Since the revolution-turned-civil war in Syria began in 2011, over 500,000 civilians have been killed and more than 12 million Syrians have been displaced, it’s a conflict that is beyond the understanding of adults and has divided people, yet it has been documented for teenagers to learn about Syria’s conflict. Sisters of the War by Rania Abouzeid attempts to bring the complex conflict into the Young Adults literature, as the book follows two real families on different sides of the political divide who end up in similar circumstances.
Through the stories of Ruha and Alaa and Hanin and Jawa, Abouzeid presents a clear-eyed and page-turning account of the complex conditions in Syria leading to the onset of the harrowing conflict.
Eight-year-old Hanin is at first oblivious to the conflict. Her father is certain that the early small protests will be squashed by the Syrian regime. Her family, like that of President Bashar Hafez al-Assad, belongs to the country’s Alawite religious minority, whose members support the government and hold military and security power. Nine-year-old Ruha’s acute awareness of the struggle for justice in Syria begins with a raid on her home during the peaceful uprising in 2011. Subsequently, her town gets shelled and school is no longer safe. Her community is Sunni Muslim, like the country’s majority. Lebanese Australian journalist Abouzeid illustrates the complexity of the Syrian conflict over six years while reporting on and quoting the two families. Both girls’ families suffered in unspeakable ways due to the conflict. Their stories, juxtaposed in alternating chapters, focus heavily on their identities.
While presenting powerful true stories of survival, the book could leave a distorted impression of the Syrian conflict or a rather difficult retelling of a very complicated issue.
Rania Abouzeid, one of the foremost journalists on the topic, follows two pairs of sisters from opposite sides of the conflict to give readers a first-hand glimpse of the turmoil and devastation this strife has wrought, yet the language and description of events are not that of a child, in fact reading through the book felt at times as one is reading a news report or a newspaper article. Abouzeid is an award-winning journalist yet not many can make the jump from journalism to being an author, it’s a brave and an admirable step by Abouzeid to try and teach teenagers about political conflicts and division, they are after all the future generation who can play a part in correcting the wrongs of our present time, but is the generation of Snapchat and TikTok going to be reading ‘Sisters of the War’? Possibly yes, if it is been set by their school or given as a gift, would they be engaged by it and read to the end? Sadly no, and that is because of the style it is written in, it’s a long detailed report of attacks and description of political groups, something that would not grip young readers, they need characters that they could identify with, they need stories that involves them and keeps them wanting to turn the page of the book to read more.
There were glimpses of things that did encourage the reader to keep going with the book, such as Ruha and her sister Alaa withstanding the constant attacks by the Syrian government in rebel-held territory, while Hanin and Jawa try to carry on as normal in the police state of regime-held Syria. Young readers may well see themselves as Ruha and Hanin, but the characters were not given enough space in the book, though they are the focus of it. The girls grow up in a world where nightly bombings are routine and shrapnel counts as toys. They bear witness to arrests, killings, demolished homes, and further atrocities most adults could not even imagine. Still, war does not dampen their sense of hope.
‘Sisters of the War’ is an important but difficult read for teenagers, it is classified as Young adult non-fiction but it could have been better had it been less ‘reporting’ and more of storytelling, young people engage far more in narration of tales that they get emotionally invested in rather than newspaper reports that are often of a cold and matter of fact nature, for that reason I will give the book two stars out of five. ‘Sisters of the War’ was published in September 2020 by Scholastic Focus.
From a personal point of view, I didn’t enjoy the book but I would like my niece and nephew to read such books that focuses on how wars and socio-political issues impact children and teenagers.