Ahla wa sahla a Souriya. Most days, I sit down to write, and words pour out of me like water. As I sit here writing this, my thoughts are so jumbled, it’s hard to even know where to start.
Maybe I should start by saying, “ahla wa sahla a Souriya” which means “welcome to Syria.” Maybe I should start with “nishkar Allah”, which means “thank God.” I’m not entirely sure how many times I’ve said “nishkar Allah” since I’ve been here. I’ve been thinking, “thank God I’m here, thank God I made it, thank God I still have a country and family to come home to.” Nishkar Allah.
As I approached the village last Saturday night, I started crying tears of relief and joy. Maybe mostly relief, truth be told. For eight years, I wondered and worried if I’d ever see my family again. I saw terrible things happen to people on the news, and lay awake at night, praying to God they wouldn’t happen to my brother or sister, their children, or grandchildren. And finally, I was here, rounding the corner, turning onto the street where my brother lives.
My driver said, “don’t cry, be happy. You’re here! Your family will be upset if they see you crying.” I got out of the car and saw my sister-in-law, Nadia, first. We started hugging and kissing and I started sobbing. Sorry folks. Full-on wrenching sobs.
First Nadia, then my niece, Shereen, my nephew, Shadi, and his wife, Rihab, my nephew, Danny, and finally, my brother, Zouzou. I tried so hard not to cry too much, especially all over my brother. He’s not super fond of overwrought emotion. When I finally stopped crying, I explained how relieved I felt. Oh, thank God, nishkar Allah, I finally made it.
That last five days have been filled with laughter, music, good food, and talking, talking, talking. If there’s one thing our people are good at (there are many things), it’s talking. The cool thing is though, we’re also really good at just sitting around together, not-talking, too. But ok, seriously, we’ve mostly been talking. We talk about everything. My brother has a veritable zoo now – a rooster, chickens, baby chicks, two geese, and a duck. Also, more traditionally, a dog. He has a large garden filled with fruits and vegetables. Then, there’s the weather. It’s been unusually cool and cloudy. This is the reason why it’s been a bad year for fruit. There has been much conversation about the bad fruit year. It’s disappointing in general, because the figs and grapes are shriveling on the trees and vines, but it’s specifically bad for the olives because that is the big money crop. There will be olives to press for olive oil this year, but no olives for eating.
Another popular topic is “who is coming to the village and when are they arriving?” It goes something like this:
“Look, they’re cleaning Zakhour’s house.”
“Yeah, he’s arriving tomorrow.”
“Is his wife coming with him? How about the kids?”
“His wife is with him, I heard the two younger kids are too, but his oldest is coming next week.”
“Really? Hey, did I hear he’s getting married?”
“Yeah, he took a girl (took means “chose”) from Zweitini (a nearby village).”
“Oh yeah, min bayt meen?” (“from who’s house?” which means from whose family.)
“Min bayt Azar (the family name). You know Ibn Moussa (that’s “Moussa’s son”)?
“Ibn Moussa? Yeah, I went to school with his wife.”
(I just read this conversation to my sister and she said, “ibn Moussa? From Zweitini? Meen ibn Moussa min Zweitini?” and I’m laughing my ass off! So, I explained to her I’m just making up names to give you all an example of our conversations.) Seriously though, this type of conversation is repeated over and over throughout Syria, every day. For real, Syria is a place you can go where “everybody knows your name.”
In addition to all these lively conversations, there’s “mut-tea” (yerba mate), tea, and coffee to drink; fruit, nuts, and seeds to snack on; and of course, cigarettes and argheeli (hookah) to smoke. When my brother told me he stopped smoking after his angioplasty last year, I told him, “bravo alaik (good for you)!” I just asked my sister-in-law about his surgery and she said so many men have had heart problems since the war. “It’s the stress,” I said. “Taba-aan.” (of course), she replied.
Life is basically, pretty normal here now. Some things are worse, some things are better, and some have stayed the same. What’s worse? People are scared. I started to write, “more” scared, but then I realized that doesn’t work. Why not? Because it implies people were somewhat scared before the war, and then their fear level increased. This is inaccurate.
Before the war, there was no fear level. I know that sounds crazy, but it’s true. People didn’t worry about their personal safety before the war. In the village, the worry is pretty much gone. It went away about three years ago when the fighters holed up in the nearby castle (yes, I wrote “castle”) were defeated by the army. I would say that for our village and the surrounding area, it marked the point where life began to return to normal.
These days, children go down to the school yard every evening (called the “naadi”) and play with each other. Kids as young as four or five all the way through high school hang out there from about 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Kids go by themselves in groups and are unsupervised. People also feel free to travel from village to village in the dark now. This is a return to normalcy. Nishkar Allah.
Next up: My family. You can read all about my brother’s family here: Syria Today – Part II My Family (well, half of it) and my sister’s family here: Syria Today – Part III My Family (the other half of it).