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New Texts Out Now: Alia Malek, The Home That Was Our Country: A Memoir of Syria

Alia Malek, The Home That Was Our Country: A Memoir of Syria. New York City: Nation Books, 2017.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Alia Malek (AM): I’ve always wanted the opportunity to dive into my family’s history, specifically that of my great-grandfather and my grandmother, in order to better understand their lives against the backdrop of Syrian history. At the same time–like so many others–I have become increasingly distressed with what has happened in Syria (and what has been happening throughout the course of my life; I was born shortly after Hafez al Assad came to power). That distress has only been exacerbated by the way Syria is covered today in the press, and what it has become in the popular (and uninformed) western imagination–namely a place of intractable civil war, home to a seemingly agency-less and two-dimensional people, a base for savage extremists. As with all of my writings, I’m trying to provide a much more in-depth, nuanced, accurate portrayal of the people and lives behind the headlines. I use narrative devices to try to break through people’s numbness to coverage of Syria.

J:  What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

AM: This covers modern Syria, from the last of the Ottoman days to the present. It weaves the lives of my family members with the geopolitical and economic history of Syria, as a way to make these themes accessible and relatable, especially to an uninitiated reader. It begins with my great-grandfather from Hama who was born an Ottoman subject in 1889 and died a citizen of a Syria the same month that Hafez al Assad seized control of it in 1970. It then features my grandmother who moves to Damascus as a new bride in the early days of Syria’s independence and the world she creates in a multi-family apartment building in the capital, with neighbors of all stripes. Their lives make intimate for the reader the social and political realities of the decades leading up to Assad rule, including all the coups and the UAR. My mother’s life then takes over; she came of age in the Ba‘thist revolution of 1963, and the 1967 war with Israel and then emigrates to the US. Lastly, I moved to Damascus in April 2011 to reclaim and restore the same house my grandmother moved to all those years before, and I recount the events I witnessed as a journalist over the next two years. This allows me to also follow Syria’s disintegration to the refugee camps, competing homelands, and then Europe.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

AM: It uses the same devices and approach I’ve used in the past – namely: journalism rooted in avid consumption of the academic work on the same topics/themes; narrative storytelling; and the intimate lives of real people so that the reader can experience major or faraway events in the skin of those implicated. It’s a major departure in that I’ve abandoned the third person in many ways and used my own family’s intimate lives for this. It meant of course having to look at relatives with the same skeptical and empathic eye I would apply to strangers.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

AM: I wanted the book to be accessible to people coming to the subject with little or no prior experience or knowledge while at the same time not insulting the intelligence of those who are experts. I want people whose life experience seems to have no overlap with Syria to read this book and feel like it’s not so foreign after all, and to feel like it’s a place that deserves our attention, that we should not allow any more destruction. I also want teachers and professors to assign it so that what they are teaching comes to life in their students’ imaginations. I’d also hope that those in power would read it and see that Syrians deserve a considered approach to ending the conflict, not just tactics that add flame to fire.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

AM: While working on this book in 2015-2016, I also began reporting on the mass migration of Syrians across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. In the fall of 2015, I went on the so-called “refugee trail” – following the same group of unrelated Syrians who shared a raft as they made their way from Bodrum in Turkey, to Germany, Sweden, and Holland. I’ve gone back to Europe to see them and continue my reporting, going both six months after they arrived, and one year later.

 Excerpt from Chapter Eleven

PSYCHODRAME Damascus, August 2011

ONE SUNDAY DURING RAMADAN, MY YOUNGEST COUSIN, TALA, suggested I accompany her to see the Jesuits. She was sure I’d be interested in their psychodrame.

“What’s that?” I asked, unfamiliar with the French term and generally uninterested in anything church-related.

“A place to talk about fear,” she said.

I did a quick search online and found out that psychodrama (as it’s called in English) is a method of psychotherapy, often done in a group, that uses role-play and spontaneous dramatization to probe participants’ lives—their worries, anxieties, and any other issues.

Tala was right; I was super-intrigued. In Syria, very few people readily admit to needing mental health care, let alone seeking it, largely because, as in other societies, it carries a stigma. In the context of what was happening in Syria, where the collective anxiety, anger, and sadness was inextricably related to what was happening in the country, a public discussion seemed pretty bold, even subversive. Of course, the mukhabarat would know this was happening.

 […]

At the meeting, there were refreshments and conversation. Eventually, we were invited to take our seats, and I counted nearly 50. I found out later that the group was 60 percent Muslim and 40 percent Christian. There were in fact Sunnis, Druze, and Alawites there. Most people appeared to be in their thirties.

[…] Father Mazen, stood before us—without his vestments, only his collar identified him as clergy. In addition to being a priest, he was a psychotherapist and had studied in France. With Hala, another psychotherapist, they had started the psychodrama the month before to give people an opportunity to talk about their fears in the face of an impending unknown, where violence was already promising to play a big part.

Father Mazen began with some introductory remarks—reminding those gathered that we weren’t there to discuss politics, but rather people’s fears and feelings. That seemed impossible, but perhaps the disclaimer was an effort to persuade the informants present (surely they were there) of the innocence of the project. If the informants and mukhabarat were, as was said, not particularly sophisticated, I figured there was a chance the simple ruse might work.

Father Mazen then called for volunteers to start off the role-play, the main therapeutic vehicle of psychodrama. It was up to the participants to decide what form it should all take. Three men and three women volunteered, and they each took a chair in the circle at the front of the room. Anyone else who wanted to could join the circle at any point in time. They would have thirty minutes, at which point Father Mazen would tell them the time was up.

A man (Man 1) carrying worry beads in one hand began. He had a suggestion:

“We’ve been going around and around about who has been shot, who’s armed. Let’s instead talk about the opposite of fear—dreams. Let’s talk about our dreams for the future. What are our dreams?”

“How would we do that?” asked another man (Man 2). “What’s the scenario? The context for this conversation?”

“We could pretend we are being interviewed about our dreams,” Man 1 responded.

A woman (Woman 1) spoke up: “It’s hard for us to dream given what we are seeing. My biggest dream is for the killing to stop; I can’t dream past this.”

“Actually, before this [the conflict], I couldn’t talk about my dreams,” said Man 2.

Another woman (Woman 2) joined in: “Even if we are afraid to dream, we can close our eyes and imagine. It can help us escape.”

The last woman (Woman 3) added: “It’s relevant—we can talk about how we dream change to happen. Because change is frightening.”

But then Man 2 objected to the idea of an interview. It wouldn’t be a real conversation, he said. He looked to Father Mazen for guidance, but the priest did not interfere.

After some back and forth, they decided to pretend they were attendees of a conference for Syrians to discuss their dreams for the future.

Conferences in the Middle East—photographs of which are oddly in society and airline magazines—are often more about prepared presentations than free-flowing discussions. In Syria, they are also frequently held under the auspices of a ministry or the First Lady. It seemed the most stilted way to imagine how such a conversation could happen. I felt sad that they couldn’t come up with another, less official scenario where ordinary Syrians would be speaking openly about their dreams and hopes for the future.

“Then we need to represent different groups—the youth, the government, the revolution, civil society,” said Woman 1.

Man 1, not to be dissuaded by the rejection of his interview idea, made himself a sort of moderator. “Welcome to the conference,” he announced. “We’re going to talk about Syria’s future and what we most want to see in our country.”

“Can I begin?” asked Woman 3.

The moderator man nodded in encouragement.

“I’m keen to see how we teach change; that’s what’s killing us. There’s a military structure to our education—from how books are written to how questions are asked,” she said. “I want to destroy and rip apart the current books.”

“But there are some positive results in our education,” the conference moderator said. “Engineering, for example.”

“I think it starts from the mother-child relationship,” said Woman 2. “That’s the basis of society. I dream of paying more attention to our girls from the start. After all, they will become mothers and raise our children.”

“What you are talking about is making a cultured, enlightened society— that’s not just education,” said Man 2. “It’s in the upbringing.”

Then the woman who said she couldn’t dream past wanting the violence to end, Woman 1, decided to represent civil society. “Civil society needs to be stronger,” she said. “People start out wanting to do something for their country. But when we realize it’s for nothing, we stop thinking to try, to do. It does start from how we educate. You’re forbidden to exercise your mind, to think. If a child asks the teacher questions, he yells at you, shuts you up, and tells you just to memorize. Something starts from there, from when we are being told not to think, not to express what’s inside of us.”

The third man, Man 3, who had yet to speak, said, “I want to be like Europe in some way—advanced, with liberties and freedoms. But I also fear its bad sides, like their societal ills.”

Man 2 then announced he’d represent the regime, and I caught my breath.

He spoke at length. “Look at this society, the people. The taxi driver is a thief. The bureaucrat, the cop—they take bribes. We have an elite. These people can think and organize our lives, tell us what our dreams are. You, don’t bother yourselves with your dreams, we will organize your dreams for you. Otherwise, with this guy and his dream from here, this other guy from there, there will be chaos. The people [Syrians] are incapable; their thoughts and feelings are not good—”

Woman 3 interrupted him: “How can we know who these elite are?”

He ignored her: “—with the international conspiracy against Syria and the armed groups—they will get the advantage.”

I had heard this before, of course. The insinuation from members of the regime that they were the best Syria could do—because otherwise the masses, unsophisticated as they were, would ruin the country—was an integral basis of its power and Syrians’ acquiescence to them. It was built on an idea that Syrians needed to fear other Syrians. Because points of national dialogue were heavily monitored, and because geography and class kept Syrians from each other, no one would ever really know where reality stood exactly. And in that vacuum, the regime continued to play on such fears.

“Why are there weapons if all they want is reform?” the role-playing government man asked, echoing the constant rhetoric of state channels. Then, tongue-in-cheek, he said, “You want reforms? We’ve been talking about reforms for thirty years, so obviously we have no problem with reforms.”

Everyone began to laugh, and someone shouted that it had been forty years.

“We’re ready for more reforms,” he continued. “We’ll give you more banks and Internet, but not too much, because then the bad ideas will get in and there will be chaos, people will attack each other. Western ideas will get in, and then, there is the CIA, the Mossad. The Saudis hate us, the Turks hate us, half of Lebanon hates us, three-quarters of Iraq does, and all the rest. It’s a really big conspiracy.”

There was more laughter at the easily recognizable and almost spot-on mimicking of the regime.

He continued, “If you want to dream . . . I want to dream with you. But without you dreaming. That’s the way. Do you know another way? If there’s something wrong we can change it—education system, politics, economy.”

Even though it was an absurd statement, Woman 2 engaged him: “Yes, but who gets to decide what’s wrong?”

He waved her off easily—his script was ready made, so loud and unchallenged was the regime’s messaging in Syria.

[Excerpted from The Home That Was Our Country: A Memoir of Syria, by Alia Malek (c) 2017, by permission of the author.]

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