Gender & Identity, Life

How do you preserve Syria when a lot of what’s left is rubble?

My memories of Syria look different than what you see on the news.

Google “Syria” or “Syrian,” and the first things that will pop up will be about the war or the refugee crisis.

The country is now a hot political debate, a depressing headline, a place known to most for its chaos. While there is certainly all that going on, and we should keep this destruction in mind, we should also remember what exactly is being destroyed.

The buildings were not always rubble, and the people not always desperate. The last time I was in Syria was eight years ago, a time when its culture and people were vibrant and thriving. That is how I choose to remember it.

The first thing I always remember is the men walking through the neighborhoods shouting with grand voices the prices of the vegetables on their carts. This is the sound I would wake up to in the afternoon after our late night arrival, and that my jet-lagged self absolutely despised. I remember the jasmine we would smell when walking anywhere and the fact that we could walk everywhere. I also remember mint lemonade, my grandparents’ grape vines, the mountain houses, the freshly baked bread, and old Damascus.

Oh yes, old Damascus and its fez-wearing coffee servers, the black-and-white striped archways, the colorful candy and glass for sale, and the Umayyad Mosque. I remember taking a microbus across parts of the country and seeing seas and castles. Doesn’t it sound magical?

How do I preserve that magic now? How do I preserve these beautiful memories? I want to pass them down to my little brothers who were too young at the time to remember all this, and to the public who knows nothing of Syria but war.

The most vivid memories Syrians have of their country are usually food-related. My mother and her friends exchange recipes, and these recipes are a big conversation at gatherings. It is over a zucchini dish called sheikh el mahshi that my father tells us stories from my grandparents’ kitchen in Damascus and that my mother complains about how the produce there was better and the zucchini came already prepped to stuff. My brothers’ memories of Syria likely lie in their taste buds. Now, as I move into an apartment and have my own kitchen, my mother is teaching me how to cook okra and bake cheese pastries.

Syria has a rich history of writing. Arabic is such a complex language, and just speaking the dialect at home is an act of preservation in itself. I make it a point as I study poetry in my classes to also learn about Arabic poetry and incorporate it into my own writing. Some of the most prominent lines of Arab literature are found in the songs of icons like Fairouz and Oum Kalthoum. Listening to them while I study, reading the works of Nizar Qabbani, and incorporating Arabic into my writing is my way of making sure this history doesn’t dim in me or even the people who read my writing. Simply mentioning the men shouting the prices of vegetables on the street, to me, is a personal act of defiance.

Even now in Aleppo that history of poetry stays strong, with graffiti reading “We’re returning, oh love,” the title of a well-known Fairouz song.

Talking to my Syrian friends about what we remember, telling stories of my own adventures with my cousins, hearing my dad go on about how he walked to school (doesn’t every dad have that story?), or my grandmother on how she did laundry back in the day – these stories may be repeats, but that ingrains them further and keeps them forever present. The most important thing is to keep listening and telling.

This is a kind of magic stronger than any bombing.