Gender & Identity, Life

I cry when you ask me about my Syria

My Tete cried every time I spoke to her on the phone. Every time my Arabic broke down, pushed out, every moment I forced myself to build the bridge between us.

I cry when you ask me to tell you about my homeland.

Half Syrian, my identity disallowed by the children around me, taunting me as an eight year old. Arab, Arab, Arab — but I wasn’t Arab to them. My pleas to be accepted fell on deaf ears, I was the child to be pitied. “You aren’t enough, you’ll never be enough.” Their laughter echo in my ears as I struggle to navigate a world in which I cannot be enough of what I am, blood and sweat and tears. The first daughter of immigrant parents, my father seeking refuge from a tyrannical regime simply for pursuing his dreams in education. My mother, fierce in her multiplicity of identity, still not seen as enough.

Does a daughter carry the burden of her mother’s identity? Or is she allowed to choose exactly what she was, no matter what people saw her as?

I wasn’t Arab enough, in front of those who pretended to know exactly who I was. But behind closed doors, quiet and defiant, I was Syrian. I was Arab. I was everything people told me I couldn’t be – just because they had decided that wasn’t the case.

***

I cry when you ask me about my grandmother.

It hurts even to write about her, tears dropping on the keyboard even now. Transformative in the little moments I had with her, snatched away in an instant at her passing. Unable even to see her one last time, her country sealed off from the outside. My father was silent for a long time when we lost her, our family grieving in memories.

My Tete couldn’t go to high school because of her responsibilities with her family, but she took me by the shoulders on that chilly fall morning, the prickly pine leaves crackling under our feet, and shared with me in our special mixture of Arabic and English just how integral it was for me to take education for its full importance. That I should never take learning language for granted, for the chance to communicate with those other than us was absolutely invaluable.

She left in me an itch to take on the world, fearless, unable to see why opportunities shouldn’t be mine. She left me with the itch to create, with the patience of years of experience, with the love that only a woman who has raised strong children knows.

I wish I had more photos with her. I wish I had more memories of her.

My childhood was ripped from me the day we lost her. It didn’t matter that one day we could go back to Syria. Syria would no longer be the world I knew, colored brightly by my Tete’s love, in the form of warm, big hugs and delicious family breakfasts.

***

I cry when you ask me why my Arabic is so broken.

“It’s just a language,” they told me, as I struggled to memorize the words. “What’s holding you back?” They sneered at me in my Saturday School classes, different backgrounds coalescing into one as each child learned to perfectly read the words in front of them.

My tongue stumbled over words that held memories of family, of struggle, of love, of joy. The words were more than just simple memorizations, they were whole worlds to me.

The years trickled by, my Arabic seemingly never enough. Broken bones of a language that I dreamt in that one sweet night years upon years ago. Effortlessly understanding, because it was so much easier to listen to my Tete, my Baba, my Syria, than it was to offer my own words.

My Tete cried every time I spoke to her on the phone. Every time my Arabic broke down, pushed out, every moment I forced myself to build the bridge between us. My Arabic was a punishment I had been dealt, but it wasn’t until I lost my Tete that I realized —

It had never been about building bridges for her. It had just been about family. It had never been about learning another language. It had always been about love.

***

I cry when you tell me I’m not enough, because my Tete always believed I was.

My Syria was always my family. Losing part of my Syria meant losing part of me.

But I will always be Syrian. I will always be from Syria. I will always be of Syria.

Always.