“I’m sure of one thing: history will not spare anyone, it will be written and the truth will come out sooner rather than later.”
A well-respected doctor, with connections to the Syrian state, made this statement in 1982 in the midst of Hafez Al Assad’s brutal massacre in the city of Hama, which killed about 10,000 people in the span of a month. While Assad’s campaign targeted the Muslim Brotherhood, it killed many of the city’s other dissidents and citizens.
It was a tragic and frightening reminder of the Syrian state’s willingness to quash all dissent for the sake of maintaining its own power. At the time, it was also the deadliest massacre in Syrian history. That is, until the Syrian uprising of 2011.
In The Home That Was Our Country, Syrian-American journalist, Alia Malek, recounts Syria’s historical and political progression from the early twentieth century to the formative years of the 2011 uprising, through the experience of her own family. The historical evolution begins with Malek’s great-great-grandmother, Marta, and her great-grandfather Abdeljawwad, as they try and save Armenians fleeing from the Turkish genocide, which began in 1914. The progression continues until Malek’s final days in Syria in 2013.
Malek, who was born and grew up in the United States, traveled to Syria at the start of the uprising under the pretext of renovating her family’s home. In reality, she had gone to witness and report on the revolution. She left in the spring of 2013, as the once peaceful uprising was being engulfed by armed conflict.
While there have been many books written about the current Syrian conflict, Malek’s stands out as one of the most compelling and accessible. By including her own family’s narrative, as well as Syria’s larger historical context, Malek helps the reader understand the pervasive nature of repression in the country, both then and now, and the miracle that was the 2011 uprising.
Family Stories as Historical Narratives
The book is split into three main parts. In the first, Malek tells the story of Marta, her son Abdeljawwad, and his daughter, Salma, Malek’s maternal grandmother. Salma is the central figure of the book. The effective head of the family, she represents its suffering and resilience.
The second part of the book focuses on Malek’s trips to Syria, Egypt, and Israel/Palestine, while she was in college and law school. The third and final segment begins in 2011, just as the first demonstrations of the revolution broke out in the city of Deraa.
While a family memoir, The Home That Was Our Country is, in fact, also “a memoir of Syria,” as the country’s development is reflected in the lives of Malek’s family members. This is highlighted by the many historical events that played out in their lives–for example, the intersection between Syria’s French colonial and early nationalist history and Malek’s great-grandfather’s emergence as a local political figure in Hama.
Shared by countless others who have lived in Syria, the experiences of Malek’s family represent a microcosm of life in the country in the 20th and early 21st century. In learning how Malek’s family adapted and struggled in the face of sometimes whiplash-fast changes that happened in Syria over the last 100 years, the reader gets a taste for how politics and repression have been a part of everyday life for most Syrians. We see this most potently when, in 1980, in the lead up to the Hama massacre,* Nazir, Salma’s beloved brother and Malek’s great-uncle, is forcibly disappeared by the government, and found dead in a hospital, with signs of torture, days later.
Through Malek’s own journeys in Syria, the reader gets first-hand insight into the repression of Bashar Al Assad’s regime, and the omnipresence of the mukhabarat, or secret police, who listen in on private conversations at cafes, universities, marketplaces, and elsewhere. Using humor to cope with this fear, Syrians fashioned jokes about the mukhabarat’s insidiousness. In the book, Malek recounts one of these jokes: the CIA, KGB, Israeli Mossad, and mukhabarat are all given an assignment to retrieve a fox from the forest within an hour. The first three teams finish their task in under sixty minutes. The mukhabarat, however, comes back four hours later. “The Syrians, in their leather jackets, are coolly smoking; one of them is holding the rabbit up by its neck. The leader responds, ‘He confessed. He admitted he is a fox,’” Malek writes.
Living in Syria in the Midst of Revolution and War
In the last part of the book, Malek eloquently recounts day-to-day life during the first two years of the uprising and subsequent war. In arguably the most profound sequence of this section, Malek visits a “psychodrama,” a group, psychotherapy session in which participants act out traumatic situations. During the session, one participant pretends to be a regime operative, while others act out various attitudes toward the uprising common in Syrian society: one participants wants to see Syria on par with countries in Europe, another wants social justice to take hold in the country.
It is a powerful scene, marked both by fear, bravery, and hope. “Only he who tries can dream,” one participant said. “Those who dream went to the streets–they’ll die but at least they’re not just going along.”
Malek recounts other experiences as well, including conversations with college students and youth in Syria, who were defying the regime through the most simple of acts. One of the student activists Malek befriends, nicknamed “Carnations,” is taken by the mukhabarat and detained nearly a week for handing out flowers with tags that said “Stop the Killing.”
An Urgent Reminder
With American leftist discourse on Syria in disarray, The Home That Was Our Country is a necessary and urgent reminder that the roots of the Syrian war lie in decades of cronyism, deep-seated corruption, and ruthless repression. By placing the Assad regime at the center of the escalating war, Malek dispels narratives that present the war as a purely humanitarian crisis or frame Assad as “the best of all evils.”
Malek’s book also places everyday citizens, who are so often erased by the debates and news coverage, at the center of Syria’s conflict. They are the protagonists – the ones who have endured stifling repression and, in many cases, have sacrificed their lives.
Most importantly, however, Malek reminds us of the beautiful place her family still calls home, even if they are forced to be separated from it, for now.
*CORRECTION (6-5-17): This article originally claimed that Malek’s uncle was killed in 1982. He was, in fact, killed in 1980, as the Assad regime was consolidating its rule in a process that culminated in the Hama massacre.