​Syria, No Not That Syria (Lane Cove Literary Awards 2017)


I dream about a certain place. Sometimes I dream about this place constantly and sometimes months would go by before I revisit it. I slip away from the dream state into reality and refuse to open my eyes in hope that I could hold on to this glorified world within my subconscious just a little longer. Slowly features of faces I had just seen become a blur. Buildings I had reconstructed from reality become rubble. All that would stay with me from these dreams was the sensations they had filled me with. For seven years I had been feeling as though Syria was somewhere I once visited in a dream. I missed my home country or background of origin or whatever it was they taught us to call it at school. I was in second grade the first time I was made aware of the distinction between the country one’s parents were from and the country one individual is from.

“Where are you from?” Mrs. Gray had asked the class.

“I’m from Syria.” I had answered with confidence when I was addressed.

“But Minass… where were you born?” Her eyes challenged.

“Umm over here… in Australia.” I rubbed my hands on the rough carpet we were sitting on.

“That means you are Australian, Minass.”

In second grade I was taught that I was Australian and that my country of origin was Australia. I loved Australia. It was my home, my family, my friends, the beach, Sizzler and everything else involved in the simple life of a seven-year old. I didn’t remotely appreciate the way my teacher had dismissed a huge part of my identity. I felt heat rushing into my cheeks and lowered my head to hide my obvious discord. I didn’t spend the rest of my life suffering from an identity crisis, I was content that I was just as Syrian as I was Australian.

 

Seven years ago things changed. When I wasn’t dreaming I couldn’t even be sure that I still knew Syria; the Syria that is my home. My identity was challenged after a crisis unfolded within Syria in November 2010. Before the crisis, people would notice my olive complexion and question my ethnicity. I would describe the tiny spec on the map beneath Turkey, above Lebanon and next to Iraq and receive blank faces. I would resort to, “An Arabic country within the Middle-east, in Asia.”

“Oooooh okay, never heard of it.”

The media erupted with news of a civil, political, religious or an “American-agenda”, driven war. Syria rolled off the tongues of news reporters, of politicians, of our customers who buy chico rolls and never leave Brisbane. Populations throughout the world spoke Syria’s name and She didn’t sound right in their mouths. I wanted desperately to snatch the word from them and defend her. Yet I could no longer say her name without the aftertaste of sadness. I have a friend who recently visited Lebanon and came back complaining, “too many Syrians in Lebanon now! They are overcrowding our villages! But you know what I mean not your type, the Muslim ones.”

“Where are you from?” People now ask.

“I’m from Australia.” I cannot bear the looks of pity I receive when I say I’m Syrian. I felt detached from this Syria, as the two continents separated by the deep ocean were. So I revisited my mother’s birthplace.

 

Swaida city is situated south of war-enveloped Syria and only twenty-five kilometres from the Jordanian border. Seven years into the Syrian conflict, Swaida city remains alive and appears to be external to the chaos that surrounds it. Swaida is neither under siege nor does its residents sleep to the sounds of bullets and explosions yet faces are weary with affliction. From food to clothing and electricity, prices have increased by seven to ten times since prior to the war. Fuel is scarce and people are unwillingly making the decision to purchase ISIS owned resources. Swaida has become residence to a large number of internally displaced Syrians who face similar struggles to refugees forced to flee the country. As for the city of Swaida, the biggest issue affecting its population is a social one and the war had mostly encouraged a dynamic of frustration. This frustration is a driving force to anywhere outside of Syria or at least away from their villages.

 

My time in Syria was spent in my mother’s hometown, Orman. Orman is one of a hundred and forty-six villages located within the city of Swaida.The village is generally a poor place. Its people lead simple lives yet are majorly exposed to the elaboration of the West through the recent widespread of the internet and social media. This creates a sense of unease and frustration from the limitations the population becomes aware of. The concept of the grass being greener on the other side predominately swells within adolescents who are driven to explore the world and its boundaries. Unlike their parents, their grandparents and if still alive their parents too, their minds know more than a world’s population of 10,000, a world you can cover by foot in an hour. These adolescents that ache for more are young enough and exposed too much for the society and culture to embed into them.

 

As an Australian of Syrian heritage, I am the one they look to when they wish to live a life other than their own. Growing up I continually invalidated their jealousy over my life, a life that involved belonging to two places and yet never completely being accepted by either. By wishing for my life they were wishing for an unsettled mind, a jet-lagged heart and a tongue that tripped over two incongruous languages. During this trip I realised two things. The world didn’t know the real Syria and the Syrians I knew who lived there didn’t appreciate Syria.

 

“Home is not a place but a person.” This effortless assemblage of words has appealed to many hearts. When one thinks of the word home, associations with comfort, memories, protection and even affection come to mind. Therefore it is no surprise that there is a cohesive level of interchangeability between a person and a sense of home. This poetic phrase presents a great compliment for the ‘person’ that becomes the subject riding this train of thought. In giving this compliment so much is invested in the person receiving it. So much faith is placed in the person riding the train that they become the ones steering it. They are your home, their arms provide you with warmth and protection, the whisper of their voice feeds your soul, you drink in their touch and then, they are gone. They leave or they die or they disappear. They crash the train. The walls collapse. You are left starving. You are left homeless. My home is not a person. My life cannot be simplified by a trending phrase for poetic purposes and adversely complicated by those same words.

 

My home is not a person it is a place. No amount of passing years, changing faces or corrupted values will alter my devoted attachment to it. I could roam the earth blindfolded. Yet, the moment my leg rises, my foot extends and my toes curl in the gestation of entering the vicinity of the place so dear to my heart every nerve within me would buzz with familiarity. I know the uneven and cracked paths as though they are the creases that line my palms. I’ve memorised the tangle of streets as though they replicate the veins twisting up my arms. Every road is as conversant to me as the arteries travelling to my heart. And my heart, no matter where I go, who I meet and what I do, I will always find within this place.

 

I was not born there, I was not shaped and moulded by its society, I was not taught by its educators, undermined by its inequitable system or restricted by its ludicrous boundaries. I was not born there but I grew there. I grew from unfamiliar faces that greeted me with smiles. Neighbours that welcomed me into their house like family heightened my spirits. Shops were not to sell you fruit or chocolate or glassware, they were to provide you with someone to have a great conversation with. Bliss was the way the village sang tunes of a bouncing ball, vocalised by children’s laughter and harmonized by a breeze that cleansed your mind. The trotting sound of hooves nearing from a distance meant wind in your hair, exhilaration and a sore bottom as your grandfather directed you to circle the roundabout.  The roundabout, the only roundabout the village had was as significant as the circle of life itself.

 

History would have been taught on a blackboard enclosed within four walls but the chronicles were truly felt walking by the roundabout’s centrepiece, gazing upon the windmills infrastructure and looking into the wise old souls of our grandparents. On the uneasy rubble ground my shadow reflects that of a soldier whose spilled blood possibly runs through my veins. The English, the French, the Ottoman, and terrorists crossed these same grounds and were met with defeat. The victory meant freedom to look up at the night sky that contrary to logic was not the same sky seen from anywhere in the world. The haze enclosing constellations of stars was as visible as the smoke of a chimney. The stars themselves were so bright they could set two hearts ablaze. The scintillating moon promised to pass on everyone’s prayers. Praying constantly escaped our lips but we did not pray for more, instead, we used God’s name in appreciation of what we had. We settled for the lightness of a simple life as our backs settled against flat roofs with the heaviness of the sky falling on our eyelids.

 

My home is not a person it is a place. This place is not a house but a house is its essence. This house is rooms that have bear witnessed death. It is ceilings that have observed the birth of life. It is a concrete floor that remembers the dancing feet of a happy bride. It is flowers blossoming through crevices watered by tears of travellers to be. It is herbs and spices and the echo of a hundred hungry bellies. It is a hose with patched holes being fitted by a hunched over old man. It is a sudden cascade of water soaking our shoes and a scarfed, old, women oblivious to having caused it. My home is green and pink and orange. My home is happiness and chaos and sorrow. It is grape vines at  6 am with sunrise peeking through at my grandmother as she begins her day. My home is a playground in a mulberry tree with purple lips and stained hands. It is plum trees watered with love and dripping down our chins. It is a place that extends its welcome to the public; they come strangers and are farewelled with their private memories. This is my home. More importantly, this is our home.

 

“Home is not a place but a person.” I’m not benighted by refusing the contribution of people in making a home momentous. After all, if I weren’t the daughter of a man who returned to his country of origin to marry a woman who lived there, I wouldn’t know this side of the world. If my grandfather’s grandfather had not relocated from Palestine, this place would serve no purpose to me. If I didn’t have 60 family members attending my multiple birthday parties I may have grown in age but I wouldn’t have grown in love. I wouldn’t love this home if I didn’t experience the love I shared with its people. Visions of my home itself draped my memory, the people as a whole laced these drapes wonderfully and each and every individual was a blossomed flower embedded into the fabric.

 

My home is Syria, this Syria.


 

‘Syria, No Not That Syria’ has won The Burns Bay Booker Youth Prize and has been Shortlisted for the Lane Cove Literary Award Memoir Prize. My face hurts from all the smiling and my heart aches from all the emotion over having Syria’s name on such an incredible award. I’m so honoured and thankful to give Syria and Syrians a voice through literature.

 

 

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