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My Grandmother, My Country

“Where am I going to die?” That was the first question my grandmother asked me last August in New York City after fleeing her home in Aleppo.

Written by Lina Sergie Attar Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes

I didn’t know how to respond. Over the last 16 months, this uncertain question burdened her as she crossed from state to state, from one of her four children’s homes to another.

[![Aleppo – 1956][2]][2]My grandmother, Maliha Zuhdi Serjieh, was born in Istanbul in 1923, raised in Beirut, married in Aleppo, and died last week in Michigan. Almost all of her 90 years were spent across a once-porous Levant, but her last year and a half was spent in exile just like thousands of fellow Syrians now scattered across the globe.

In Syria, the political is always personal. For the past two weeks, regime planes have launched hundreds of barrel bombs over Aleppo, destroying buildings and taking hundreds of innocent lives. In Syria, collective pain often intersects with personal loss — like when you mourn a city and a grandmother at the same time.

My grandmother died on Tuesday, Dec. 17, thousands of miles away from her home. Our ultimate dreams of return to Syria were slashed with her death. There will forever be an absence in the apartment in the Sabil neighborhood where my father was born and an absence in the cemetery where my grandfather is buried. There will forever be an inconsolable loss in our family that marks us as Syrians. For there is no family without loss in this terrible war.

The last time I saw my grandmother, only two weeks before she died, she asked me, “Is it true there is a revolution in Syria?” Family members had been trying to shield her from the bloody reality for many months but I just responded calmly, “Yes, Nana.” Then she asked, “So people are killing each other?” Again, I answered, “Yes, Nana.” She stared at me with her pale blue eyes for a few long moments and said, “History is all the same. And the people are always the ones who suffer.”

***|

My grandmother instinctively understood what we didn’t have the courage to face: attachments should not be to places but to people. We had made the mistake of imagining her home as our anchor in Aleppo — the place we needed to be a family. We equated the return to that home with the restoration of our family and by extension, our country. She understood that physical sites were always in danger of drastically changing just like the Istanbul and Beirut of her youth.

[![DSC02243][3]][3]She believed that stories, however, live forever. And so we grew up in a cocoon of stories that she wove into detailed accounts and intricate family histories that she told us over and over so that we would never forget.

My grandmother was both traditional and modern. She never ceased to remind us that she was the third woman in Aleppo to drive a car — her beloved red, 1963 Ford Taunus. She spoke of art and literature — quoting Voltaire and discussing Renoir —   and played the piano and recited passages from the Quran. She was fluent in five languages and encouraged us to learn as many languages as possible, quoting a Turkish proverb, “With every tongue you learn, you become another person.”

She used to say often, “Teach your children and love one another.” Education and family are permanent things that cannot be taken away from you. The daughter of an ophthalmologist, sister of world-renowned heart transplant surgeon and mother of Aleppo’s beloved ophthalmologist (my father), she preferred medicine as a profession. Although she was the wife of a prominent Aleppian judge, she considered politics and government too volatile a career to pursue. A doctor, as she would say, “can move as he pleases and find work anywhere,” describing a skill that my father never needed until this year when he found himself applying to jobs after leaving his booming private practice behind in Aleppo. Her strong influence produced nine physicians out of her 14 grandchildren.

My grandmother taught me many valuable lessons: how to write my name in Arabic and make a perfectly smooth béchamel. She taught me to love geometry, algebra and the elegance of the Pythagorean theorem. She taught me to hone the patience needed to complete a jigsaw puzzle with thousands of pieces (and the satisfaction of fitting in the very last piece).

But she also taught me to be afraid. It was through my grandmother that I understood from a very young age that Syrian walls had ears, that you should keep your true thoughts to yourself, and trust no one. Although I’d like to believe that I — the revolutionary in the family — proved her wrong, that the era of living in fear was finally over in Syria, she was right. Fear still dominated our Syrian lives.

[![DSC02406][4]][4]I’m grateful my grandmother was spared witnessing this terrible week of aerial bombings on Aleppo. I’m grateful that she never knew what a “barrel bomb” was and how these canisters of mass destruction are dropped from the sky to explode in her beloved city. I’m grateful that she doesn’t know that our city is split in half with both sides living in constant fear of death. If she were here, she would have said sadly, “All of history is the same. And the people are the ones who suffer.”

My grandmother died literally from heartache. She passed away as gracefully as she had lived. She spent the last hours of her life aware of the fact that she was dying. In fact, she died as she had lived, quietly and unnoticed, but completely aware of her surroundings, both immediate and beyond confining borders.

As we grew older, she often repeated her simple requests, “Don’t forget me. Don’t forget to tell your family about me. Don’t forget to tell our stories. Don’t forget where you come from. Don’t forget.” I had always thought she was speaking about herself. I never imagined she was talking about Syria.

By placing memory above everything else, she articulated what we had blissfully ignored: all one ever possesses in the end are memories. The old stone buildings in an eternal city that we had allowed to define us were not eternal at all. That life had always been fragile. We had mistaken home as a permanent geography when it was, in truth, just a fleeting transience. Precious, short years spent as a family in a house in Aleppo that one cousin described to me as “a dream.”

Now, our entire country is disappearing into the realm of dreams.

“Say hello to my relatives in Istanbul,” were her last words to me. And that’s where I was on the day she died. I had a single day in the city on my way back from the southern border after a mission with Syrian refugee children. That evening I carried the sad news to a home filled with third and fourth cousins who had gathered to meet me for the first time. On one of the saddest days of my life — once again thousands of miles away of where I should have been — I found myself surrounded with family and with love. With her simple request, she had guided me to another place I could now call home.

***|

Nana and IMourning my grandmother, mourning my city, and mourning my country, all at the same time seems to be the story of Syria — a land now defined by loss. Our memories are innocent and naive. Racing with cousins against the building’s ancient elevator to see who could get to her third floor door first, walking down the tree-lined street to the store to buy an ice cream, spending hours over lazy family lunches that ended with aunts napping on couches and young great-grandchildren watching cartoons on the same television we did when we were little. Early morning coffees on the balcony talking about the exciting world outside the sleepy one we were watching, where I thought nothing would ever change. But I was wrong. Everything changed in the most terrible and unimaginable of ways.

My sentimental grandmother was not sentimental at all. She had been telling us all along: love your family, get an education, understand that nothing is permanent, and remember your roots. My grandmother and her home, my city and my country are destined to live on in the realm of memories and stories. She taught us that what we should treasure most in life is what no one, no evil of the world, could ever take away.

In that way, her parting gift was a final lesson: remember the past and you shall survive.

Lina Sergie Attar is a Syrian American architect and writer. She is co-founder and president of Karam Foundation, a 501c(3) organization currently focused on providing Syrians in need with humanitarian aid.

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[]: http://beta.syriadeeply.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Aleppo-1956.jpg []: http://beta.syriadeeply.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/DSC02243.jpg []: http://beta.syriadeeply.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/DSC02406.jpg []: http://beta.syriadeeply.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Nana-and-I.jpg

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