On Dec. 18, 2010, the Arab world was reborn. A series of peaceful uprisings flourished all around the area, starting in Tunisia and rippling across the region, spreading, extending, expanding, creating a movement of angry people with thundering voices, calling on their governments to step down.
I have lived my entire life 5,959 miles away from the country that harbors my lineage. My memory of the birthplace of my parents and my parents’ parents is a mere postcard in the back of my mind. I am a Syrian American who has not touched Syrian land in so long that even my most prominent memories are starting to fade. The scars from the scabs I pulled from the elbows which I scraped on my grandma’s sidewalk have faded. The ink on the back of dated pictures my mom took of my brothers and me in our early youth has faded. My conceptual understanding of a land far away from where I stand is fading. Like forgetting the lyrics to your favorite song you swore you would never forget, I am forgetting what Syria is like.
Having been removed from Syria for eight years, it is easy to romanticize the clouds of smoke from the hookah pipes, circling with the resonating echo of laughter, sweetened tea on the mosaic table on the veranda, looking out across the beautiful city lights of Damascus. It is easy for me to romanticize the marks of my ancestors’ great civilizations before me, the lullabies of the slowly churning water wheels that brand the city of Hama. It is easy for me to romanticize the sweet pheromone of jasmine flowers, like being surrounded by a cloud of floral perfume, blending effortlessly with the scent of car exhaust and carbon monoxide, creating a smooth and completely satisfying aroma that floods the mind with childhood memories; a unique scent that takes me back to a time when I was young. A time when I chased butterflies with my cousins and traced ants back to their anthills. A time when I would come home with dirt in my hair, on my face and in my pockets. A time where I piled into taxis made for five with eight other people. My Syria consists of Kodak moments. Moments of birthdays, first steps, first words, family reunions, good food and late night “SpaceToons” TV. My Syria is a happy Syria, a Syria of innocence, a Syria of sleeping in my grandfather’s lap, a Syria of comfort.
I remember the nights being hot and the days being hotter. I remember the water coming and going, I remember not being able to drink from the tap and I remember having working electricity for only select hours at a time. I remember these things and I remember them only ever being temporary for me. These disturbances were minor setbacks, they were funny in the first weeks of every visit, and my grandma would always joke about how Syria’s lack of efficient electricity, inconsistent running water and other low-quality literal necessities for life was a way of building character. Maybe she’s right; maybe they did build my character, maybe they gave me thicker skin, maybe I have been elevated by the dragging weights of inconvenience, but how much has being Syrian actually shaped me?
I have only merely tasted Syria. I bared the inconvenience of not having central air conditioning and experienced showering in the cold, but I am still a fraud. As part of an earlier diaspora, I will never be in a position of a Syrian fleeing a war or a Syrian who grew up there. I will never know the extent of a true Syria, of both the pure and the ugly. If “justice too long delayed is justice denied,” then I have been denied the privilege of experiencing my culture firsthand.
All my longing for Syria comes from a love I only experienced during my vacations. I have witnessed Syria firsthand but that is not the reason my heart aches for it. Like a visitor in a familiar home or finding home in unfamiliar lands, my feelings for a place far beyond are comprised of contradictions. If I were to be put on a spectrum, I would lie somewhere between informed tourist and distant citizen. I do not know of a Syria that I can call truly mine. When I am there my broken Arabic, my fluctuation between native and taught tongue, my relatively heavy accent make me outstanding. The type of outstanding that catches your eye, the plastered caution sign, “drive slow,” “no lifeguard on duty” kind of outstanding. The “tread carefully” and “parental discretion is advised” kind of outstanding. The “handle with care” and the “enter at your own risk” kind of outstanding. An outstanding that is enough to make you realize the very essence of who you are is scary to people who are not family.
I am oil-hungry, I exploit others, I am here to make a mess of things, pick up none of my pieces and leave as though I was never there. I can afford my taxi fare and a tip to feed three families. I am there to reap the benefits of good food, nice tans and an annual dental checkup for the same price of a mediocre American-made, medium-well steak with fries on the side. Despite these preconceived, somewhat-accurate judgments and this underlying fear that turns me and all my red, white and blue apparel into a warning sign, I have never come back from Syria without a whole new group of friends I shared shawarma with on the side of the road.
I have memories of strangers who became my teammates in afternoon soccer matches and kids I jumped rope with using a fallen abandoned powerline. I remember the owners of the corner stores I would walk to daily with my cousins not just by their names but by the freckle on their right cheek, or the dated spectacles they bear on their head, or the light-washed, thick, off-brand Levi’s suspended by the tight grip of a bland black belt. I trapped caterpillars with the grandchildren of my grandmother’s neighbors and we would watch them transcend into butterflies. We would bond through the progression of what we considered our own metaphorical child and communicate through exchanges of fragmented sentences. At the park, I would teach my friends random phrases in English while inhaling our fudge pops to see who could finish fastest. We would trade different candies that we bought from the candy store and share our coloring books, and despite being so far away, it felt so nice to be home.
In his farewell address, former President Barack Obama mentioned a quote from Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird”: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” As I watch through the daily news of buildings being destroyed, as my aunt sends us pictures of fire devouring grass fields I once played kickball on, as my little cousins cover their ears from the sounds of distant bombings while I sleep to the anthem of Fourth of July fireworks, as I march in airports shouting “refugees welcome,” I truly understand the severed truth behind this statement. My skin is not burnt out and exhausted, it has not walked through war and every time it sees the sunset, it knows it will see it rise the next morning.
I belong to a community of diasporic Syrians, who were reeled in by hope, pushed away by lack of freedoms and pulled toward the white picket fence promise of the American Dream. I am a dilution of two kinds: a purebred Syrian raised on American soil. I am the embodiment of a jasmine tree growing on the tobacco plantations of the historically marginalized. I have read about hope and triumph and the underdog coming on top in my history books. I have sought inspiration from Native Americans protesting pipelines, I have read the writings of African Americans amending the Constitution and I have cried at the American immigrant determination, and when I channel all my aspirations into making change, I strain to define myself as both a Syrian and American. I will find it nearly impossible to return to Syria after the dust has settled from war and play a meaningful role in shaping the national and political identity of a post-Assad society. This community I belong to will struggle to ever be fully Syrian again.