Syria Through British Eyes

29 November, 2021
A city in Syr­ia, paper col­lage on can­vas, 160x220cm, 2020, by Syr­i­an artist Tam­mam Azzam.

 

Nov­el­ist Rana Had­dad spent the first fif­teen years of her life in Syr­ia before mov­ing with her fam­i­ly to Eng­land. The dif­fer­ence between what she saw and expe­ri­enced in Syr­ia and what she heard about Syr­ia in Eng­land there­after was like night and day. This is part one of a two-part essay. The sec­ond instal­ment is enti­tled Objec­tive Brits, Sub­jec­tive Syr­i­ans.

 

Rana Haddad

 

Imag­ine if a stranger were to tell your sto­ry in their words. More­over, imag­ine that this stranger believed their own fan­tasies about you more than what you told them about your­self, and that this stranger’s voice was loud enough for all the world to hear — but yours was not. This is what it’s like to be a Syr­i­an liv­ing in the West.

I was born in Syria’s har­bor city of Latakia in 1970, the year Gen­er­al Hafez Al-Assad became pres­i­dent of the Syr­i­an Arab Repub­lic, or rather its de fac­to king. For since his dra­mat­ic arrival on the scene, all dressed up with his sig­na­ture mous­tache and mil­i­tary uni­form, Assad ruled Syr­ia as if it were his king­dom. And to prove this, he lat­er bequeathed it to his shy oph­thal­mol­o­gist son, who for many years didn’t know he was a prince or an heir apparent.

Syr­ia at the time I was grow­ing up there was a coun­try where the hum­blest per­son read and wrote poet­ry and ate the most metic­u­lous­ly-pre­pared dish­es, because both good food and poet­ry were con­sid­ered a basic neces­si­ty of life.

Think of what it might have been like liv­ing in Eng­land dur­ing the Tudor or Eliz­a­bethan eras, but add in all sorts of peri­od props such as 1970s fash­ions, gad­gets and music from both East and West, black and white TV, radios, tele­phones, cam­eras, cars, bus­es, traf­fic lights, ketchup, may­on­naise and foun­tain pens. Add to that scene a Mediter­ranean lifestyle no dif­fer­ent from those enjoyed in Italy, Greece or Spain but sig­nif­i­cant­ly more ancient, a fab­u­lous­ly refined food cul­ture, along with music and poet­ry enjoyed by both rich and poor.

Rana Had­dad’s nov­el is pub­lished by Hoopoe/AUC Press.

Syr­ia at the time I was grow­ing up there was a coun­try where the hum­blest per­son read and wrote poet­ry and ate the most metic­u­lous­ly-pre­pared dish­es, because both good food and poet­ry were con­sid­ered a basic neces­si­ty of life. Syr­ia, which spanned both a large part of the Lev­ant and a por­tion of the Fer­tile Cres­cent and Mesopotamia, had been a mul­ti­cul­tur­al, mul­ti­eth­nic and mul­tire­li­gious soci­ety for mil­len­nia. Dot­ted along its coast and hin­ter­land were mon­u­ments such as Ugar­it where the first world alpha­bet was cre­at­ed, and numer­ous Phoeni­cian, Aramean, Assyr­i­an, Baby­lon­ian, Roman, Greek and Byzan­tine, and cru­sad­er ruins and cas­tles. There were ear­ly ver­sions of Aphrodite and Venus here; the god­dess­es Ishtar and Inan­na were wor­shipped with sim­i­lar­ly dra­mat­ic myths that pre­dat­ed the Greek myths, myths peo­pled with gods and god­dess­es; with poet­ry and art to match as well as ancient inno­va­tions in sci­ence, music, astron­o­my, math and even law. Syr­ia, which was also influ­enced by the Ottomans and the French, was once the sweet­heart of British ori­en­tal­ists such as T.E. Lawrence, Agatha Christie and Gertrude Bell, who saw in its land and cul­ture and peo­ple the tremen­dous mag­ic and beau­ty that very few ordi­nary British peo­ple of today know about.

Anoth­er most­ly-for­got­ten truth about Syr­ia is that it is the moth­er of the Chris­t­ian west, or per­haps its grand­moth­er; some of the world’s first church­es con­tin­ue to be active there today, with ser­vices con­duct­ed in Ara­ma­ic, the lan­guage of Christ, a close cousin lan­guage of both Ara­bic and Hebrew (Bib­li­cal or greater Syr­ia encom­passed today’s Syr­ia as well as cur­rent day Ana­to­lia, Anti­och, Lebanon, Pales­tine and Israel – before it was divid­ed up like a piece of cake by the French and the British a cen­tu­ry ago).

But for all the decades before the ter­ri­ble war that erupt­ed in Syr­ia after the 2011 rev­o­lu­tion, to all intents and pur­pos­es Syr­ia did not exist, or if it did then it was as a land of Bedouins and ter­ror­ists and noth­ing much in-between. But this was not the Syr­ia that I lived in for the first fif­teen and a half years of my life.

Dur­ing the 1970s and 1980s, my father first had a black Cit­roën, and lat­er a white Peu­geot; we had hard­ly ever been con­front­ed with a camel except on TV. As chil­dren and teenagers, we knew all about the West, which did not know any­thing about us. We watched Casper the friend­ly Ghost and Tom and Jer­ry on our tele­vi­sion screens as well as Russ­ian fairy tale car­toons; we watched Charlie’s Angels and Dynasty and Dal­las as well as Syr­i­an and Egypt­ian soap operas. We were not famil­iar with tents either, nor with deserts (except on school trips to Palmyra which was in the part of Syr­ia where, yes, we had a desert). Syr­ia had the Mediter­ranean, moun­tains, plains, major rivers such as the Orontes and Euphrates as well as a desert. It had an urban pro­fes­sion­al class, a rur­al class as well as Bedouins, it had lib­er­al peo­ple as well as con­ser­v­a­tive, rich as well as poor. Every­thing exist­ed there, like it does in many oth­er nations. But unlike in the West, which had lost touch with its own ancient roots, in Syr­ia moder­ni­ty and the past co-exist­ed in a way that many of us found deeply enrich­ing and it filled our world with meaning.

 


 

The coast­line along Latakia today.

We went to a girls’ school that was for­mer­ly a French con­vent school, a stone’s throw from the Cor­niche which was full of cafes and fish and Ara­bic mezze restau­rants, where peo­ple played backgam­mon, drank Syr­i­an-made Arak, beer and wines and watched live con­certs of both Ara­bic and west­ern singers and bands. Our school court­yard was full of cen­turies-old trees and fra­grant blos­soms, and our school with teach­ers with French names such as Made­moi­selle Laudie and Madeleine, Gladys, Geor­gette, or a Turk­ish Ottoman name such as Madam Irfan, and our Ara­bic lit­er­a­ture teach­ers had names like Jawhara (Jew­el), or Ramez (the Sym­bol­ic one) or Usama (the one who has a name). All of his­to­ry was encom­passed in our teach­ers’ names. Our den­tist had a Greek name, our super­mar­ket own­er was Armen­ian, the woman who helped my moth­er every day at home was Alaw­ite — she was illit­er­ate but her daugh­ters even­tu­al­ly went to study at uni­ver­si­ty and became teach­ers. As a small child I learnt my first words in Ara­bic with an Alaw­ite vil­lage accent as I spent so much time with her and also her chil­dren, giv­ing me a sense of both rur­al Syr­ia where she came from as well as the urban and coastal Syr­ia where I grew up. In our Chris­t­ian con­vent school, we had plen­ty of Mus­lim chil­dren. Sit­ting side by side togeth­er we grew to love one anoth­er and devel­oped friend­ships that last­ed a life­time; many of our par­ents were friends and busi­ness asso­ciates and for­mer school­mates too, and the links between the fam­i­lies and their off-spring had last­ed for many generations.

And as for war and ter­ror­ism, yes, I had a short expe­ri­ence of them. Three years after I was born, a 19-day war erupt­ed with our 25-year-old neigh­bor­ing state of Israel. Every morn­ing we would see petrol silos burn­ing on the coast, and a sol­dier by the name of Jaw­dat was sta­tioned in our gar­den to pro­tect our house, which faced the city cor­niche. Every morn­ing and after­noon, I would bring him a tray of cof­fee and bis­cuits, and I remem­ber how when he left I cried the way only a lit­tle girl can cry at los­ing a young man in uni­form who treat­ed her as if she were his daugh­ter or his sis­ter. As soon as the war stopped life returned to nor­mal, and it was as if noth­ing had happened.

The Syr­i­an love of life con­tin­ued unabat­ed, and became even more intense with the knowl­edge that none of what we had could be tak­en for grant­ed. One day mil­i­tary air­planes could be fly­ing over our coast and hous­es, while we were play­ing card games in bunkers, and then a few weeks lat­er we could find our par­ents sit­ting in a fish restau­rant, while we chil­dren played hide and seek, or with rack­ets on the beach. But apart from these dras­tic one-off 19 days of dan­ger, dai­ly life in Latakia was extra­or­di­nar­i­ly safe and secure. As a young girl of eight or nine, it was not unheard of for me to take a taxi on my own or with my friends to go here and there, or to go and vis­it my friends on foot with­out super­vi­sion. From morn­ing till night, our lives as chil­dren and teenagers were free, we did as we pleased and the city was our play­ground. The num­ber of peo­ple who knew us, our par­ents and even our grand­par­ents was in the high hun­dreds, so wher­ev­er we went we were sur­round­ed by acquain­tances, who kept an eye on us.

The sound­track to my child­hood was the singer Dal­i­da, with songs such as “Hel­wa Ya Bal­a­di” (You are Beau­ti­ful, My Land) and Gigi L’Amoroso (about a young man who left his home­land, only to suf­fer humil­i­a­tion), Bony M, Abba and lat­er the Eury­th­mics, Michael Jack­son, Queen and Wham, as well as the poet­ic and plain­tive tones of Umm Khoulthom and Abdul Hal­im Al-Hafez, who dur­ing those ear­ly years my gen­er­a­tion thought of as absolute­ly dull and bor­ing, only to under­stand our grave error in our matu­ri­ty. Mean­while we were hap­py to gorge on the come­dies and songs of Ghawar Al-Toshe, whose crit­i­cism of our gov­ern­ment sys­tem was implied but nev­er open­ly, and all the oth­er foibles of our soci­ety were turned into the butt of end­less jokes and hilar­i­ty. In school we learnt French poet­ry and Ara­bic poet­ry and had to sing the nation­al anthem every morn­ing, “Syr­ia, my beloved, you have returned to me my free­dom, you have returned to me my dig­ni­ty.” Even that song pro­voked a mix­ture of a strange feel­ing of patri­o­tism mixed with an aware­ness of the absur­di­ty of its words, for yes, Syr­ia was our beloved, but she had been cap­tured and she was not free, and yet we loved her and she made us hap­py. Our female teach­ers wore full make-up and dressed with French chic, and our male teach­ers were well dressed too and rather lit­er­ary. One of the Ara­bic lit­er­a­ture teach­ers wore a fur coat and looked like a super mod­el and was the school heart­throb until he got engaged and mar­ried — to every girl’s eter­nal chagrin.

Our PE teacher was heav­i­ly over­weight and we had hard­ly any class­es as a result, while our school bus dri­ver had a num­ber of gold­en teeth and drove a bus that was old­er than a dinosaur, we thought. Cor­po­ral pun­ish­ment was used by some teach­ers as part of their arse­nal to sub­due us. But this was regard­ed as quite nor­mal and no one bat­ted an eye­lid, as in Roald Dahl’s Matil­da, inspired by his British school days in the 1920s.

When I look back at those years, I won­der how it was pos­si­ble to have had such a hap­py child­hood grow­ing up in such a time and cir­cum­stances and in a school where if a teacher was angry they were per­fect­ly with­in their rights to scream at us at the top of their lungs and insult us with bizarre expres­sions such as, “You’re not worth the skin of an onion!” or “You’re an owl” or “a don­key” or “a ghoul.” All or most of those crazy behav­iors by our teach­ers made us trem­ble in our seats while they hap­pened, only for us to lat­er remem­ber them as so out­landish that they elicit­ed more chuck­les in ret­ro­spect than any­thing else. And we often took our revenge with some of the teach­ers in the sum­mer, for exam­ple by throw­ing bal­loons filled with water at some of them as they passed under­neath a bal­cony. We were not pas­sive sub­jects of their out­bursts, but often had a few tricks down our own sleeves in retaliation.

I was not the only one who felt that way about those years and about Syr­ia before the war, my feel­ings are shared by many. And although much of what we lived through was not as it should be in an ide­al world and peo­ple wished for far bet­ter, yet some­how in our minds this was no rea­son not to enjoy life as most of us did. What I remem­ber most vivid­ly from those years are my friends, my books, the beach, the laugh­ter and the atmos­phere of that city that can hard­ly be com­pared to any­where except Beirut before its own un-civ­il war: a tan­ta­liz­ing and sat­is­fy­ing mix­ture of east and west, leisure­ly and stu­dious, seri­ous and sil­ly. This was our life. We col­lect­ed stamps, we read books and comics, Tin Tin and Aster­ix, Super­man and Mick­ey Mouse all in Ara­bic, as well Khalil Gibran, who in the west is classed as New Age lit­er­a­ture and in the Lev­ant as local lit­er­a­ture read by young and old. We also read the risqué nov­els, trav­el writ­ing and love sto­ries of the Syr­i­an writer Gha­da El-Sam­man and many oth­er writ­ers from both Syr­ia and the entire Arab world past and present, such as Han­na Mina and Ado­nis — both world writ­ers who were born in the vicin­i­ty of Latakia. Our book­shops car­ried the icon­ic British Lady Bird series in Ara­bic and an end­less num­ber of Russ­ian clas­sics, as well as Dick­ens, Vic­tor Hugo, the Koran, the Bible and mod­ern and medieval Arab poet­ry, which we were forced to mem­o­rize line by line at a very ten­der age for fear of being beat­en with a small wood­en stick on our palms or humil­i­at­ed in front of a large class of our friends, who were always full of sym­pa­thy after­wards. The teach­ers were so strict that we found our solace in each other’s friend­ship and affec­tion, which was easy and uncom­pli­cat­ed dur­ing those ear­ly years.

That is most­ly what I remem­ber about Syr­ia. And after leav­ing in 1985 with my fam­i­ly, every sum­mer vis­it also involved more of the same. Life in Syr­ia was full of social­iz­ing, humor, jokes, read­ing, talk­ing, phi­los­o­phiz­ing and hear­ing about end­less love sto­ries, many but not all of which were for­bid­den. Mar­riages, engage­ments, elope­ments, fanat­ic obses­sion with fash­ions and dress, laugh­ter, tears and more of that were the dai­ly fare of our lives and the lives of every­one we knew.

Every now and then we would hear a whis­per of some­one being impris­oned, an assas­si­na­tion by the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood or by the regime or some ter­ri­ble behav­ior by one of the nephews of the pres­i­dent or his broth­er, but then it would be for­got­ten and life would car­ry on as if noth­ing had happened.

It was per­haps only two years before we left Syr­ia, when I was about 13 years old, that I final­ly under­stood that we were liv­ing in a dic­ta­tor­ship and what this actu­al­ly meant. It was at that age that I under­stood that the price of free­dom was excep­tion­al­ly high, and I thought that I was pre­pared to pay it. But apart from one friend in my school whose father was in prison because oth­er­wise he rather than Hafez Al-Assad would have been the pres­i­dent of Syr­ia, all the oth­er chil­dren had no inter­est in pol­i­tics, and did not want to hear any­thing about free­dom or the price one might have to pay for it. As I grew up, most of my friends start­ed to look like movie stars, though quite extra­or­di­nar­i­ly well read and clever ones at that, because dur­ing that time in Syr­ia (and the entire Mid­dle East), there was no con­flict between intel­li­gence and fem­i­nin­i­ty or beau­ty, some­thing which strange­ly enough did exist in what we had believed was the more pro­gres­sive west. Many girls went on to study archi­tec­ture, engi­neer­ing, math­e­mat­ics etc. None of those sub­jects were con­sid­ered unfem­i­nine, and I for exam­ple was told off con­tin­u­ous­ly by all my teach­ers because I only want­ed to study lit­er­a­ture, instead of some­thing more seri­ous and sci­en­tif­ic like med­i­cine or archi­tec­ture or law. But despite their intel­li­gence, or per­haps because of it, most of my com­pa­tri­ots had decid­ed very ear­ly on not to con­cern them­selves with what they knew would be the lethal games of pol­i­tics or journalism.

This is but a glimpse of what I have to say about Syr­ia. But the most impor­tant thing is that the way I saw Syr­ia and the way Syr­i­ans see Syr­ia is noth­ing like the way those who have not been there see it or imag­ine it to be. But it is they who own the glob­al loud­speak­ers, the instru­ments of media, and it is they who tell the sto­ry of Syr­ia as they see fit. And they who are con­vinced that their sto­ry is the objec­tive and true one, while we the peo­ple of that nation do not know any­thing because we are sub­jec­tive, and our voic­es are only rel­e­vant to prove their the­o­ries about us, as sound bites to pop­u­late their pre-writ­ten and pre-con­ceived doc­u­men­taries, which they have the means to broad­cast across vast tracts of our planet.

(Con­tin­ued here.)

 

Bashar al-AssadChristianDalidaHafez Al-AssadIsraelKhalil GibranLatakiaMuslimSyria

Rana Haddad grew up in Latakia in Syria, moved to the UK as a teenager, and read English Literature at Cambridge University. She lived in London and worked as a journalist for the BBC, Channel 4, and other broadcasters. Rana has also published poetry and is currently mostly based in Athens. The Unexpected Love Objects of Dunya Noor, her first novel, was shortlisted for the Polari First Book Prize and selected as MTV Arabia Book of the Month. She is now working on a novel set in London that will portray England in a way it has never been portrayed before. She tweets @SyrianMoustache.