One morning, in Syria.
On March 21, 2010, I was on my way to the Damascus airport — packed up and ready to embark an obnoxiously long journey back to the United States. On the way to any airport in the Middle East, I spend the car ride mentally preparing for the journey ahead — but from Syria, I knew I would have to endure a 5-city-layover-marathon that typically took me around 36-48 hours to get home to Oregon. I could hardly wait to hear the questions they planned on asking me when I got to Amsterdam [insert side-eye]. If you think identifying as a Palestinian was a middle-finger to the Western world — wait until you visit Syria. It’s practically criminal to step foot in Syria.
I treated every good-bye like it was my last. I’ve never been particularly graceful when bidding farewell to my family in Jordan and Syria — it always involved the ugly cry. Beyond my inability to anticipate a future visit, my deep sorrow was in the fact that I could never be sure their lives were cherished and protected. It’s not like the Assad regime had a great track record, and nor did Israel or the U.S. Arab, and particularly Palestinian, lives have always been an acceptable casualty to the international community.
In 2010, like all of you, I had no clue that the Arab Uprisings would be sweeping the region soon, or that an agonizing, devastating and seemingly endless war would erupt in Syria. I didn’t know that it would not have an end in sight, and would make it either impossible or heartbreaking for me to return. I couldn’t have imagined that I would spend my adult life searching images of Syrians in news feeds for people I knew, or analyzing photographs of refugees washed ashore in Turkey, or obsessing over drone footage of refugees walking the railroad tracks in Europe looking for asylum. I would never compare the suffering of those in war with those who are in safety. But when you have family in a war zone, it wears on your heart and soul.
I come from a Palestinian family. My mother is a Nakba refugee, and I’ve always understood that we are a displaced people. Displacement is my reality. Diaspora is my reality. And regardless of how many years and generations we live in Diaspora and displacement — we carefully pass the refugee baton to our children as it was passed on to us. Refugee mentality sustains in Diaspora, and no matter where you are planted, you never feel quite at home. Since I first understood I was Palestinian (which is, admittedly, a truly confusing identity to grow into in the U.S.), I had the innate knowledge that nothing was or is permanent.
I understand that home is a fleeting concept if it is not anchored in myself.
I understand that safety is fragile, and frankly a delusion, in countries like Syria and Palestine.
I knew what good-bye meant, and when I said it I meant it — just in case I wouldn’t get the chance again.
So, on this fine morning, as we drove through the Damascus suburbs in my Uncle Yousef’s car, I set out to the airport in tears. Sitting in the back seat of his blue car, the car his son memorably joked “it proves gravity when going down hills”, I cherished every lasting moment and every breathe of air. But I was sad. I could feel that my throat was dry, my heart had dropped to my stomach, and my tears were heavy. Or was that the weight of my suitcases keeping the car from properly accelerating?
I don’t know. It was all heavy.
I stared out the window. It was early on a Sunday morning, and people were still waking up, going to work, and preparing their children for school. I hoped someone commuting would make eye contact for a moment with me, as we passed by, so I could smile. I tried desperately to replace the memory of my ugly cry with something better. Anything.
Instead of locking my sad eyes with some poor fellow headed to work that morning, I encountered something so much more memorable. I quickly pulled out my journal, and wrote what I saw. So absurd, so average, and yet so intriguing, I observed the pulse of Syrian life in that moment.
First, we passed by a father swinging his son at the park. He set the boy, who couldn’t have been older than 7 years old, on the swing in what felt like a very cute, father-son bonding moment. Both in their flip flops (shehata) and sweat pants, the father was pushing the swing forward every time it came his way. As we passed by, all of a sudden in mid-arch, the boy fell off the swing. End scene. I couldn’t help but laugh a little at the sudden absurdity of such a simple moment.
We then passed by a corner store (ducaan) opening its doors for business. There were two middle-aged men outside, drinking their morning glass of tea over a ice cream freezers with the door on top. Each man was leaning over the freezer, on opposite ends. One was gesturing while speaking slowly, which in Arabic speak means “listen closely”. The car drove passed right when the man who had been listening closely, raised his eyebrows and put his hand over his mouth, in shock of what he had just heard. What was he told? End scene.
Immediately, as the car picked up its pace down a hill, we passed by a parking lot that was nearly empty. Four men were speaking in a group, with the back doors of the van open as they lounged. Suddenly, one man slaps another across his face. There was a moment of disbelief by the group, quickly followed by a swing from the man with the bruised ego. I passed by them, staring at them, while their two friends were trying to break up the fight. Why were they fighting? End scene.
Finally, I passed by two older men wearing kuffiyas to give them warmth from the cold Damascus breeze. They are simply sitting on the sidewalk, without worry of the very dusty city grounds. They seemed to be chatting, sitting near each other, hearing each other’s stories. I wondered how long they’d known each other and if they had a hard life. End scene.
The Syrian people are more than this war. They are a people of culture, history and faith. Some have lived in Syria for generations, others, displaced from previous wars in the region. I remember a city that is no longer. I remember filigree gold bracelets from a shop in Yarmouk that my cousin Rama recommended. I remember Suiq al Hamadiya and going on adventures with my very stylish and clever Aunt Omayma. I remember eating tis-iya with my Aunt Fadwa and Rama, the best in the city according to my cousin Towfie. I remember getting kenafe in a Styrofoam plate while waiting in the car with Aunt Fadwa and Uncle Yousef, and snapping some pictures of them from the back seat. And I remember commuting around with Aunt Fadwa, by bus, taxi or personal car, enjoying the simple pleasures of a city. But those buses tho. Their seats were practically caved in so your knees were in your chest.
I was so fascinated by this country. It was a city that had somehow avoided the extreme obsession of Western culture that had so plagued the Middle East.
A simpler time in Syria has long passed. But I have not forgotten.