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Connections

Losing Syria, and my grandmother

Like my grandmother, the country was cut off from me but still there, broken but alive.

essi KimpimAki for the boston globe

An excerpt from Alia Malek’s new book “The Home That Was Our Country: A Memoir of Syria.”

I lost both Syria and my grandmother in 1980, when I was 6 years old. Though men — especially one man, Hafez al-Assad — dominated Syria, my early experiences of it were dominated by women, especially my grandmother. To me, she was Syria and Syria was her.

My parents were living in the United States but committed to returning home. Then two tragedies struck in quick succession. In June, while we were in Damascus as usual for the summer, my grandmother’s brother was murdered, with no consequences for the killer or killers — a commonplace occurrence in Assad’s Syria. In October, while visiting us in the United States to try to escape the grief, anger, and impotence she felt following her brother’s death, my grandmother suffered a stroke that left her “locked in.”

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To be locked in is to be alive inside a body that is wholly paralyzed. Her eyes were all that she could control. Muted by the stroke, she told the world she was in there by blinking. She could still cry, and tears often fell, staying on her cheeks until someone dried them for her.

I never saw her again after she collapsed at our house and was rushed to the hospital. Once the doctors there had stabilized her, she was transported to Syria, expected to die quickly. Just as she disappeared from my life, so did Syria; our frequent trips suddenly stopped. Even as my memories became more distant, I clung to them, knowing they had been real and happy.

Those recollections were mostly sensations: the smell of diesel, jasmine, and roasting coffee beans. Dry Damascus heat on my skin. Embraces in the fleshy arms of women who loved me because I was my grandmother’s granddaughter.

Thanks to the way those who loved her cared for her, she survived — incredibly — for seven years, though all the while imprisoned in her body, suspended between life and death.

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With age, I came to understand how Syria was ruled, that like my grandmother it was cut off from me but still there, broken but alive. They became further intertwined in my mind.

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In April 2011, as the whole region began to quiver, I moved to Damascus, hopeful. Months before, my family had wrested back my grandmother’s house from the man who had squatted in it since 1970, when the Assads also seized power. I went to oversee its renovation, wanting to be with whatever traces of my grandmother had lingered and with Syria as the potential for positive change seemed finally within grasp.

In her house each morning I’d let in the light by opening the wooden shutters. They were more than 60 years old and no longer kept out all the drafts or light, but there was comfort in using them just as she had. Too large to fully furnish, the house remained mostly empty, though sometimes I paced around, imagining my grandmother, heels clicking against the marble floors, a trail of cigarette smoke in her wake, reciting poetry from centuries before. I could almost hear the echoes of another time and other lives.

Sometimes I’d lie still, as if I were locked in the way my grandmother had been. Since she couldn’t turn her head to see a clock, I’d count the seconds. I could last five minutes before desperately leaping out of bed, needing to feel the cold reassurance of the floor beneath my feet.

I added it all up one day, all the seconds in those seven years of paralysis: more than 200 million seconds of being alive in a dead body, waiting, waiting, waiting for something to happen.

When my grandmother’s suffering ended, her destiny and Syria’s finally split.

Syria’s own wait has been answered with unspeakable catastrophe. The only solace I find is that she isn’t here to bear witness to it all.

This essay is adapted from Alia Malek’s new book “The Home That Was Our Country: A Memoir of Syria.” Send comments to connections@globe.com.

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