Regarding the Pain of Others

The Home That Was Our Country: A Memoir of Syria BY Alia Malek. Nation Books. . $28.

The cover of The Home That Was Our Country: A Memoir of Syria

IN DECEMBER, AS BASHAR AL-ASSAD'S JETS PUMMELED Aleppo apartment buildings, the New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman published an article that asked, essentially, Why doesn't anyone care about Syria? Between the paragraphs of his text, images flashed of a Syrian man standing amid urban rubble, a woman in a head scarf, a child saying, over and over, "Please, save us, thank you." Kimmelman, like so many others, wanted to know why photographs from the Syrian conflict haven't produced the same reactions similar images have in the past. "Pictures of war and suffering have pricked the public conscience and provoked action before," Kimmelman writes. "There was Kevin Carter's photograph from 1993 of a starving toddler and a vulture in Sudan. There was the photograph of the dead American soldier dragged through Mogadishu, which hastened the United States' retreat from Somalia. There was Nick Ut's 1972 photograph from South Vietnam of the naked 9-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc, screaming, burned by napalm. These pictures drove news cycles for weeks, months, years, helping tip the scales of policy." With Syria, Kimmelman continues, despite a flood of horrifying imagery, "Washington shrugs." If not conventional military intervention, there should have been more sanctions against Russia, some serious response to Assad's use of chemical weapons. There should have been something. Kimmelman eventually comes to a helpless conclusion: If Bana, one of the Syrian girls in the video, "looks us straight in the eye and asks us to save her," he writes, "the very least we should do is look back."

But haven't we been looking back? As Kimmelman himself states, no other war has been more thoroughly photographed than Syria. The critic Susie Linfield, asking some of the same questions as Kimmelman in her own New York Times piece, pointed out that pictures have even become a kind of grotesque trophy of this war, representing a story the fighters—both Assad's forces and militant groups like Al Nusra and ISIS—want to tell. "Both sides are engaged in a perverse competition to show the world, and each other, how ruthlessly barbaric they can be," Linfield writes. "Aided by new technologies—the cellphone camera, YouTube, Instagram, social-media sites—these images of cruelty ricochet around the globe. The traditional role of war photojournalism has been turned on its head: Rather than expose atrocities, photographs now advertise them." Images of extreme violence already surround us, but the barrage of brutality showcased by ISIS and the Syrian regime has tended to confuse and overwhelm us still further, making us doubt our usual emotional responses and shattering any firm narratives we might try to construct about the war. This is just one sense in which the perpetrators have stolen the story of Syria from the Syrian people.

Several books on Syria have emerged over the past few years, but those, too, often slip by without making the impact you might expect. There have been conventional nonfiction narratives like Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War by Robin Yassin Kassab and Leila Al-Shami, The Battle for Syria by Christopher Phillips, and Syria Burning by Charles Glass; journalistic dispatches like The Morning They Came for Us by Janine di Giovanni; memoirs like The Crossing by Samar Yazbek; Arab Spring compendiums like Robert Worth's A Rage for Order; and books that concentrate, like Patrick Cockburn's The Age of Jihad, on the rise of ISIS. But the Syrian tragedy seems not to have received the sort of intensely focused, character-driven-nonfiction treatment that has brought to life for readers other societies under siege, such as Anand Gopal's account of the war in Afghanistan, No Good Men Among the Living, or Anthony Shadid's Night Draws Near, about Iraq. Even after almost six years of war, I suspect most foreigners have little sense of either Syria's past or its daily life, which is why Alia Malek's new memoir, The Home That Was Our Country, feels like such a necessary, conscious corrective. Malek, an American-born Syrian journalist and lawyer, entwines the story of Syria with that of her family, from the birth of her great-grandfather to her own arrival as an adult during the Arab Spring. The power of her narrative suggests that the one thing that might counteract the numbing effect of incessant disconnected images is the rootedness of written history.

Syria's history is not an easily accessible one. As in Turkey and Iraq, myriad sects, religions, ideologies, and regional differences make it difficult and sometimes wearying to disentangle. In the Ottoman era, what would later become the nation of Syria had been part of a larger entity that included chunks of what are now Palestine, Lebanon, and Turkey. During World War I, its inhabitants fell victim to the infamous Sykes-Picot Agreement, in which the British and French secretly arranged to carve up the Middle East along arbitrary borders: Iraq would go to the British and Syria to the French. Once in power, as Malek explains, the French played favorites among the Alawite, Sunni, Christian, Jewish, Druze, and Kurdish groups in the newly created nation, ultimately elevating the down-at-heel Alawites within the military, to the Sunnis' disadvantage. Though the country became independent in 1946, during the Cold War not only the United States and the Soviet Union but also Jordan, Iraq, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia "all attempted to gain footing, influence, and power in Syria," she writes, "by exploiting whatever divisions they could create or deepen in its society." With so much external pressure to manage, Syrians were often prevented from grappling with their own internal problems: territory, labor, the function of religion within the state. Syria had long been dominated by landed elites who wielded power in the earliest nationalist governments, but eventually other groups "less tied to the Ottoman past" (as Malek puts it) began to assert themselves. One was the Sunni Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. Another was the Ba'ath Party, from whose ranks, in 1970, the Alawite military general Hafez al-Assad ascended to power. His rule was characterized by increasing corruption, violence, and, eventually, dynastic tyranny.

Though born in the US, Malek took extended trips to Syria with her family when she was a child, and eventually moved there for some years as an adult. Like many journalists, she writes better about others than about herself: Her introduction, which is mainly in the first person, can feel flat—the typical story of a writer returning home to discover the lives of her grandparents. But Malek quickly establishes her deeper talents as a historian and storyteller. Her family is very much like other families, and their miseries under the regime were evidently similar to those of many other Syrians—Malek's vivid portrayals of this ordinariness are what make the book so affecting. Here, the country and its people don't come to life through acts of heroism, but through descriptions of the vegetable sellers who cry out "Cucumbers! Like baby fingers!" as they pass in the street; the daily chats with neighbors over coffee; the arguments over when to wash the communal staircases. Domestic details often inspire a different, more lasting kind of empathy in readers. Malek wisely decides to tell the story of Syria through Tahaan, her grandparents' Damascus apartment building, and primarily through the figure of her grandmother Salma.

Al-Amashatiyeh neighborhood, Aleppo, Syria, 2017.  Basma/Foreign and Commonwealth Office/Flickr.
Al-Amashatiyeh neighborhood, Aleppo, Syria, 2017. Basma/Foreign and Commonwealth Office/Flickr.

Salma's father, Abdeljawwad, who was born during the Ottoman Empire, established his wealth in the province of Hama. Malek describes the milieu from which he came as one of violence and hardship; she expands on the little-known history of the seferberlik, the forced mobilization of Arabs by the Turks during World War I that resulted in death and trauma for thousands of men and women. Syrian men came into their new nation-state with fresh memories of war and a fear of subjugation by outside forces, which they would soon experience again with the arrival of the French. In 1949, a few years after the establishment of independent Syria, Salma and her husband moved into an apartment in the Tahaan building. Salma is a wonderful character: somewhat imperious, ambitious, constantly smoking, chafing at the limits of a woman's allotted role. She is one of those sunlike people around whom everyone revolves—Syrians come from near and far to seek her advice about their problems, which gives Malek's book the feeling of a crowded living room, with someone always knocking at the door.

Over the years, though, corruption, bureaucracy, and the octopus-like omnipotence of the Assad regime start to interrupt the daily activities of Tahaan with greater frequency, until finally, tragically, private life can no longer stay independent of the government's activities at all. Authoritarian states seem menacing from the outside (and often from the inside, too; I live in Turkey). But these regimes can also continue for a long time without directly affecting some people's personal lives. Days go by as normal; the city street is still a vibrant place; families remain intact. Malek later suggests that this normality can bring with it a kind of complicity in which you are "both a victim and a bystander," while also showing how impossible it would be to resist the regime's gradual encroachment. Instead of attempting such a thing, to protect themselves from the dreaded mukhabarat, or secret police, Syrians simply stop speaking openly, even—or especially—once large-scale violence begins. In Hama, where Salma's family is originally from, the Muslim Brotherhood has started to challenge the regime, and in 1982, Assad bombards the city, killing some ten thousand people and making it clear to everyone that no dissent will be tolerated. Malek's parents, by then living in the United States, decide not to return to Syria.

The book's next section begins on more familiar ground, with Malek, now an adult, in the US, but her account is buoyed by moments of illuminating reportage. In 2001, for example, she works at the Justice Department under John Ashcroft, who, as a Pentecostal Christian, issues many overtly religious or conservative decrees: Women must be referred to by their husbands' first and last names, preceded by a Mrs.; coworkers receive invitations to attend Ashcroft's prayer meeting, which is "held at the department." (In a book about a Muslim country, this passage has a singular effect, reminding Americans tempted to disparage Islam of their own nation's fundamentalist tendencies.) Malek continues to work in this environment until 2003, so she witnesses the surge of Islamophobia in Washington after 9/11. Her disgust inspires a full-time return to the Middle East, where she is still living when the Arab Spring begins.

The uprisings in Syria in March 2011 were spawned by the government's draconian response to any sign of resistance: When Syrians protested the arrest and torture of a few teenagers who'd painted revolutionary graffiti on a wall, Bashar al-Assad's forces fired on them. One difference between the revolts in Syria and Libya and those in Tunisia and Egypt was the viciousness of the rulers. Assad had no intention of leaving power, and no habit of compromise. As Bassam Haddad has noted in The Nation, the regime's response was in no way calibrated to the nature or scale of the threat: "It is not as though Assad would have tolerated a locally grown and independent, secular, anti-imperialist, pro-Palestine, leftist opposition, militant or not." But Assad's violence only gave more motivation to his opposition, both the peaceful activists and, eventually, the armed militants. By 2013, the country had dissolved into hundreds of small rebel brigades (who found funding from sundry patrons in Saudi Arabia and Qatar), and had also been infiltrated by Al Qaeda and the new organization known as ISIS. Since Assad had already been branding any and every opposition group "terrorist," the arrival of ISIS only served to excuse his rhetoric and complicate what had previously been a fairly clear-cut narrative of a brutal, autocratic leader's oppressing a civilian population. Soon world powers began jockeying for the spoils, as they had a hundred years earlier after World War I: Turkey and the Gulf states offered support to the local Al Qaeda group, Al Nusra; Iran dispatched its Hezbollah regiments; the US halfheartedly helped its own preferred opposition groups, as well as a Kurdish rebel organization that was eager to form its own state and, more importantly (for the US), was effective against ISIS; and Russia eventually began waging war on the regime's side.

Here Malek's book is of limited use, because she left Syria for her safety two years into the conflict. It's hard not to wish for more from her on the war, the rise of ISIS, and the ensuing refugee crisis (she has covered the latter beautifully for Foreign Policy and other magazines). Still, I admire her determination to do what hasn't been done often enough thus far—wrest back the story of Syria for ordinary Syrians, showing us the place that has been lost and that most of the world never knew. And Malek's focus on her grandmother Salma also allows her to find the most wrenching metaphor for how the Syrian people may feel as the conflict continues and they are left to suffer. During a trip to the US, Salma has a stroke and falls into a paralyzed state, unable to move anything but her eyelids. She cannot speak, she cannot end her own life—she can only endure her agony. In a brilliant scene, Malek recalls trying to imagine this existence. "I'd lie there still, as if I were locked in the way Salma had been after that stroke," she writes. "At first I'd try a minute of motionlessness; since Salma couldn't turn her head to see a clock or a watch, I'd count in my head from 1 to 60, pausing between each number, to get to one minute. . . . I'd keep counting to 120, and then I'd want to crack my knuckles, wiggle my toes, or move my arm, bothered by how it pressed into my armpit." Malek can't last more than five minutes like that. Her grandmother spent "203,212,800 seconds of being alive in a dead body, waiting, waiting, waiting for something to happen."

As Michael Kimmelman wrote, the US has not ended the war in Syria. But it's not really true that, in response to the situation there, "Washington shrugged," even if it may often feel that way. As has been detailed in countless articles, the catastrophe in Iraq (and to a lesser degree, the chaos in Libya) forced the Obama administration to consider its options more cautiously than in the past. Military occupation was off the table. Hillary Clinton and other administration officials advocated for arming the Syrian rebels—a task taken up first by Turkey and the Gulf states and only later by the US—but as Obama told the New Yorker, when he asked the CIA to find examples of cases in which arming rebels in foreign wars had "actually worked out well," they "couldn't come up with much." Conventional UN-brokered diplomacy floundered for other reasons, not least because of long-standing discord between member states. The most controversial of Obama's actions was, of course, his declaring the use of chemical weapons a "red line" and then not responding when that line was crossed in August 2013. Many Syrians see this as the moment when the West was discredited and the violence intensified. Then there was the growing involvement of ISIS, and the long period during which it created a graphic, terrifying distraction from the equally disgusting crimes of the war's instigator, Assad. For the international community, it seems, any path to a solution would have to be far outside of existing paradigms, something they proved incapable of imagining.

What's more, the US was by then confronting the effects of decades of foreign-policy mistakes and misdeeds. It had destabilized Syria in the late 1940s, with a CIA-backed attempted coup, and had unbalanced the entire Middle East with its support of Israel and Saudi Arabia, which helped strengthen local strongmen like Hafez al-Assad, as well as compelling Iran to shore up its own allies in Syria and Iraq. It had exacerbated sectarian divisions in the name of democracy, had antagonized both Iran and Russia with sanctions, and had helped spawn ISIS with the occupation of Iraq. As American dominance wanes, we need to consider that the problem may be not that the US no longer ends wars, but that its bar for starting wars was too low in the first place.

In a piece for the New Republic, Susie Linfield diagnoses American intellectuals with "a kind of political post-traumatic stress disorder," asking "how long the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will give us a 'pass' from engagement with current world conflicts." But that suggestion is surely an insult to Iraqis and Afghans, who have suffered the consequences of American "engagement," paying for it with the loss of many lives and the destruction of their countries. In December, when Samantha Power denounced Russia and Iran and Syria at the UN, asking them if they were "incapable of shame," the reaction from many around the world was "Where is your shame?" Syria seems like the clearest manifestation, not of the loss of the American world order, but of what that world order has wrought: easy aerial bombardments and drones that pose no risk to the nation deploying them, terrorist-like independent contractors, the routine subversion of revolutionary and rebel movements, the habit of convenient agreements between large-state leaders (such as the US's nonchalant support for the Saudi war in Yemen), the view of huge numbers of deaths as an acceptable price for "change." Syria is indeed our shame and our responsibility—it is our obligation, as Kimmelman says, to look at the suffering of its people, and to look hard. Syria should prompt the West to reconsider all its assumptions. We may need, as Alia Malek does in her remarkable book, to go back to the beginning.

Suzy Hansen's first book, Notes on a Foreign Country, will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2017. She lives in Istanbul.