The pain of losing Syria: On Alia Malek’s The Home That Was Our Country
Damascus ice cream masters - Courtesy: Hala Gabriel

When I finished reading Alia Malek’s book The Home That Was Our Country: A Memoir of Syria, published this February, I felt something similar to the sense of accomplishment I would feel as a child after piecing together those awfully complicated puzzles relatives often gave me for my birthday. The box usually showed a picturesque landscape or a very busy city, but the puzzle pieces were so small and at times so similar that I often wanted to give up on trying to put them together the right way. Malek, who was born in the US in 1974 to Syrian immigrants, does the reverse: She gives you the full puzzle first, complete with the beautiful landscape, before dismantling it all, leaving you standing in the middle of a pool of broken pieces, disheveled, sad and not sure what you can do to put it all together again.

In keeping with her background as a journalist and civil rights lawyer, Malek’s writing includes academic research and investigative journalism, but it is stitched together by an invisible thread which runs through the whole book: love for her family and the country they come from. In the first chapter, she seamlessly sprints through every relevant history book written on Syria, so that we glimpse the seminal masterpieces of historians Philip Khoury (Syria and the French Mandate, 1987) and Hanna Batatu (Syria’s Peasantry, the Descendants of Its Lesser Rural Notables, and Their Politics, 1999) in a way that is accessible and easy to read. If you have not read much about Syria’s history and would like to know how it became such a nightmare, the first two parts of The Home That Was Our Country walk you through it all. From the late 19th century Ottoman Empire to the French mandate (1923-1946), to the eight coups that shook Syria’s political life between 1946 and 1970 and led to the devastating war zone it is today, an intricate tapestry of history, politics, religion and social traditions is woven that forces the reader to pause between chapters to absorb the details and the personal stories behind them.

The way Malek threads the historical narrative together with her family’s story helps the reader visualize what life in Syria must have looked like at different points in time. When her mother moved to the US as a young bride, little did she know that she would end up making her home in Baltimore, and as Malek herself becomes aware of her connection to Syria beyond the annual festive visits, she is generous with stories about family members and friends in a way that illustrates the impact of domestic and regional politics on Syrians’ lives. The story of her grandmother’s house, an apartment wrongfully usurped by a tenant for many years, holds very strong connotations for an entire country usurped by a ruling elite that used distorted laws to establish power.

Malek’s journey as a journalist eager to understand Syria goes hand in hand with her decision to renovate her grandmother’s apartment, at the request of her parents, after the family finally convinces the tenant to leave. This is the third part of the book, where Malek covers events from the date of her return to Syria in April 2011, and it provides an honest outlook on the dramatic turn that the initial demonstrations took as the country descended into war. The author has clearly always loved Syria despite a malaise that slipped in between them early on in the relationship — a malaise reflected in my own. “I realized later that I wasn’t meant to understand what was going on or to ever feel like I was sure of anything,” she writes, reflecting back on being interrogated at the airport on arriving in 1992. “This would be the case with most of the interactions I had with the Syrian state. The arbitrariness was one of the myriad ways of controlling the society and extracting its submission.”

Malek has a genius for conveying precisely the utter devastation that many of us Syrians now feel — particularly those who, in 2011, hoped for a political change that would put an end to the repression and authoritarianism. At that time I myself could not initially process the fact that young Syrians had taken to the streets, like their counterparts had done in Egypt and Tunisia. I imagined a brief interlude of violent resistance to change, but never imagined that Syria as I saw it on my last visit there from New York, in July 2011, would become the scene of devastation we know today. On behalf of many of us, Malek tells not only her story but ours too, with so much love for Syria and for our families, and so much dedication to understanding the nuances that no longer tend to accompany stories about the country, now often reduced to a binary of despotic regime versus terrorists.

Malek also does an exquisite job of looking at today’s catastrophe through many lenses. She brings in voices that do not support her positions, including those of several of her relatives and their friends, and voices of those, like her uncle, who “seemed to need relief from the simultaneous shame of living under such a regime and looking away.” The intellectual honesty and integrity with which she seeks to grasp the full picture, as disjointed as it may seem, is what makes this memoir so strong. She has the proximity and intimacy of an insider, and the distance and clinical professionalism of an outsider — a position she is able to adopt as a member of the diaspora who sought to genuinely understand her country of origin beyond the regular festive visits that Syrians abroad, particularly those of her upper-middle-class or upper-class background, often made.

But more important, in my opinion, is how Malek pieces together Syrians themselves through her endless stories, in the same way a traditional storyteller can captivate an audience in a café in the old city of Damascus. She spares no cultural reference, sprinkling orange blossom water here, describing entire meals of kibbeh there, and bringing in different sects, including Jews, Armenians and Murshedis (a small offshoot of the larger Alawite sect), as naturally as if we were still the mosaic that many of us are convinced Syrian society once was. Yet when she uses these stereotypes they do not come across as clichés, and will surely ring true to anyone who has lived in Damascus and loved its streets, its warm summer evenings, or anyone who has friends and family they love in Damascus: “My memories of our visits were sketched mostly in sensations: The smell of diesel, jasmine and roasting coffee beans. Dry Damascus heat on my skin (…) The calls to pray, to pause. (…) Embraces in the fleshy and hairless arms of all the women who loved me because I was Lamya’s daughter and Salma’s granddaughter.”

Malek’s writing is effusive and elegant, but also a very painful reminder that in parts of pre-2011 Syria, politics aside, life had beauty, friendships were strong, streets were lively and the country had a lot to offer. Yet Malek does not seek to minimize the long-term harm of a political system that continuously nibbled and at times ruthlessly struck at people’s lives. The omnipresence of minders peering into the lives of ordinary Syrians and the continual interference of the secret police quickly dispel any illusion that before 2011 everything was normal. “After generations of being watched over and eavesdropped on, Syrians have internalized the mukhabarat [secret police]; even in their absence they are present,” she writes. “Even Syrians abroad would sometimes unconsciously drop their voices to a hush when they criticized the regime.” She shows what life is like when you dance around political red lines, avoiding their constantly shifting parameters in an attempt to keep yourself safe.

The Home that Was Our Country is a poignant reminder of what we Syrians may never have again, because the way everything was glued together could never have lasted. Reading it is like throwing a pebble into a lake, and watching the surface ripple with many subsequent circles: from the smallest — Malek’s family — to the largest — regional and international interests that have directly contributed to our nightmare. The pebble then disappears at the bottom of the lake, the way our country seems to be disappearing into the depths of a dark abyss. Its landscape of people, rivers, cities and social gatherings painfully breaks apart like that beautiful completed puzzle. If you only read one book about modern-day Syria, The Home that Was Our Country should be it.