BEIRUT – When Alia Malek started seeking to reclaim her grandmother’s home in Damascus, she began a journey that ended in her new book called “The Home That Was Our Country.”
In the book, the Syrian-American journalist and author tells the story of her investigation into her family’s past – and Syria’s past as well. Recounting the history of Syria through people’s stories – and not through the lens of the state – “is a kind of resistance,” she said.
Speaking to Syria Deeply following a panel discussion with author Wendy Pearlman in New York City last week, co-sponsored by this platform, Malek discusses her work and the process of re-learning history.
Syria Deeply: How did your research into your family’s history change how you viewed your identity or Syria’s identity?
Alia Malek: It definitely changed how I view things, not so much my own identity. Researching in depth the fall of the Ottoman Empire, I understood that I was taught the Lawrence of Arabia version of it. As I came to understand those eras a little differently, I also came to understand my family’s participation in those uprisings a little differently.The thing that changed the most for me was [my view of] the people who ended up living in our house for 40 years – a house that was meant for me to live in. Not having that house was a big reason why I ended up growing up in America and not in Syria.
To me, they were somehow just all bad people. But the history of the building – which I was writing – could not have been complete if I had ignored their history in it. By studying, interviewing them and coming to understand their experience in the building, it greatly nuanced my view. It taught me a lesson about what it would take for there to be reconciliation in Syria and to put things back together
The way that they got to live in our house was a kind of theft. But I came to understand that it was a legal theft. It was an outcome that the state wanted. The state wanted them to be thieves and they wanted us to be the victim of thieves. This was the law. There were a lot of people who were trapped in these kinds of relationships. The law changed in 2004, but it still took us six years to win the court case that let us get our house back.
It’s corrosive when there are active grievances and injuries between citizens that cannot be really reconciled. I think the state understood that there were ways to break down solidarity and good feelings between citizens. It thrived on that in many ways, and it’s thriving on that today.
At the beginning of the uprising, it really played on suspicions about what Syrians would do to other Syrians if the state wasn’t there to chaperone. To be Syrian and have lived under that kind of regime is psychologically really complex, is often left out of journalism that focuses on Syria, but was something I greatly focused on in my book.
Syria Deeply: How were you able to maintain your journalistic voice when writing about your own family and experiences?
Malek: I think it is hard to disinvest yourself from the myths that we have about parents or about our families. It is not easy for everybody to be dispassionate. I think I learned that lesson from my first book and also from being an Arab in America. I understand the impulse here in the U.S., for Muslim-Americans or Arab-Americans, or other communities that have been so maligned to want to present super-positive, super-superlative or super-amazing narratives about their communities.
But I don’t know that many human beings who are flawless. I think if we can accept and even like people who aren’t flawless, that’s a better kind of acceptance and it goes much further to humanize.
A lot of Syrians have decided to try to also match up their family history with the greater Syrian history, and have asked me for resources. It becomes a kind of resistance. What the Assads have always insisted is that the Assads are Syria and Syria is the Assads. There’s something very subversive about writing a history about Syria that’s not based on them. That’s based instead on the people. It becomes an act of resistance to put out books about Syria or to say that Syrian history is not only about them.
Syria Deeply: Was that part of why you wanted to look into this?
Malek: I’m inclined to write about the people and not about leaders. When I started this book, I didn’t necessarily think that the regime’s brutality was going to be rewarded, and that they’d be staying, be getting reconstruction deals and rents from the humanitarian community. But now that they are staying, they’re wiping out the truth and erasing Syrians from everything. They’re erasing them by displacing them, erasing them by chemical weapons and erasing them from narratives.
Unfortunately, the way Syrian history before the Assads is taught is abominable. Sometimes outsiders, Syrian-Americans, know more about Syrian history than Syrians because we had access to studies and scholarship that unfortunately is more likely to be written in English or French than in Arabic.
This is kind of my resistance to that and to something I bristled against ever since I was going to Syria as an adult in the 90s. How is this great nation’s great history lost? It really used to make me angry. If you take away people’s history and let them forget who they are and what they survived, that’s a way to destroy the society. In many ways, that began much before the barrel bombs, starvation and chemical weapons.
Syria Deeply: Why was it important for you to trace your story – and Syria’s story – from so far back?
Malek: It was important for me to preserve the idea that the parts of Syria and Syrian society that were great were great. Then to understand why that wasn’t enough or why that was systematically weakened. It’s important to understand what the dynamics of colonialism, outside interference and the totalitarianism have meant for the development of the country and the society.
And I’m in a place where I’m not right now under siege or under starvation, because I’m not in Syria, and my family is in central Damascus and therefore relatively safer. I guess right now my brain is not completely taken by the horror, so there’s opportunity to step back.
I’m also a journalist who happens to be Syrian-American. My history with Syria doesn’t begin in 2011. I had these experiences that allowed me to think of Syria beyond just the Assad regime.
This is partly because I was an outsider/insider … there was exposure and also an ability to celebrate Syrian accomplishments, because you’re not really taught to celebrate from the inside. In part because life is moving forward in Syria and the survival in the present occupies our lives, but also the regime didn’t want the people to ever think there was anything special about them. That’s partly how you control people.
Syria Deeply: Do you think that might change now?
Malek: I think a lot of Syrians now have come to understand how resilient they are. And when folks get a chance to breathe, they might be able to celebrate that.
They’ve been able to see for themselves – because of displacement – what other governments have done for their people. Even if imperfect. And I think that reveals how mediocre the Syrian regime has been, how little it accomplished after decades in power. If I were in power for 40 years as a dictator, it would be like Wakanda [a fictional East African nation in Marvel Comics]. It would be super-futuristic. Or at least have great infrastructure. Instead, everything’s just kind of shitty and rundown. What [the regime] is trying to tell people is they don’t deserve much better.
I don’t think people still have any illusions about the regime, and the diehard believers are really fewer and further between. Though many still suffer from a kind of Stockholm syndrome. I don’t think those who were on the fence about it are still in that position. At best, the regime is incompetent. They destroyed half the country and displaced half the people. Even if somehow the cause was righteous (which it is not), that can’t be a successful regime.
Now that so many Syrians are on the outside and more free, there’s a lot more communication between them. I think Syrians know each other much more than they did before. Not necessarily to only positive results. A lot of the people that scrambled to respond to the humanitarian disaster were Syrians from the diaspora. That kind of brought different communities into contact with each other that hadn’t been in contact in Syria. It’s this opportunity to build an understanding of each other without the intermediary or the chaperone of the state that I try to find hope in.
I’m relieved that Syrians have embraced the book. I don’t know how Syrians who are coming out of utter besiegement will feel. I think there is going to be stratification and resentment along the lines of where people experienced the war. Why didn’t you come out in solidarity? How could you live while we were living like this? Who left and who stayed? Who spoke up and who didn’t?
“The Home That Was Our Country” will be available in paperback and audio version on March 13. These responses have been edited for length and clarity.