Telling the Truth about the Middle East through Cathy Sultan’s New Novel Damascus Street

 Cathy Sultan

Cathy Sultan

By Chloe Ackerman

Writer Cathy Sultan grew up in Washington D.C. where she yearned to know more of the world. In 1969 her wish came true when she met her Lebanese husband and moved with him to Beirut, Lebanon. She quickly fell in love with the city. When the Lebanese Civil War broke out blocks away from their home in 1975, they continued to raise their family in Beirut until it was no longer manageable.

Cathy Sultan uses her experience and unique knowledge of the civil war in Lebanon to write her latest book Damascus Streetthe sequel to The Syrian. Sandy Tolan, author of Children of the Stone, which was a 2015 L.A. TimesBook of the Year finalist, wrote "Her insights into the region's history and politics go far deeper than your average thriller, exploring U.S. imperial meddling, the heartbreak of Palestinian refugee camps, and the complex and fragile construction of Lebanese society. Damascus Street will stay with you."  Damascus Street recounts the story of American physician Andrew Sullivan, whose fiancée is kidnapped by an important Lebanese ex-political figure. This book follows Sullivan’s thrilling mission to get her back. The following is an interview with Cathy Sultan about her latest book.

CHLOE ACKERMAN: Your book Damascus Street tells the story of a man whose fiancée was kidnapped in Syria by a former intelligence chief after a civil war in Lebanon. What is your writing process for such a serious topic 

CATHY SULTAN: I think it is my ability to imagine the impossible. After all, I am writing about the Middle East, and particularly Lebanon, which I know intimately, and where skullduggery is an everyday occurrence.

This book includes many specific dates and historical events that took place in the Middle East; what kind of research was involved while writing this book?

I am a news junkie and so I read extensively about events as they unfold across the Middle East. Most of the research in the book is first-hand knowledge and other than fact-checking on some events and dates, I needed little research. Some of the events in the book, like the explosion that took the life of an important intelligence chief, happened a block from my apartment. Our building shook and I was there to cover it first-hand as the aftermath was reported. He was such a colorful, shady, and important figure with four different passports, and once the rumors began flying about who he actually was and what he did, I began collecting any and all articles I could get my hands on, assuming I would get to use it in some future work. When I got to that part of Damascus Street, I knew it was the right moment to get out my notes and reconstruct his assassination, the details of which, without much invention on my part, were true. 

Are there any challenges you face as both a fiction and a nonfiction writer?

Other than accepting the challenge from my editor to take on fiction, I have not faced many challenges. Writing fiction is actually more fun. No footnotes, no intense fact-checking and I get to use my imagination, which works overtime, due, no doubt, to the exciting life I have had the privilege of living. I don't rule out returning to nonfiction, particularly if Lebanon is attacked, but in the meantime, I feel that fiction gives me the vehicle to tell what I perceive as the truth, only through fiction I get to hook into fast-paced thrillers which makes it easier for the reader to learn something while enjoying a good read.

According to your website, you wrote the memoir A Beirut Heart: A Woman’s War as a project for your children. What made you want to write the novels Damascus Street and the first book The Syrian?

Yes, I began writing A Beirut Heart for my children, but I soon discovered that it was also a way to mourn my loss of a city I loved. Although I didn't know it at the time, I was also discovering a way to combat what came to be called PTSD. For a very long time, I could not even read sections of A Beirut Heart without crying. Over the years I have gotten better but the trauma of war never disappears. On the upside, the experience of war has not only defined my life, it has driven my motivation to better understand the destructive forces of conflict across the Middle East and to place blame where I know it belongs.

The trilogy which includes, to date, The Syrian and Damascus Street, centers on regime change in Syria. The characters involved in carrying out the West's agenda, and those willing to risk their lives to stop such an atrocity, are the people I want to see rule our world. I know for a fact that our mass media has distorted the news coming out of Syria, and I took it as a challenge to refute those reports and incorporate more accurately what is really going on in the region.   

On your website, you explain how it was frustrating before you wrote your memoir that when you wanted to tell stories about your time living in Beirut during civil war, no one seemed to want to listen. Have people approached you since you started writing your books to share any of their stories relating to the Lebanon Civil War? 

I did find it frustrating and at times hurtful when no one initially wanted to hear me talk about my life in Beirut during the war. Once A Beirut Heart was published attitudes changed. People's aversion to things they can't comprehend is part of human nature. I also attribute that attitude to the fact that we as a country have never had to face the challenges of a war. A conflict far from home enables us to "turn it off" and pay it scant attention. When we are confronted with someone who actually lived through one of those wars, it disrupts our complacent lives and makes us uncomfortable. State-side, no one has approached me about their own Beirut stories, but in Beirut, among my friends, we often reminisce about the years we shared together and that forever changed our lives.

What do you hope the readers will take from this book?

I hope my readers will better understand the West's intervention in Syria and the motivations behind such destruction and upheaval. I also hope readers will realize mass media oftentimes, with its close affiliation with the military, industrial complex, has a political agenda in promoting war. Remember Iraq and the weapons of mass destruction lies!

To purchase Damascus Street, visit The Local Store