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My Little Syria, My Big New York: The Paradox of Home

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Damascus, December 2012, Last photo

I love Syria.

I can’t explain why most of the time and I stopped trying at some point. I still carry it inside me despite four years of separation, four years of living in other countries. I don’t know when I should normally move on, stop counting the years, and find another home. I hide Syria inside me. It is a crime these days and I can’t let go yet. When I get asked what do I miss there the most, I think of all the things I left behind but most importantly I think I miss me there. I was a different person. I had different looks, thoughts, words, outfits, and friends. Everything about me has changed now, for better or for worse that is not clear yet, but that previous version of me is still there. I hide it also deep inside me.
They call it integration. I call it Schizophrenia.

I try sometimes to define home, in order to replicate it, replace it. I fail terribly and end up with a bigger disappointment.

What is home? It is a smell of traditional home cooked meal that welcomes you when you open the door of your house after a long day, a condensed kiss and a hug from a grandmother, a hysterical laugh with an old time friend, a favorite coffee shop that knows your usual order, a loud family gathering you secretly wish to escape to avoid the endless questions and interrogations, familiar faces and roads most walked. It is all the little things. It can’t be written down, can’t be described to those who didn’t live it. It is the hole inside the soul that can’t be seen.

I recently discovered a term for that feeling, a Portuguese word that doesn’t have an equal translation in English. Saudade.    

Saudade is a deep emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing for an absent something or someone that one loves. Moreover, it often carries a repressed knowledge that the object of longing might never return.

Saudade was once described as “the love that remains” after someone is gone. Saudade is the recollection of feelings, experiences, places, or events that once brought excitement, pleasure, well-being, which now triggers the senses and makes one live again. It can be described as an emptiness, like someone or something that should be there in a particular moment is missing, and the individual feels this absence. It brings sad and happy feelings altogether, sadness for missing and happiness for having experienced the feeling. [wikipedia]

I discovered this word when Kinan announced the title of the next piece he was going to play. “Saudade”. Kinan missed home, the same home I was longing. And as I could only use words to express that, he used musical notes, in a great deeper way.

“Sing me home”

20170101_184643.jpgIt was a life serendipity gift in the new year. I was invited to Osechi, a traditional Japanese food at the new year, at my Japanese friend’s house, Mari and her lovely family. Since my move to NY, most of my time with people was outdoors. People don’t cook, don’t do indoors gatherings, don’t show you their personal space and memories, don’t get to know each other closely. It is mostly casual chats at a loud bar with lots of alcohol that makes these chats even shallower (or sometimes weirdly deep). So it was nice to have a change from all of that and have a dinner in a homey environment with kids, elderly people, and homemade food. Later that night, Kaoru, my friend’s partner and amazing musician invited us to check out his studio in the basement. We got the chance to try a unique collection of musical instruments and hear Karou’s interesting stories about music, culture, and history.

“I have a Syrian musician friend” Kaoru said after knowing we are from Syria. “His name is Kinan ..” and before he could finish his sentence my husband and I asked “Kinan Azmeh?!”

Kaoru replied in a surprise “Yes, you know him? He is going to play next Wednesday and I will join him” I exchanged a disbelief look with my husband that turned into a quick flashback. Kinan the famous clarinetist from Damascus who we used to attend his concerts back home. He was a close friend to two of our friends. I could hear his music playing in my head bursting with all the faces, places and scents from back home.

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Kaoru to the left, Kinan to the right

In the heart of NY, in a small crowded pub, Wednesday came very fast not to keep us waiting longer. We met Kinan briefly before the play. I don’t know if it was his Syrian looks, his dialect or the warm memories he brought back to us, but it was a joyful moment to meet him, to meet home within him. We met again shortly, this time he was on stage, and we were sitting impatiently, waiting for him to play on the strings of our hearts, not aware that he was about to break and reconcile our hearts over and over during that night. Kinan took us back to Damascus, to the times before the war, to the times during the war. He was introducing every piece he played with few sentences telling its background story. One piece was about his favorite town in Syria, where he used to go with his family since he was a kid during summer times. This town was “Jesreen” which he dedicated the piece for. My heart skipped a beat when I heard the name of it.

Jesreen is the town in Damascus suburb’s where my husband bought our future house, the house to live in as a married couple just starting their shared life. He spent years paying its loan, crafting its details, supervising the workers while they finished its structure. The dream house stayed a dream as we never got the chance to live there. War started, the suburbs turned into a conflict zone before it got besieged and we eventually had to leave the country, and live in someone else’s house in another country. The last thing we knew about the house was that a displaced family of a disabled old man with seven daughters are staying in it after their house got destroyed forcing them to flee the area. Jesreen is not a popular town in Syria. It is barely mentioned in the news. I almost forgot about it. During our journey and after going through dark phases we had to let go of some memories, you can’t hold on to all the pain. There is no time to stop and grieve. You assess the damage, you prioritize the pain. One month after we lost the house, we lost my father in law. A place or a soul? We picked his soul and moved on to the next phase. Kinan’s clarinet shattered us into pieces at one note then put us back together at another that felt like a warm musical hug. My smile was getting wider while my tears dropped unconsciously.

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Amazing Kinan with my husband and I

Kinan’s sonatas went in sequence, Kaoru joined in a very graceful blend between middle eastern and Japanese. Kinan and Kaoru talked to each other in music. They argued, laughed and debated with their musical instruments. It was one extraordinary piece I ever watched and listened to. Finally, Kinan played his last piece “Wedding”, dedicated to all those who managed to fall in love in the past five years, despite everything happening. I reached out to my husband’s hand and pressed it gently. We couldn’t avoid that dedication. We needed this reminder in the middle of our busy hectic lives. We needed to stop at some point during those years to catch our breaths, to accept all of it and appreciate the fact that we survived it.

Kinan’s music took us home that day, Kinan was home.

Atlantic Avenue

I stared at the glass window of the shop in disbelief. The rustic sign stood proudly over the shop although missing few letters, Arabic letters. I entered the shop to ask about the price of the big mosaic handmade box in the middle of the display. Greeted by a smile of an old gray hair man. “Come in, I will show you more, you are from Syria, right?”. I looked confused but happy to be recognized “Yes! And you?”

-”Of course! Ahla w sahla, welcome”

We connected immediately. That’s all what we needed to know about each other. He hasn’t yet answered my question about the price, he just said the classic sentence that each Syrian merchandiser has to say “We won’t disagree over the price, don’t worry about it.”. I smiled almost laughing. I hated that phrase so much back home. I even used to leave the shop because I knew I was about to either get ripped off or he is just wasting my time because he doesn’t have what I am asking for. But this time it was different. It was so good to hear it and with a Syrian Dialect. Oh, I missed this.

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Syrian Shop on Atlantic Avenue

He started showing me all the boxes he had with different patterns and sizes. I kept asking for more. I wanted to see each and every piece he had of this treasure. Eventually, he pulled out a big white mail bag containing more pieces. “This was shipped from Damascus, look at the stamps and address. I go there every three months to pick the products by myself. I don’t trust anyone” The address in Arabic stated somewhere in Damascus. My Damascus. I didn’t even know they still do this business back there. “ All factories in the suburbs were destroyed or stopped producing. Some took their business to other countries and some opened smaller ones inside Damascus where it is relatively safer”. My heart twisted a bit. One of the boxes was still wrapped in a paper, a piece of newspaper from back home. It was called “Tishreen” which means October, it was named after October war 1973 between Syria and Israel which ended by a truce and ironically both sides announcing their victory to their people. I was trying to read the news. I was hungry to read anything printed in Arabic. I was twisting my head to follow the sentences wrapped around the box. All the headlines were about the war, the fake victories, the unbeatable army, the arrested traitors and the illusional state of security. George Orwell would be very proud, maybe surprised when he discover how his fictional novel 1984 turned into a reality. An ugly one. I would have never stopped for seconds to read this rubbish back home, but that day I asked the old man to keep the box wrapped with this newspaper. He insisted in wrapping the box with a fancy gift wrap but I declined. I want this. I want to take home, home.

He showed me many other things    

I was looking for a gift. I found a treasure.

I discovered several surrounding shops that had even more products from home, mostly food: cheese, bread, pies, spices, sweets and many many more. It was astonishing how food can take you home in moments, happy moments.

That street will always be my secret gateway to home.

Little Syria

I was standing at the bus stop when I noticed the Arabic letters in the poster next to it. It is been 4 years since I saw anything in my native language in a public place. It was weird and surprisingly joyful. It somehow feels more like home when you can see signs with your native language around you.

“Little Syria, NY. An immigration community life and legacy”

I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was an exhibit about the life of Syrians in New York. I didn’t even know there was a community. The exhibit was held in a more interesting place. Elise Island, the immigrants Islands. The old days “border control” for the US.

We took the ferry to the island and started the tour with the little Syria exhibit. Syrian music was sneaking from the room which was filled with important figures among history who lived in New York and shaped the Syrian community. From merchandisers that started businesses and imported Syrians products to NY, to journalists and writers who started their own Arabic published newspapers. 

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Little Syria Exhibit

“What smells remind you of home?” A sign was held in front of two open boxes with a space to smell through. Za’atar, or thyme herbs mixed with spices goes straight to the heart when you sniff it. It is a famous dish for breakfast mixed with olive oil. The second box had Arabic coffee seeds mixed with cardamom. I used it find its taste bitter but always enjoyed its magical aroma while preparing it for my parents or anytime we have guests over. Many stories were told over coffee, many gossips, and many memories.

Inhabitants of “Little Syria” neighborhood were ironically coming from a once called country “Greater Syria”, which was a joint of what is now known as Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, Cyprus, Iraq, Kuwait and parts of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. 

The exhibit ended with a very informative documentary “The Sacred” by Ozge Dogan that narrates what happened to Little Syria, and how it was destroyed by tunnel construction and real estate business, scattering everyone around New York.

The Sociology professor Sharon Zukin analyzes the event in the documentary saying

A global city is based on flows. That means that everything is changing around us in the city, but people naturally desire to put down roots. We want to create places that we can feel emotionally attached to, often we do that through ethnic solidarity, living with people of similar social class. We try to find our place in the city and stay in that place. So it is extremely important that we as humans counter the mobility, the forces that are constantly moving around us and moving us around with roots so that we can stay in place. When our familiarities are taken away from us we feel lost we feel, we feel as though part of our life is stripped away from us. When an entire group of people is displaced by gentrification or by construction projects that group is torn from its roots and it takes a long time for the group to come together again somewhere else if they do.. 

They say history repeat itself. The documentary although talking about a late period, it was rubbing salt in a recent wound. The Syrian diaspora was extending. If people felt lost by moving from a neighborhood to the other and losing track of their usual places and faces, what would it feel like leaving the whole country?

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Elise Island Museum

I left the exhibit with a heartbreak and went to tour the museum one room after the other, which only made the heartbreak bigger. The whole museum talked about immigrants journey as soon as they arrive at this Island. The inspection they go through and the temporary life they have on the island before they get admitted into the country to start a whole new life. Immigrants from all over the world who ran away from various types of injustice circumstances to come to this place and work hard, day and night, to provide a better future for the next generation. They faced a different kind of injustice, they faced racism, discrimination, minimum wage and unfair working conditions. One room showed the protests that spread against migrants. They were shamelessly published in newspapers, one for each nationality, Irish, Italian, Asians and the list goes on. It was a challenging journey for all of them who contributed enormously in building this city. This city that is still not sure how it feels towards them.

Refugees are (not) welcome

Weeks from the visit, the newly elected president signed an effective immediately order restricting access to immigrants and refugees from seven countries, first on the list was Syria.

Kinan couldn’t come back to NY as he was performing outside the state. The shop owner I met welcomed me with a disturbed face the next time I visited him. Clearly, he wouldn’t be able to carry on his business and keep traveling back and forth to bring Syrian goods. Atlantic Avenue was flaming with protesters. It took me few long days to know that my diplomatic visa is exempt from the order. It didn’t matter much. I already felt unwelcomed, again, in another country that I thought might be a new home. And I couldn’t wait to leave.

Having huge support from friends I prefer to call a second family helped me get through this. The demonstrations that filled New York streets were overwhelming and something I am not used to. I am used to banners asking to kick out Syrians not welcoming them. Syrians are not even welcome in Syria.

Being a Syrian is undeniably the crime of this century. The crime that I hide but don’t regret. One day, after all this ends, there will be a museum to narrate the history of the Syrian war. They will film all the major events and picture the diaspora in details with statistics, but no one will ever mention how all countries leaders let down the Syrian people and participated in their holocaust.

And most importantly, no one will know that Saudade slowly ended the life in many Syrian homeless hearts.

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Washington Square Park