Freedom Hospital is not the place to start if you are looking to understand a little more about the conflict in Syria. We’d recommend Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War by Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami or The Morning They Came for Us: Dispatches from Syria by Janine di Giovanni. If you read both of those and felt like you wanted to understand how ISIS made a complicated situation that much more complicated, we’d recommend Black Flags by Joby Warrick. Although Hamid Sulaiman’s graphic novel, Freedom Hospital, is brave and important, we wouldn’t wholeheartedly recommend you pick this up unprepared, without knowing anything. Why is that, you might ask. Well, to put it simply, the Syrian conflict is as complicated as a modern war can get, and Freedom Hospital plunges the reader in, without much in the way of preamble, and you read almost on the run, grasping sense amidst the barrage, glimpsing the ways in which life continues, and humanity prevails, despite endless horror.
What makes the conflict so complex? In part you have the groups waging war against each other: those allied to the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, those so-called rebels opposed to Assad and the group that call themselves the Islamic State. The present conflict is felt by many to begin in 2011, when 15 schoolchildren were arrested (and, it is believed, tortured) in Deraa for anti-government graffiti. There were peaceful protests demanding the release of the children – and then the army opened fire on protesters. Over the course of a couple of days, during which the army fired on mourners at a funeral, the unrest spread across the country. Having gained control of large swathes of Iraq, Islamic State moved into Syria in 2014 and, again, quickly and seemingly easily, gained control of large parts of Syria. As well as fighting each other, both the pro and anti Assad forces started fighting the Islamic State forces too. The US started dropping bombs to curb the progress of IS. So did the UK, as part of a global coalition. Russia has been supporting Assad by providing weapons and artillery. And a once cosmopolitan, Westernised country has been ground into rubble.
Which brings us to Sulaiman’s graphic novel, Freedom Hospital, set in the north of the country in spring 2012, by which point 40,000 people had already been killed. Yasmine, who grew up in a moderate Sunni family, has set up the eponymous hospital to look after people wounded in the conflict – at the opening of the story, her establishment is caring for 13 people. Sophie, a childhood friend of Yasmine, has smuggled herself back into the country to make a documentary, and we are introduced to the hospital as she is (meeting the various people who help, the patients, and the situation in which they find themselves – driving at night without lights to avoid the curfews, observing intricate agreements with local soldiers sympathetic to their cause). The hospital does its best, but of course everyone involved knows the help they offer is limited and funded in a hand to mouth way (when Yasmine sells her car they are able to continue for a few months). One of the patients suffers from amnesia, but those around him suspect he’s just keeping quiet having done terrible things (in time, we learn this to be true). We glimpse demonstrations in which people feel like real change is possible (and just around the corner) and then we see that optimism eroded as time passes and sides become more entrenched. There are snipers and street level surgeries. There is You Tube footage. And perhaps most powerfully Sulaiman regularly updates us on the number of dead, sometimes after a few days and sometimes after a few hours – the figures beggar belief. We also see a city gradually bombed into nothingness.
So: it certainly feels like a book that should exist and Sulaiman’s stripped back black and white art reminded this reader of both the work of Marjane Satrapi but also more broadly 2000AD (this must be in the future, your mind shrieks, it can’t possibly be happening now, on the same planet I’m on). There are weaknesses – the nature of the conflict, the complexity of each opposing sides’ arguments, the size of the cast of characters, all combine to make the narrative feel hectic. You could argue that it should feel hectic, that the conflict creates a haste when it comes to getting this into the world – but clarity feels important too and there are times when Freedom Hospital needs more clarity. Perhaps in a sense Sulaiman is too close to the drama and so can’t provide the narrative detachment that someone like Joe Sacco could bring – but then you could also argue that Sulaiman’s proximity to the drama is what makes the muddiness of the some of the storytelling so important (the muddiness is almost part of the point – this is not someone looking back many years from now, this is storytelling on the hoof in the midst of an ongoing and ever changing environment). Either way, as a piece of work it’s to be applauded.
Any Cop?: We emerged from Freedom Hospital feeling like it was a bit that should be read slowly, with the reader taking the time to step away and learn more about the conflict. It’s not a straightforward book, and it’s certainly no primer on the Syrian conflict if that is what you are looking for – but it has a story to tell and it’s a story that deserves to be read.