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The Home That Was Our Country
A Memoir of Syria
By Alia Malek
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The Home That Was Our Country is a deeply researched, personal journey that shines a delicate but piercing light on Syrian history, society, and politics. Teeming with insights, the narrative weaves acute political analysis with a century of intimate family history, ultimately delivering an unforgettable portrait of the Syria that is being erased.
What crime did I commit for you to annihilate me, my brother?
I will never release the binds of this embrace.
And I will never let you go.
—"He Embraces His Murderer," Mahmoud Darwish
THE CHALLENGE OF TRANSLITERATING FROM ARABIC INTO ENGLISH is that there are many systems used by authors and scholars to represent the Arabic sounds and short/long vowels that can only be approximated in the Roman alphabet. Strict adherence to this or any other system of transliteration, however, can often obfuscate a word or concept readers may already have come across, especially with Syrian towns and names constantly appearing in the news over the course of the current conflict.
Many readers may be unaware that there are various spoken dialects of Arabic that differ from Modern Standard Arabic (MSA). Thus my goal was to stay as true as possible to both Syrian dialect when spoken and to correct MSA when called for—without compromising readability for non-Arabic-speaking readers. For that reason, I have made a few choices. First, I have opted not to use most diacritics, which might end up confusing more readers than they would help, but I did represent the back-of-the-throat as a (') and the , or glottal stop, as ('). And second, where there are Arabic words, proper nouns, or English approximations of Arabic concepts that readers will likely recognize—for example Tahrir, Alawite, Shiite, Ain—I've opted to use them.
A Note on Names
Almost all names have been changed in this book to safeguard as much as possible people's privacy and safety—this includes both given and family names. Pseudonyms are consistent with era, language, and meaning of original name. Should a real Abdeljawwad al-Mir exist anywhere, it is purely by coincidence.
Damascus, May 2013
BY THE TIME I LEFT SYRIA IN MAY 2013, MANY IN MY FAMILY WERE happy to see me go.
For them, the day hadn't come soon enough.
The country was already more than two years into the blackness that would consume it. Its disintegration would see hundreds of thousands killed; millions displaced from their homes both inside and outside Syria's borders; villages, towns, and cities in rubble; unknown numbers disappeared; and the futures of several generations stolen.
When authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya were overthrown in 2011, all eyes turned to Syria as if it would be next. But despite both peaceful and armed opposition, the regime that had ruled Syria for over forty years remained entrenched. Syrian president Bashar al-Assad—who had inherited power from his father, Hafez al-Assad—blamed a foreign conspiracy at work against Syria. The regime dismissed any reports that would belie its account of events as fabrications, venomously accusing the media of perpetuating lies. Western journalists had already disappeared and died in Syria to much international attention. Syrian journalists—professionals and those initiated in citizen reporting—were dying as well, just more silently and in greater numbers.
So as far as many in my family were concerned, my being both a dual national American and a journalist added up to nothing but trouble, and the sooner I left, the better.
While most foreign journalists were denied legal access to Syria, I had been able to enter and move about Damascus with relative ease. Though I was born abroad, both my parents are Syrian, and, more importantly, had registered my birth with the government, in anticipation of our planned return to Syria, where they had intended to raise their family. That meant that I had a Syrian national identity card and the access it can provide.
Ever since moving to Damascus in April 2011, I had been constantly answering inquiries as to what I was doing there. Although people regularly pry in Syria—most often about your relatives, your marital status or prospects, or your income and property—the question as to why I was in Damascus now was more than mere prosaic meddling. It was potentially dangerous.
Unlike in many other cities, there is no anonymity in Damascus. There is no disappearing into it. Four different security bodies, known collectively as the mukhabarat, with at least twenty-two branches in the capital alone, have for decades carried out the regime's surveillance of its people. (It is estimated that the mukhabarat have 65,000 full-time employees—or 1 for every 153 adult citizens—along with hundreds of thousands of part-time or unofficial employees.) They are a much less refined version of the Stasi, with very little of the East German agency's precision or accuracy. What they lack in sophistication, though, they more than make up for with gusto.
The best way to explain this is with a joke I first heard back in Syria in the 1990s. It goes like this: the world's intelligence services gather at an elite training site. Present are the CIA, the KGB, Israel's Mossad, and the Syrian mukhabarat. They are brought to the edge of the forest and told they must each go in, track a certain fox, and bring him back. Both the CIA and the KGB get it done in an hour. The Mossad completes the task even faster. The last to go are the Syrian mukhabarat. They disappear for hours into the woods. When they return, they are holding a severely beaten-up rabbit. The other agents laugh at them or are perplexed. "That's not a fox," they say. The Syrians, in their leather jackets, are coolly smoking; one of them is holding the rabbit up by his neck. Their leader responds, "He confessed. He admitted that he is a fox."
After generations of being watched over and eavesdropped on, Syrians have internalized the mukhabarat; even in their absence they are present. Well before 2011, in Syria, just talking about the regime could land a person in prison, where many are quickly forgotten except by those who love them. Even Syrians abroad would sometimes unconsciously drop their voices to a hush when they criticized the regime.
Up to 2011, Syrians generally understood the difference between what information would get someone in trouble and what just accumulated in dusty files. But in the new disquiet and growing chaos, no one was sure what would be damning and to which fate. My presence was just too random. Many suspected I must be working as a jassousseh, a spy.
I HAD COME to Syria, in part, to finish the restoration that my parents had started of my maternal grandmother Salma's house, which now belonged to my mother. But I was also there because Syria had shadowed my life from birth, though I had never fully been a part of it. I wanted to be there at a moment when the entire region was in the throes of change. For an optimist, Syria was on the precipice of something better. For the pessimist, it teetered dangerously on the abyss.
I was an optimist. Syria had been to me many things until that point, from that ever-present phantom in the diaspora to a destiny it seemed I had mercifully dodged as a teenager to a frequently visited and loved homeland, one that seemed to be shackled by a ruthless regime and the geopolitical fault lines that cradled it. Now I wondered what I could be for Syria. A lawyer and a journalist, I was open to whatever role I might play in recasting the nation as it transitioned (I hoped) from decades of stifling and corrupt dictatorship into something better for all its peoples. In what would come after, could I teach or train lawyers or journalists? Could I advocate? Could I report?
Though I had written a few pieces for the New York Times, The Nation, and the Christian Science Monitor in the two years since I had moved to Damascus, they were without a byline. As far as most people in Damascus knew, I wasn't practicing journalism in Syria. Nonetheless, it made no sense to anyone that I would stay in Damascus when, as an American, I could go at any moment, a luxury and a privilege so many Syrians desperately wanted for themselves, and which I had by accident already, thanks to my parents' emigration. I tried transparency, explaining that I was thinking of writing a book about my grandmother, which I had indeed been considering for years. But in a place where nonfiction is usually only written about important men, this was an unlikely story. Similarly, explaining that I could get paid for the idea of a book, before it had been written or a single copy had been sold, was so fantastical that it invited only more suspicion.
It didn't help that as a lawyer, I had been to Palestine and Israel several times (which my family knew, even if the regime didn't). Although my work had always been on behalf of the very people—the Palestinians—whom the regime claimed to have championed more than any Arab country, that didn't change the fact that I was technically in violation of Syrian law. Anyone who has been in Israel is forbidden to come to Syria.
Then there was the reality that I was an unmarried woman who wasn't living by the rules for unmarried women, which are much harsher than those for their married counterparts. Most people in Syria assumed I lived with my parents in Baltimore and were surprised to learn I lived on my own in another city—even though I was in my late thirties. When I gently reminded them that I was a lawyer and a journalist and that I worked, they nodded politely as if to spare me further embarrassment. An unmarried woman living on her own hinted at sexual impropriety. Many Syrian women are college-educated and professionals, but that had not changed the expectation that they would be wives and mothers first, and chaste until the wedding.
Some of my family members wanted me to leave Syria simply because they loved me. In addition to fearing I might catch the regime's eye—which seemed to be tolerating my presence thus far—people had begun that year to take advantage of the regime's focus on its opponents to kidnap and ransom wealthy Syrians. Because I was an American, people might presume that money would follow me. Other relatives feared for their own safety. The regime had survived for so many years because it viewed guilt as collective or by association, and people were often punished for the sins of their kin. Even people who might be inclined to speak up tended to keep their mouths shut and their heads down so as not to endanger those they loved. Then there were the family members who imagined they could use me to curry favor with the regime, and started dangerous rumors that I was an American spy. It was never clear whether they did it just for the theatrics of distancing themselves from me or to actually get me to go.
There was nothing new for me about leaving Syria; separation has always been the defining condition of my relationship to the country. I first left Syria before I was even born, when my mother, pregnant with me, traveled to join my father in the United States for what was meant to be a temporary stay.
But in 2013, my optimism began to seem naïve. I realized that time might be running out, that the relative safety of central Damascus could evaporate from one day to the next, and that leaving this time might be more permanent than ever before. Already, people and places were rapidly disappearing from the face of the country. Though I wanted to stay as long as possible, in April 2013, my father was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, and the prognosis was grim. I decided to take a job in the United States and be with my family as he faced his illness. My father instructed me to tell no one he was sick; thus I could only say "Insh'allah," God willing, when relatives tried to cheer me in my final days, saying they'd soon see me and my parents again in Syria, once things got better. So those who wanted to see me leave, for my own safety or theirs, believed I had at last given in to reason, to their pleas, or to their own intimidation.
ON ONE OF my final afternoons in Damascus, I stood on the front balcony of my grandmother's house, running my fingertips farewell over the leaves of a bitter orange tree, whose upper branches reached our second-story flat.
I did not know if I'd ever be able to return, and if so, when that would be, and what I would or wouldn't find if I did. But unlike so many Syrians who had already fled the country, often on a day they hadn't known would be their last in their homes, I was leaving somewhat on my terms. I was able to say goodbye, and I did, to everything, alive and dead, sentient or not.
Because Friday is the day of rest in Syria, there was hardly any traffic noise. People were at home; moving by car had become cumbersome, with all the checkpoints halting the flow. Only mortar and gunfire rumbled in the distance. It was also Orthodox Good Friday, and many of the city's Christians would wait until later that night to decide whether to attend Mass.
My grandmother Salma's apartment in the Tahaan Building was now restored, almost exactly as it had been in her day, and I lived in it alone, though always accompanied by her ghost and those of the others who had passed through it. From the balcony, I looked up and down the block. The trees, many of them citrus, were lush with leaves; delicious loquats were hanging in little clusters from branches tauntingly close. As in many parts of Damascus, I could smell the jasmine.
Our street, together with three others, made up the neighborhood known as Ain al-Kirish. On the south it was bound by the centuries-old, maze-like quarter known as Sarouja. The newer buildings, like the Tahaan, were erected in the 1940s and 1950s, a modern expression of a country emerging from decades of French domination and finally headed into the future.
There were many versions of how the neighborhood got its name. An ain is the source of a spring of water. My grandmother, according to my aunt, had said the original name had been Ain al-Shirsh, "Source of (plant) Roots," because of a spring in the area that allowed so many orchards to fill the quarter. With time, the groves were razed, houses were built, and the pronunciation changed to Ain al-Kirish.
According to the neighborhood's mukhtar (the official responsible for registering residents' births, marriages, and deaths), who also said there had been a spring in the area, the name derives from when there was a fee of one Syrian penny—a qirsh—to enter the area for its water, so it was the Spring of a Penny. In his telling, too, time had changed the pronunciation. Yet another version says that the water of that spring had bicarbonate in it, and as such, felt good in the belly, which is what kirsh actually means, thus the Spring of the Belly.
But ain can also mean "eye," and until I inquired, I had always assumed, incorrectly, that Ain al-Kirish meant "Eye of the Belly," which I quite liked. I found it poetic, because I thought this was some flowery Arabic way of saying "belly button" (which in Arabic is actually surra). Though I had been severed from it long ago, my attachment to this place had always felt umbilical.
After all, this was the house that in 1949 my grandmother had come to from Hama—a small city more than one hundred miles north of Damascus—after marrying my grandfather, Ameen, who was from Homs. The newlyweds had first lived together in this house when Syria was newly free, and the Tahaan had also been newly built. My mother was born in a hospital down the street and raised here. They had remained until 1970, when my grandparents moved their family to a larger house, renting the Tahaan home to a discharged and wounded veteran. This was the same year that Hafez al-Assad—father of the current ruler Bashar al-Assad—came to power, a military man himself.
Salma had intended the house for her eldest daughter, my mother, Lamya, once she married and had a family of her own. But the new tenant refused to leave, and he was protected by the law, as it favored renters over landlords, especially if they had been in the military. My mother was only able to retake the house after a new law in 2004 provided a process to resolve these sorts of disputes, as so many Syrians were locked in similar situations. Under the new law, landlords could evict their tenants if they paid them 40 percent of the property's value. It would take my mother six years to oust her mother's tenant. Salma did not live to see the house finally back in the family's possession.
My parents wanted the house in Damascus because, nearing their own years of retirement, they missed home, and their desire to return to Syria had begun to outweigh their need for sure footing in the United States. They were established in Baltimore, and could begin to dream again of Syria. With their own house in Damascus, coming for extended visits would not be prohibitively expensive or uncomfortable. After taking the house back, they had decided to restore it—though, with the exception of updates to the bathrooms and kitchen, they did not really change it.
None of us knew now if they would ever see it again or spend any time in it, as no one knew anymore who would possess the country (or the house) in the future.
As I began to lose myself in these thoughts, I looked across at the neighbors watching me from their balconies. Our shared street was narrow, and we could easily talk to each other over the divide. We saw each other there every day—when we had our morning coffee, still in our bathrobes; when we wrung and hung the laundry at midday; when we smoked an afternoon cigarette; when we watered the plants at sunset; and when we cracked sunflower seeds with friends and family and chatted into the night. After the violence started, we'd often rush out onto our balconies to figure out, together, what had just happened and, really, to be a little less alone in our fear. Christian and Muslim, we'd always wished one another a healthy year during our respective holidays, shared our best home cooking, and ululated for the neighborhood's new brides and grooms when they left their parents' homes.
As I smiled and waved at the family across the street that afternoon, a gust of wind came through, and we all heard a crash. We looked around until one of the neighbors' children pointed to a higher balcony next door to me. A birdcage had fallen onto the roof of a one-story shop below, and a colorful parakeet was hopping around, dazed.
The bird's owner came running out onto his balcony. "Salaam," he greeted all of us, and we hurriedly told him what had happened, gesturing to the bird on the loose. Someone yelled down to the young boys kicking a ball on the street, telling them to scale the shop's roof and catch the bird before it could escape.
Instead, the boys startled the bird and it flew to my balcony. Everyone yelled at me to grab it, but it fluttered and perched out of my reach.
The owner laughed and told us not to worry; this bird wanted to come back to its cage, he assured us.
We all tried to coax it back, me especially, as I was still nearest to the bird, but then it flapped frantically and suddenly flew away in a flash of green and yellow.
"Freedom!" laughed the owner.
"At least for him," someone answered.
We looked around nervously and hoped that no one who might inform on us had heard our transgression.
"Poor thing," a woman covered for us all. "A cat will get him."
Thinking it better to avoid any further metaphorical conversation, I retreated from the balcony into the house to continue packing.
I had not had time to furnish the house completely; most of it was still empty. My footsteps echoed loudly. Only the master bedroom and my office were complete; my father and I had picked out the furniture together when he had come to visit in November 2011, before he knew he was ill, though the disease had been progressing for years. During that trip, he was still hoping against hope that Syria wasn't about to leave him.
In the bedroom, he had kept pajamas, and in the bathroom, as I began removing my own toiletries, I saw the razor and shaving cream he had tucked away for his return. Staring at these small items, I thought of all the little and big things Syrians all over the country had left behind, thinking they were coming back. And as happens in war and displacement, I wondered who would use them again first—their owners, if they lived? Or those who would squat or borrow houses and things that weren't theirs but, at least for the time being, appeared to be abandoned.
I, too, decided to leave things in Salma's house, as if to reassure her that I would return. Most importantly, I left a framed picture on my nightstand of me as a child, laughing with her and my sister in a moment of silliness, just months before her terrible fate would befall her.
Suqaylabiyah, 1889–Hama, 1949
EVERY FAMILY HAS ITS LORE, AND SOMETIMES IT EVEN BRUSHES UP against that of a nation. This is the case for the al-Mirs, my family on my maternal grandmother Salma's side. The man who looms larger than life in our family tales is Salma's father and my great-grandfather, Sheikh Abdeljawwad al-Mir.
Abdeljawwad was born an Ottoman subject in 1889, and he died in 1970, a citizen of a Syria that Hafez al-Assad would seize control of just weeks after his death. Abdeljawwad's life thus spanned both the messy and genocidal end of empires—near and far—and the messy and genocidal rise of the new local, regional, and world orders that would dominate the twentieth century.
He was tall and handsome, with a robust chest and blue eyes. He spoke with a commanding voice (because he was always giving commands), wore his tarboush (Arabic for fez) well into the 1960s, and always carried worry beads in his right hand. He came from a small village and vastly increased his family's wealth through land and crops, making himself into a kind of feudal lord even as a new century dawned. A Christian with the honorific of "sheikh," he had shakhsiyeh, a trait my grandmother would forever be drawn to. It means, literally, "personality," but also connotes presence and charisma. She would remain in awe of him throughout her life, even as he scripted the unhappiness of her adult years.
Those who knew Abdeljawwad attributed many traits to him, first and foremost his extreme generosity. Indeed, his name, from abd-al-joud, means the "slave of generosity." His dining table was always decadently spread for guests, and when he was the guest, he showered his hosts with bounty he'd bring from the countryside. He was also notably shrewd, entrepreneurial, and pragmatic, and therefore, he became quite rich. Only the most obsequiously polite omit that he was also well known for being a niswanji, womanizer. This was such an accepted fact that even in the stories the family tells about itself, his inclination for seduction is spoken of quite dispassionately.
Abdeljawwad apparently so excelled at it that at age eighty-one, he whispered amorous sentiments to the young nurses—many of whom were nuns—who tended to him in a hospital as he lay dying. But let's start with how his life began.
ABDELJAWWAD'S PEOPLE WERE said to be Ghassanids, a pre-Islamic Arab tribe from modern-day Yemen that had migrated to Syria by the fourth century CE. According to some accounts, when the Ghassanids left the southern Arabian Peninsula they were already Christian; others say they embraced the religion after arriving in Syria, where Christian communities already existed.
My direct ancestors then settled in the Ghab Plain, which lies between two mountain ranges—one that runs parallel to Syria's Mediterranean coast, and another one inland to the east. Abdeljawwad was born in the Ghab Plain's village of Suqaylabiyah in 1889. It was located in a territory that had for centuries been known as Bilad al-Sham (the Lands of Sham), which stretched from the Taurus Mountains in the north to the Sinai Desert in the south, and from the Mediterranean Sea in the west to the Euphrates River in the northeast and the Arabian Desert in the southeast. These natural borders held in their embrace a territory that had long had its own coherence. Today, this would put Bilad al-Sham in parts of modern-day Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and Turkey. Then and now, "Sham" has generally been imperfectly translated as "Syria." To distinguish what is meant by Bilad al-Sham from modern-day Syria and its reduced borders, scholars sometimes translate it as "Greater Syria." (And I will, too, but this use of the term should not be confused with the political concept popularized in the 1930s and 1940s in response to European colonial divisions of historical Bilad al-Sham.)
The Ottoman Empire had captured the region in 1516. Forged in the late thirteenth century, the Ottoman Empire ruled over a multinational, multilingual, and multireligious empire that at its peak controlled much of southeastern Europe, western Asia (including the Eastern Mediterranean), the Caucasus, North Africa, and the Horn of Africa. Islam was central to the empire's structure, and the ruling Osman family framed its legitimacy in terms of being the protector of Islam. However, other faith groups were integrated members of the empire, though their conditions varied over the course of its six-hundred-year existence.
- "In The Home That Was Our Country, Alia Malek masterfully weaves together the personal and the political, and in so doing creates an unforgettable portrait of modern Syria in all its complexities and tragedies. Malek renders multiple generations of family, friends and neighbors vividly but unsentimentally, and what emerges is a portrait of a great people held back by tyranny. As Syria suffers through its darkest days, she reminds us of the humans behind the statistics. Completely engrossing and lucid, the book explains Syria's devolution better than anything I've read."—Dave Eggers
- "What Alia Malek has done in The Home That Was Our Country is nothing short of extraordinary. With deep love and clear-eyed honesty, she weaves together the story of a family and the history of a country. Malek addresses the personal and the political like no other writer I have read recently. This book is an urgent and necessary read."—Laila Lalami, author of THE MOOR'S ACCOUNT
- "Alia Malek's beautiful, arresting portrait of a Syrian family over generations takes you straight to the heart of that country's agony. Malek brings you inside the intimate world of a Damascus apartment building, while weaving in her own experiences as a journalist-laying bare the struggle for freedom like no other work I know. The Syrian war is perhaps the most profound moral and political crisis of our era, and this unforgettable book will forever change the way you see it and the Middle East."—Anand Gopal, author of NO GOOD MEN AMONG THE LIVING
- "Alia Malek has written a beautiful, nuanced account of Syria recalling its complex political and social history, its many peoples, and her own family in this vividly detailed memoir. For a deeper understanding of the past and of the present Middle East, read this book. It offers not easy answers, but the "rougher edges of truth" that allow for a more profoundly humanistic portrait of the region and the causes of the current unrest. I missed home as I read: the hospitality and customs and cuisine; the diverse inhabitants that make up the rich tapestry of the old cities and villages; the women, of all socioeconomic backgrounds, who form the backbone of family life-the way it once was."—Micheline Aharonian Marcom, author of THREE APPLES FELL FROM HEAVEN
- "Alia Malek takes us on a journey through time as she travels from her birthplace of Baltimore to the country from which her family hails, Syria. There she rediscovers her own family history through the renovation of her grandmother's home. She finds the meaning of what it is to be Syrian through the diverse characters that lived in her grandmother's building in Damascus. But as Malek restores her grandmother's home she watches her country fall apart with the Syrian conflict unfolding in the background. She tells the story of violence engulfing Syria as a brutal war shatters the mosaic of ethnicities and faiths that make up the Syria she'd always known. A beautiful, nuanced and human memoir that weaves the tale of Syria's history through Malek's own family and leaves the reader with the vivid sense of loss, alienation and fear likely common to all Syrians trapped in this conflict."—Leila Fadel, Middle East Correspondent, NPR
- "Moving and insightful, Malek's memoir combines sharp-eyed observations of Syrian politics, only occasionally overdone, with elegiac commentary on home, exile, and a bygone era. Provocative, richly detailed reading."—Kirkus Reviews
- "Malek's multigenerational memoir is a brilliant combination of geopolitics and family history...Malek courageously tells the stories of unforgettable family members and friends, including underground humanitarian aid workers who continue despite the risk of torture and execution."—Publishers Weekly
- "Malek's writing vividly captures the personalities of her family members and friends as well as her own impressions of Syria, allowing readers insight into the personal stakes of the ongoing war."—Laura Chanoux, Booklist
- "The Home That Was Our Country, is one of the finest examples of this new testimonial writing... Malek's memoir will remain essential reading in the emerging body of literary reportage from Syria in English... Such stories couldn't be more urgent."—New York Times Book Review
- "Alia Malek has penned a powerful and necessary read that sheds light on and helps our own understanding of the people behind the crisis in Syria."—The Toronto Star
- "Malek captures the multifaceted nature of this cataclysm very effectively in her gripping new book...her vivid picture-painting and scathing intelligence turn and turn on that same unspoken question, 'What has happened to our country?'"—Christian Science Monitor
- "Alia Malek's new memoir, The Home That Was Our Country, feels like such a necessary, conscious corrective...[a] remarkable book."—Bookforum
- "...compelling...Alia Malek's The Home That Was Our Country mirrors the tragedy of Syria..."—The National
- On Sale
- Mar 13, 2018
- Page Count
- 368 pages
- Bold Type Books