In April of 2018, Alia Malek spoke with Zia Jaffrey at a nonfiction forum event at the New School. Malek read from her memoir The Home That Was Our Country, a book about Syria, published in 2017.
The Home That Was Our Countrybegins with a portrayal of Malek’s great grandfather Abdeljawwad, a prominent statesman in the city of Hama, who came of age during the French colonialization. Alia uses her great grandfather’s life to shed light on the politics of that time. The book then moves onto the life of his daughter, Malek’s strong-willed grandmother, who, despite having limited opportunities as a woman, tenaciously carved-out her independence in Damascus. She became the first person in Syria to sell Avon products, in bulk, to large department stores. Like her father, who ignored her, she loved to hold court at her modern apartment building, the Tehaan—a multi-story, multi-family home, built in the forties. She welcomed poets, politicians, seamstresses and neighbors, and anyone who knocked on her door in need of assistance. As her reputation grew, she utilized her influence in the military and government to aid families in life or death situations. Malek uses the Tehaan to show Syrians’ capacity for peaceful coexistence; Jews, Christians, and Muslims, and a diverse multi-ethnic population, dwell within its walls. In the second half of the book, Malek takes us to 2011, to a Syria on the verge of civil war. Under the guise of returning to her ancestral home to renovate her late grandmother’s apartment, Malek researches and reports on the Assad regime and Syria’s disintegration.
P.M.: How would the story have changed if you’d written it after Trump took office? And in writing nonfiction, is it more critical for you to incorporate political-historical rhetoric or more of a ground view based on interviews?
A.M.: So the first one, I have to think about the second one, but the first one, I don’t think it would have changed it, because I think the longevity of the work would be affected in a less positive way if you were trying to be responsive. Time moves, things happen and change and if you’re trying to responsive to every single thing, you’re going to lose the coherence of the overall narrative part.
And the second question: there are different kinds of narrative nonfiction; mine is definitely based in interviews. I don’t know if you saw it, but Marwan Hisham and Molly Crabapple’s book, Brothers of The Gun, there’s no context, no explanation, it’s just the narrative as it is. I asked them if that was a conscious choice and Molly said there was a tension because she felt that an American reader needed more context, but he didn’t want to deviate. He felt like people could google the history. But because in Syria the history is so contested, we have fake news and deliver obfuscation by agents from Russia and Iran, and I didn’t feel like I could leave that to chance because Syria is such a vacuum of knowledge. I did feel obligated to fill in. Some people would say I didn’t maintain balance. Some people loved the narrative parts and wanted less history, but I kind of wanted people to get through the book and come away with a deep understanding of what is going on. The story is there to drive you forward, but people did need to understand the history of economics, and colonialism to understand the moment, and that was a choice I made. But if I were writing a book about America for America I could just tell you the story. So many Syrians don’t know their history because it is purposefully deprived of knowledge, authorial dictatorship requires that. It was also important for me to lay things out, also using the work of scholars. I’m very scholarship heavy in my work. People have done wonderful historical work and studied the political economy or the regime. It’s a long-winded answer, but that’s sort of my approach.
P.M.: What were the most useful strategies for condensing the history and narratives?
A.M.: I think readers will extend you a certain leniency, but ultimately you need to be propelling the story forward, and what’s what editors are for. I am someone who loves history, the minutia of it. That’s not the majority of readers and sometime my editor would be like this is too much detail. Sometimes, you have to read five books to write five paragraphs. Your job is not to report everything; it’s to take what you learn, so your reader gets what they get what they need to know. The end of the Ottoman Empire in Syrian History is only being excavated in recent years. I basically stopped doing anything for a month and went into the minutia and interviewed the scholars whose books I was reading to be able to give the readers the five paragraphs they needed. When all else fails, your editor is there to clean it up for you.
P.M.: Sounds like a team effort.
A.M.: Yes, or you should have a trusted reader. In my earlier work, my sister was my trusted reader. In my current work, my partner is also great at that.
P.M.: You touch on the psychological effects of the Assad Regime; do you see parallels between the propaganda tools the administration uses here and over there?
A.M.: Yeah, I mean regrettably. We at least have our free press. That’s why there are all these dispersions of the free press and fake news. In a dictatorship, you have state T.V. Take North Korea, it’s very effective. The other thing about Syria is that because everyone was afraid that someone would inform on them nobody spoke openly, nobody knew what other people thought. The state was kind of like this chaperone that was omnipresent. The state isn't omnipresent in the US, but now, because you can choose your truth – you choose your Fox News, or you choose your MSNBC—we’re not interacting with everybody else, and in that you can ferment a kind of suspicion or a fear of the other, and that’s what’s crazy. We are self-selecting; we’re opting into this. Although people over there are too, I think I talked about it a little bit, either you’re watching Al Jazeera or State T.V. Honest, open interaction between different parts of society were not existent in Syria, and now, here in the US where they should be plenty existent, because we choose our partisan line, feed, news, you’re seeing something similar; it is dismaying.
P.M.: It happens on Facebook too.
A.M.: Right, you can curate your feed, and now the algorithms are speaking to that. I watched the Republican reaction of people who attended Trump rallies last week; I mean, they’re not seeing the news the way we’re seeing it. They’re not mortified about what’s happening at the border. There’s clearly a lack of knowing each other.
P.M.: Were there any pressing questions you had while writing and were you consciously addressing them in the book?
A.M.: A part of me wonders: how did we get here? That was the big overarching question. What chances are there for reconciliation? What could the future look like? Yeah, those are the things I’m still trying to figure out and ask. Who were these people I come from? And why do I feel disconnected from them in many ways.
P.M.: I can relate to that.
A.M.: Who were they? It’s so frustrating; they’re not alive to ask them.
P.M.: Is there anything you didn’t get a chance to ask grandmother?
A.M.: So much I would want to know from her, like was she happy. Mostly I’d want to know about happiness and fulfillment and how did she feel about the way her father treated her mother. I can try to understand, but it’s not the same as asking her, I wish there was so much I would have asked her. Is there any hope for Syria? Did it have to go this way? I would have asked her a lot. You know, what was she wrong about? Did she prevent her own happiness? These are the things I’m curious about now.
P.M.: What shocked you most about the Assad regimes approach to its citizenry?
A.M.: I thought: there are new ways to manipulate populations, like brute force, I didn’t think they would go that route, you can break a people many other ways, and they chose the most traditional, although they’re being rewarded, at least in the short term, so maybe we’re all the idiots.
P.M.: Like they’re getting the last laugh.
A.M.: Yeah, I think they’ve engineered their continuity, but to what cause? A lot of skilled and entrepreneurial smart people have left the country. In the long run, those are the type of people you want to build the country—activists, people with consciousness, people who never thought of themselves as activists, but people who stood up in the moment and said that this isn’t right. I thought they were more modern and would have co-opted the movement, but no one will ever rise up again, people’s lives have been so broken. It’s horrible. Stealing their property. Everything is done in legal ways, like confiscating properties, absentee properties that are considered abandoned so you can’t return. The reconstruction is going to make the people who are already in power even richer. The money that’s about to be made is sick. Sorry, this isn’t really optimistic.
P.M.: Do you have any advice for people who are detached from what’s happening or feel powerless to do anything?
A.M.: Those are two different people – the first one, what goes around comes around. The international system in many ways has sort of showed that evil can triumph, so why would anyone stand up. I think Americans have a problem imagining that anything can happen in the US, and to those people I recommend they read, a very dystopian novel, American War, he [ Omar El Akkad] imagines a new civil war here in the US and shows how things can come apart and people from the outside can also manipulate that. But we have a playbook where the world will not take action; you know obfuscating the truth, now that the truth is so malleable in the end, to destabilize the Middle East is not a good thing. A lot of things we’ve taken for granted have been put into question by what’s happened in Syria. For those people you’re wrong to think that you shouldn’t be alert.
For those who feel powerless about it that’s good – good news to them, they’re still kind of human, but we can demand that you differ the kind of discourse, because a lot of the language – like illegal refugee – is meant to dehumanize other people. The Muslim Ban the Syrian Ban we’re all here, this is a representative government, speak up. Go, volunteer, there are ways to extend yourself to show that we are not the same as our leaders.
P.M.: Can talk you a bit about your work with Europa?
A.M.: Yeah, that was valuable information to relay to refugees, and people trying to make this journey. I don't know how much it of an impact it will have on Syria, but when I see people aboard the rescue ships readingEuropanot only does it show the world the different side of refugees, but there's some value in it, and that makes me feel very good about that work. I'm glad we created something that spoke to them a different way, because implicit in making work like that is saying, I recognize that you are human and educated, and people of understanding.
Plamena Malinova is a Bulgarian-American writer, educator, and lover of cats. She is an MFA candidate at the New School focusing on dual concentrations in Nonfiction and Writing for Children and Young Adults.