At first, they were just black shadows cast across the desert expanse. As they drew nearer, they came into focus as a trudging mass of humanity.
Women in loose robes dragged toddlers, babies propped upon their hips. Men carrying parents and grandparents on their shoulders stepped ahead, calling back for assurances as women collapsed in the heat. Flimsy plastic bags, crammed with clothes and other belongings, dangled off shoulders and wrists. In the midday glaze, as light shimmered off the desert like water droplets, the scene at the Syrian-Iraqi border seemed almost biblical. My Iraqi colleague Ali, who had already tasted the wrath of displacement from his own country, squatted in the shade of our car and cried.
I, too, had watched this scene many times already, in Syria and on its borders. Recently, at another crossing into Iraq, thousands of Syrians had trampled over a bridge that all but collapsed into a river, capturing the media’s waning attention of the then three-year-old refugee crisis. From Iraq, I went to Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, aiming to report on the refugee crisis from every border of Syria that I could. I was determined to see every dimension of this war so that I could better understand it. But not just for my reporting. This was a deeply personal assignment for me, and yet one that never quite felt personal enough.
Syria: never the country I called home, but certainly my homeland. I would untangle the many shades of this identity at the very moment the country was coming undone. Through my reporting, I would learn more about the people of Syria—Syrians, like me—from cities I knew, towns I had never heard of, and faraway villages I wouldn’t think to visit if it weren’t for my job.
My parents are from Damascus, Syria, but my siblings and I were raised in other countries in the Middle East and in the United States. Home was a place we created for ourselves over and over in places that never felt as though they were indisputably our own. Still, growing up, we always knew where we were from—Syria—even if we didn’t live there.
In Saudi Arabia, for example, where my father built a career in the construction industry, we weren’t quite as foreign as the Western expats, but we weren’t Saudi either. Life felt temporary, even after many years. In Lebanon, one of our latest adopted homes, it took only a couple of words for new neighbors and friends to identify our Syrian accents.
We spent summers in Damascus, at the apartment my parents bought specifically to keep roots in Syria. And though it seemed fickle to declare this was the place I was from based on yearly visits, nothing else came as close to making as much sense. After ten years in Lebanon, my Lebanese friends would jokingly ask, “But how do you still sound so Syrian?” I found it a condescending expectation that my words and mannerisms would meld into the mainstream around me—but it was also a fair question: how do you retain so strongly strands of somewhere or something you have never lived? I would grapple with that question subtly, slowly, over my formative years—and then sharply, suddenly, in my job.
MIN WEIN? (WHERE ARE YOU FROM?)
I particularly never identified with the straddle that comes with being a hyphenated American: Syrian American, in my case. But because I worked for a US newspaper, I found that not only was that duality an accurate and apt description of me throughout my reporting in the Middle East, it was also a helpful one that I could use to my advantage in certain situations. Still, it was always a little awkward explaining I had never lived in Syria. Sometimes this conveyed a social class barrier—of someone with the means to live abroad—or else a woman so Westernized that I might as well have not been of Syrian origin at all.
But remembrances of Syria over many cups of tea, and even a meal or two scraped together from meager ingredients, eventually diluted the differences. After all, it wasn’t just that I spoke Arabic but my specifically Syrian accent that eased me into the small, intimate quarters of refugees and helped me get reporting done, for the most part, with ease and trust.
I learned to navigate the corners of my family identity and history, and use my experiences as a native reporter in the region, to see and access deep or difficult parts of the story. Instead of dreading the question “Min wein, anseh?” (Where are you from, miss?), which I was asked in every conversation and interview, I came to cherish the mutual exploration that would follow. What bound us was always more obvious, in the moment, than what made us different.
At least for the first few years of the war, this was true.
I never anticipated that I would cover this kind of war in my homeland. I told family and friends often how lucky I considered myself to have this job, this assignment, at this very moment. It was like an elevator pitch I perfected: It wasn’t just that it was a huge story, I would say, a skill-building and name-making experience. It was a privilege to get to know my country, whatever the circumstances.
Privately, I felt guilty that it took the Arab Spring and a nightmarish descent into war to accidentally spark this personal journey. As a college student in Lebanon, where I also first started to work as a journalist, I learned more about that country than my own. This felt like a betrayal, however inextricably linked the two nations’ histories were. Soon I had more Lebanese friends than Syrian. Beirut, with its beachside bars and an American university we liked to call “Harvard of the Middle East,” was a cooler place for twentysomethings than Damascus, where a semisocialist economy made the city feel like it lagged a decade or two behind.
When the early rumbles of the Arab Spring started, and my editor at the Wall Street Journal asked me to look into what was happening in Syria, I was mortified. Sure, I was Syrian, but I didn’t know the country nearly as well as he might have assumed. And I predicted—mostly correctly—that few people I personally knew would be willing to talk to me in my capacity as a foreign correspondent for an American newspaper.
But as with any assignment, I worked away until I had contacts and sources I trusted and who trusted me, people offering snippets of life in a country fragmenting faster than we could document. Eventually, I even began to excel at the part of the job I found the most difficult: pressing traumatized and vulnerable people to recall experiences and details they couldn’t, or didn’t want to, in order to explain the suffering of Syrians in our stories. In moments of great synergy, it felt like I was drawing on a special power that helped me glide into people’s lives, even at times of horror or tragedy.
For a while, my job was a welcome safety net. It gave me an excuse to dissect and report a convoluted war with the aimed precision of a lab investigator, or a fact-finding mission, while dueling narratives swirled all around. My focus on deadlines and news cycles left no room for personal reflection or outrage, or the debates and conspiracy theories consuming the Arab world. I thought it was better that way, as week after week, and then year after year, the war killed, injured, depressed, or polarized everyone around me. Everyone knew someone who stopped talking to a brother or aunt on the opposite side. Relatives trickled out of Syria, packing up homes they doubted they would ever return to. My mother wept every time she watched the news.
Whether they’re taking shelter from barrel bombs in the caves of Idlib or Aleppo or in the relative safety of Beirut or Berlin, Syrians everywhere will talk about tashreed—literally, displacement. “Tsharadna, ikhtee” (We’ve been displaced, sister), people would say to me over and over. The word meant so much more than simple physical displacement. Tsharadna meant we were ripped apart, made dispossessed—evicted, even. Over time, it began to reflect the complete shattering of the nation and the people it had encompassed.
Throughout the war, I downplayed my own feelings. What an inappropriate indulgence it felt like to recognize that somehow I had a small connection to this mass tragedy, beyond my job. I felt unentitled to this pain. I was, after all, a longtime expat—not a born-and-bred Syrian. I was experiencing this primarily as a journalist. My family was safe. Colleagues and friends praised my reporting as brave, but what was momentary courage driven by professional purpose when millions of people—my people—had no choice but to face violence every day? I pushed those thoughts aside and planned the next story, the next trip.
Still, my accent, my name, and ultimately my feelings always betrayed me. To myself and others, I was undeniably Syrian. And as the war got more violent, “Min wein?”—Where are you from?—became a more pointed question, demanding an answer with significant specificity: Which neighborhood, what sect? Here, too, I used my reporter’s role as a veneer to protect myself from the type of probing often faced by journalists related to the places they are covering. “I’m just reporter” was an easy, and honest, answer to “What side are you on?”
From OUR WOMEN ON THE GROUND edited by Zahra Hankir, published by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Nour Malas.