Brothers of the Gun opens in 2011 at the eruption of Syria’s Arab Spring. Marwan Hisham and his close friends Nael and Tareq are chanting at their first protest against the dictator Bashar al-Assad in the streets of their hometown, Raqqa. Their faces are wrapped in t-shirts and their eyes are streaming from tear gas as they stand down armed soldiers. “We haven’t eaten since dawn, but food isn’t what we are hungry for. We want to shout our throats bloody.” In that moment, “fear is dead,” Hisham writes. But after the sun has set and the friends find their way home, it returns: “They’re going to get us. I’ll be tortured to death,” Hisham thinks.
Fear runs through this book, a searing, page-turning account of life in wartime that captures the violence and hardship of the Syrian conflict as well as the complexity of those who are living through it. It is enhanced with more than 80 powerful ink drawings by Molly Crabapple, an artist and journalist who has covered conflict throughout the Middle East.
Hisham provides a ground-level view of the terror unleashed by the Assad regime, rebel groups’ battles for territory, the rise of the Islamic State, and the aerial bombing that has turned the country’s cities to ruins. Hisham and his friends come of age in this chaos, but it splinters them. One is killed by the regime, another joins the ranks of Islamist revolutionaries, and Hisham becomes a journalist while living under ISIS rule. Eventually, as his world is pulled apart, he is forced into exile.
After meeting on Twitter in 2014, Hisham and Crabapple hatched a plan for their first collaboration: He would take pictures of life under ISIS, and she would sketch them. The piece ran in Vanity Fair, and they went on to publish similar projects from Mosul, ISIS’ capital in Iraq, and Aleppo, a rebel stronghold in northern Syria.
Mother Jones spoke with Hisham, who now lives in Turkey, and Crabapple, who lives in New York, about the Syrian civil war and how Brothers of the Gun came to be.
Mother Jones: In this book, there are three friends who went in very different directions. What makes some people take up arms and other people turn to things like journalism during wartime?
Marwan Hisham: The question of which risk is right in a situation like this, I think there is no answer for that. At that time, every one of us was searching for a meaning, for a role to play. Inaction didn’t sound alluring. We wanted to do something. This is what motivates the young people as opposed to the older generation. What’s wrong is clear: Killing people is wrong, and stealing is wrong. But joining an armed group or not, these are matters for debate. I certainly understand my friends, why would they make their choices, although I do not agree with them.
Molly Crabapple: So much of it is based on the position you find yourself in. Let’s say you’re at a protest and you’re picked up and you’re tortured, or someone you love is tortured in front of you—that does something to you. That might change how you view the prospects of a peaceful solution or reconciliation with the government. Or let’s say you were doing your conscripted military service during the war and you were one of these young guys, of which there are many, that didn’t want to shoot people and didn’t want to kill other Syrians. You only had one choice: You had to desert, right? And once you deserted, that meant you were a wanted man. If you’re in Raqqa, you’ll get bombs dropped on you and that’s that. Wherever they are, they’re forced by things beyond their control. The options are bad.
MJ: Marwan, you started running your uncle’s café and selling internet access only to find out that your new neighbors were wounded ISIS fighters, who became your main customers. Did it ever become normal, or was it always really tense?
MH: It’s always tense. It’s never normal unless you are one of them. And I mean one of them, not even a supporter, but as a fighter. Those people have a certain way of thinking, certain lifestyle, certain moods, that you must follow. The only way for you to go on with your life if you have contact with them is you have to at least pretend to agree with them. You just say yes, and you try to show them that you believe in what they believe in. Any disagreement with them is dangerous.
MJ: You were taking pictures of them in the café and also tweeting news from inside Raqqa that they didn’t want out. Were you surprised they never discovered what you were doing?
MH: Absolutely. I was so lucky. But the thing that kept me taking this risk—this is what was crucial, more than me being cautious—is that for me it was a kind of revenge in my own way.
MJ: The violence of the Syria conflict is often described in gruesome detail, but this book does not do that. Was is it a conscious decision not to do that?
MC: I feel like it’s a violation of people’s dignity in a lot of ways. There are very good reasons to post videos and photos that are gory, and a primary reason is that it proves war crimes. But my art is not going to prove war crimes. It doesn’t have that function. I try to think about how to show the dignity of the people in it.
One of Marwan’s photos that I drew for Vanity Fair was the aftermath of a barrel bombing in Aleppo. There is this old woman and her house has just been destroyed, and she’s with her daughter. They had lost family members. People were buried in this house that had just been destroyed, and the woman had this look of such desolation on her face. Her entire world had just shattered in that moment. I thought about capturing what was in her face and her body and her posture. I felt that I could convey more with that than if I did a picture of crushed, mutilated bodies.
MJ: In Aleppo, a rebel judge at a security institution known for torturing people asked why you were taking pictures, and when you said they were for a magazine, he asked if you thought your journalism made any difference. Does it?
MH: Obviously, it does not make a difference when it comes to countries’ policies, or even when it comes to people’s reactions. People themselves can be denialist in a way that is unbelievable. But the difference here that I see is that the statement “The victor is the one who writes the history” can be defied here. You can actually challenge that, and challenge that for the sake of what you believe is the truth. We shouldn’t allow the worst people, the worst dictators in our time, to control the rhetoric.
MC: Do I think our journalism is going to fix the Syrian war and make it a secular democracy and all these people are going to get their houses back? No. I absolutely don’t think that. But do I think that there’s a duty to history to document it? I do. It’s important. Right now, there’s a major effort to whitewash the Assad government. The people doing this claim that they’re doing it as sort of an anti-intervention, anti-war thing. But this effort is incredibly dangerous. And the reason it’s dangerous is that there are a million refugees living in the west right now and millions more living in the neighboring countries. And this effort to whitewash Assad is largely being spearheaded by right-wing parties that want to deport these people. If there’s no one talking about what the regime does, this whitewashing will remain unchallenged and people will be deported to their deaths.
MJ: What do you hope people get out of this book?
MC: Americans tend to view people in the Middle East as exotic, foreign people who are probably riding camels and wearing suicide vests. In actuality, we’re all humans, right? We all have the same mixture of good and bad in each of us and I think what me and Marwan hope to do is shatter that bullshit, dehumanizing cliché discourse, and try to show these people, and the war, in all of their complexities and richness.
MH: My main goal is to fight this stereotype that might exist about the people in the Middle East, and specifically in Syria. I want to say, and to convey, that we are also human beings with our own view of the world, with our own political ideas and opinions and cultures. We’re not either good or bad. We’re not either heroes or pathetic people that need sympathy. We’re more complicated than those who have these ideas that we’re certain stereotypes, let’s say it’s either jihadists or refugees or mass murderers or something. Every single one of us is more than that. There is someone who is like my uncle, who is not the stereotypical refugee. And there is Tareq, who you would say is Islamist, but he is a more complicated person, whether you agree or not. And me, I wasn’t part of ISIS’s base when I lived under them. This is the major goal in the book I wanted to convey, not just to the people in the West, but to history. These complications needn’t be neglected.