Learning to be Shwayyeh Souriyyeh

| May 5, 2017 | 0 Comments

My great-grandparents left Damascus (God rest her soul) separately when it was still part of the Ottoman Empire. They came to Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and found a community of other Syrian immigrants, as well as each other.

My dad grew up calling my great-grandmother Teteh, picking grape leaves from the side of the road for stuffed grape leaves, and hating the kibbeh and kusa she cooked, the food she brought with her from her home to the US.

The Syrian blood and culture have both been diluted through the generations. A bit of my grandfather’s funeral was in Arabic, but my aunts and uncles don’t speak it (save a few curse words). My nana used to make grape leaves, but she stopped cooking. My dad had brown skin but I look more like my mom’s side of the family: white western Europeans, except for thick dark body hair and a propensity to tan and not burn in the summer. Being Syrian was not a part of my upbringing.

Not knowing the story of my Syrian family meant that any mention of them stirred up alluring, mystical images like the sultry wind whispering across red dunes, where robed men rode camels through the desert (you know, pretty much your average western stereotypes about the Middle East). I romanticized Syria. I wanted to learn more about the place and my connection to it. To lay claim to my Syrian-ness.

When the protests erupted in the streets of the city I dreamed about (City of Jasmine, God rest her soul), that feeling only intensified. I read all I could about Syria and watched in horror as the crisis spiraled and the death toll rose. I felt a connection to those people, even though I am so very far removed from them. My ancestors walked those same streets. People in that country could share my blood, my last name. They’re my people.

Now, in my third year in university and as the war turns 7 (saneh helweh, sweet year), I’m still watching in horror. Now I speak pretty passable Arabic, even studying the Syrian dialect. I can cook pretty good grape leaves (but not like my nana’s). I’ve focused my studies on the history and politics and culture of the Middle East. I still feel a connection to it.

But I’ve struggled with the question of just how legitimate that connection is. Where do I fit into the Syrian narrative?

I carry an (Americanized) Syrian last name, but my life has been pretty much unaffected by the heritage I feel so strongly connected to. I haven’t faced the vitriolic anti-Arab sentiment that saturates the America I grew up in. I didn’t grow up with the language or the food or the music. My life, and the lives of my family, have been untouched by the turmoil ravaging Syria. If I have distant relatives there, I do not know them.

But does that make them any less related to me? I feel like I know them, I feel like they’re my family. What started out as childlike curiosity changed to obsession over a romanticized version of Syria, which grew into a genuine and informed love and appreciation for the language, the culture, and the people who have lost so much, but held onto themselves.

My challenge is to honor the part of me that is Syrian while making sure I don’t claim the experience that isn’t mine to take. To learn to be shwayyeh souriyyeh: a little bit Syrian.

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featured photo credit: Gwenaël Piaser Syrian Protest via photopin (license)

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Category: featured, Reflections

Ellen Asermely

About the Author ()

Ellen Asermely is a junior in the Pardee School studying International Relations. Born and raised in Rhode Island, the smallest but weirdest state, she enjoys coffee milk, the Big Blue Bug, and Awful Awfuls. In her free time, Ellen can be found by the ocean, eating anything with cheese on it, reading Harry Potter, or hugging strangers' dogs.

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