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Umbilical Bonds: Weaving Memories throughout Displacement

By: Muna Kattoub, feminist activist.

The concept of "homeland" has always occupied my thoughts. Is it defined solely by the geographical location of our birth, upbringing, and citizenship, or does it transcend to encompass the haven where we find belonging and security?

For us Syrians displaced from our native land, the question lingers: will Syria endure as our sole homeland, or will the nations offering us refuge become our new anchors? Is it possible to forge a profound connection with multiple homelands simultaneously, embracing both the motherland and the adopted country, or must one sever ties with one to fully embrace the other? The essence of belonging in these new lands remains a complex inquiry and a delicate balance between integration and the persistent reminder of forced displacement, where we grapple with the constant threat of not finding a secure spot on this vast planet to tread our paths.

I believe the answers to these questions vary, shaped by several factors, including the individual refugee's personal experience on one hand, and the host country's treatment of refugees on the other. Yet, what has particularly intrigued me is the shared endeavor among the majority of us Syrians, scattered across various diaspora nations. We actively and consciously strive to sustain a connection with our motherland, Syria, sometimes with deliberate intent and at other times, woven seamlessly into our subconscious.

While in Turkey bidding farewell to my friends before traveling to Canada, where I currently reside, one of my friends expressed her refusal to leave the city of Gaziantep (a city in southern Turkey). Despite having had opportunities to leave Turkey, she feels a closeness to her hometown, Aleppo. The proximity may seem like a logical reason if she were able to visit her city occasionally, but as Syrians, we are fully aware that any conditions for a safe and voluntary return have not been met. What good does the proximity of distances do for us?! Perhaps my friend feels that the proximity between the two cities allows her to breathe in a breeze carrying the scent of air from her hometown or to feel raindrops falling from a cloud that had just visited Aleppo. Or, possibly, the presence of approximately half a million Syrians in Gaziantep has allowed Syrians to create a community that resembles Syria to a large extent.

In the diaspora, we fear that this connection to our homelands will fade over the years. We do not know the true nature of our feelings when our children, who left Syria at a young age or were born outside it, fluently speak a new language learned in school. Are we happy with their ability to smoothly integrate with new societies, surpassing our capabilities as the older generation? Or do we mourn the loss of our Arabic language? Here, we not only rely on our frequent attempts to teach our children our mother tongue but also strive to explain to them the meanings of our popular proverbs and colloquial expressions. We repeat our songs to their ears, mention our traditional dishes' names, and remind them repeatedly of our customs during Ramadan, Eid holidays, weddings and funerals. I have even noticed that some Syrian families in diaspora countries go to extremes in adhering to, and passing on, our beliefs and customs, even those we did not practice in Syria, perhaps due to our preoccupation with life or our realization that they were outdated habits to discard.

However, no matter how much we try to hold onto our memory and pass it on to our children and grandchildren, will we succeed in making it have the same impact on their souls as it does on ours? Or will it be an additional burden on their lives, and will they bear the responsibility of passing it on through generations? When a friend mentioned her insistence on having a pelargonium plant when she moved to live in Turkey because it reminded her of her home in Syria, it brought me back to the balcony of our house in the city of Douma. I used to pick pelargonium leaves to put them in the tea pot or in the kibbeh dish to add that distinctive flavor. But what does this plant mean to our children who have not tasted it in any of the burgers, hot dogs or pizzas they eat? What does the jasmine plant mean to our children? Its scent does not remind them of the alleys of Damascus as it does for us, and they have not made a necklace or coronet of jasmine flowers as we used to do in our childhood while playing in our grandmothers' houses. The plate of jasmine and the voice of Fairouz did not accompany their morning coffee cups; they are accustomed to quickly brewed coffee.

When talking about our attempts to preserve the memory of the homeland and pass it on, I remember that we, as humans, try to collect memoirs, pictures and souvenirs from all the stages of our lives, the places and cities we visited for recreation. We keep them on shelves, in drawers and at corners of our homes, delighting in talking about them to our friends. However, the situation is different for us Syrians forced to leave our homeland – we do not even know if we will see the day when we can return to that homeland. Therefore, we try to cling to our individual memories because they will constitute the collective memory for us. We fear its loss so we try to pass on to future generations what we could carry with us in our hearts and minds, as if this memory is the umbilical cord that connects us to our homeland.

When one of my friends shared that she carried a handful of soil with her before boarding the green bus when forced to leave her city, it brought to my mind stories I had heard about Palestinians holding onto keys to their homes that they were expelled from in 1948. I used to wonder: What significance does a key to an old house occupied by Zionists for many years hold? At that time, I didn't grasp the meaning of the verse sung by Kazim Al Saher: "I was exiled, and strangers settled in my country... They destroyed all my beloved things." Today, however, I fully understand the value of carrying a handful of soil from our homeland, just as Palestinians carried keys from their homes.

Today, things we managed to carry from our homes hold greater value now than they did when we were inside our homeland or when we used to leave it feeling it will embrace us whenever we choose to return. I remember being in Gaziantep, Turkey, during the earthquake on January 24, 2020. When we decided to evacuate the building to ensure safety from potential aftershocks, I reminded my family to bring identification papers and any money amounts available. I rushed to my bedroom to collect my Syrian passport, Turkish residence permit and ten photos. I have carried those photos with me since late 1999 when I left Syria for the first time, transporting them across the three countries I lived in throughout these years. I cannot recall why I specifically chose these ten photos out of the thousands lining up the shelves in the bookcase of our home in Douma, the bookcase containing pictures of my parents when they were young, of our birthdays, school trips, family trips, weddings and our children. The bookcase also accommodated the certificates of recognition we received at school as well as thousands of books and novels. Each photo and each book in that bookcase has a story to tell. The ten photos, which I carried with me, held a special place in my heart since leaving Syria. Previously, I used to keep them alongside other photos, but from the day I learned that going back to my home in Douma was becoming almost impossible, I have kept them with my identification papers.

I visited Syria several times before the revolution. If I had known then that I would never be able to return, I would have carried more photos with me. Nevertheless, I consider myself fortunate today to possess ten photos from the memories of childhood and youth. Less lucky, some friends had to part with all the memories of their lives during their journey from Syria to countries of asylum. When we mention our home, the bookcase with all its novels and pictures is the first thing that comes to my mother's mind and tongue. She often recalls that my father, known for being meticulous, spent days rearranging all those photos by their chronological dates during the siege before they left Douma. My father passed away three years ago, but I ask myself: What made him arrange those photos? Was it hope that he or another family member might return someday, or perhaps he felt there would be no reunion with them, so he wanted to pass them on with care? Today, I wonder: Were those photos burned for heating or cooking during the suffocating days of the siege in Eastern Ghouta? Did curiosity drive someone to contemplate them, learning about our family members and the details of our lives? Did they try to guess our different life stages in those photos? Did they succeed in connecting a photo of that mother holding her child to another picture of her as a young girl sitting on the balcony swing, or did they simply get rid of all these photos without paying them any attention? Or were they faithful to our lives and memories, preserving them in the hope of one day delivering the trust to the rightful owners?

When we talk about the importance of preserving our memory, I remember the bedtime stories our mothers and grandmothers told us when we were children. Their ability to narrate and recall the finest details while spontaneously maintaining the main elements of the story, incorporating elements of suspense and excitement, made them adept storytellers. Today, it is our responsibility to preserve and pass on our memories from the perspective of Syrian women. In our patriarchal societies, men are often privileged with the right to narrate and record our history, shaping the collective memories of our nations from their perspective, overlooking the details and challenges experienced by women. We must make every effort, utilizing all available means and resources, to ensure that the voices of all Syrian women, without exception, are heard. In this context, I believe that numerous Syrian women's associations and feminist organizations recognize the importance of promoting women to engage in writing, share their narratives and amplify their voices through programs and initiatives.

It is said that when we experience extreme stress and fatigue, this feeling adversely affects our ability to recall memories. Today, although we are more exhausted than ever, retrieving the painful memories we went through over the past years has a negative impact on our mental health. Therefore, some of us try to avoid recalling those memories. However, it is crucial not to forget that our oppressors may have deprived us of our homelands and homes, but we will not permit them to steal our memories. We will continue narrating our stories and experiences, recounting the siege, torture, bombardment and displacement we endured until we get the justice we once dreamed of. Even if we don't attain it today, our children and grandchildren will inevitably accomplish it.

Yet, we won't be content with that. We will also tell stories of love and beauty that we experienced in our cities, letting the entire world know that we are a people who cherish life and deserve it.

By: Muna Kattoub, feminist activist.



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