In Alia Malek’s The Home That Was Our Country (Nation Books), a journalist returns to her ancestral home and finds both desperation and hope. Part memoir, part journalistic account, the book traces the author’s family history in Syria from the end of the Ottoman Empire until her parents’ immigration to the United States in the 1970s. Afterward, Malek chronicles her own journey back to Syria to reclaim her grandmother’s home from a stubborn tenant. The resulting picture is rich in complex portraits of everyday Syrians and propelled by Malek’s carefully placed notes of suspense about her grandmother’s fate and an unexpected reconciliation.
Like the late New York Times reporter Anthony Shadid—author of the memoir House of Stone, in which Shadid moves to Lebanon to rebuild his family home—Malek combines frank journalistic prose with a personal journey of self-discovery. Her narrative is strongest and most vivid when she returns to her country of ancestry in 2011 to navigate the intricacies of living and reporting in a Syria under siege. She gives readers a window into the conflict and the toll it takes on the psyche of ordinary Syrians, who are desperately seeking a way to make sense of it all.
Malek, a journalist and former civil-rights lawyer, is also the author of A Country Called Amreeka, in which she uses the lives of ordinary Arab Americans to cast light on particular moments in US history. She has a gift for invoking the personal to make sense of the political, deftly moving from first-hand observations to historical overview in the same chapter. Malek’s descriptions also serve to remind the reader that everyday life, in all of its mundanity, can continue under the shadow of war. She writes of her family’s bitter orange tree, and of sharing coffee with her Aunt Suha. Most palpable, however, are the words left unsaid—how her relatives would refuse to discuss anything but the weather on the phone during intense political unrest—and the chilling silence imposed by an increasingly invasive and violent regime.
When I spoke with Malek by phone from her home in New York, she said that she thought that one way to combat public fatigue with the situation in Syria was storytelling. “We’re in a place,” she said, “where we need to break through the din.”
—Alexia Underwood for Guernica
Guernica: In The Home That Was Our Country, you use your family’s experiences to discuss events at the national level. How did you make the decision to mix the personal and political?
Alia Malek: This is an approach I used in my previous book, A Country Called Amreeka. Arabs and Muslims have been maligned in the American imagination, the American consciousness. Everybody has preconceptions about them. I felt like the only way to get around that was to allow readers to live in the skin of a person. I didn’t think polemical or academic writing was going to disavow people of those notions. Personalizing the political and making it feel very relatable worked in Amreeka, so I knew I wanted to do it again. That’s why the characters in both books are flawed, complex, nuanced people. I’m not trying to create this idea that everybody is a model minority.
It was not my original plan to write it in the first person. It was going to be in the third person, and I was going to use the story of my grandmother and all the neighbors in her building to illustrate this story of greater Syria. It took a lot of convincing by mentors, including Anthony Shadid, to change that. Since I had been living in my grandmother’s building in the first years of the uprising in Syria, it was also an opportunity to include more journalistic material.
It also feels like people have already checked out when it comes to Syria, and if they have any ideas about Syrians, they’re negative. It seemed better to personalize this story and use my own narrative and strong, nuanced characters.
Guernica: Do you feel like what you learned about your family in the process of writing the book changed you?
Alia Malek: There’s always been anger and frustration in my family over certain events, like the loss of the house—it really bothered my grandmother. I think all of us are living out our own personal stories, and when you pull back to a wider angle—and in this case I went really wide angle, all the way back to the Ottoman Empire—I feel like I developed a greater appreciation of societal pathologies that are caused by the accumulation of history.
Investigating your parents as characters as you would for any other story makes for a strange experience. So many people are coming up to me and saying, “Oh, I feel like I know you so well [because the book] was so intimate.” To me it’s like, “Really?” I became so detached from it that I subjected all the conversations to a level of scrutiny that I would use for any other story, and it no longer felt intimate to me at all.
Guernica: One theme that stood out for me in this book was that of silence. You frequently reference all the words that are left unsaid, as most people seem too afraid to express what they’re thinking and feeling about the regime. Do you see the writing of this book as an attempt to counteract the silence imposed on people by the regime?
Alia Malek: For all the trauma in Syria over the last four decades that you’ve heard about, there is also much that has remained unspoken and has taken a toll on society. These unspoken traumas are much more relevant to understanding Syrian society today, and also what is going to be able to emerge when the dust clears. I wanted to explore them in a way that felt relevant to the experiences that I had in Syria.
Was I purposely trying to issue a corrective to people’s inability to speak freely inside Syria? I don’t know about that, but the silence has always struck me, as somebody who was able to come in and out of the country. When I was there, I would find myself internalizing the silence, or the self-censorship. Then I’d go back outside and I’d snap out of it.
There are people on whom this state project has been operating for their entire lives, whom I find fascinating. I’ve been drawn to these stories as they happen in other societies. When you’ve lived in it, you start to understand how intricate it is, the language and architecture that goes into maintaining that fear.
A lot of Syrians have been reading this book very fast. It’s barely been out, and they’re writing to me to say, “You captured that dynamic and that’s true to what our experiences have been as well.”
Guernica: Did you ever think about using fiction to tell this story?
Alia Malek: Yes. They say that a novel can change your mind. That’s true, but my feeling is that due to the hostility that exists toward Arab and Muslim characters—which are not fully overlapping groups—there’s something about being able to say this is a true story, these are real people, that gets people to back off.
Someone could say: this is fictionalized, it’s apologetic, it’s PR, people like this don’t really exist. But all these people really do exist. That’s unfortunately where we’re at. We’re not starting at a place of pure intentions when it comes to books about Arabs or Muslims or Syrians.
I can’t script things as well as reality can. I wouldn’t have been able to dream up many of the things in the book. I also don’t know that I would have been able to imagine the psychological transformation I went through, starting the book and ending the book—how my feelings changed about the people who had taken our house.
Guernica: You reference Anthony Shadid’s death in the book, and your mix of memoir and history reminded me of House of Stone. Do you consider him an influence? What authors or books influenced you?
Alia Malek: Anthony was really a friend and a mentor. He helped me embrace the first person for this book, which I didn’t want to do. But it became so obvious two years later, when I finally decided to write the book proposal in the way that I did, that he was right all along. He was leaving for Christmas in December of 2011, going back to Boston, and he said, “I’m going to bring you back a galley of House of Stone.” I was in Syria for Christmas, and I never saw him again. He died shortly after. I just couldn’t bring myself to read House of Stone for a really long time. I didn’t read it until [my] book was well under way.
When I finally did, there were things, like the historical sweep, that were similar—he and I were both really interested in the Ottoman Empire. Anthony wrote the book so well, so beautifully, so effortlessly. He made me feel that it was all right to be subtle, that not everything has to be crazy or dramatic to illustrate moments.
Hisham Matar’s The Return was another influence. I read it after my book was done, but it’s a perfect execution of the personal and the political. If there’s a level of beauty that I would aspire to, I think Hisham Matar nailed it in The Return. Lucette Lagnado, who wrote The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit, about her Egyptian Jewish family—that was also really beautifully done and transportive. Also, Stasiland by Anna Funder, about East Germany and the Stasi. It’s a great narrative nonfiction book. And Nothing To Envy by Barbara Demick, about North Korea, and My Traitor’s Heart by Rian Malan, about South Africa. Those books were influential in helping me realize how to humanize these massive political stories.
Guernica: An extensive amount of research goes into writing a memoir, especially when you’re dealing with such a wide swath of history. What was your process like?
Alia Malek: The hardest chapter was “Origins,” in which I pick up the Syrian story with the last days of the Ottoman Empire. I didn’t really know that material in detail, though I knew it in broad strokes. Our knowledge of that period has changed a lot since I graduated from college over twenty years ago. The narrative that the Ottoman Empire ended, and then came this Arab nationalism bursting at the seams because they hated the Turks, which then created this pan-Arab way of looking at life and geopolitics—this is a story that the Syrian Ba’ath party tells. It’s the Nasser version of history, and it’s obviously the version that the Saudis want to push. But it’s not really accurate. I started to find inconsistencies based on the revision of history that has happened in the last twenty years by a lot of important scholars and academics. That’s where I slowed down the most, because it describes the crucial years in history where things were set in motion. They’ve been much more excavated since my formal education ended, so I spent a lot of time not only reading these academic works, but also interviewing historians.
For the more modern period, I had to do a lot of research on the political economy of Syria, on the cult of Assad, and on the specific politics around the Muslim Brotherhood. I had a research assistant in Syria and one in the US, and together we matched up family legend with actual historical evidence. I’m also very lucky that a local historian from our small village had written a history of the village and that there was also an amateur historian who runs a website about that village. That was just a stroke of luck. One of my great uncles had also written an unpublished memoir. There a lot of excavating and a lot of asking myself how this story that my family tells about ourselves fits into the country’s bigger history.
I also realized I needed to understand the political economy of Syria. The historical parts from the end of the Ottoman Empire were the most complicated to do. There aren’t as many first-person accounts or diaries of that time, but in addition to talking to academics and historians, I did read widely and find what was out there, because you’re trying to understand how people are reinterpreting their identities and seeing themselves in this shifting time period.
Guernica: You worked as a civil-rights lawyer for some years before switching to journalism and writing. What inspired the change?
Alia Malek: It happened during the massive Islamophobia that set in after 9/11. As a lawyer, I became obsessed with how to prevent rights violations, and it started to feel like what we really needed was storytelling and history. How do we change the “knowledge” that exists about communities that are ridiculously maligned? I’m focusing on storytelling. I think we’re in a place where we need to break through the din.
Guernica: I felt that the most hopeful part of the book was a scene that took place at a camp for internally displaced people, where you saw Syrians of different religious and socioeconomic backgrounds coming together. Do you agree?
Alia Malek: It’s positive in a sense. I spent a lot of time in the book talking about how the state keeps Syrians from each other. For example, a lack of good roads and highways meant that the country’s geography could separate Syrians. The state also made it difficult to speak to each other freely. The state has been ruling with fear, saying things like, “All Sunnis are pro-ISIS, and this minor community will be slaughtered if we don’t remain in power.” But it’s harder to rule people by fear and spread misconceptions about groups, to effectively make them fear each other, when not everyone is under your control. And now, how many millions of Syrians are outside of Syria? They’re able to have unchaperoned interactions with each other that aren’t moderated by the state.
There’s something equalizing about the class situation now, though people in tent camps are generally not as privileged as people who can make the sea journey. But even within the stratum that made the sea journey, there’s a ton of diversity. There were university-educated people who had studied engineering and computer science and dentistry on a raft, but you also had people who may not have been well educated—who were craftsmen and bakers, who were middle class. I’m hoping these points of interaction can help keep the societal fabric stitched together, even in exile and diaspora. This might mean something for when there is return, or in the post, or in the after. Listen, the whole fucking thing is catastrophic. But maybe outside of that space, which is such a traumatizing place, maybe this can function as a corrective now that the chaperone has been removed.
If I’m kind of hopeful about something, I am hopeful about those interactions. They might be a way for Syrians to get to know each other in a way that they weren’t able to before, and to represent for themselves what they think and they believe. It’s the only way to go forward into the future, I think. What choice do we have?