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“Proof of Life” – New book about Syrian conflict tells spellbinding story of one man’s search for a young American who went missing in 2014

Author Daniel Levin
cover of “Proof of Life”

Review by BERNIE BELLAN The war in Syria which began in 2011 following upon earlier upheavals in the Arab world that were ignited by what became known as the Arab Spring has, by and large, vanished from the headlines of the world’s newspapers.

Once Russia intervened on the side of Bashar Al Assad in 2015, along with Iran and its Hezbollah acolytes, the tide was turned in favour of Assad. It is true that American troops, along with their various allies in Syria, were instrumental in ridding Syria of ISIS, but there were many more factions fighting the Assad regime than ISIS.
The complex world of what really amounted to inter-tribal warfare in Syria resulted in some of the most atrocious acts imaginable committed by all sides in the conflict, although when it came to the use of military hardware to massacre entire populations, Assad’s forces set new levels of barbarity in terms of the degree to which they were willing to gas, bomb, and murder innocent civilians throughout the conflict.

Within this nightmarish world, however, there were many individuals who not only did not suffer at all during the conflict – they actually thrived. Some were members of different militias who capitalized on capturing Western journalists and humanitarian workers in Syria, holding them for huge ransoms when they could.
We in the West were witness to the horrendous brutality that ISIS was capable of when it came to dealing with those captured Westerners – including their beheadings on a regular basis, but other groups were also willing to engage in equally savage treatment of innocent Westerners. In the cases of those other groups, however, the goal by and large was to trade Westerners for money.
Often captured journalists or humanitarian workers would be traded back and forth among groups. There were different reasons for the shuffling around of prisoners. For one, it made it almost impossible for anyone wanting to retrieve those prisoners to keep track of them. Secondly, at different times different groups placed different values on certain prisoners, depending on where they came from and with whom those groups were in a position to negotiate.

Into this hellish world stepped Daniel Levin, a Swiss-born Jew now living in the United States whose expertise is in negotiating with some of the world’s most unsavory characters. Levin is a lawyer by training and his legal negotiation skills were put to good use when he began working “with a European foundation and select individuals in Syria” in what became a project known as “Project Bistar”.
The purpose of Project Bistar, Levin explains in an incredibly fascinating new book (that is yet to be released for sale to the public) titled “Proof of Life”, was to mediate between the warring sides in the Syrian conflict, “in the hope of working quietly behind the scenes toward a negotiated settlement and, at a second stage, identifying young, next-generation individuals of the Alawite, Sunni, Druze, and Christian communities with leadership potential.”
Levin explains that, until 2015 when the Russians intervened on his side, Assad appeared amenable to a negotiated settlement, especially when rebel forces were inflicting terrible damage on his own forces.

With that as background information, in 2014 Levin found himself thrust into a situation totally unexpectedly in which his negotiating skills were put to a supreme test.
As a press release that was sent to me in January described it, “Daniel Levin was at his office one day when he got a call from an acquaintance with an urgent, cryptic request to meet in Paris. A young man had gone missing in Syria. No government, embassy, or intelligence agency would help. Could he? So begins a suspenseful, shocking, and at times brutal true story of one man’s search to find a missing person in Syria over eighteen tense days.”

Thus begins “Proof of Life: The Undercover Search for a Missing Person in Syria, where Arms, Drugs, and People Are for Sale“.

This lengthy preamble to my review of the book was necessary to provide some context for what the book is all about. Since the story that Levin tells – and the events which he describes are all true – although he has changed the names of most of the characters in order to protect the identities of individuals whose lives might be in danger, even years after the events which he describes.
Reading “Proof of Life” is like reading any well-written, fast paced thriller – except in this case, knowing that what you are reading really did happen will often leave you feeling physically ill when you realize the depths to which humans are capable of sinking to the present day. And I’m not just talking about the depravities of various armed groups around the world, many of which are Islamic it must be said (whether in the Middle East, Africa, the Philippines or any other of a number of areas in which offshoots of Al Qaeda or ISIS still hold sway).

Some of the most notorious characters in “Proof of Life” are not at all involved in actual fighting; instead they are the parasites who see opportunities in conflict situations to make vast sums of money supplying such commodities as drugs and women to the fighters.
It was within this dangerous and completely shadowy world that Levin found himself when he was asked to help obtain information about a young American by the name of Paul Blocher who had somehow entered into Syria sometime in 2014 – and disappeared.
As Levin describes it, he was contacted by an old friend who asked him for a favour, which was to use his various and very useful contacts throughout the region to do what he could to find out what happened to Blocher.
What follow sin the book is a complex series of encounters with some fascinating characters, most of whom are Arabs of varying nationalities, in locations including Ankara, Beirut, Washington, Amman, and Dubai, as Levin pursues a trail replete with scattered bits of information that bring him ever closer to the one character who he is certain can reveal what actually happened to Paul Blocher.

Throughout reading this book I couldn’t help thinking that Levin, who doesn’t at all hide his Jewish identity, was quite fearless in his willingness to seek out individuals whose reputations would leave just about anyone else terrified to even go anywhere near them, let alone try and arrange to meet them.
Given that he had been tasked with an assignment that very few individuals in the world would be capable of performing, as you read the very careful preparations he continually put in place prior to his meeting any of these dangerous individuals, although Levin doesn’t describe to any extent how he developed his unique expertise in negotiation and subterfuge, you can only marvel at the thinking he displayed at all times in planning his course of action.

At a certain point in the book though, the name of a drug known as “captagon” began to take on a prominent role in the story. I had to digress from reading “Proof of Life” to acquaint myself with just what Captagon is.
Captagon is a powerful amphetamine that is most popular in the Middle East, where it is both the recreational drug of choice in such countries as Saudi Arabia and the drug that was used by all sides during the Syrian conflict that, in the words of a BBC correspondent describing how Captagon is used in Syria,“gives people a euphoric feeling that they can take on the world and are relatively indomitable. [It] suppresses appetite and gives you a very long burst of energy, something like 18 to 24 hours.”
“Amphetamine use by fighters is commonplace, but I wondered if the specific properties of Captagon made it the perfect war drug.
“ ‘That depends on what your values are in the war,’ “ according to Max Kravits, a researcher who has spent years studying the use of Captagon in the Syrian conflict.
“ It is incredibly deteriorating and debilitating and it makes fighters take risks they otherwise wouldn’t take. But if your goal is simply to take said hill regardless of the human cost, it certainly seems to be doing the job.’ “

As Levin pursued his quest to find out what happened to Paul Blocher, he was led ever closer to the one man who, it is had become apparent from a variety of sources, would be able to tell Levin what happened to Blocher.
That man’s name was “Anas” and if you ever wanted to conjure up a more insidious villain you would be hard put to find anyone more absolutely evil than Anas. When Levin finally saw Anas for the first time – and he made sure that he was carefully hidden so that Anas did not see him, he was blown away by Anas’s physical appearance: A massive six foot five, so muscular that he said Anas’s wrist was as big as Levin’s thigh. (It turns out that Anas was a steroid junkie, which both explained his enormous physique and the almost constant bouts of rage to which he was prone.)
And, although you can’t help but fear for Levin as he entered into the proverbial lion’s den, knowing that this is a true account, the overriding question as he describes his eventual face to face encounter with Anas, was how was he going to pry information out of someone who, it turns out, was actually capable of killing his own child to exact revenge on a wife who dared to leave him.

“Proof of Life” was just recently published (in 2021, as a matter of fact) and the copy I was sent was a review copy. But, as I was reading this incredibly fascinating book (and I know I use that phrase all too often in describing books that I love), I kept thinking to myself: All right, we know that Israel is engaged in an ongoing war of sorts with Iran in Syria, as Iran uses Syria as its base for arming Hezbollah, and that threatens to turn into a major all–out war with Hezbollah, but what of the actual conflict in Syria itself between Assad and all those factions that were fighting his regime? Has it all quieted down or are we just not hearing about it any more?

Here’s the answer, as Daniel Levin writes in his postscript to “Proof of Life” (and again, it was just written in 2021):
“These days, conventional wisdom holds that the conflict in Syria has been decided. The war is over. Bashar al-Assad and his regime won with the help of Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah; the opposition, the Kurds, and ISIS were defeated. Sure, some nasty things did happen, but it’s time to move on and rebuild the country.
“Turns out, conventional wisdom is not particularly wise. This war is not over. The killings have not stopped. The chemical gassings, the cluster bombs, the executions, the torture, the human trafficking the annihilation of entire villages – they all continue. For millions of trapped Syrians, the nightmare never ends. A small group of privileged men connected to the regime through family or business have amassed unimaginable fortunes as they control the war economy, trading everything – food, medicine, fuel, heating, oil, drugs, weapons, prisoners, young girls – and looting the destroyed cities for scrap metal, copper, steel, and anything of value. Like in all war, the only ones left are a few extremely rich individuals and many extremely poor people. Everyone in between has been wiped out. Yes, the war economy is alive and well, and this war will last as long as that remains the case.”
The insights that Levin offers throughout this book – and what I just quoted is but one example of the level of knowledge that he brings forth about of what is really going on in Syria – may differ from commonly accepted wisdom about what has happened in Syria of late. Yet, Levin’s profound understanding of the Middle East left me with only one conclusion about the Arab world: It is a cruel jungle, often surrounded by a façade of material wealth that only disguises the fact that it is thoroughly tribal in nature – and an extremely dangerous world in which to set foot.
Lucky for the Israelis who are now establishing connections throughout much of the region – they know what they’re getting into. They’ve been operating in what is probably the most dangerous neighbourhood in the world for a very long time. I’m sure that Israel has a lot of Daniel Levins around who know how to negotiate their way through the metaphorical landmines into which Israel is now stepping.

“Proof of Life” is set to be released to the public in May 2021.

 

 

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Features

“Ain’t No Grave” – new novel set in Deep South in early 20th century combines interracial love story with searing description of the Leo Frank trial and lynching

Book cover/author Mary Glickman

Reviewed by BERNIE BELLAN In 1975, American novelist E. L. Doctorow made waves with “Ragtime,” a novel that interspersed true historical American figures from the first part of the 20th century with fictitious characters. The novel explored the overt racism faced by Blacks in America at that time, along with the antisemitism that was also prevalent.
Now, with a new novel by Mary Glickman, who has specialized in writing historical fiction centering around Jewish characters in the Deep South of the U.S., the themes of anti-Black and antisemitic prejudice in the South reach a traumatic apex, culminating with the lynching of New York-born Leo Frank in Georgia, in 1915.
But – since I don’t like to read too much about what a novel is about before I delve into it, I really didn’t know to what extent the Leo Frank case was going to play a role in this particular book. I prefer to be surprised. Unfortunately, if you’re also of a similar mind, I’m afraid I’ve already let the cat out of the bag.
The story opens, however, not in Atlanta, which is where Leo Frank was framed for the murder of 13-year-old Mary Phagan, but in a part of backwoods Georgia known as Heard County, where we meet the two central characters of the book: Young Max Sassaport, the son of the only Jewish couple in his small rural village, and Max’s best friend, an equally young Ruby Johnson, the Black daughter of a sharecropper.
The two children – though from totally dissimilar backgrounds, share a deep bond – which they keep hidden from all around them. Glickman’s lilting prose and her depiction of rural Georgia life reminded me of another wonderful novel, also set in the Deep South: “Where the Crawdads Sing.”
Of course, a relationship between a Black girl and a White boy (and a Jew no less) is bound to come asunder – and even as youngsters, Ruby and Max are aware that they are fated to be split apart. Yet, with the introduction of a fascinating character known as Mayhayley Lancaster, who is described as a “witch,” but who later turns out to be a real person who actually played somewhat of a role in the Leo Frank trial, the children’s fate is foretold. (Again, I don’t want to give too much of the story away, but Mayhayley Lancaster’s transformation later in the novel turned out to be one of the biggest surprises of the book.)
As the first part of the story develops – and it becomes apparent that Ruby and Max are destined to take different roads in their lives, one of the interesting aspects of the story for Jewish readers will be what life would have been like for the only Jewish family in a small Southern town. The Sassaports operate a general dry goods store – as did many Jews in rural locations throughout the U.S. and Canada, but their connection to Judaism is tenuous at best.
In time, both Max and Ruby make their way to Atlanta, but with Ruby leaving when she is only 12 years old and Max waiting another six years before he ends up in Atlanta, neither one of them holds much hope that they will ever see each other again.
Max, however, meets up with a reporter for the Atlanta Journal known as Harold Ross (who would later go on, in real life, to found The New Yorker). Ross takes Max under his wing as a cub reporter and it’s in Max’s capacity as a reporter that he finds himself enmeshed in the Leo Frank trial.
As a press release for the novel explains: “1913. The year heart-sick Max travels to Atlanta to find Ruby, his lost love and childhood friend. And the year New York Jew, Leo Frank, is charged with the murder of a child laborer at the National Pencil Factory. Max is Jewish and Ruby’s Black. Their reunion takes place just as Frank is arrested, a racially charged event that sparks an explosion of antisemitism across the city of Atlanta.”
Although I had somewhat of a recollection of reading about the Leo Frank trial, reading about the events surrounding that trial and its aftermath comes as somewhat of a shock. Leo Frank was framed for the murder of a 13-year-old White girl but the degree to which the police and the prosecutor were determined to pursue a totally made-up case against an innocent Jewish businessman is still jarring to read. As well, when one contemplates how comfortable Donald Trump is with telling one lie after another to suit his agenda, it becomes much easier to understand how so many White authority figures in “Ain’t No Grave” were willing to engage in a total frame-up so as to enrage their White base. The role that many newspapers at the time played in stoking antisemitism also provides a salutary experience in how easy it has always been to dupe a huge proportion of the American public though fictitious media reporting. In 1915 it was through newspapers; today, it’s through the internet.
As the book’s press release notes the parallels between what was happening in the early years of the 20th century and what we are seeing playing out around the world today, “With global antisemitism on the rise, “Ain’t No Grave” draws attention to the fact that garden variety antisemitism can be stoked by bad actors and quickly explode into violence. Sometimes, the media play a role.”
The Jewish community of Atlanta in 1915 was so terrified by what was happening to Leo Frank that events at the time led to the creation of B’nai Brith’s Anti-Defamation League.
The juxtaposition of vicious antisemitism and anti-Black hatred in the Deep South with a love story between a White Jew and a Black woman makes for a compelling read. As a member of the Southeast ADL by the name of Sandra Brett noted after reading “Ain’t No Grave,” “Mary Glickman vividly captures milestones in the Leo Frank saga through sympathetic characters as real as the events surrounding them. She deftly intertwines Leo Frank’s trial and lynching with the founding of the ADL, the rebirth of a moribund KKK, and an interracial love story. Meticulously researched, fast-paced, and thoroughly original, Ain’t No Grave is a moving, satisfying read.”
And, as Pat Conroy, author of another best selling novel set in the Deep South – “Prince of Tides”, wrote about Mary Glickman: “Mary Glickman is a wonder.”

Buy this book on Amazon

Ain’t No Grave
By Mary Glickman
280 Pages,
Publication Date: July 2024
Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.


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Features

The environmental benefits of lawn care

(NC) Caring for your lawn isn’t just about aesthetics – it’s about nurturing a healthy ecosystem right in your own backyard. A well-maintained lawn not only adds charm to your property, it also plays a crucial role in supporting a healthier environment. Here are some of the ways that taking care of your lawn can benefit our surroundings.

Enhancing air quality: Your lawn acts as a natural air purifier, capturing dust, pollen and other airborne particles, making the air cleaner. Through photosynthesis, grass absorbs carbon dioxide (CO2) and releases oxygen, helping to reduce CO2 levels in the atmosphere.

Preventing soil erosion: Healthy lawns are crucial to preventing soil erosion. The dense grassroot keeps the soil in place, minimizing the risk of decay caused by water or wind. Soil erosion not only strips away valuable topsoil, it can also pollute nearby water bodies.

Cooling outdoor spaces: Compared to urban areas filled with buildings and concrete, places with more grass and trees are noticeably cooler. Additionally, it requires less energy to cool a building surrounded by grass than one surrounded by concrete. A lush lawn not only keeps your outdoor area cooler but could also lower air conditioning bills.

Ensuring clean water: Maintaining a healthy lawn contributes to better water quality. The thick grass cover is a natural filter for rainwater, cutting down on runoff and stopping pollutants from reaching waterways.

How to keep your lawn healthy

To keep your lawn healthy, it’s important to focus on three areas: fertilizing, watering and cutting.

Fertilize: Plants need the proper balance of nutrients to grow and stay healthy. Fertilizer ensures your lawn has all the nutrients it needs in the proper amounts to grow. Fertilize your lawn every other month, beginning in the spring when it starts to turn green, and continue until just before the ground freezes to promote thick, healthy growth that can fight off weeds.

Water: Regular watering is essential to maintaining a healthy lawn. Water your lawn early in the morning to reduce evaporation and fungal growth.

Cut: Mowing your lawn correctly can greatly influence its health. Keep your mower blades sharp and set your mower to the correct height for your grass type.

When fall begins, it’s important to continue caring for your lawn to ensure it remains healthy. Fertilizing in the fall helps strengthen roots and provides essential nutrients for the colder months. Additionally, keep up with watering if there is insufficient rainfall and continue mowing until the cold weather hits.

A vibrant lawn isn’t just a patch of green – it’s a miniature ecosystem that offers a variety of environmental benefits. By taking care of your lawn, you’re enhancing your property’s appeal and playing a vital role in preserving our planet’s health.

Find more information on lawn care and environmental benefits at fertilizercanada.ca/lawncare.

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Features

4 things to know about the Canadian Dental Care Plan

(NC) Have you heard about the Canadian Dental Care Plan (CDCP)? It’s a federal government program that helps reduce the cost of dental care for Canadian residents with a family income under $90,000 who do not have access to dental insurance.

Here are four things you should know about the plan.

What does it cover?
The plan helps cover a wide range of oral health services for eligible Canadians, such as examinations, teeth cleaning, X-rays, fillings, dentures, root canals and oral surgeries. Some services may only be available as of November 2024 and will require prior approval on the recommendation of an oral health provider.

When can I apply?
The application process began in stages, starting with seniors. As of June 27, 2024, two more groups can sign up for the plan: children under the age of 18 and adults with a valid Disability Tax Credit certificate.

When will other adults be able to apply?
All other eligible Canadian residents will be able to apply in 2025. Once fully rolled out, the plan aims to help reduce the cost of dental care for up to 9 million Canadians.

Does it fully cover all dental expenses?
The CDCP will reimburse a portion of the cost, based on established plan fees and your annual family income. There are three tiers of coverage that are based on household income.

  • If you have a family income lower than $70,000, 100 per cent of the plan’s established fee for eligible services will be covered;
  • If your family income is between $70,000 and $79,999, 60 per cent of the plan’s established fee for eligible services will be covered;
  • If your family income is between $80,000 and $89,999, 40 per cent of the plan’s established fee for eligible services will be covered.

The plan may not cover the full cost of your treatment, even if you have a family income lower than $70,000. You may have to pay a portion of the cost if the plan’s established fees are lower than what your provider normally charges. Additionally, you may agree to receive treatment that is not covered by the plan.

Before receiving oral health-care, you should always confirm that your provider is accepting CDCP members, that they will bill Sun Life for direct payment and ask about any costs that won’t be covered by the plan.

Learn more about the plan at canada.ca/dental.

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