July 30, 2018 2:25 pm
Updated: August 3, 2018 3:02 pm

‘Brothers of the Gun’: Illustrating Syria’s civil war and life under ISIS

Syrian journalist Marwan Hisham secretly took photos of life under the so-called Islamic State. He shared the images, and his stories, with American journalist and illustrator Molly Crabapple, who turned them into striking sketches.


Marwan Hisham, like so many other young Syrians, joined in the early protests against the authoritarian rule of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. It was part of a wave of uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa in 2011 that saw iron-fisted leaders lose their clutch on power. But not in Syria.

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More than seven years on, the country is still in the throes of a horrific civil war. Cities have been obliterated. An estimated 400,000 people have lost their lives. And Assad remains in power, unlikely to go anywhere, anytime soon.

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And if that wasn’t a tragic enough outcome, Syria became the staging ground for an atrocious group of militants that would become known as the so-called Islamic State (or ISIS).

Hisham, who lived in Raqqa, the capital of ISIS’s self-styled caliphate until it fell last fall, survived all of this. And he risked his life to document it, covertly taking photos on his cell phone.

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“Well, at that time, I was working in a café when most of my customers were ISIS fighters,” Hisham told Global News in an interview from Ankara, Turkey, where he now lives in exile. “So the risk was every day and the city was suffering aerial bombing and [there] were ISIS fighters in every street arresting people.”

Hisham’s stories and images are the basis for a new book, Brothers of the Gun: A Memoir of the Syrian War, that he co-authored with American journalist and artist Molly Crabapple.

The cover of the book Brothers of the Gun: A Memoir of the Syrian War, co-authored by Syrian journalist Marwan Hisham and American journalist and illustrator Molly Crabapple.

Handout/Penguin Random House

The pair met over Twitter, which Hisham used to give the rest of the world a line into a place foreign journalists couldn’t travel to, for fear of being captured and beheaded by ISIS. Hisham became Crabapple’s eyes and ears on the ground in Raqqa as she was reporting on Syria’s civil war, which she had been covering since 2013, and the rise of ISIS.

What makes their collaboration unique, is that Crabapple turned Hisham’s memories and photographs into striking and beautiful ink illustrations.

One of artist Molly Crabapple’s illustrations from Brothers of the Gun: A Memoir of the Syrian War.

Molly Crabapple/Penguin Random House

“Marwan took [the photos] surreptitiously. He would hide his camera behind a falafel sandwich and sneak them. So he wasn’t necessarily thinking about things like framing and composition,” Crabapple explained of her decision to create the drawings, in a Skype interview from her home in New York. “We both wanted to instill these images with all of the craft and the detail that a photojournalist would.”

Molly Crabapple’s illustration of the ISIS-controlled city of Raqqa, Syria, based on the photos and stories of journalist Marwan Hisham.

Molly Crabapple/Penguin Random House

They both feel that something very important has been lost in the coverage of the Syrian war and the rise and fall of ISIS.

“It’s been completely erased from history that the Syrian war, the worst conflict of our time, started as a popular revolution against a dictator, and a revolution that was originally peaceful and that was accompanied by profound acts of bravery, and creativity and hope,” Crabapple added. “This is something that’s been erased by all sides of the conflict, and we hope that this book might do some small part to remind people of that.”

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“After the rise of ISIS, the whole conflict was reduced into a war between a vicious dictator versus Islamist fundamentalist group that is chopping off heads, and people were out of the picture,” Hisham said. “I thought it was really important to keep always focusing on the main subject and how the whole thing started, and how there are millions of people aspiring for a better life and now they are completely out of the picture.”

*Marwan Hisham is an alias the author uses to protect his security.

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