The Shortlist: Personal Stories From the Refugee Experience

The story really begins when Al Samawi reads the Bible for the first time at the urging of an English-language teacher. We see how he begins, on his own, to be a critical thinker, eventually attending an interfaith conference and encountering Jewish Israelis and Americans.

Finally, we reach the action-packed center of his story, his entrapment and eventual rescue from Aden, a port city in the south, where he’s fled after receiving death threats, presumably for his engagement with Jews and Americans. At this point, we are suddenly in a completely different book, a gripping account of terror and escape that plays out over a few weeks.

The book asks us to tacitly accept unexplored descriptions of anti-American and anti-Semitic sloganeering without understanding when and how the country’s education system collapsed as it did, and to blindly applaud interfaith encounters as a viable path to peace. And we end up learning more about Al Samawi’s work from the glowing letters his American friends write about him than from the pages he’s written himself. Nonetheless, he comes across as a sensitive, curious, openhearted man — and meeting such a person from a country as far off the American public’s radar as Yemen is valuable in itself.

HARA HOTEL
A Tale of Syrian Refugees in Greece
By Teresa Thornhill
341 pp. Verso. $26.95.

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“Hara Hotel” stands out as an example of how not to write about the refugee experience in southern Europe or about the Syrian civil war and its consequences. Thornhill, a British barrister, decided to visit Greece for just two weeks to produce the initial reporting for the book. She later returned — for nine days. Her limited engagement with her subjects and subject matter is evident throughout.

Thornhill’s book is an often self-involved account of a Westerner’s transient and shallow stroll among people whose lives and histories she fails to grasp. It is a textbook example of “parachuting in,” a practice that has been harshly criticized even when undertaken by seasoned journalists. From the first pages, the contrast with the previous books is stark. Mardini’s memoir opens as she is in the Mediterranean Sea, trying to keep herself and her fellow refugees alive and afloat, and Al Samawi’s opens with him trapped in his apartment, as his food and water supplies are dwindling to nothing, bombs are collapsing buildings along his block and Qaeda militants are executing other northern Yemenis on the street below. Thornhill’s book, on the other hand, opens as she’s watching the news.

Thornhill has written two other books, and her prose is clean and attractive. But her lack of journalistic experience is immediately evident: She centers the story on her own feelings and observations rather than on reportage, eliding and omitting certain crucial historic events.

From the start, Thornhill takes up the limited attention and resources of thinly stretched volunteers, not because she is assisting in their efforts, but because she wants to get the story (which is not even theirs but the refugees’). She goes on to complain about the hardship of staying in a dilapidated motel after spending a day in a refugee tent city and makes vaguely salacious references to the beauty of young Kurdish men. The book does improve when Thornhill tells the story of a man she meets in the camp, but it’s too late. By then the damage has been done.

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