When I was 7 years old, my parents moved me and my sister to Delhi from the sleepy city of Kolkata. After a devastating personal loss, my father stepped into India’s capital looking for what thousands of others were looking for, a future of hope. Over the next 18 years, stability eluded us, and with that hope of ever finding a footing in the city I came to love with all my heart, seemed just that, hope. That first move paved the way for 6 more intracity moves by the time I was 25. Then, I got married and finally found my anchor, not just in my beloved city but in life while my parents made one more move, and hopefully the last, this time to a place that would be theirs.
When I reminisce about all the moves that had marked my growing-up years, the only thing that I miss and regret is not having a history. A legacy that I could say I have inherited from my parents, if not grandparents, unlike all of my cousins. The numerous changes in the IDs, personal documents, school, and even telling friends that I have yet another new address, felt exhausting. Reading The Home That Was Our Country by Alia Malek made me realize how naive my exhaustion was compared to the millions of Syrians who had to leave not only their homes but the land on which they had their legacies.
This heart-wrenching tale of the unraveling of modern-day Syria capturing the developments (or not so) from the dawn of the 20th century to Syria as we know it today, war-torn, left me deeply disturbed. Isn’t this eerily similar to how the Holocaust was carried out?
Who would remember the Syria that was, and who would be there to greet its new dawn and dream it a better future?
Alia returns to her native city of Damascus in the aftermath of the Arab Spring that once had taken hold of the Middle East and captured the imaginations of an entire generation of people living within its boundaries. With her, she brings her open dream of living in the house that once belonged to her grandmother Salma, the matriarch of her mother’s side of the family and the other disguised, that of reporting on the going on in Syria.
After the ousting of Hosni Mubarak from Egypt, the Syrians too dared to look up and ask for reforms from their government. Helmed by Bashar al-Assad, son of Hafez al-Assad, who has been in power since 1970 after the last major coup in the country, the regime turns what was supposed to be a peaceful demonstration into ugly armed retribution directed towards its own citizens. As the protests creep into the country, so does the secret police, Mukhabarat, that Assad holds dear. Anyone who has the slightest connection with the protesting or harbor views against the regime is arrested and taken to God knows where. Most are never seen again. Later, it is everyone.
While Alia takes us on the journey that tore her beloved country apart, she also talks of a time when a more secular Syria was peaceful. One where they united against the French colonizers, one where her great grandmother tore down her walls to feed the hungry refugees fleeing their countries, one where her grandmother Salma had made her life’s mission to serve her fellow country people and turned into a sheikha of her own salon, one where her mother Lamya grew up dreaming of making a future and family of her own, and one where Alia herself came back for the holidays, first annually and then more randomly. With every visit, her views on the country that is hers but yet not hers, change. She begins to feel the connection that she never felt with her birth country America and thinks of life here, where she has a legacy to hold onto.
As the war engulfs the areas around her, Alia, with a fearlessness that is hard to visualize and an adamancy to hope for a future in Syria, stays put for as long as she can before flying away, this time, with a heart filled with despair for the home that could have been.
While the rest of the world became obsessed with the fall of Assad and when that would happen, these citizens were more concerned with the loss of Syria.
Each time I read a war story, whether a memoir or fictionalized, I feel suffocated. I feel choked by the very hands of humanity that are meant to serve others. Most stories I’ve read are from the last century. Something about the 1900s made it remarkable, developments in science, faith, population, and also war. For once I had actually thought the 2000s wouldn’t bring in any kind of war, at least a civil war, given the majority of the countries of the world are ruled democratically. But what are humans if not ambitious? A man’s greed to hold on to power that was never his to wield, and in process, rendering millions of people homeless and displaced, ironically the same people over whom he was supposedly ruling, has left me wondering if we have really advanced as a species?
A country with a great history has been ruined beyond repair. A regime that was supposed to safeguard its people from harm ended up as their perpetrators. Rampant corruption, cronyism, and constant personal surveillance were trade-offs for stifling survival and close to nil opportunities. Borders were redrawn, this time on sectarian lines. Refugee camps started to crop up at the unlikeliest of places. The tortured corpses of the dead were buried wherever little space was found. The houses shattered under constant fire from the endless machine guns. Women widowed, kids orphaned. Fear and submission came naturally. Intolerance prevailed. Human hypocrisy peaked yet humanitarian help poured. And the world? It watched.
Written lucidly, Alia’s tone is more factful than emotional. Though the beginning was a rough start for me because of the plethora of details that she throws in, I got into grove once I got hang of her writing and the history of Syria. The characters were aplenty, and for the sake of the reader, I’d give it to her for writing one-liners about them for recall when they suddenly appeared chapters later. While the plot really centered around Salma and Alia’s bear obsession with her flat in Tahaan, her family history was interspersed with the political scene in Syria, from the early 1900s to now. Except for Salma and Alia herself, none of the characters really left a mark. If these two ladies were the cake and the cherry on top, others were mere crumbs. Their growth was spectacularly visible by the end of their lives in Syria, one dead and one gone for good. Despite the fact that others were a necessity to the story Alia is trying to tell, none were given any credits. A story that could have been more power-packed with emotions, alas, fell flat on its face in those terms but delivered the situation it was meant to do – a country forgotten by everyone. Yet, I recommend it. Read, because it will open your eyes and mind to what was, is, and can be in the blink of an eye.