I first visited Homs, Syria as a teenager. Until then, having grown up in a small homogenous town in northern Michigan, I had little contact with the Arab side of my identity. My father came to the United States from Homs as a medical resident in 1962. He traveled by passenger ship for 11 days from Naples to conduct his residency during a period when the U.S. was recruiting third-world doctors to fill delivery gaps in rural and underprivileged parts of the country.
The story of my grandfather’s ambivalence about his son’s westward voyage is one my father tells often. It is an ambivalence that laces most migration tales. It reflects the tension between pursuing opportunities elsewhere and the loss of connection to home.
My grandfather–a gardener for the British oil refinery company behind our family house, now used as a regime detention center for revolutionary activists–first supported my father and then tried to block him from going to America. He believed in the opportunity presented his son, the first of his five children to graduate from high school, but his friends convinced him that if my father left for America, he would not return.
Eight months after my father arrived in New York harbor, the socialist Baathist party took power in a military coup back in Syria, terminating the existing multi-party system. The coup ushered in the rise of Hafez al-Assad, who led his own coup in 1970. Assad imposed a new constitutional order in Syria that gave absolute power to the president and Baathist party. He also restructured the security apparatus along family and ethnic lines, cementing the highly repressive dynastic order against which Syrians are now revolting.
During these years, my father settled into the U.S., starting a successful medical practice and adopting the small comforts of a quiet life on the idyllic shores of Lake Michigan. While the decision was probably one made as much by default as anything else, my father often contextualizes it as a conscious choice not to return to a country and a region beset by conflict and corrupted leadership, always punctuating the point with wistful tales of observing parliamentarian debates at the height of Syria’s “golden years” following the nation’s independence from French colonial rule.
It was surreal for me, a 17-year-old kid from Michigan, to be greeted in the Damascus airport late on a hot summer night by customs officials dressed in military gear, and to be eyed by the ubiquitous, stern portraits of Hafez al-Assad, not only in the airport, but all along the barren highway from the capital to Homs. It would be the first of what would become annual visits to Syria.
I eventually reached my father’s eldest brother’s apartment building and climbed the three flights of stairs to find a phalanx of aunts, uncles, and cousins waiting in line at the door to greet me with alternate cheek kisses (three, with the last one emphasized with an embrace, as is traditional for those you particularly love). Tears flowed as lost family members were reunited. I was immediately ushered into a small sitting room overflowing with couches and chairs to accommodate the tens of extended family gathered together, a novelty for me after growing up cocooned within a nuclear family in small-town America.
It was after midnight, but small cups of sweetened Arabic coffee were served, and I was quickly re-dressed with slippers and a gown, considered more comfortable for home than the restricted Western dress reserved for the outside world. The experience impressed upon me that I was in unfamiliar cultural territory, but the warmth enveloping me encouraged me to embrace this other, less known half of me.
The visit was spent learning the family tree, eating elaborately prepared meals, being lectured on the virtues of Islam, getting beguiled by endless jokes about Homsi foolishness (a former national pastime), and discovering the labyrinths of of the city.
Homs is the third-largest city in Syria, with a mixed Sunni, Alawite, and Christian population. It is an agglomeration of sprawling concrete development built up over periods of rural migration. With an old city center dating back to the first century BC, Homs has seen its historical grandeur overwhelmed by chaotic density and pockets of stark poverty.
But Syrians and Homsi in particular are an enterprising people; the many shops and informal laborers that filled the city during the days I was there recalled a vibrant historical legacy. When I walked through the bustling covered old market (“souk”) with hundreds of small shops and kiosks, selling everything from shiny gold jewelry to kitschy trinkets (decorated, improbably, with American cartoon characters), I attracted special attention from the male shop owners unaccustomed to Western visitors at the time. Because I was flanked by my uncle and my father, however, only a few were bold enough to move beyond awkward stares to call out an invitation to enter their shops. I was relieved when neither my uncle nor my father witnessed the small man moving through the crowd reach out for a private grope, preferring to avoid the inevitable confrontation that would have pursued.
My family boasted that Homs did not have a homeless population. Indeed, unlike in American cities, one did not see hungry people rummaging through garbage bins. Their point was that an ethos of solidarity and strong family bonds defined the social fabric in the city. It was precisely this social fabric that, in the end, led me to identify more with my other, albeit more foreign, Arab half. It was part political choice, an affirmation of a communal value structure, part homecoming, as I now understood why when I had rebelled against my father’s “no-dating” rule he defended his decision with the refrain “at least I don’t make you wear a veil.”
Today, Homs is literally disintegrating. This place that was at first so distant and then so close to me is, strangely and tragically, front-page news, fodder for gruesome cable TV footage.
After Bashar al-Assad assumed the presidency following his father’s death in 2000, elaborate sums of money were spent to revitalize the city, home to his now reviled wife, Asma. On my last visit to Homs with my father he enthusiastically pointed out the urban upgrades, which more closely conformed to his Westernized sensibilities. After months of incessant shelling and ongoing fighting, though, hundreds of buildings have been partially or completely destroyed, including recent renovations. The park, where my uncle and I sat resting as he caught his breath on the one-kilometer journey between home and the souk, and where he confided in me that when my father left he not only lost a brother but his best friend, is now a staging ground for armed battle between Syrians.
A great concern for the future is the damage being visited on Syria’s social fabric. Will this fabric, including the ethnic mosaic of Homs, be destroyed along with the streets and buildings? When the mass killings of entire families first occurred in Homs toward the end of last year, I wondered how any semblance of a community, of the things that brought me closer to the place and came to define my sense of self, could ever survive. Today, the conflict has progressed to the point where the prevailing question is whether the state will survive.
My father did not literally keep his promise to return to Syria, at least not to live. But he kept it in a larger sense, remaining engaged with his home, sharing it with his daughter, working hard to maintain a bridge between his two worlds. These days we stay in daily contact with our besieged relatives, who are congregated in one home that’s considered safer than the others. The pain and fear that loom over our days remind us that geographical distance is relative.
Syria may survive the conflict, but it will take years to piece together the fragments. While the revolutionary leaders speak of building a better Syria–one committed to pluralism, equality, and democratic freedoms–the challenges will be immense in a region plagued by geopolitical proxy wars and faltering political transitions. In lamenting the disintegration of Syria and with it the potential loss of social meanings, an African friend dismissed my melancholy by reminding me that “states fall apart all the time.” Indeed, and memories live on.
Leila Hilal is the director of the New America Foundation’s Middle East Task Force based in Washington, D.C.
*Photo courtesy of syrialooks.