I received an eARC of this book through NetGalley and the author. It will be on sale August 2020. All opinions are my own.
I didn’t know what to expect from this book and I couldn’t help but wonder if we needed a book about the war in Syria from a white American. Shouldn’t we be listening to these stories from Syrians themselves? Of course we should but sometimes it is not safe or possible for them to do so. (I was reminded of the book Death is Hard Work by Syrian author Khaled Khalifa, which I read last year. Khalifa is a Syrian author who lives in Syria and his works are banned by the government there.) Instead, it felt like Dan Mayland used his own position of privilege to amplify the voices of those who cannot speak out as easily as he can. The book is fiction but heavily researched and the acknowledgements at the end give an idea of the many real people whose stories he listened to.
The story here is nuanced, passionate, and immensely readable. It begins in 2012 with Hannah, a Syrian-American working in Aleppo along with her boyfriend, Oskar, a Swede. When they get caught up in a protest against the regime and Oskar is seriously injured, Hannah ends up in a situation she never expected.
At the same time, we meet the doctor himself. Samir, or Sami, is hardworking and dedicated if a little gruff. He and Hannah meet when he treats Oskar and then are thrown together again together when Hannah unexpectedly returns to Aleppo. The city is falling deeper into the chaos and violent of war and Hannah’s position as a carrier of both Syrian and American passports become more precarious as their freedoms are more and more restricted.
While Hanna and Sami are the main characters we also get to see the perspectives of Rahim, a Mukhabarat officer for the regime, Oskar after he and Hanna are separated, and Samir’s young son, Adam.
Rahim’s sections offer a perspective on the ordinary people behind a terrifying and evil regime while Adam’s show the way that war tears down children, while also demonstrating the normal lives that people like Samir lived before the war.
This was something I really appreciated about The Doctor of Aleppo. At the height of the Syrian Refugee Crisis a few years ago, when there was a lot of footage of refugees entering Canada and other countries, some people criticized them for what they carried. How can they have cell phones if they’re refugees? people asked. Mayland subtly highlights how familiar the life of the average Syrian looks to our own. Sami reminisces about meals with family, trips he took with his wife. It’s an important reminder that refugees lived lives like ours and it is circumstances beyond their control that have forced them to leave behind everything they know.
I also really appreciated that most of the action, redemption, and solutions come from within Syria and the characters there. There is no American hero, no foreign power swooping in. While Oskar ends up as a helpful outsider toward the end, it is Hannah and Samir who are the driving force of their own salvation. They make their own decisions; sometimes brave, something foolish, sometimes forced by the circumstances around them, but their own.
Parts of the book are very hard to read. It’s gut-wrenching to remember what recent and ongoing history this is. Wikipedia tells me that the actual civilian death toll between 2012 and 2016 (the timeline of this book) is still unknown but estimated to be in the thousands. Mayland does assume his reader has some knowledge of the war in Syria but he also does a fine job at establishing the basics and many chapters begin with an orientation of year and place, letting the reader know whether the action takes place in an area of the city held by the regime or by the rebel forces. The book covers a fair amount of time for these characters and at times it felt like it was moving too quickly without offering enough detail but it didn’t take long for me to appreciate how Mayland always kept the plot moving. As I neared the end and the climax of the novel I could hardly put it down, desperate to find out what happened to Hannah and Sami. The conclusion was both devastating and hopeful and felt like the natural, right culmination of what the story had been building to.