"Back home, it occurs to me that my in-laws have tested me, not deliberately, but as surely as if they had handed me a blue book and asked me to write a five paragraph essay on their homeland."
Fear of the Unknown
Before the trip, as a young wife three years into my marriage, I anxiously inquire of my in-laws what to expect - mainly, would people in Syria speak English? Although fluent in English and Spanish, I know only a handful of words in Arabic: tayira-plane, sayara-car, jibne-cheese, tayeb-good, shukran-thank you, halal-lawful, haram-forbidden. “Oh yeah,” my brother-in-law casually assures me. “Don’t worry - everyone there knows English as well as Arabic.” Ok, phew. Good to know.
Fear of Being Rude
After landing on the runway, we descend the plane, squinting in the sun, and cross the tarmac to go through customs at the Damascus airport. There, we find a group of relatives waiting eagerly for us. In the general flurry of greetings and hugs and back slaps, I receive introductory kisses from the women and handshakes from the men. Anxious to do the right thing, I approach a middle-aged man I spot hovering at the periphery of the cluster of happy and excited family. He is dressed, in contrast with the elegant sportswear worn by the rest of the group, in basic gray cotton, worrying a string of plain wooden prayer beads. Hand outstretched, I smile, awkwardly offering a mumbled “pleased to meet you.” Rather than reciprocate my gesture, however, he only nods his acknowledgement, and instead avoids even the slightest contact with me by swiftly moving his arms behind his back. Confused and embarrassed, I drop my hand, my tentative smile fading. Later someone tells me that this uncle belongs to an Islamic sect whose male members do not touch women, on any pretext, at any time, except mothers, wives, and daughters. Thanks a lot, I think. You could have warned me.
Fear of Big Brother
Starting with the taxi ride from the airport to the Sheraton Damascus, I see images of Assad Sr. everywhere. He seems to look out from every surface: hanging from rearview mirrors, plastered on huge billboards, painted in state sponsored murals, perched on the roofs of taxis, displayed prominently, in flocked black velvet, on the interior walls of private homes. His face is ubiquitous, ever watching, like Orwell’s Big Brother or the bespectacled eyes of Fitzgerald’s Doctor T.J. Eckleburg. I also notice posters, sprinkled here and there, of the eldest son and heir – the one once destined to inherit the presidential throne, the one now dead in a car crash involving 150 miles per hour in a Maserati – smiling in flashy aviator glasses and a military jacket. It’s as if, people say, the father wants to pretend he’s still alive.
When I innocently ask from the back seat of the taxi if women routinely vote in this country, my mother-in-law shushes me, finger on lips, casting an anxious glance to the front of the car before whispering, “Don’t talk out loud about politics here – you never know who is working for the government.” Startled, I stare at the graying head of the mild mannered driver.
After the taxi deposits us at the hotel, my husband and I settle in our room, luxurious in its décor of brass lamps, walnut furniture inlaid with mother-of-pearl, and wall panels with carved configurations traced in silver and sage. I soon discover that through room service I can order mahalabia, the delicious custard my father-in-law makes regularly at home. As the cool pudding, subtly sweet with milk and sugar and rose water, lingers on my tongue before sliding down my throat, I gaze out the large picture window from the settee where I sit and see, situated high up on the arid brown mountain opposite the hotel, the presidential palace, a marble fortress really, a massive monument to totalitarian power that seems positioned for maximum intimidation to overlook the population below. The imposing structure dominating the broad plateau on Mount Mezzeh is huge, a white block radiating menacingly in the glare of the sun, protected from enemies by slabs of concrete, high security walls, and tinted windows that look like black eyes surveying the city with cold dispassion.
Fear of Being Left Out
I sit on a low, wide sofa. Thick velvet drapes muffle the honking of cars and the calls of street vendors while shielding the room from the heat of the summer sun. Silk Persian rugs cover the floor, wall-to-wall, soft under bare feet. The family has gathered at an aunt’s house for lunch in the late afternoon. After eating, we’ve assembled in the salon, sipping, from small delicate glasses, hot black tea over sweetened with heaping spoonfuls of sugar. All around me are the sounds of Arabic, harsh and melodic at the same time, as completely unintelligible as the crashing of ocean waves. Unable to understand what is being said, full to the brim with rice and meat and pine nuts, chickpeas and eggplant and baklava, still jet-lagged from our long and tiring journey to the Middle East, I find myself unbearably sleepy. My eyes close, yearning to stay that way; my head nods as I drift drowsily into unconsciousness. Oh my God. I have to stay awake! I rub my eyes surreptitiously and give myself a series of small shakes to try and counteract the overwhelming soporific of the foreign language that surrounds me – murmurings like white noise that are only punctuated now and then by laughter and the musical clink of tiny silver teaspoons. Finally, the kindly voice of our hostess inquires something of me in the Arabic I find utterly incomprehensible. My husband has to translate: “Would you like to lie down in the guest room to rest?” I attempt to resist their concern, to deny my sleepiness, but cannot. In the end, mortified, I’m forced to exchange the animation of the salon for the hushed isolation of an empty bedroom.
Fear of Military Presence
Returning one afternoon from a country estate an hour from the city center, we’re stopped at a checkpoint by soldiers wearing khaki uniforms and bearing large automatic rifles. Our host, a twenty-something cousin, pulls the car over and opens his window. From the back seat where I sit with my husband, I try to figure out what’s happening. The cousin argues with the military guard. Their tones escalate. The cousin, our host, the person responsible for delivering us safely back to our hotel, is getting angry, seemingly outraged at the way the soldier is treating him in front of guests. “What’s going on?” I ask my husband, my voice low and anxious. He ignores me, stroking his upper lip with his index finger, a habit I know he unconsciously indulges in when stressed. The placating tone of the cousin’s wife in the front passenger seat seems to plead with her defiant husband to calm down, to take it easy, to let it go. He ignores her. A second soldier joins the first and barks at our host. I watch as he reluctantly steps out of the car. “What the hell is happening?” I demand, this time much forcefully, my anxiety having ratcheted up. Again I am ignored. I continue to watch, seething with anger and frustration, as well as racked with worry and fear, as men with machine guns force the young man, our charming host, into the dark interior of a canvas tent set up by the side of the highway. The host’s wife and my husband confer over the car seat in rapid Arabic. Furious now, I jab my husband with my elbow until he tells me that he’s not sure what’s going on, but that he’ll translate later, when things quiet down. Finally the young man returns. As he enters the car, the soldiers who have accompanied him back seem to give him a parting warning. Ignoring them, he slams the door shut and turns the key in the ignition.
All is quiet as we shoot down the endless concrete strip bordered by farmed fields, olive tree groves, and distant brown hills. I wait in silence for my husband to talk to me, to explain what happened and why, to assuage my anxiety with translation and facts. But he never does. Why doesn’t he realize how upset I am? How would he feel if he couldn’t understand what was being said by serious soldiers bearing guns and barring our way?
Fear of Breaking Down
Later that night, dressed for dinner and sitting at an elegant table in the Sheraton courtyard, listening to my in-laws converse with close friends who have joined us at the outdoor restaurant, hearing but unable to absorb the soothing sounds from the stone fountain, I struggle to hold it together. Earlier, back in our hotel room, my husband and I had fought. All my frustration at my inability to understand Arabic, to know what was being said and discussed by those around me, rose to the surface and found an outlet in blaming my husband. He, however, seemed unable to understand my position, the stress and anxiety of not knowing. We had finished our fight unresolved, both left with the unease of mutual misunderstanding. Hours later at the restaurant, once again surrounded by the language that acted as a wall rather than a door, a barrier rather than a bridge, I blink rapidly and bite my cheek, pinching my wrist under a napkin to keep from breaking down. Finally I can pretend no longer and flee the table. In the restaurant’s sleek marbled bathroom, I cry and cry, leaning against the sink, periodically plucking fresh tissues from a handy container and throwing the wet crumpled ones into the bin. I begin to worry about myself, when will I stop? Tears keep flowing and I’m obliged to blow my nose over and over as I recall sitting in the hot car at the checkpoint earlier that day, trying to decipher what was happening by reading the body language, the changing facial expressions, the shifting tones of voice of the various actors in the tense drama unfolding before me. The guns, the military tent, the uniforms, the tightly laced combat boots had triggered my imagination and I had envisioned, in a kind of quiet panic, violence and humiliation, bruises and blood, arrest and disappearance. I had remembered hearing the rumors: You know, Syrian prisons are supposed to be even worse than Israeli ones.
My face is still damp and my mascara smudged blackly under my eyes as I attempt to make myself presentable when the mother of the family dining with us enters the bathroom. She is classy, inside and out. She wears hijab, covering her hair with an elegant European style turban, her thin kind face made up discreetly. This family friend, until this evening a stranger to me, does not ask me to explain, or to say what’s wrong, but comforts me instead with her presence and her small talk, deliberately distracting me as she helps pat my face dry with yet another tissue before hugging me close in a tight embrace.
Fear of Failure
Back home, it occurs to me that my in-laws have tested me, not deliberately, but as surely as if they had handed me a blue book and asked me to write a five paragraph essay on their homeland, so different from mainstream America with its orderly airports and enforced driving laws, endless efficient highways and towering skyscrapers, no-smoking areas and recycling campaigns. I realize that I have passed this test by taking certain aspects of Damascene culture – the dusty heat and the late nights, the women in shapeless trench coats and severe headscarves, the inescapable image of an autocratic dictator and the need to censor one’s conversation, the lack of seat belts in taxis and the lack of toilet paper in non-Western restrooms – in stride. Yet I know, in my heart, that they are the ones who have failed a test. By failing to adequately prepare me, despite my many queries before we left the States, for what I would encounter after clearing customs. By failing to recognize my need for assurance. By failing to respect my need to know. By failing to translate. They have failed a test I didn’t even know that they would be taking or that I would be judging.
Fear of the Future
I couldn’t know it then, but I should have feared the future. I should have feared the ransacking of Iraq and the rise of ISIS, Syria’s failed Arab Spring and Assad Jr.’s brutal repression of his own people. I should have feared the over 500,000 dead and the 13 million fled. I should have feared the largest refugee population in human history. I should have feared the bombing of Palmyra, the stunning golden-red remains of a major cultural center of the ancient world, where my husband and I took turns taking photos of magnificent ruins, worthy of Olympia, among endless sand dunes. I should have feared the empty streets, dirty and desolate, where once I strolled in the balmy evenings scented with jasmine, contently licking my pistachio booza, the Syrian ice cream made elastic and sticky with milk, salep, mastic, and sugar. I should have feared the abandoned apartments once inhabited by loving and prosperous families, where I had visited, sitting under ornate crystal chandeliers at tables covered with intricately embroidered cloth and laden with plate upon plate of hummus and kibeh, ful and fattoush, maqlube and mahalabia. I should have feared not being able to take to Damascus my own children, my sons who are half Syrian, to experience for themselves the vibrant hub of their father’s heritage and their own birthright, the legacy of generations extending back over centuries.