An Unlikely Collaboration


This essay is taken from the publication for Molly Crabapple & Marwan Hisham: Syria in Ink opening March 22 at Haverford College's Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery.


Molly Crabapple & Marwan Hisham: Syria in Ink brings together literature in the form of memoir and visual art in the form of ink drawings. It invites viewers to experience the words and images of a young Syrian coming of age during the turbulent last decade. The exhibition, which first opened at the Brooklyn Public Library on May 15, 2018, presented drawings interspersed with passages from the book Brothers of the Gun: A Memoir of the Syrian War, which Syrian journalist Marwan Hisham and writer, visual artist, and activist Molly Crabapple co-authored.

A Protest in 2011 , 2017, pen and ink on paper. 22 1/6 x 29 ¾ inches. © Molly Crabapple. (Image courtesy of the artist)

A Protest in 2011, 2017, pen and ink on paper. 22 1/6 x 29 ¾ inches. © Molly Crabapple. (Image courtesy of the artist)

Brothers of the Gun is a story that balances the external conditions of war with the inner life of Hisham, an idealistic and shrewdly observant young man energized by the protests of 2011. The story shows the demise of close friends, the radicalization and polarization of Syrian citizens, and the violence of state and international actors. Hisham is a young Syrian expatriate who, once exiled from his war-torn country, became an outspoken voice on social media, tweeting from Raqqa as it was under siege by ISIS and other military forces. In rendering war into expressive language, Crabapple and Hisham represent what is never fully representable: the experience of war through the lens of personal experience. What does it mean for viewers to grasp the crises of others through art, especially as one of the most photographed wars in human history is transposed into ink drawings? How does the artistic choice to draw engage the ethics of representing war? Do the drawings constitute acts of empathy?

These questions underlie the Brooklyn Public Library and Haverford College exhibition of Hisham’s recollections and Crabapple’s drawings, created from 2014–2017, which illustrate the pages of his story. The first incarnation of the exhibition in Brooklyn, which has now landed at Haverford, was designed to provide a peripatetic immersion into the space of Hisham’s memories and the war in Syria. Enlarged reproductions of text and image from the memoir mounted on A-frames stood in the Brooklyn Library’s Grand Lobby. An audio guide with brief narrations by Hisham and Crabapple could be accessed from one’s smartphone. The installation also included a forty-foot long photomural created by Crabapple for the exhibition. On the rim of the Grand Lobby balcony, the mural unfurled a scroll-like panorama of scenes of Syrian conflict. These scenes contrasted the hopes of the Arab Spring in peaceful protests on one side with the brutality of conflict under the occupation of ISIS on the other. In between was the skyline of Aleppo. Crabapple’s original ink drawings, thirty-six of them, were the third element of the exhibition, encased in glass and grouped by the region and moment in Syria they described. These drawings of Aleppo, Raqqa, Mosul, and finally Hisham’s place of exile, Istanbul, contrast scenes of pre- and post-ISIS-controlled Syria.

Hisham and Crabapple united by way of social media, where they were both outspoken critics of the war and commentators on its complex unfoldings. Their friendship was further nourished by a common desire to share the experiences of young Syrians, and to paint a picture of life after ISIS took over several Syrian cities. The first iteration of their work together began as a series of articles, Letters from Syria, published in Vanity Fair in 2015.[1] In the retrospective words of Hisham in the memoir, they write of the origin story of their friendship:

I’d met the artist on Twitter—where else?—on which I’d started reporting nine months prior, on the IED workshops, the massacres, the graf ti that adorned walls each night, the gifts of unknown hands. Mine was perhaps the only English Twitter account in Raqqa. The artist was also a journalist, and I would occasionally give her a quote for an article. Then she drew me for my birthday and we mocked the clichés of the war, until a friendship grew between us, tight as it could be, stretched through the satellites and repeaters that connected the Euphrates and the Hudson, the rivers that ran through our twin patches of earth.

When she proposed the art crime, I agreed, knowing the danger.

She messaged me a plan: I would send her photos of the occupied city that she would use as a basis for drawings, then I’d write the accompanying text. We’d run the whole thing in VANITY FAIR magazine. Would I be interested? She seemed scared to ask the question. She didn’t realize how much she was offering me with the risk.[2]

A candid published conversation between the co-authors elaborates on the seemingly paradoxical nature of co-authoring a memoir:

Molly: It’s a strange thing, isn’t it, for a memoir to be written by two authors? For a book written with “I” to have really been created by “they.” After we handed in our manuscript for BROTHERS OF THE GUN, we were practically placing bets on whether people would think I had ghostwritten your life, or that, rather, I had just drawn some pictures, and you nicely gave me coauthor credit. But we knew the idea of us as equal creators would be hard to get through people’s heads. . . . We took each other’s darlings hostage and used them as bargaining chips to save our own darlings from execution by red editorial pen.

Marwan: I’d like to look at it from a different perspective: it was a challenge for both of us to enter an experience where we both could be in every sentence and in every illustration. Following up on the “I” angle, it was interesting to try two methods of delivering the story: one through writing down my own story in my own words, the other watching you transform the interviews you did with me into a style identical to my own.[3]

Hisham and Crabapple describe their process of writing and the supporting images as being subject to a reciprocal push and pull of editorial and artistic energies. For the eighty-two illustrations included in Brothers of the Gun, Crabapple drew inspiration from Hisham’s own photographs, in addition to amateur photos and videos posted on social media by Syrians involved in the conflict. Crabapple’s drawings are more than illustrations; they inhabit the subjective experience of Hisham, and more generally of civilian life in Syria. She composited references from hundreds of sources, creating a virtual image bank, which corroborated Hisham’s instructions, diagrams, and visual research, melding the documentary with the personal.

But perhaps it was not, at its core, so technical. For Crabapple, hers is a gesture towards exercising privilege—the privilege of not living under war conditions—that moves toward a process of learning, mutual recognition, and concern. Hisham sees the promise of working together as “challenge, art, beauty, friendship, the chance to make my name.” Opportunity beckoned: “I had so much extra energy it hurt. We’d create this for history, she said. Only we could do this. No one else. My yes came without hesitation.”[4] The words they penned together, and the images accompanying them, are shaped by a fiery commitment to the ethics of attestation.

Crabapple insists that drawing goes beyond the role of photography in depicting the Syrian conflict. This is how she understands her ink drawings:

In creating the art displayed in SYRIA IN INK, I was inspired by Goya’s DISASTERS OF WAR. We now live in an age of in nite photos, and Syria is perhaps the most widely documented war in history. But oppressors, whether they are governments or not, seldom allow cameras into the spaces where they inflict their oppression. The lived experience of those under them disappears into the memory hole. Thankfully, art is a slippery thing. It can evade censorship, make history visible, invest the hideous with beauty and the prosaic with force. It can reveal that which power would otherwise be able to hide. I seek to accomplish what photos cannot.[5]

For Crabapple, photography fails to capture the lived experience of subjects of war and oppression. More photos, in her formulation, do not equal more transparent representation, nor are photographs free from political forces. The Israeli photography theorist Ariella Azoulay argues that photography, in the very act of capturing conflict, is an event.[6] The camera surveys and inscribes, lying beyond the full control or agency of the photographer or the photographed, and thereby constitutes a political matrix of actors and effects. The event of photography for Azoulay is ongoing and can never be “fully extinguished or realized” thanks to the revivification of the captured image by the spectator who looks at it, o en far in time and place from its source. Spectatorship is never closed, only suspended or displaced. As Azoulay recognizes, in sites of protracted conflict such as Palestine or Syria, those being subjected to the camera o en will never see the photos taken of them, even as the camera intrudes on their moments of loss, grief, or chaos. Cameras are agents of power.[7]

Abu Mujahid, ISIS fighter, with His Mounted Anti-Aircraft Machine Gun , 2016, pen and ink on paper, 16 ¼ x 12 ¼ inches. © Molly Crabapple. (Image courtesy of the artist)

Abu Mujahid, ISIS fighter, with His Mounted Anti-Aircraft Machine Gun, 2016, pen and ink on paper, 16 ¼ x 12 ¼ inches. © Molly Crabapple. (Image courtesy of the artist)

What then does Crabapple mean when she draws in order to move beyond photography, to “accomplish what photography cannot”? Hers is an attempt to move away from photography’s shock value. Certainly, Crabapple’s drawing of a young child holding a riffle, “Abu Mujahid’s Little Brother” (2016), even to desensitized, remote, and privileged viewers, is a piteous one. So too is the drawing, “Children Looking through Trash” (2014). “Abu Majahid, ISIS fighter, with his Mounted Anti-Aircra Machine Gun” (2016) continues the theme of young radicalized children, as teenager Abu’s back arcs in a seated position from the weight of a tank-size machine gun, protruding like an impossible phallus from his young body. Street scenes, felled monuments, bread lines, checkpoints, bombed-out buildings, Syrians in revolt, the shrouded, the injured: these are confrontational images, but their power does not arise from shock. They instead derive their power from the hand’s translation of the shocking image. Shock is a polemical positioning of the photographic image within the glut and acceleration of images circulating in contemporary culture. By moving beyond photography, Crabapple arrests through other emotional registers.

It is in these other registers besides shock where Crabapple makes her impression felt, such as the funerary image that memorializes the death of Hisham’s dear friend, as a rescuer grips his alabaster body from a rubble-strewn foreground (“A Rescuer Pulls Ismail, Now Deceased, from the Rubble of an American Air Strike,” 2017). The right corner of the foreground is left blank and in that white space grief resonates. There is the picture of Hisham’s friend Tareq, wielding a gun as a violin, what later became the cover image of Brothers of the Gun. There is the couple sitting in silhouette by the banks of the Euphrates River, a romantic scene which also documents the more restrictive style of dress that has become the norm for young women. There is the intimate portrait of Marwan himself which Molly drew on his birthday, the prelude to all the others that would follow. Crabapple’s drawings return the power of images to those drawn.

For Crabapple to draw, to combine images, to stage situations and interpret them from verbal accounts and found images until Hisham confirms their inner realism— this is a decisive act. She mentions being inspired by Goya’s Disasters of War, a series of twenty-five etchings predating photography as a mass medium, made between 1810 and 1820 and depicting Napoleon’s invasion of Spain in 1808. Susan Sontag writes specifically about this touchstone series which requires the viewer to confront the gruesome and horrific character of war. Sontag writes of the sharp use of language tinged with pathos, with captions exclaiming the act of witnessing in the first person: “This is bad”; “This is worse”; “One can’t look.”[8] The captions bear witness to the dilemma of confronting the horrific. Sontag’s point is that photographs frame and construct reality; images mediate disaster by manipulating the frame.

To Sontag, the achievement of Disasters of War is ethical, rather than purely evidentiary. “Goya’s images are a synthesis. They claim: things like this happened.”[9] And this idea of synthesis by the artist is important, for if the human element is imperceptibly embedded in the photograph, and if images of war predate photography, as in Goya’s reproducible etchings, or in paintings before it, then our confrontation with images of suffering and the grotesque places an unending and unanswerable demand on the maker and the viewer who comes after.

Couple on the banks of the Euphrates, in ISIS-Occupied Raqqa , 2017, ink and pen on paper, 28 1⁄2 x 25 inches. © Molly Crabapple. Image courtesy the artist. (Photo by Steve Prue)

Couple on the banks of the Euphrates, in ISIS-Occupied Raqqa, 2017, ink and pen on paper, 28 1⁄2 x 25 inches. © Molly Crabapple. Image courtesy the artist. (Photo by Steve Prue)

Crabapple’s decision to synthesize drawings is a response to that ethical demand, revealing the inherently incomplete, vulnerable, and ultimately personal reconciliation that must happen in the imagining of war. It is a sensitive task, and it requires cultivating empathy for the authentic experience of those who have lived it. Crabapple becomes a listener and a witness. Subjecting herself to a stream of personal and public war images, she asks us in turn to bear the discomfort of looking and listening.

United by an insistence on witnessing, Crabapple and Hisham’s friendship is shaped in letterforms and ink washes, cemented by a vow to tell the experience of the Syrian conflict in the first person to the rest of the world.

[1] The series of articles written by Marwan Hisham which the two developed in tandem can be found in, “Scenes for Daily Life in the De Facto Capital of ISIS,” Vanity Fair, October 6, 2014 (; “Scenes from Daily Life Inside ISIS-Controlled Mosul,” Vanity Fair February 5th, 2015 (; and “Scenes from Inside Aleppo: How Life Has Been Transformed by Rebel Rule,” Vanity Fair, June 20, 2015 (
[2] Marwan Hisham and Molly Crabapple, Brothers of the Gun: A Memoir of the Syrian War (New York: One World, 2018), 174.
[3] Other published interviews, such as a recent one in BOMB magazine, elaborate further on the formation of the book. See
[4] Marwan Hisham and Molly Crabapple, Brothers of the Gun: A Memoir of the Syrian War (New York: One World, 2018), 174.
[5] Artist statement for Molly Crabapple and Marwan Hisham: Syria in Ink, Brooklyn Public Library. Cora Fisher in correspondence with Molly Crabapple, 2018.
[6] Ariella Azoulay, Ma e’akh: Lexical Review of Political Thought, 2e (2011): 72–77. For the extended theorization of the event of photography, see Ariella Azoulay, The Civil Contract of Photography (New York: Zone Books, 2008).
[7] Azoulay, Ma e’akh: Lexical Review of Political Thought, 73.
[8] Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), 45.
[9] Ibid., 47.

Molly Crabapple & Marwan Hisham: Syria in Ink will be on view March 22 through April 26 at Haverford College’s Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery. Join us for an artist talk and opening reception on March 22, from 4:30–7:00 p.m. For further details:

Guest Contributor
Cora Fisher

Cora Fisher is a curator and arts writer based in New York City. She is currently the Curator of Visual Art Programming at the Brooklyn Public Library for the Arts and Culture division, BPL Presents. Previously, she was the Curator of Contemporary Art at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art (SECCA) from 2013–2017, where she produced over twenty solo and group exhibitions, including Dispatches, an exhibition generating artistic responses to the news by 28 contemporary artists, photojournalists, and new media practitioners. She holds a BFA from The Cooper Union School of Art and an MA from the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College.