by Bob Groeneveld
Special to the Langley Advance
A few years ago, Deborah Campbell returned to Aldergrove for a school reunion.
She found it “fascinating” to learn that her “misfit” friends had all “gone on to do interesting and unconventional things.”
One wonders if any of them turned out as “interesting and unconventional” as Campbell herself.
Campbell recently won a major award for a book she wrote based on her search for her guide and translator, an Iraqi woman who had become a friend through their association, and who had been taken by secret police in Syria in 2008, perhaps also because of their association.
In awarding Campbell the 2016 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize, Canada’s largest literary award for non-fiction, the jury called her book, , “a riveting tale of courage, loss, love, and friendship.”
A Disappearance in Damascus goes beyond the search for her friend, as Campbell calls on her experiences as a journalist to build a deeper understanding of the people and social circumstances that underlay Syria before the current civil war.
An acknowledged expert on the Middle East, and after having written about people and cultures all around the world, the award-winning journalist has returned close to – but not quite – her Aldergrove roots.
She grew up near the Greater Vancouver Zoo, with “lots of woods to climb trees and ride off-road mini-bikes with my younger brothers.” She’s the oldest of eight kids.
Her road to becoming a writer had a lot of zigs and zags.
Campbell spent “long hours reading” in County Line Elementary’s library, but managed to get into “minor adolescent trouble” with her Grade 7 friends, prompting her parents to send her to the Mennonite Educational Institute.
“They hoped to reform me” – instead of Aldergrove High, where her “better behaved” brothers were schooled.
“I did well,” she recounted, “because I read a lot, but like most teenagers, I wasn’t that interested in school. I’m told I held the record of most classes skipped.”
Her first foray into journalism didn’t turn out well.
Her history teacher had her write an occasional column for a local newspaper. The subject was basketball, a sport for which MEI has been long renowned, but held little interest for Campbell.
“I never went to any of the games I reported on,” she recalled, “so this experience told me that journalism wasn’t for me.”
And furthermore, “When I took a career aptitude test in Grade 12 that said I should be a journalist or editor, I took this as proof of how wrong these sorts of tests can be.”
Near the end of high school she got a job as a waitress at the Versailles Restaurant in Abbotsford: “The tips I earned there were much better than the money I later made as a struggling writer.”
Those tips allowed her to move to Paris at 19, where she studied French literature at the Sorbonne.
Her high school French teacher, Mrs. Goldthorpe, proved an important influence in her life’s direction. When Campbell was 15, Goldthorpe organized a trip to Europe for all MEI’s French classes – and any students who wanted to could stay on for a few weeks, unsupervised.
“I don’t imagine many schools now would let 15-year-olds spend two weeks bumming around Europe on their own,” Campbell said, “and in the school’s defence, I think they assumed our billets were actually monitoring us, which wasn’t the case.”
She loved wandering around London, staying out all night, talking to people from other countries and learning about their lives.
“I have spent much of my career doing exactly that.”
After a year in Paris, she went to Israel and enrolled in the Middle Eastern Studies program at Tel Aviv University, studying Islam, Judaism, Hebrew, and the history and politics of the Middle East.
“That’s where I developed a taste for taking off alone and spending time in local sub-cultures,” she explained. “I’d go to the West Bank, talking to Palestinians while we sat under an olive tree, hang out with Bedouins in the Negev, go to ultra-Orthodox areas in Jerusalem, spend time with the hippie-mystics in Safed. Just listening, asking questions.”
The Gulf War began that winter.
Student were issued gas masks as Scud missiles were fired from Iraq at Tel Aviv. It was another key point in Campbell’s life: “I stayed there throughout the war and began to think more about how conflict works.”
Later she returned to Canada, studying history, French and political science at SFU, but it was a writing course there that opened her eyes. “I wrote some mediocre short stories, but what I remember from that course was how much I felt at home. I’d found my tribe: writers.”
After that she applied to the creative writing program at UBC, where she now teaches. Her only journalism course at UBC was with best-selling political author Peter C. Newman.
“By then I knew journalism didn’t have to mean reporting on basketball games, and that it could be just as gripping and entertaining as a novel.”
She started freelancing for magazines and wrote her first book, on the Israel-Palestine conflict.
“After that, I began writing for more international magazines, most of the time by just going and spending time living in societies in conflict.”
The last time Campbell was in Aldergrove was when her grandmother died four years ago.
“She was a hard-working Mennonite farm woman with only an elementary school education, but she was one of the smartest and most capable people I’ve known.”
Campbell currently lives on Salt Spring Island with her husband, writer Ronald Wright.
In addition to the Hilary Weston Prize, A Disappearance in Damascus has been awarded the 2017 Freedom to Read Award and the 2017 BC Book Prize for non-fiction.
A Disappearance in Damascus is published by Knopf in Canada.