Priyanka Kumar is author of the novel “Take Wing and Fly Here” and the writer/director of the documentary “The Song of the Little Road.”
Before the recent American military strike in Syria, President Trump seemed apathetic to the plight of the Syrian people. But his attitude changed abruptly after he watched “beautiful babies” and other innocents dying from the nerve agent sarin, which President Bashar al-Assad deployed against his own people. The narrative of the six-year-old Syrian civil war is so singularly bleak that we need intelligent storytellers to seduce us into the country’s tale. Alia Malek’s memoir, “The Home That Was Our Country,” takes us into the heart of Syrian culture. Here we see the everyday beauty and the everyday fears of living under Assad’s oppressive regime.
A civil rights lawyer and a journalist, Malek grew up in Baltimore, a daughter of Syrian immigrants. As a young child, she developed a touching bond with her maternal grandmother, Salma. In 1992, after Malek graduated from high school, she traveled alone to visit her Syrian relatives. The appeal of her ancestral country was such that Malek later decided to live in the Damascus apartment her mother inherited from Salma. Malek’s parents would make a substantial payoff to get a decades-long tenant to leave. By the time the apartment was renovated and Malek moved in, in 2012, the civil war was raging and her relatives feared that the regime would interpret her journalistic goings-on as spying and unleash retribution.
Malek tells us that her book was meant as a way to reconstruct the life of her Syrian grandmother. But she also gives us a substantial dose of the country’s history — at times, too much — and the tensions leading up to the civil war, which began in 2011. According to the Syrian Center for Policy Research, as of February 2016, the conflict had led to an estimated 470,000 deaths (and counting) and the displacement of 6 million people internally; roughly 5 million people had fled the country.
Malek’s reimagining of Salma’s life serves as a natural entry into the story of 20th-century Syria. With her emerald-green eyes and incessant smoking, Salma is a beguiling character whose life experience dovetails with Syrian culture and politics. For instance, because she is a woman, she does not inherit anything from her wealthy father (though she later sues her brothers). Salma finds fulfillment less in her marriage and more as a do-gooder socialite — her Damascus apartment becomes a hub for neighbors and people from Hama who seek advice or help.
During Hafez al-Assad’s presidency, in 1980, Salma’s favorite brother is murdered, possibly by someone in the regime, and his body is found by a roadside. Another sibling, a surgeon, tries to get answers but is given this warning: “Stop pursuing this issue or the same will happen to you.” Salma never fully emerges from the shock of her brother’s murder. On a visit to Malek’s house in Baltimore, Salma has a stroke and becomes paralyzed from the eyes down. That condition could be seen as a metaphor for the fate of the Syrian people today: They can only watch as Bashar al-Assad’s regime hollows their country from the inside out.
Malek suggests that dissent has been suppressed in Syria for so long that people there have lost their voice and become complicit in their oppression. Many believe the regime’s narrative (or tell themselves they do). The Syrian intelligence service, the Mukhabarat, has “65,000 full-time employees— or 1 for every 153 adult citizens — along with hundreds of thousands of part-time or unofficial employees.” During a summer Malek spent clerking at the Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Agriculture, she noted: “Despite the fact that the Israeli Occupation had robbed Palestinians of many freedoms, I found Palestinians freer than Syrians ever were in their conversation.” When the regime bombs a Damascus apartment building, it is expected that people will walk by the next day without blinking. The building’s smashed-in face is a reminder of what the regime can do to them.
In this tense setting, Malek gives us a lively picture of the uncles, aunts and cousins who populate her extended family. Bonds are forged over cardamom coffee and homemade lunches. Malek’s family is Christian, a religious minority in a country with a Sunni Muslim majority. At a 2011 Christmas gathering, a conversation Malek attempts to initiate about Jesus’ “uprising against corruption” makes her hostess uneasy; a more characteristic moment is when a diamond-dealer uncle from Dubai hands out iPads to each of his nieces and nephews. While Malek’s relatives are incredibly hospitable, one spreads the dangerous rumor that she is a spy.
Assad is from the Alawite minority (he is married to a Sunni), but his regime has grown increasingly sectarian. Which sect you belong to matters if the regime arrests you. This is what happens to one of Malek’s sources, Carnations. She is walked past a torture chamber to her cell in the basement of a Mukhabarat office. When Carnations is asked if she is Shiite or Sunni, she has to make a calculated answer. Meanwhile, Malek’s extended family pressures her to leave Syria before her journalism gets her (and them) in trouble.
In 2016, Malek travels to Germany to meet the son of the tenant who had stubbornly held on to Salma’s apartment. The tenant’s son has sought refuge in Germany with his daughter and aged mother. Now he is safe from bombs, but he laments: “No matter what I do, I will always be a stranger here.”
Malek understands his lament. She had once been determined to not be a stranger in her ancestral country, and she relished its embrace, even as she chafed against the oppression, before all hell broke loose. Her book shows us a Syria that is far more alluring than the war-torn morass we encounter in the news.
By Alia Malek
Nation Books. 334 pp. $27.99