This morning I finished reading the book “The Home That Was Our Country” by Alia Malek. If you’ve had the desire to read something that ties together personal stories and the historical context of Syria, I recommend it.
Alia Malek was the first of her Syrian-American family born in the U.S. in the 1970’s, and has written for Al Jazeera and the New York Times. While living in Syria from 2011-2013, she collected the local history of her extended family and their neighbors, a social group consisting of Muslims, Jews, and Christians, from Armenia, Aleppo, and Damascus, etc.
Early on, we hear which neighbors kept the stairs in the apartment building clean, who planted the orange tree and who took care of it, who had a knack for painting, etc. Later, we hear who was forced out of the country, who was killed by the regime with no explanation ever found, who ended up on a raft to Germany, etc. Through all the personal stories, I got a better set of reference points for the different populations and the tragic effects of the violence on them all.
Her insights into Syria’s political context gave me a more specific feeling of sadness and disgust than I’d had before, even after seeing online videos and “White Helmets.” The Assad regime spread misinformation about the violence, playing on regional fears to insist any protestors were paid by the U.S., or that the protestors had started the shooting. Meanwhile, First Lady Asma al-Assad served as an Ivanka Trump-style figure, posting to Instagram about all the family’s “generous” community service. They provide a false worldview that is so complete that some Syrians were fooled by it, and many more felt too threatened to challenge it.
Cruelly, the Assads even specifically targeted charity and aid groups first, sometimes arresting even more aid workers than actual rebel fighters. This was to strategically divide groups up and scare away the social elements that would make up a peaceful democracy, in order to bring about the regime’s own narrative of law and order against terrorist rebels.
It’s surreal and scary, then, to see articles like this one the NY Times posted today that there is a very real possibility that Assad could be there to stay. There are of course no easy answers to the disaster (although I can guarantee Trump’s blanket ban against admitting refugees from Syria is not helping), but Alia Malek isn’t setting out to prescribe them. Instead, she makes the stories human, and definitely succeeded at that because I won’t soon forget this book.
Listen to an interview with the author on NPR here.