of extremist society. In that kind of society, the men who go to jihad are not the ones who listen to their mothers,” she says.
Dabbous should know. Held captive for eleven days in April 2013 in the northern rebel-held Latakia countryside by radical extremists belonging to the Al-Nusra Front, a branch of Al-Qaeda, she gained a unique insight into the private lives of her jihadist kidnappers. Uncomfortable with holding a woman, the fighters allowed Dabbous to stay for the majority of her captivity with a woman named Miriam, the Tunisian wife of one of the kidnappers.
How Would You Like to Die?, released in Italian and translated into English, is Dabbous’s journal of those terrifying days held in Miriam’s house—or, more accurately, the house of the Syrian family Miriam and her jihadist family had occupied. During her captivity Dabbous managed to convince her captors she wanted to learn to be a good Muslim, and forged a surreal and unlikely friendship in the process.
Clearly, the book is also a cathartic release for Dabbous, who recognizes the trauma her kidnap and subsequent captivity left her with. It is also a testament to the Syrian people, whose genuine calls for freedom have themselves been held hostage by Islamist extremism and overlooked by the foreign media. But mostly, this is a book about women, and the complex and conflicted roles they play in different Arab communities.
Dabbous was born to a Christian mother and a Syrian Muslim father from Aleppo and raised more as an Italian, returning to Syria with her father as a young adult for visits only and speaking limited Arabic. But that’s not to say she rejected her Syrian heritage outright. A great portion of the book is dedicated to her reflections while she was being held, not just on how and why she felt compelled to return to Syria as a journalist, but also regarding her visits to her family home in Aleppo—ironically, just a few dozen miles from where she, a Syrian, was held by foreign jihadists.
Living with Miriam, Dabbous was determined to earn her captors’ trust, playing the role of a repentant lapsed Muslim and observing and mimicking the smallest details of the woman’s life. She rose for the dawn prayer, memorized verses from the Qur’an, and assisted in the daily household duties of the wife of a jihadist. As she did so, Dabbous considered Miriam’s role in the marriage, and her mind would return to visits she made with her father to Aleppo and to her female cousins trapped in a conservative family life and a world of domestic servitude. She compares the expectations and judgments imposed on her as a liberal, Westernized woman, to those of her cousins in Aleppo and those she met leading a more liberal life in the capital, Damascus, as well as to her grandmothers on both sides, her girlfriends in Italy, and the women she met in Lebanon, from where she covered the Syrian conflict for two years.
Following an afternoon preparing meals for the jihadist she refers to in the book as “husband,” Dabbous noted some of her thoughts about the differences between her life and her cousin’s covertly, in a notebook given to her to copy her prayers: ” In 2007, Samira was only twenty-two years old and was already deeply, sadly, and inescapably considered a spinster. We were part of the same family but it was as if we came from two different worlds. I was twenty-five. I had got my degree in political science a year ago and was working as a civil servant. I was an ardent environmentalist, had friends scattered all over Europe, and travelled a lot. I was in a stable relationship with a French guy and I really liked children but the idea of getting married and having children of my own was reasonably far away. I wanted to be a journalist and I knew I would have to pay my dues. Samira had stopped going to school when she was thirteen.”
Later, she reflects on the way her grandmother differed in the treatment she doled out to her various grandchildren: “For her, I was not born to make stuffed courgettes, but my grandmother, and especially my sister, belonged to a superior category of woman . . . Samira was supposed to scoop out and fill the courgettes with rice and ground meat . . . After eating, my grandmother did not even have to tell Samira to clear the table and do the washing up, she did it automatically, but from the living room she ordered her to prepare tea. I had been in Syria for twenty days and for twenty days I had watched Samira be our maid.”
Returning to Italy after being released in April 2013, Dabbous met with her assigned psychologist—whom she refers to only as “R”—and who forced her to recognize some of the deeper identity issues she had confronted while incarcerated. “Miriam was a projection of what I could have become if I had not moved to Italy with my family at the age of three,” she writes.
How does a woman like Miriam, educated and from a middle-class background, end up performing jihad in Syria, while others do not? The book does not attempt an answer. Nor does it, for all the comparisons made with other women, make any apologies or empathize with what Dabbous clearly feels is a corrupted, violent and perverse interpretation of Islam. Miriam’s kindness was coupled with death threats and psychological torture by the captors and Dabbous is venomous when it comes to describing how such wayward thinking came to entrench itself in her country and in her people’s minds.
Following the release of the book, Dabbous says she feels affection for Miriam, but that she was never able to relate to what she describes as her “naive” ideology. “I like her as a human being, but I don’t share or understand her thoughts and ideology,” she explains from Jerusalem, where she is now based.
“But I can see why it is an attractive ideology, because it has an answer for everything. It provides easy answers: you know why you are here on earth, what your role is, and if you die it is even better. But life is more complicated than that,” she says. In her view, jihad is a form of escapism, much like drugs. “They feel relief from a world that is bad,” she says.
Nonetheless, the rise in extremism, according to Dabbous, is part of a historical trend, without roots in a particular culture or class. It must evolve, rather than be stemmed. “I don’t know if there is any role for us [the West] in stopping it,” she said. “Maybe in Arab society they can do more. Maybe the best thing is for influential and popular imams to say that if you die, you will not become shaheed [a martyr]. But the only thing the West has is economic input.”
Dabbous’s story and intelligent insights are fascinating and, perhaps, important. It’s a shame the translation from Italian is quite poor, proving distracting from an otherwise absorbing tale. Dabbous says she has no way of knowing whether Miriam has read her account of their time together, but if she does, she believes she would not view it positively. “I would like to know that she is fine, that she is ok. She might be pregnant by now; that is what she wanted. I suppose she will find her way back somehow to Tunisia,” she says. “She would think that I betrayed her because I pretended to convert. There is no way for her to understand my point of view.”