Syria came to international attention in 2013 because of the refugee crisis. Since then, I have been searching for a book that would cover more than its current conflict and tell me about Syria’s history and the everyday lives of its people before the humanitarian disaster.
This book delivered just that. Alia Malek designates her grandmother’s old apartment building in Damascus as the heart of the memoir, and effectively narrates over a century of Syrian history and political phases through the different generations and families that occupied and moved through its space.
In this fine balance between family and national chronicle, one does not overshadow the other; thus allowing history to be accessible and engaging, and leaves room for the captivating details of society and tradition.
The author succinctly outlines Syria’s history from the fall of the Ottoman Empire that ruled Greater Syria, to the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement between France and the United Kingdom (resulting in France taking Syria and Lebanon, and the British laying hold of Palestine and Iraq), the foreign-imposed evolution of its borders, its numerous coups, the rise of Hafez al-Assad, and up to the bullet-ridden Syria that we see on the news.
Probably owing to being both journalist and lawyer, Alia Malek does away with over-sentimentality despite the painful undercurrents but writes with great sensitivity and insight. This did not rend my heart the way other books about Syria have done, but at the end of the acknowledgments a line still managed to ambush me and stirred up tears: “Lastly, to Syria and the generations before, which gave us life, beauty, and this profound pain, thank you for making us your children. And may you find it possible to forgive us.”
Through the memoir we are shown a Syria and a people that we do not often see portrayed; a Syria of rich cultural heritage, a multi-cultural and colorful nation of Arab Jews, Armenians, Christians, Sunnis, Shias, and Alawites. After all, Syria was once a haven for the persecuted during the Armenian genocide, a significant punctuation in the Silk Route, a place of Crusader castles, and the site of many Roman metropolises. Yet Syrians arrive at the doors of our consciousness either as despots, extremists, or refugees. We are guilty of viewing people from this region monolithically, and it is time we realize that the loss of their home and heritage is the world’s loss, too.