REVIEW: A Heartfelt Memoir of Syria's Better Days, Before the Endless War

The Home That Was Our Country: A Memoir of Syria by Alia Malek

Nation Books: 352 pages, $27.99

By Rayyan Al-Shawaf

The Home That Was Our Country, a new book by Alia Malek, is subtitled “A Memoir of Syria.” Today, after nearly six years of civil war, Syria looks more like a patchwork of mutually hostile fiefdoms than a country. And nearly five million people who call Syria home have escaped it, some drowning in the Mediterranean in a desperate bid to reach Europe. (Millions more are internally displaced.) Malek’s book, a heady and sometimes chaotic mix of straight history, personal reminiscences, and political analysis, tries to piece together the background to this unfolding catastrophe.

For all its unevenness, The Home That Was Our Country emerges as informative and insightful, its author keenly aware of the irreversible disfigurement to which Syrian society is being subjected. This proves all the more remarkable given that the Syrian-American Malek (author of A Country Called Amreeka: U.S. History Retold Through Arab-American Lives) did not set out to write a book about the fragmentation of her ancestral homeland.

As Malek explains, she moved to Syria to finish the restoration of her maternal grandmother Salma’s house – which her parents, long settled in Baltimore, had begun. She also went there, she says, “because Syria had shadowed my life from birth, though I had never fully been a part of it. I wanted to be there at a moment when the entire region was in the throes of change. For an optimist, Syria was on the precipice of something better. For the pessimist, it teetered dangerously on the abyss.”

At the time, Baltimore-raised Malek recounts, she was an optimist. But the time in question was April 2011. The Syrian regime, led by the dictator Bashar al-Assad, was already responding with bullets and mass arrests to the peaceful protests that had begun in the southern province of Daraa and were now spreading. As the regime escalated its brutal measures, an increasing number of its opponents took up arms. Soon, foreign actors, state and non-state, would involve themselves on either side of the militarized conflict.

Malek’s account of the two years she spent in Syria – she left in May 2013 – infuses the second half of The Home That Was Our Country with a sense of immediacy and dread.  The first half of her narrative, which includes the story of her grandmother’s Damascus building, tends toward formlessness – even when the building is employed as a mirror-of-sorts for Syria’s history since independence, with its residents as stand-ins for society as a whole. But when she recreates her experiences in the eye of the Syrian storm, the book finally takes shape.

Given the intended centrality of the aforementioned building to Malek’s story, it is ironic that the year after her grandmother moved out of it marked the point when Syria assumed the political identity with which we associate it today. In 1949, three years after Syria gained independence from France, headstrong Salma and mild-mannered Ameen, Malek’s maternal grandparents, began their married life in the Tahaan building in Damascus’s Ain al-Kirish neighborhood. The couple remained there until 1969, when they rented out their apartment and moved to another part of the capital. The following year, Hafez al-Assad seized power in a military coup. Assad was a member of the same political party as the man he deposed (the Baath, whose ideology fuses Arab nationalism and state socialism), but he exerted a much tighter grip on the country, which he took to remaking in his image.

By the time Malek relocates to Syria from the U.S. in 2011, Bashar al-Assad has already begun his second decade as its ruler, having ascended to the presidency following the death of his father in 2000. Even with her knowledge – gleaned first-hand from previous visits – that Syria is a Baathist police state, the author recoils in shock at its handling of the burgeoning protest movement. This regime, she realizes with horror, “would tie the fate of all Syrians to its own.”

A particularly sinister means of achieving this objective consists of torpedoing independent initiatives by Syrians to provide humanitarian aid to their compatriots in opposition-friendly areas that the Syrian military has pummeled. A dissident whom Malek dubs “the Mustache” (almost everybody in the book is given a false name, though usually a less colorful one) describes the government’s thinking: “They want to get rid of the idea that the people can help each other. They don’t want there to be solidarity among the Syrian people.”

Interestingly, the Mustache is a member of the same religious community as Assad, the Alawites. An offshoot of Shiite Islam, Alawites are about 12% of the Syrian population, though they dominate the much-feared and ubiquitous security services that Assad, taking a page from his father, has long used to maintain power. Assad no doubt found it alarming that Sunni Muslims, who are three-quarters of the population, formed the backbone of the protest movement. An additional problem was that members of religious minorities – Christians, Druze, Ismailis – were joining the demonstrations, albeit in smaller numbers. Relying in part on interviews she conducts with activists who were arrested and sometimes tortured, Malek notes that, in addition to meting out violence, the regime worked assiduously to stoke minority fears of the Sunni majority.

On at least one occasion, Malek’s suspicion of the regime’s machinations leads her to a conclusion unsupported by any evidence – that the Syrian government orchestrated a double-suicide bombing outside the Damascus offices of military intelligence in late 2011. To the author (at least at the time), such a move, coupled with state propaganda blaming Al-Qaida, would help turn both ordinary Syrians and a visiting Arab League delegation against the rebels.

To her credit, however, when witnessing the tight security the state provides churches with during Easter a year and a half later and musing about the possibility of an attack on such sites by jihadists, Malek (whose family is Christian) notes: “Now that the regime had opened the door to sectarianism, and religious extremist fighters had predictably entered the Syrian fray, such an attack wouldn’t even necessarily have to be staged by the regime to bolster its version of events.”

For someone unstintingly opposed to Assad’s rule and sickened by his vicious clampdown on peaceful activists, the author deserves kudos for resisting the temptation to romanticize the rebels. Indeed, she demonstrates an acute understanding of what victory by virtually any of the Sunni Islamist factions that have come to dominate the rebellion would portend for Syrian society. Ultimately, Malek “had to wonder how real and viable Syria’s ethnic and religious mosaic was, and what could possibly be put back together once the dust cleared.”

It’s something no doubt many a Syrian is wondering about these days, perhaps nobody more so than opponents of the regime who are non-Islamist Sunnis or, like Malek, members of religious minorities. Faced with the choice of enduring Baathist and sectarian-tinged political repression in government-controlled territory, religious tyranny in rebel-held regions (which are bombed mercilessly by the Syrian and Russian air forces), or hell on earth under the Islamic State, a good number of such Syrians have left their homeland altogether. Millions now live – most not very comfortably – in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and even Germany. It is unlikely that they will return to Syria, or that Malek will again visit the shattered country, anytime soon.  

Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer and book critic in Lebanon.