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Returning to Syria by Hala Karim

By: Hala Karim

Ruins of a church in Syria
Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Source: Church War Syria | Pixabay

Hala Karim reflects candidly upon their last visits to Syria, prior and post war.

Waiting restlessly on a tarmac in the dry, late summer Damascus heat, I stood in mild annoyance near my sister amongst a disorderly cluster of passengers. We boarded outside, which allowed me to turn and snap one final picture of Damascus International Airport before heading back to my home in Ohio.

Back in those days, you had to wait to get home and connect your digital camera to your computer to upload pictures to Facebook for people to bear witness to your adventures. Instantaneous travel envy was still a notion of the future.

Back in those days, traveling to Syria was considered an adventure. The year was 2008, and unbeknownst to me, I wouldn’t step foot in Syria for the next decade.

I was eighteen and still took my bi-annual summer trips to my parents’ home country for granted, threatening not to return until I had at least “traveled Europe.” If that sounds like the cries of an entitled brat, that’s because that’s exactly what it is.

I had been especially happy to leave the United States for a few weeks that year because I was angry about a dumb boy and simultaneously wanted to forget all about him while showing him how cultured I was. He remains unimpressed.

What I couldn’t have known then was that my worlds away, little-known country was teetering towards the biggest humanitarian crisis of my lifetime.

Hala karim

I couldn’t have known how often I would revisit the photos from my last trip over the next ten years, missing my aunt’s cooking; the hours long, completely unsafe bus rides, speeding through mountains devoid of any safety railings for the grand prize of a breathtaking horizon; the glimmer of the Mediterranean Sea; the smell of salted, fresh corn that the old men sold by the beach; the bustling of the ancient souks, the generous – almost aggressive – hospitality of every person I met; all of it.

I couldn’t have known that the lyrics from my favorite, battle-themed musical, Les Miserables, would resonate too strongly as I read article after article of terrified people fleeing, of mass carnage, of homes laid in ruins, of artifacts destroyed. I found that the answer to Grantaire’s rhetorical “Could it be your death means nothing at all?” in the solemn number, “Drink With Me” could be answered with a resounding, “Yep.”

The following decade forcefully transformed my ignorant naïveté to always anxious, always active, always angry political astuteness. Trying to connect the dots has seemed like a fool’s errand. Syria’s somewhat embittered history within global context raises more questions than answers.

Meddling foreign powers convinced me that, at its core, this was another proxy war in which hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians would pay a bitter price. Whenever I scrolled through another op-ed by some American named Stacy or Jack from CNN or NBC, their concern seemed disingenuous, their motives seemed nefarious.

Lost in all the chaos was the voices of the Syrian people.

Hala Karim

I felt that, as an American born who had only experienced Syria through the lens of care-free summer travel, not even my voice was authentic enough to speak up.

The still unfolding situation is much too complicated for a non-expert like me to deconstruct, but I’ve watched many other non-experts take it upon themselves to deconstruct it, anyway. That’s not my mission here, at all.

My mission is rather to humanize a country steeped in incredible culture and thousands of years of history. Damascus, after all, is the oldest continually inhabited city on earth. That’s quite a remarkable feat.

Seven years into what is often referred to as “The Crisis,” when the slightest illusion of stability crept its way back in to daily life, I summoned the courage to make the journey to return to Syria. By 2018, most air travel into Damascus International Airport has been completely cut off, deferring instead to the airport in Beirut, Lebanon, a six hour drive from our sleepy village by the coast.

Friends, who previously had no idea where Syria was and shrugged off my two-month summer absence now asked if it was safe and if I was “afraid of being beheaded.” I preferred them having no idea where or what Syria was.

I packed my bags and readied myself for the 30 hour trip. Landing in Beirut, I was comforted by the sounds of exclusively Arabic conversation that surrounded me, never mind that it was spoken in a distinctly different accent and dialect than the ones I am accustomed to in Syria.

Rather than being greeted by swarms of loving relatives who always crowded us in Damascus on our first night, we were unceremoniously greeted by our hired driver, Abu Ali, a guy who makes pretty good money driving passengers from Lebanon to Syria.

The first thing Syrians will tell you upon your return is that, mournfully, “Everything’s changed.” I heard those words repeated nothing short of a hundred times during my first trip back.

Everything’s changed, and nothing will return to the way it was.

Hala Karim

While I knew it to be true without hearing or seeing a thing, I was gutted every time someone new confirmed its validity. Despite desperately grasping for a sense of normalcy and “sameness” to refute these disparaging comments and maintain my slight delusion, I have to admit: things have changed.

Military checkpoints inundate the road in and out of cities. Foreign investors have made a run for it, taking the names of prestigious, world-class hotels with them. The economy and a few cities you’ve seen mentioned on TV lie in shambles.

While trying, in vain, to spark enthusiasm and pride for Syria in conversation with friends, young people will look around in disdain and profess that, “There’s no future for us here.” It’s heartbreaking every time I hear it. The last thing I want is my people to have to scatter across the globe for a better quality of life – especially when we know we’re not wanted, as we are often reminded.

Commercial airplanes no longer fly overheard, but the deafening roar of low-flying military planes can be heard every few days. Friends and family feel compelled to reassure me there’s nothing to worry about as fear washes over my face. I have always had a terrible poker face, but it still surprises me that the planes have become so ubiquitous that no one in the many outdoor restaurants even bothers to look up from their conversation as they zoom overhead.

Then, there are more subtle changes. People have shifted, and, in villages where everyone has known everyone and everyone’s business for generations, new people are moving in and aren’t exactly welcomed with open arms.

Older generations especially resent the changes. Amid all these changes, daily life carries on – but with a palpable tension in the air that won’t seem to ease.

That said, to my untrained eye, the bedrock of everything enchanting about Syria is locked firmly in place. People often ask me, “What are you gonna do there?” It’s an innocent question that I’ve always found difficult to answer in a way that promotes intrigue. It isn’t so much going from place to place, but that is certainly an option, if you want.

In Damascus, nightlife thrives adjacent to historic landmarks. I love walking through Al Hamidiya Souk, partially because it’s cool and old, but mainly because it showcases Syrian art and outstanding craftsmanship. You can haggle the price of a handmade oud (an Arabic guitar) or a mosaic jewelry box that boasts the Arabs’ commitment to geometric design. You’d be silly to pass on visiting the marble marvel that is Umayyad Mosque, a splendor that stands at the end of the souk.

You can visit the historic, Christian neighborhood, Bab Toma, where narrow brick roads are adorned with beautiful boutique houses-turned-hotels and every style of bar or restaurant you could want.

There are castles that line the highway driving down the Mediterranean coast. Of course, there is no shortage of luxurious beach resorts, palm trees, seaside restaurants that feature delicious, local seafood. All that great touristy shit.

What draws me back to Syria, even in a time when it’s not the safest to be there, is the people.

Hala Karim

As absolutely cliche as it sounds, I wouldn’t take on a strenuous, two day, sleepless journey to get there if not for them. They’re the warmest, most resilient people on the face of the earth.

This is perhaps best evinced by the Arabic language. When making a request or asking for a favor, most people will immediately respond, “Tikremi.” This translates to, “Your request is my demand.” The Arabic language is rife with phrases that emphasize community and generosity.

When driving through unmarked fields to get to my cousin’s house, our taxi got lost, so we did the normal Syrian thing and asked for directions from the first person we came across. Absolute strangers led us on their mopeds to our destination. They had no reason to do this, and it was completely out of their way, but that benevolent behavior is a hallmark of the Syrian people. They put so much currency in their interactions and relationships and in life itself. Even after war ravaged their country, they thank God for each other and everything they are afforded.

I am thousands of miles away from the crisis, and I am pissed constantly. I expected everyone to be as pissed as I was, but that wasn’t so. Syrians, with their appreciation for life and excellent sense of humor, have found a way to make do.

And, not for nothing, the food is exceptional. I often found myself wishing Anthony Bourdain could had visited my little village in Qurdaha to be greeted by an abundance of meat-and-rice-stuffed zucchinis, eggplants, and grape leaves. He would have loved it.

I’ve gone back twice, post-war, and it has taken me this long to write the most emotionally taxing essay I’ve written about a place I couldn’t be more proud to claim roots in.

I get frustrated when people speak about Syrians with pity. The last thing we need is pity. We need people to understand that we’re human and have much more to offer society than we ever want to take from it. We certainly need support and understanding. And we certainly need our stories told in our own voices. And we need you to listen.

Hala Karim

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