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Northwestern University

“We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled”

Political scientist Wendy Pearlman’s new book tells the story of the Syrian conflict through the voices of those who have lived it

By Daniel P. Smith

In her latest book, We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria, Wendy Pearlman tells the story of the Syrian uprising and war through personal testimonials she gathered from more than 300 displaced Syrians across the Middle East, Europe and the United States.

As a result, Pearlman, an associate professor in the Department of Political Science and a core member of Northwestern’s Middle East and North African Studies Program, offers a uniquely human angle into why the Syrian conflict began, how it evolved and why it matters.

What inspired this project?

I followed the Syrian uprising from its beginnings in March 2011. I wanted to learn how people mustered the courage to go out and protest, knowing that they might be killed or tortured in prison. I decided that there was no better way to find out than to ask them. By 2012 it was already dangerous to travel inside Syria, so I interviewed those who had fled the country, which led me to conversations with Syrians in Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Denmark, Sweden, Germany and the U.S.

How did the project evolve as you collected more interviews and the situation in Syria continued to unfold?

It began as an academic project focused on why people participate in high-risk dissent. Once I started doing interviews, however, I discovered that stories of protest needed to be seen in the context of Syria’s authoritarian regime before 2011 and also how the 2011 rebellion changed after the initial stage of peaceful demonstrations. I decided to write a book telling that more comprehensive history, but exclusively through the words of Syrians themselves. People’s stories were so powerful and eloquent that I wanted others to have a chance to listen to what I was hearing.

What particular stories most resonated with you?

I still get goosebumps when I reread people’s inspiring descriptions of what it felt like to protest for the first time. Also very moving are stories about the everyday terror of life under war or about individuals’ painful decisions to flee their homes as refugees. Altogether, the testimonials paint a picture of both loss and hope.

What do you hope readers gain?

I want readers to both understand Syria and to care. The war in Syria is complex and confusing, and it is easy for outsiders to feel bewildered by it all. I hope the book will provide context and insight that will make the conflict seem less baffling. I also hope that it will encourage readers to put themselves in Syrians’ shoes and respect their bravery and resilience as people who have made great sacrifices to fight for freedom.

Why do you believe the Syrian conflict is so important today?

Every day, Syrian civilians are killed, starved, tortured or displaced. It’s a humanitarian catastrophe happening right now on our watch. The very least we can do is pay attention. And I think the best way to do so is to listen to what Syrians themselves have to say.

What’s behind the book’s title?

It comes directly from one interviewee’s description of a massive protest during which a huge crowd marched over a bridge and it shook under its weight. Literally, the title is a reference to the power of people coming together to demand change. But it’s also a metaphor. During this conflict, Syrians have crossed a number of bridges — physical, psychological and emotional. They crossed from authoritarianism to protest to war to exile. They are still trembling under the reverberations of these transformations. And the rest of the world is, too.

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