At several points in the epic journey of her escape from Syria’s war-shaken city of Aleppo, chronicled in her eponymous memoir, author Nujeen Mustafa looks at the disruption all around her, seeing despairing graffiti, hordes of refugees, and a confused reaction from the foreign press, and asks, “What has happened to our country?”
It’s a painfully simple sentiment, one no doubt echoed by the many thousands of refugees who’ve fled from the chaos and violence that erupted in 2011 in the wake of the Arab Spring protests and soon grew into wide-scale military rebellion against the government forces of dictator Bashar al-Assad. The Syrian civil war has gotten complicated in the past six years, turning into a nightmarish quagmire of splinter groups vying for key cities and resources. And as is always the case, while the guns are firing, the innocent are suffering: Reports of massacres and other human rights abuses abound.
Civil rights lawyer and journalist Alia Malek (some of whose work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor) captures the multifaceted nature of this cataclysm very effectively in her gripping new book, The Home That Was Our Country; her vivid picture-painting and scathing intelligence turn and turn on that same unspoken question, “What has happened to our country?”
Under the long rule of Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, Malek’s family had been deprived of their apartment in the grand old Tahaan building in Damascus, and “The Home That Was Our Country” is richly textured with the family histories invested in the place and its neighborhood.
It’s a world from which she herself was an expatriate for many years, having attended law school in the United States and taken a job in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice in the George W. Bush administration – where she was working when the 9/11 terrorist attacks happened.
“Like other Arab Americans,” she writes, “I found myself simultaneously grieving for the innocent, wondering what backlash might befall Arab and Muslim Americans, and processing that the kind of violence I usually associated with the Middle East had just happened right here on American soil.”
Shortly after a rigged national referendum solidified the presidency of Hafez’s son Bashar, Malek returned to Damascus hoping to reclaim her family’s apartment and some sense of home. She was not the only member of her family to feel a fearful scorn at the fact that the country’s presidents were treating their office like a kingship. “Like me, some in my family ... were troubled by how power had been passed on like an inheritance, but they responded to my prodding with raised eyebrows, a roll of their eyes, or a sheepish smile,” she writes. “The walls still had ears, after all.”
The heart of “The Home That Was Our Country” is Malek’s often wrenching account of learning the ways of a country now in the grip of a dictatorship after the short-lived promise of the so-called Damascus Spring. This is a country in which the state intelligence forces, the mukhabarat, are always watchful, in which the internet goes dark late every Thursday night to keep people from organizing Friday events, and in which the Assad government works hard to create the impression of a serene and livable Damascus, a city cut off from the troubles afflicting the rest of Syria, a city in which, Malek caustically notes, the populace is being both deceived and used: “By going about our lives, we had become bit players in the regime’s efforts to maintain the fiction that everything was normal.”
Malek relates both her anger with outright supporters of Assad’s regime and the “skin-crawling embarrassment” she feels at the many Syrians who see through the regime, hate it, and yet still vocally support it in order to save their own skins. Against these everyday cowards who choose “survival over solidarity,” she places the example of the “brave, ordinary Syrians” who don’t believe in taking up arms but are willing to pit their quiet, secular faith in the rule of law against the seemingly unbeatable forces aligned against it. She bitterly and accurately points out to her readers that both the Assad regime and its jihadist enemies would want these brave, ordinary Syrians dead.
If “The Home That Was Our Country” has even the slimmest glint of hope anywhere in its more than 300 pages, that hope lies with those brave, ordinary Syrians, people like Malek and her family and friends, who once knew a better Damascus and who collectively dream of one better still. She leaves open the question of whether or not anybody who ever lived in the Tahaan building will live to see that better time, but at least she still dreams it’s possible.
Steve Donoghue regularly reviews books for The Christian Science Monitor.