I am determined not to let Syria out of my sight. I am keeping it in my consciousness and in my heart. I fell in love with that land and I left a chunk of my heart there. Nowadays, I hear mixed reports from my friends in Syria. I don’t know what outcome to expect, nor what outcome to hope for. My heart is breaking for Syria, but I’m also excited about what might be on the horizon… albeit with trepidation because we don’t know what’s really on the horizon.
What I do know is that Syria, and Syrians, have inspired me. I have learned about life and about love from them. Cliché though it may be, they have made me want to be a better person. Here, today, I want to reflect on what it is about Syria that captured my imagination and my heart. Perhaps, these are not the things we might initially associate with Syria, but they are most certainly true.
…Smiles, innocence, open arms. When I picture the people I met in Syria, I picture shy smiles. Girls my age, their siblings, spouse and parents, welcoming me into their homes – either physical houses, or emotional homes in the form of a heartfelt conversation during a random encounter on the street. They look at me, the foreigner, with genuine curiosity. I think of the time a man accidentally proposed to me because he didn’t realise I was a foreigner (and marriages among Syrians have been known to be agreed on the street), and his deep shame at realising he had embarrassed me. What he said was offensive to me, but the emotion in his retraction more than made up for it. I think of the dozens upon dozens of times I have sat down to a cup of tea with a student and exchanged the most banal of questions: where are you from? do you have siblings? what is your dream for your life? In each of these interactions, I could glance into their eyes and see all the way to their hearts. They didn’t tell me every detail of their lives, but they did let me see what was deep inside, as often as not when were mere acquaintances.
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…Food. I must confess I am a bit of a foodie. I love eating and I love flavours and I love cooking. I grew up in Brazil where the food is fantastic. I could eat roughly the same thing every day and never grow tired of it, even though I love variety in my diet. The food was just. that. good. Well, it turns Syria’s culinary delight is easily rival to Brazil’s; in fact, Brazil has adopted quite a bit of Syrian cuisine in its own. In a beautiful stroke of irony, I learned that there was, roughly, and inverse relationship between conservatism and skill in the kitchen. The more conservative a family, the better its women were masters of spices. To some extent, even, the more difficult family life was, it seemed like the more rich that family’s repertoire of food would be. I’m sure this can’t really be true, but sometimes it really seemed like it, and that, most certainly, gave me pause.
…Heritage, culture, history. I grew up in countries where historical monuments were 100-500 years old. History classes focused on the past 2 centuries. I knew nothing of history before I moved to Syria. In Syria, I lived in a house that was only 100 years old, but built on a foundation that was roughly 6000 years old. I visited cities and houses of worship that had thrived 2000 years ago, but had fallen into disuse. But sometimes people built on the ruins, and sometimes they were just beautiful places in the desert we could visit. This rich history pervaded all of life in Syria. In Syria, no one (except for immigration authorities) cared what my passport said. They were more interested in my father’s ethnicity, and his father’s, and his father’s and his father’s… as far back as I cared to recall. Or could recall. In Syria, people know more ancient history than modern history, it sometimes seems. While modern history is also good, I learned so much from their deep, rooted ties to antiquity.
Kati Woronka first moved to Syria in 2001, in the wake of the events of 9/11. She quickly fell in love with the Middle East, studying in Damascus and later in Beirut, Lebanon. She has conducted social research in Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan. During the past four years she has worked in humanitarian aid and community development for international NGOs, specialising in peacebuilding, women's empowerment, and knowledge management. Currently she is preparing to publish her first full-length novel, Dreams in the Medina, a coming-of-age tale about a young woman from a village in the south of Syria who moved to the big city. She blogs about human encounters on Culturtwined.