The Syria war continues to deform the world we live in. Incessant reports about urban guerilla warfare or airstrikes, civilian massacres or chemical weapons attacks suffuse the mediascape even as war “fatigue” seems to have set in around the world, especially in the United States. Over the past few years, a number of first-person narratives have been published that exceed or complicate military or geostrategic analysis of the ongoing conflicts; they successfully, often powerfully, bring the personal tolls of the conflict to the fore. The diaries of Janine di Giovanni, Jonathan Littell, and Samar Yazbek, just to name a few of the most prominent voices, help to focus attention on human-scale aspects of the Syria War. Where political analysis and war reporting stops, memoirs and essays shed light on some of the poignant social and individual dimensions of everyday life for Syrians both inside the country and in the diaspora.
In The Home that Was Our Country, Syrian-American lawyer and journalist Alia Malek presents a fresh and gripping account of her own family’s history. Narrated with style and grace, the book is not only a deeply felt and richly textured memoir, but also a bracing introduction to Syrian history, politics, and everyday life, from the late Ottoman period to the present. Indeed, the book is noteworthy and distinctive for being a splendid interweaving of historical narratives that link individual and family, nation and imagination, place and memory. Malek paints a kaleidoscopic picture of the conditions of Syria both before and after the uprising in 2011 as well as the multifarious journeys Malek took as lawyer and journalist, around the Middle East and Europe. From Damascus to Homs and Beirut, from Egypt to Armenia and Germany, Malek has trodden some of the same unstable terrain as many Syrians who are fleeing unceasing violence and trying to survive the seemingly interminable chaos into which the country has fallen.
After the marriage of Malek’s maternal grandmother, Salma, who hailed from Hama, and her maternal grandfather, who was from Homs, the couple moved to a modest apartment in the Ain al-Kirish neighborhood, near Sarouja, just outside the old city of Damascus during the early days of Syrian independence in the late 1940s. In her narration of her family’s experience in the cataclysmic experience of World War, Armenians who had fled the genocidal program of the Ottoman military authorities in Anatolia took refuge in the family home, and some became veritable members of the family. In a move that was more of a financial decision than a humanitarian one, the family house in Damascus was subsequently rented to acquaintances when Malek’s family moved to North America. The house, in turn, serves as the material fulcrum at the heart of Malek’s memoir. Syrian law protects the rights of subletters, thus awkwardly preventing Malek’s family from reclaiming their apartment when they wished to refurbish the property, to carve out a space in Syria to which they could return when they were finally ready to do so.
Malek grew up primarily in Baltimore, Maryland, though she spent substantial periods of time during her childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood in Syria, Lebanon, and the occupied West Bank, whether that was in the context of visiting family and friends, or gaining work experience with Palestinian and other regional legal organizations. Malek lived in Syria from April 2011 until May 2013, working on this book about her family history while also experiencing first-hand and chronicling the emergence of the nonviolent Syrian uprising. She soon witnessed it devolve into a bloody civil war that has now been raging for upwards of seven years. Towards the end of her narrative journey, Malek somberly relates how she “thought with sadness again of how all this had started—with Syrians simply asking to be included in their own governing—and looked up at the sky and hoped nothing would explode” (311).
Malek paints a vivid picture of her own family history: her great-grandfather Abdeljawwad al-Mir (1889-1970), whose family were Antiochian Orthodox Christians in the village of Suqaylabiyah. In the context of early post-Ottoman Syria under French Mandate control, Abdeljawwad, who as an only son thus escaped conscription into the miserable seferberlik, came into contact with nationalist resistance leaders Shaykh Salih al-ʿAli and Ibrahim Hanano, among others. Just after the arrival of the French Mandate authorities, Abdeljawwad moved his family to Hama, where Malek’s maternal grandmother, Salma, was born in 1924. After Salma’s older brother defied Abdeljawwad’s wishes and eloped to Damascus, Salma visited and fell in love with a man named Ameen, with whom she moved to Damascus in 1949, to the family apartment in question where they became the first occupants. Colorful stories of the original inhabitants of the building bespeak the diversity and dynamism of Damascus during the 1950s and 1960s. In 1970, Salma decided to rent out the apartment to make some much-needed cash, and she did so to a man named Hassan, who would live in the house until the 2000s, and with whom Malek would maintain a personal relationship for a long time to come. “I was writing about Salma and the house,” Malek writes, “a house that my grandmother, my mother, they, and now I had lived in. Its history included all of us, and they had been in it for forty years. Even if it was at the expense of my family, I didn’t want to erase their lives from it” (319).
With the fate of the family house in limbo, Salma was facing her own health challenges. After Salma had a stroke and was consigned to a catatonic condition, Malek described her as being “locked in,” which is the same term she uses to describe Syria under dictatorship: “To be locked in is to be completely alive—to be there fully—inside a body that is wholly paralyzed” (106). This arresting image of a country still alive, still subject to thoughts and emotions and aspirations and memories even as it is held captive to the ravages of illness or authoritarian rule is profoundly troubling. Malek bleakly connects the two as she recalls of life in Syria during the heyday of Hafiz al-Asad’s reign. ““To my evolving consciousness, still that of a child, Syria was like my grandmother Salma—suspended between life and death. There and not there” (110). Given her diasporic crossings from Beirut to Cairo, from Damascus to Baltimore, it is hardly surprising that Malek would have an evolving relationship to the home that was her country, to her native Syria. “Although both had once been very real to me, all I had of Salma and Syria were memories, and both topics in our house were tinged with sadness” (110). Her grandmother Salma died in August 1987.
Many Syrian activists who were mobilized during the early days of the Syrian uprising in 2011 and who continued to animate the inspiring pockets of nonviolent organizing in order to build another Syria, a new Syria, would speak of how they “discovered” or “rediscovered” their country during that initial mobilization. Taking shelter in mosques and other houses of worship where the state security services were unlikely to suspect they had gathered, these activists found like-minded men and women who came from diverse segments of Syrian society, from all manner of sectarian, ethnic, class, and regional backgrounds. Not only does her family recognize the significance of religious and ethnic diversity first-hand—as her family is part Christian—but the cast of characters Malek meets along the way in her own memoir represent the gamut of Syrian diversity: Kurds, Jews, Sunni and Shiʿi Muslims, Christians of multiple denominations, ʿAlawis, and Armenians. Much like thousands of other Syrians, Malek seems to have “re-discovered” Syria through her return to her family’s fascinating history as well as through her frantic attempt to keep up with the challenges and the dangers of the war in Syria as it raged around the country and spilled out into the region and around the world. One particularly poignant moment in the book concerns a series of gatherings that Malek attended with her cousin Tala, a “psychodrame” organized by Jesuits in Damascus in August 2011, which was meant to serve as a venue for self-expression, dialogue, and collective soul-searching about the situation in a therapeutic and performative mode. One of Malek’s takeaways is that previously “Syrians had no forum in which they could talk directly to each other about what was happening in their country,” that adults had been “infantilized” by decades of authoritarian rule (207). Even as Malek seeks to understand the perspective of her fellow Syrians amid these cataclysmic events, she is by no means willing to hide her own politics. “I was angry at those who supported Assad out of conviction—those who actually believed in him. But I felt a kind of skin-crawling embarrassment at the nonbelievers who nonetheless chose to be obsequious, and even theatrical, in supporting him” (228). This anger and embarrassment notwithstanding, Malek shows grace and determination in directly engaging with the diversity and differences percolating in Syrian society and culture during a time of profound destabilization and uncertainty.
The Home that Was our Country is a marvelous achievement, a first-hand testimony of one Syrian-American coming to terms with the tragedy of Syria. But the book is so much more than this: history lesson, social tableau, cultural analysis, and highly specific personal memoir. In her concise and accessible account of the making of modern Syria, Malek is as comfortable evoking the terror and thrill of the Syrian revolution and its aftermaths as she is at deftly describing and analyzing centuries of Syrian history. She is interested in “all the little and big things Syrians all over the country had left behind, thinking they were coming back” (xvi). Her depiction of local culture—food, smells, handicrafts, everyday family life—add texture to the dry historical narrative and political analysis that has all too often saddled the shelves of the library of modern and contemporary Syria.
The Home that Was our Country holds out modest hopes for a future Syria beyond the current catastrophe. When her father fell ill in the spring of 2013, Malek decided to return to the U.S. in order to spend time with him, and her sense of being caught between her ancestral homeland and her Syrian-American family is powerfully rendered here, as throughout the book. Malek raises important questions about the nature and diversity of Syrian society, about the possibilities for reconciliation and reconstruction in the wake of such terrifying and traumatic dislocation and devastation. As she notes, the only way for the country to begin down the path of reconciliation and reconstruction is for foreign powers—especially Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf monarchies as well as the United States—to contribute more robustly to creating the conditions of possibility for that outcome. Whatever optimism is left for those concerned with the fate of Syria will be nourished by the beautiful stories being created, told, and related by Alia Malek and her generation of Syrians, both inside the country and in the sprawling—and tragically ballooning—Syrian diaspora.