I was born in 1983. The youngest of nine children, we kept our mother busy. Being the youngest comes with exemptions and limitations. I spent a considerable amount of time with my mother in the early part of my life. But I competed for distinction even earlier in life, and I have continued to do so.
When my mom would visit her relatives, I’d be her companion. Mom’s family was kind to me, because I looked like my uncles when they were little. I often enjoyed accompanying her, except when the visits lasted too long or when my mom would spend thirty minutes by the door "saying goodbye" to our hosts.
I gained my self-assurance from my mom, Souad, eternal happiness. In the photo I keep of her, she is wearing a white jacket with a brown collar. I still remember that jacket from my childhood. She has a white scarf that covers most of her brown hair. She gazes forward not exactly to the camera but beyond it as if she sees through the eye of the onlooker. She has a faint smile in her lips and eyes, not that of joy but one of confidence. My mom was always self-assured and projected a sense of warmth, trust, and authority. She raised me to have these attributes, too.
Everyone in the community respected my mother and being the young man who accompanied her meant I received recognition as well. Folks knew that I was my mother’s son and, at times, even would call me by my name. It satisfied my desire to be distinguished as an individual.
I owe my scholastic achievements to mom. She valued education more than anything else. She married my dad because she found it attractive that he had the ambition to pursue college and beyond. She was seventeen when they married, and he was nineteen. She required her children to burn the midnight oil and had strict expectations. Playing was allowed once I finished my homework, not before. Even when I was in college, she would make clear her disappointment if I spent too much time on the internet. Nothing should come before education, not chasing after girls, organizing political activities, not even family time. Education, for mom, was a secured path to a good life.
Doing what’s right was essential for mom, too. She had seen enough of what she considered kids doing terrible things. She did not accept her children misbehaving in any way.
She had her way of enforcing good conduct. An expression on her face was enough to shut down silly behavior. She did not need to say the command twice, and at times, not even once. I did not always get the point behind what she considered right or good or proper. But, when you have nine children, you may not have enough time for critical dialogue and reflection with every single one.
She was masterful at efficient discipline, and she did it with care and love.
One time, when I was seven, we were visiting with family friends who had children of my age. The hosts offered snacks consisting of nuts and sunflower seeds, but we were supposed to say no. This 'no' showed politeness. Not saying ‘no’ and taking the offered food could indicate we had no food at home, which was not a good impression to give.
I grabbed a handful of snacks and went to play. I shared them with the rest of the kids. The snack was so tasty that I went back for another round and then a third. The hosts offered to give me the whole plate. I realized that I might have crossed a line, but it was too late, so I took the plate to the embarrassment of my parents. The car ride home was intense. My mom made it clear she was disappointed, and I felt it. It did not help me much that I was sharing the food with the rest of the kids nor the excuse that they were so good! I do not recall misbehaving like that again, after the incident.
Her punishments did not always make sense to my younger self. There was one occasion when I felt mercy should have been called for. I was probably five and had a new car toy that my dad got for me. My cousins visited us. One of the kids broke the car. He felt bad and gave me a nicely shaped wooden stick. I forgave him quickly and we carried on playing. When I explained what happened to mom, after they left, she was mad at me for letting the kid break the toy. “You should not have let him play with it and break it,” my mom said with a stern voice and a frown. I became resentful of my cousin then and felt cheated.
I may see the moral mom conveyed, which was to be protective of my valuables. Still, I did not then understand her response. What had amazed me with mom was that she'd be patient and forgiving when someone breaks a plate or a glass. That was a frequent occurrence with nine children. My siblings and I would break one or two objects a day. She’d say, “انكسر الشر,” which means “the evil broke.” Further, she taught me that I need to share and be generous in giving.
That incident confused me. I shared my toy, and it broke like anything else; it happened. The resentfulness came to me as I felt blamed not for my own doing but for that of someone else. Mom might have wanted me to be vigilant, accounting for other people’s mistakes and not only mine. This lesson was beyond my comprehension then. At that time, it only enforced mom’s authority over my conscience.
Mom taught me how to participate and care for the living, and how to bury the dead. She was the spirit of any group and the one who brought the whole family together. She was present at every joyful event. Even with losses and deaths, she was there for and with others. She wanted us to be there, too. As her little buddy, I went to almost all the weddings on her side of the family.
The weddings back home were incredible events for families to get together. They often lasted for a couple of nights. There were usually two weddings, one for the men, and one for the women. But toward the end of the night, the men and women from the immediate families joined. There were always beautiful young women I would notice, and my mom did not discourage me. Maybe she thought that if I were hitched to a relative of hers, I wouldn’t go far away.
I was shy at first, but you could not be shy when accompanying my mom. She pushed me to take my first steps on the dance floor. After few weddings, my feet became more coordinated, and I loved participating in the group’s festivities.
Members of families in Syria also stepped in to attend for the elders or care for the ill. In my early teens, my grandmother became very sick. Mom and her sisters were her caregivers. While my aunt Qamar (her name means “moon”) took on the lion’s share of the duties, her sisters also helped. Aunt Qamar did not get married and lived with my grandparents until they passed. She was the loveliest soul. My mom always felt a deep gratitude toward Aunt Qamar, and so did I.
My mom was living the furthest away, in Aleppo, about two hours north of Rastan, my hometown. She had children in school, which made it harder for her to leave them all the time. But toward the end, she did get to spend time with her mother, and she was grateful to have been by her side when my grandmother died.
I was in Aleppo when we learned that Grandma had passed. So, we went there to see Mom and to lay eyes on Grandma for the last time. I was eleven or twelve. Mom gave me hugs and kisses when I arrived. I didn’t know how she was doing, given that Mom was a strong woman and always appeared solid. She had clearly cried, but she maintained her image as a strong woman.
Grandma’s dead body was in the room where my mom walked me through what I needed to do: “Go there and kiss Grandma’s forehead.” I did as I was told, feeling like it was nothing unusual, and I was grateful that I was able to do that. This memory became a guide for me later in life as I reconciled with death and dying.
In terms of her beliefs, my mom was a practicing Muslim. She prayed, fasted, and went to Mecca for the pilgrim. But she believed that Islam was about a person’s character and about doing good to others. She was skeptical of those who claimed to be religious yet lied or cheated. She was not fond of populous religious clergies either. Instead, she valued scientific facts. She would quote “studies” she read, often to support a recommendation she would make about diet or lifestyle.
She raised her family in a moderately conservative Muslim society. She would expect us to fast and be present on Iftar (breaking the fast). Eid (the holiday after Ramadan and pilgrim) was a special occasion, but more of a family and social event than anything else. She would encourage me to pray, but she was not strict about it. As I matured in my teens and adulthood, when we disagreed, she would say, الله يهديك, which means, “may God show you the right path.” She would say that with patience and care.
My mom was fond of her father and drew several of her ideals and philosophical positions from him, although she was also independent. He would ask her opinion and trusted her to run his tobacco trade business when she was just a teen. They both believed it was a meritocratic world, and a person needed to work hard in it.
My grandfather also had his views on people’s character. But when it came to me, she did not think that he got it right. He would ask her jokingly (or not), “From where did you get this child? He is قشق (meaning useless)! You should just get him a little farm and let him dig it up!”
Grandpa’s opinion was not unfounded. My favorite hobby at that time was digging holes in the dirt. There wasn’t more exciting stuff to do, and at times I had mischievous intentions. I made some of the holes into traps. But as the Arabic saying goes, “who digs holes for their brother falls in them,” occasionally, I was the one tumbling into my traps. I also dug with the hope of finding utensils made of gold or jars filled with silver coins. I uncovered nothing but crud. Grandpa died when I was eleven or so, without necessarily changing his opinion of me.
When I entered medical school, years later, my mom was delighted. The decision was important to her. She would reminisce about her father’s statements and say, “I wish he were alive to see how my son is doing!” Her words made me proud. Maybe she also needed to show her dad that she had done something distinguished. She bragged the most about her children’s education. Among the nine of us, we held ten doctorates—six MDs and four PhDs. I was the one who got one of each.
Dad was a busy man doing honorable work. That made the time we spent together growing up precious to me. He taught me important things in my life.
He taught me how to swim. And he did that in a lake! As I think about it now, I’m not terribly confident that it was the safest choice. The lake in Rastan was an artificial one formed behind a dam. It was not the cleanest, and there were probably holes and fishing nets. Thank goodness, we all survived. His method was straightforward, sink or swim. I had to float.
My dad also taught me how to ride my bicycle using a similar method of teaching me to swim: ride or fall. I had a tiny red bike that I first shared with and then inherited from my sister and brother. I fell a few times, but in the end, I rode. I would receive a push, and I had to steer to stay on the bike, or suddenly, the two wheels would be on top of me. To be fair, the first time I rode my bike, it had a third wheel on it. I went home proud of my bike riding, but I had a sense that there were subtexts when my siblings would say, “He rode his bike today (well, with three wheels)!”
Dad also taught me how to drive. His method of teaching had evolved a bit as I became a teenager. Since he was by my side as I sat at the wheel, there was no drive or crash option. He was methodical and gave clear instructions. The right foot is for the gas and brake, the left is for the clutch. You drive carefully in the city. You accelerate fast when you are on the highway to not clog the road. They were sound principles and arguing his principles would not take me anywhere. But I still wanted to do my own thing.
One day I used my left foot for the break. My dad reminded me to use the right for gas and break with a stern voice.
“The car would stall if you don’t have your left foot on the clutch!”
I argued, “But would you rather it hit the next car or just stall?”
Dad was quick to end my chatter, “Do not philosophize! Just do as I say!”
Maybe that was one of the most important lessons he taught me; I should not philosophize when the matter is clear–just do it right.
I relished the long-distance trips we took between Rastan, my hometown, and Aleppo, where we lived for most of the year. That was where he worked at the university, and it was where I received all my education. At times, he would visit Damascus, Syria’s capital, for his work meetings, and I would accompany him just to drive. A bonus was the conversations we would have.
While Dad never said too many words to me when I was a teen, I’d try to get him to explain economic and social theories to me. He was an economist who had finished his Ph.D. in communist USSR and his postdoctoral work in the capitalist United States. Moving between and dialoguing with colleagues at the cold war two poles led him to take some novel positions.
Dad was a free-market economist—skeptical of the centrally administered economy and society. However, he recognized social inequities and their detrimental effects on individuals and families. He was an advocate of small-business projects, especially for women and in rural areas. He worked also on programs related to the census and was a proponent of family planning, although he liked having his nine children.
Dad was from a generation of scholars who came home in the 1970s to lay the foundations for higher education in Syria. Until thirty years prior, the country had been a French colony and then was riddled with political coups. My father was the founding dean of the Faculty of Law at Aleppo University. He then moved to the Faculty of Economics to be its dean as well.
Dad taught all kinds of courses from macro to microeconomics and from statistics to population economics. I was always fascinated by what he did, and I thought I would be thrilled to be an economist, too. His perseverance, however, was his most remarkable trait. If he got his mind set on doing something, he would give it his all and wouldn’t stop until he got it done.
Besides his work in academia, Dad took pride in being a farmer. He inherited a farm from his dad and acquired a piece of land near it. My earliest memory of the farm was of the peach trees. My family sold the perfectly shaped fruits. The peaches we got to take home were small, overripe, and funny-looking. Still, they were juicy and would make my mouth water. Then cold years came, and the trees did not survive the frost. After that, Dad began to plant wheat, soybeans, and other grains. He taught me very little about the farm, and I had only little curiosity. I was satisfied to dig holes in the backyard at home.
Dad was an innovator. He introduced a piece of farming equipment to the area that looked like a cultivator back in the 1980s. Soon afterward, the farmers modified the tool by attaching a trailer to it. Those mini tractors then became the primary mode of transportation for humans and their animals. They were anything but quiet or safe. So, whenever the noise became intolerable, or the safety concern arises, Dad expressed his pride in being first!
In his spare time, Dad would write textbooks. He sat for hours and hours writing nonstop. I remember him sitting by the computer, wearing his reading glasses, the warm coat he wore at home, and his headscarf. Being a mathematician by training and holding his Ph.D. in economics, he wrote textbooks for econometrics and statistics. He would finish up one project only to initiate another right away.
I took on Dad’s habit of working hard and relentlessly. If I worried about spending long hours on projects, I remembered Dad and kept going. He recently shared with me, after I published my first book, that he enjoyed authoring books and found it fulfilling. “You leave your mark,” he said.
Faith was fundamental to Dad. He held a strong religious foundation as a devout Muslim. He memorized the entire Quran, and he prayed every day, still does. From his faith, he upholds not only the daily practice of the rituals but also the charitable act of giving, particularly to those who most needed it.
Dad was a generous person who valued giving, and he would tell us that we should giveسرا وعلانية, which means announced or unannounced. He believed that if we could give, then we should. That included not only the poor but also relatives and friends. To him, however, genuine giving meant the giving that was directed outside of the family, one area where he and Mom had different opinions. My mom’s priority was the family. While generous in giving to his children, my dad’s preference had always been to give those in need.
He also cared for all his immediate family, including his sisters, with no ifs, ands, or buts. He treated my aunts as if they had some of the soul of his mother, whom he lost as a child. He respected them and visited them whenever it was feasible. Visiting the relatives, especially his sisters, was integral to him.
Dad was a man of integrity, and this was another manifestation of his faith. He always did what was right and demanded holding oneself and others accountable for what needed to be done. For him, it was about character. You mean what you said, and you said what you meant. You should only tell the truth.
He hated those who lied. He also hated those who refused to take a stand and stick with it or, even worse, those who changed their stance to better suit their interests. It was from Dad that I learned to take a stand and speak truth to power.
While we lived in Aleppo most of the year, my dad’s heart stayed in our hometown, Rastan. We’d visit each week or two. We also spent the summer there. Whenever we were in Rastan, crowds would come and visit Dad; more frequently, when he was working at the university.
Was there a drop in people’s curiosity after he left his administrative positions? Maybe. At times I felt some folks would come only to ask for a favor. Dad would offer his support. One can see this as lending leverage to someone, which bothered me. But I saw that it was also helping others in need and not those of reach or status that benefited in maximizing influence. They were people who needed a job at a factory or a struggling person who got caught in the cogs of the system. My dad would seek to put in a good word or speak to the person who was in a position of authority.
It used to bother me, and it still does, that there existed these civil networks of power that were unrestricted to some but not others. What also used to trouble me was the strategic nature of these social interactions; scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours. The curiosity was not about the person but for his leverage and connections. I was too young to make sense of these interactions, but I felt the lack of authenticity.
Was I even any better? I don’t know. My family had many privileges. Dad was respected in town and well-known to generations of graduates. I identified myself as his child, saying, “I am the son of Ahmad Alachkar.” I’d often add his job title as leverage. “I am the son of Ahmad Alachkar, the dean of the Faculty of Economics.” It seemed like it would take me places. I was little when I did that. But this issue still sits in my conscience.
There was a shortage of bread in my hometown. The store would not have enough, and if you were late, that meant no bread for the day. The quality of the bread was better if you got it directly from the public bakery, where my cousin worked. Mom would send me to get bread. I’d tell the gatekeeper my secret words, and he would let me in.
I leveraged family prerogatives to get access to bread that was not available for needy families or children. It didn’t make a difference whether the gatekeeper let me in because he appreciated my dad’s status or because my cousin worked there.
To make it even more interesting, the word “dean” in Arabic is the same as “Brigadier General.” It is entirely plausible that the gatekeeper barely knew how to read and write, so dean of a school would mean nothing at all to him. Although my dad, as the single male child in his family, spent zero days in the army, a reference to the military was probably what got the gatekeeper’s attention. This interpretation doubles the weight on my conscience.
In Syria, and since Ba’ath Party seizure of power in the 1963 coup, corruption was rampant. The policemen would stop a driver arbitrarily and demand a bribe. If you applied for what required a government stamp, the paperwork sat for days and weeks so that individuals would pay an “incentive” for staff to sign off. It was as if the corrupt regime let everyone be venal to establish a network of power and money for its sustenance. Citizens’ lives were made miserable, so they had no choice but to take part.
My family strived to alienate ourselves from this system. Maintaining purity was important. For example, I took pride that I never engaged in a corrupt act to attain gain. But when I think of leveraging my dad’s status to get bread, I feel troubled. I can think of a few other occasions where the family name might have helped me attain what other folks may not have had access to.
Getting a passport was a lengthy process that could take days or weeks. But with my connections, it was a matter of hours. Also, getting my driver’s license was a one-day errand. I passed the test, and I didn’t cheat. But my family connections were like having an express pass. I avoided standing in long lines, and I did not have to wade through unnecessary hurdles.
My family connections probably made my life more bearable than countless others back home. I did not live in a lavish sphere, by any means. If anything, my family prerogatives made my life closer to how any person should be living. Without the same privileges, many had to either struggle or resort to other means, such as bribing a corrupt staff.
Did I maintain my “moral purity” because I was connected to the network of power and status? I am not sure. On the other hand, was there a way to disentangle oneself? I am also not certain to whom someone in my position should submit their apology or if they should. How much responsibility should be placed on children who are simply picking up bread for their family?
I may not be able to answer these questions yet.
When dad got visitors, my parents pushed me and my brothers to sit in. They nudged us oftentimes to be social, to be present and friendly. So, my brothers and I would sit in the guest room when visitors were there. My dad would do the talking. We did the nodding.
Once in a blue moon, there would be a debate in which we were actual participants. It wasn’t clear to me how listening to other men talk would teach me how to talk. The general chatter and shooting the breeze did not interest me. My dad would praise a younger son of his friend’s for orating with polite and kind words. In my lingo, I did not have “May God give you health and prosperity, uncle!” “I am grateful for what God granted me of blessings” also felt fake coming from a child. Dad praised the kids as if I should be speaking like that, but I could not. It felt inauthentic.
There was little space left to say what was truly on my mind. Because of that, I and my siblings were more talkative with friends or in the classroom than we were at home. Then there came days in my adolescence when those gatherings interested me less and less. Reading was more amusing, and studying was more relevant.
Dad liked to tell stories. I hoped that he would one day write an autobiography. I would read it, and I trust that others would find it meaningful. I’m especially curious to hear his reconstructions of his father’s stories. My grandfather, his dad, died eighteen years before I was born. He came to the Americas in the 1930s and worked hard to sustain life for his family.
Other children would speak about their grandfathers with admiration, or how they’d get mad at their stubbornness. I wish I’d had more of that in my life.
One story my dad and mom used to tell about his dad took place before their wedding. My mom had been engaged to a gentleman who was not kind, and she decided to end their engagement. Because the guy was capable of evil, he announced that he would harm anyone who would try to marry my mom.
My dad knew the risks, but he treasured my mom enough to take them. My grandfather’s stance was remarkable. With a tribal frame of reference, he announced, “We would go to war for this young lady, even if all of my tribe would get killed!”
Thanks to the wisdom of the young couple, my mom managed to make it to her new home under the cover of darkness. There was no bloodshed, but the memory of fear and bravery has lasted.
The Nine Children
My parents had their oldest child a year after their wedding. They had the rest of us one to two years apart. There were, however, a couple of breaks in between, which meant the children wound up grouped in four, two, and three. Another way of arranging us was the oldest brother, six sisters, then two young brothers.
My two oldest siblings had already left the house by the time of my earliest awareness. They moved to France for education or after getting married. I still remember how, once or twice a year, we would go to the airport to wait for the whole day in expectation of their precious visitations. Those visits were almost my sole source of new clothes and toys. The rest of my stuff was inherited from other siblings.
More than my parents, my oldest brother set the standard for what was highly rated in the hierarchy of knowledge. Mathematics, logic, and philosophy were way up there. Poetry? Not so much.
My mom delegated home chores and taking care of the younger ones to the girls. My older sisters did most of my caring duties. I was always reminded. I even called a couple of them mothers, at times. The middle two were teenagers when I was a child. Growing up, I was not always the youngest in the house. My nephews and nieces were also there. I became an uncle when I was five.
All my siblings did well in school. Although some made better achievements than others. For example, when I was a young child, Hana, my second-oldest sister, sounded so gifted that it was nearly impossible to surpass her. Her teacher would quiz her in a class filled with older students to show off her talents. She ranked in the top two nationally on the high school exam. In medicine, Hana maintained the top first or second place. She finished her pediatrics training in the UK. After years of practice, she decided to train again as an immunologist. The rest of us knew it was not just the work of genius. Hana was very bright, and she worked hard.
Hana’s story is an example of what Mom had appreciated and distilled in us. We all internalized the placement of a high appraisal for education. Mom would share how a teacher of two of her other daughters told her how the two were exceptional. But my mom would say something along the lines of, “All of my kids are exceptional!”
The word exceptional was meant to depict the mental picture of a pupil dressed neatly, working hard, and was polite. The word had a righteous ring to it, and that image was what came to my imagination when I thought of all my eight siblings growing up.
Most of my early childhood memories involve the youngest three. We were one and a half to two years apart and were often inseparable. The three of us would play outside with neighborhood children. We had to stay very close to home though and return before dark. Because my sister was with us, we would play outside as young children should, boys and girls all together.
Usually though, neighbors who had girls imposed further rules. Back then, I didn’t understand why some of the young girls would stop coming outside, and it would sadden me. They would stop playing with us when they got a little older. Many girls in my hometown did not necessarily drop out of school (some did to stay home or get married). Still, it felt as if they would mature to join the adult world quite quickly.
When I think about it now, it troubles me that the space was open for boys to be out doing their thing, while it was very constricting for girls. Today, I find that to be disturbing.
When I think of the three of us siblings, the young ones, one memory readily comes to mind. It was summer, and my parents took the older kids to the farm to work on whatever seasonal crops were growing. We stayed at home, about six miles from the farm; the oldest was ten or so. We did everything we knew to entertain ourselves, including eating unripe grapes with salt, playing hide and seek, and acting out parts in my sister’s imaginary dollhouse.
The family was late returning from the farm. We were worried about them, and someone suggested that we go fetch them, so we locked the house and began walking. We shuffled our sandals along the side of the highway for what felt like hours to our tiny feet. It just so happened that our family was driving back at the same time, and my mom noticed us. “Those are my kids! What are my kids doing on the side of the road?” They crammed us in the car, which was already crowded with my siblings and aunt and a few of her children. It was not unusual to have twelve heads in my dad’s car.
I saw the relief on my mom’s face. But what I noticed, most distinctly, was a mix of fear and guilt. The reality of finding her children without knowing they were lost and realizing that she could have lost them forever consumed her.
One sibling has always had a special place in my life—Mustafa, my brother. We are a little over two years apart, but he is multifold wiser. Mom always treated him as if he were the mature one, and while that was true in comparison to me, it still bothered me.
It also irked me was that he was stronger. Up until our teens, if we had a fight, he won. We had a habit of going to our parents after each meal to show with pride how we’d grown. We would flex our arms, showing off our biceps. Mine got bigger after eating more than my brothers on a few occasions, but other than those rare occurrences, he always won.
Nonetheless, we were very close, and in my mind, we were conjoined. One time, I had just woken up and hurried to the phone to speak to my oldest brother, who was calling from France. When I picked up the phone, my obtunded mind, not able to identify who I was in the medley of my many siblings, announced, “Hi, how are you? I am Mustafa!!” That moment stuck with me, and correcting the slip was something I worked on for years afterward.
We went to different elementary and middle schools, but I followed in his footsteps for high school and college. As we had several of the same teachers, the association of the two of us was profound.
He was, and I still think he is, the brighter one of us in the sense of wit and turn of phrase. He had a head start with language. The family always remembered him singing real songs at a crazy young age, like nine months or something, but I was not there to know.
One way of viewing my life’s course was through finding my distinguished path and not living in the shadows of my eight siblings, but especially my brother.
He wrote beautiful poetry because he was always genuine and original. He spoke his mind, and at times, he had gotten into trouble doing it. He is a psychiatrist. While he may not always declare his opinion about others’ character, he has maintained engagement in public discourse and kept his empowered voice.
I struggled to detach my narrative from his when I was in high school. And when I started to perform poorly in medicine, I felt as if it was my destiny to have a similar life course to his. I became apprehensive of this prospect, I aspired to move my life on a different path. One unique escape I found was in philosophy.
I’d lock myself in a room and read books that no one else cared for. I differentiated myself. My dad gave me the title of “philosopher of the family,” and, thankfully, no one cared to compete with me for it. It took me years to appreciate that a conversation in which we connect was far more meaningful to me than sounding different or sophisticated. Now, my brother and I share quotes we’ve read and gift favorite books to one another.
Hometown; The House and The Neighbors
My family came from a smaller town called Rastan. It had a population of about 60,000 when I was younger. Rastan was spread over a hilly area, and that lent itself to the city being divided into an upper town and a lower town. My mom’s family was on the lower side of the city and around the lake. My dad’s family were on the upper side and closer to the top part of the hill. Still, when my parents built their house, they chose a location far away from their families.
I believe that was intentional, and I imagine now that Mom preferred some distance. She had plans for her kids' upbringing and education that couldn’t be fulfilled without strictly regulating outside influences.
In Rastan, we had a two-story house, and there was a relatively large guest room on the first floor that could seat twenty. The kitchen and living room were also on the first floor. The guest room was for Dad’s guests and, occasionally, for Mom’s if the children fancied to have the living room space for themselves. Some of our visitors would stay for a couple of hours, and some for a lot longer.
Our kitchen was simple. We had a little stove with three burners, two of them were functional. A tiny refrigerator for many years sat at the corner, but we got an upgrade later. My mom did most of the cooking with help from my sisters. Peeling and crushing the garlic was my responsibility.
The living room was a decent size and had a couple of brown-color sofas in addition to the floor seating area. In the winter, we had a heater that worked on diesel. It would get removed in the summer when it is warm outside. We also had a color TV. I don’t remember the black and white TV we had before, but I do remember the day when that color TV arrived. We had an antenna but no satellite or cable, so we watched the only two Syrian channels. Television was filled with the regime’s propaganda, trivial news about the president, and boring shows.
The bedrooms were on the second floor, connected to the living room by a set of stairs. Countless times in my dreams, I'd jump from the top of the stairs down to the bottom. Those dreams were scary as I'd be jumping down with no control, unlike the more pleasant ones in which I would ride my bicycle and then fly away with no wings. The bedrooms were also decent sized. One was for the eight younger children; my oldest brother had his own, and my parents shared one.
The backyard was enormous, or so I thought when I was little. It was where I dug my holes and where, at times, I was assigned the task of watering our many trees. When I visited years later, as an adult, it seemed as if the yard had shrunk.
Our pomegranate trees were memorable because they were of terrible quality, unlike our neighbors’ trees. One anecdote that comes to my mind happened when I was six. I got excited about a pomegranate that was hanging out of the neighbor’s property and onto our side. I couldn’t resist it. So, I went to the kitchen and grabbed a knife.
I stole the fruit and ate it. While doing it, my heart had raced, but I felt terrible afterward. I was afraid of getting caught, and I felt awful for doing what I wasn’t supposed to do. Not bad enough to stop me from plucking the fruit, but bad enough to stop me from enjoying it and thus from stealing again.
I still feel like I owe my neighbors an apology and a pomegranate. One day, I will pay it back. This incident taught me to feel humble and recognize my capacity to do evil. I certainly empathize with the people who do what they are not supposed to do. I empathize, not in the sense that it is ok to do harm to others, but that no one is righteously immune from wickedness.
In my hometown, neighbors were kind to each other, but they treasured their family first and foremost. Thus, marriages among close relatives were quite common. If there was someone with quality attributes, their extended family would quickly snatch them up. Those associations made the close closer and created tribalism.
We were surrounded by relatives from two separate branches of the same family. Because they were cousins to each other on both sides, I felt like I was not exactly one of them. We still played together, but I would never be as close to them, not like their cousins were. That’s probably where my sense of being an outsider was rooted.
I had a few friends that I still remember very well. We played soccer and rode our bicycles around. We also relished just sitting in the shade doing nothing.
In my childhood, I took certain matters for granted that were not attainable for everyone my age. For instance, I thought all children should pursue education. It disheartened me that some kids dropped out of school to find jobs, help on their farms, or, for the girls, get married.
A next-door neighbor boy, for example, dropped out at the age of fifteen to work in a mechanic’s shop. We maintained our friendship, and I would hang out at his shop, but I thought he deserved a better chance for formal schooling. It was the viewpoint I had regarding every young person.
Completing high school was a rarity in the little town, and that is why my mom shielded us. For us, not completing school was unthinkable. I sometimes wonder if Mom took offense when her dad advised her to have me drop out at a young age. She respected her father and acted like she considered it a joke. But she remembered it several years later, which makes me think she was somewhat offended.
There was a fine line that Mom insisted we walk. She would tell us, “You are a friend, and you should be kind to every soul. But your school expectations are not something to question.” She also advised us to stay away from the “bad or dirty kids.” If you asked me to define “dirty kids,” I would have said, those who spent their days on the streets and those who used profanity.
Another thing bad people did is commit acts of violence. My mom had reasons to worry about that. My little conscience was troubled by a conflict between brothers who were second cousins to us on my dad’s side. They had a dispute over the land they had inherited from their father.
People had witnessed one of the brothers bragging about his plan to kill his brother, but no one had thought they had the heart for such atrocity. Two of them joined forces and shot their third brother dead.
In a culture with hypertrophied masculinity, men boast of foolish things that they prove incapable of doing. You’d hear statements about shooting someone or beating another everywhere. They were often said in the past tense and told in a way that made you wonder if they held any truth. Yet, in that case, these two brothers not only said they were going to kill their brother, they did it. Because that crime was close to home, I realized the tragic fact; we, humans, could slay one another, and with ease.
But did I have the aptness for such an abhorrent deed? My mom would certainly protest, in every way that she could, saying no, her children were different!
A few years after that incident, a fight broke out between my mom’s cousins and another family. That family feud left over five dead bodies, and there was a threat of endlessly back and forth revenges. The inciting event was a trivial teenagers’ fight.
Because my uncles were known by virtue of their status and proximity to the scene, my mom was fearful they also could get hurt. Thankfully, the conflict was curbed, but it left the city with worry that it could explode again at any time.
Those events were, indeed, rare in the sense that they did not happen every week or even every year. However, the arbitrariness of death, its violent presence, and the fragility of our existence were all palpable in the atmosphere.
Mom did all that she could to keep her family at a distance from violence. But maybe I was only spared by a mere caprice. One of the neighbor’s kids was teasing me once. I felt he was bullying me. What started with words became a physical quarrel.
I had purchased a little pocketknife. I thought if I swung it at his face, I would deter him. When I got my knife out, the boy, to my surprise, pulled out his knife too. A year older and a few times more talented in knife-fights, he quickly twisted my arm, and my little knife fell.
His knife was rusty and bigger than my cute and shiny one. With a knife right to my jugular, I learned not to initiate a fight by pulling a knife. I walked home with shame. My brother was kind to not tell our mom about the incident.
I was lucky that the incident did not end with the shed of my blood or his. Our little “trial to death” ended up with me submitting and taking home a lesson that would repeat over and over. I was quite lousy at those trials by death. And I was not an exception when it came to doing dumb things or resorting to violence. But I mostly kept my foolishness in check.
In 1988, no one asked me if I was ready for school, and I did not like my first day. There is no preschool. I was five then, which is the age when most of my siblings also entered first grade. My brother Mustafa, however, began at the age of four, and he was always ahead of his peers.
The first day felt weird. The school was enormous, and the hallways were very long. It was like a void that could emerge and swallow you whole. The crowds of other kids didn’t make it less void-like, either; rather, it was like being lost and having to search to find yourself among the students. But I had a kind teacher who made the classroom bearable.
My teacher’s name was Rabiaa, which meant youthful. She was an older lady, very kind and warm. She had met my mother on a few occasions, and that made her particularly dear to me. Unlike some of my peers’ parents, my mom did not come to my school that often, so the fact that she connected with Rabiaa was quite a rare thing. My mom thought the school would do their job. Furthermore, her children knew what they needed to do to succeed there.
I struggled considerably to fit in with my peers. I was a kid from a village in a city among other children who also had no mercy. One of the issues I grappled with throughout my life, but especially early on, was speaking with an accent. In our villages, we pronounced letters a certain way. I tried to talk like the kids from the city. But a slip of my tongue meant countless days of teasing.
Children were mean. I do not think they were malicious, but my peers and I did not always have the sophistication to be kind or considerate of others.
I also had some groovy memories from that time. Recess was great. We would play around and kick cans. Other than our own, we had no balls to play with, so we would crush a can of coke until it was flat and kick it around. We had a few luxurious days in elementary school when we had real soccer balls. I stood near the goal and gave the ball the final kick in. The "achievement" felt elating, but little did others celebrate with me. We all wanted to have that last touch, and not much emphasis was there for the team effort.
The snacks we were served in school was another thing I remember being delighted with. However, I didn’t have them often as I saved my allowance (two Syrian pounds per day) for the small cakes that I would buy on the way home.
I was a student in good standing—I did my homework and got reputable grades. I was particularly efficient. My mom would complain that I would only sit and study for a short time before I got up and went out to play. Still, the outcome was adequate, and I progressed as expected, performing well in a class of sixty students.
It was not always easy to get attention in a class of that size, which was the case from first grade until the twelfth grade. In such a large class, you got attention in one of two ways, either you were the troublemaker receiving the teachers’ punishment, or you were the excellent student receiving the praise.
Obviously, I was forbidden to be the “bad student.” I was also strongly discouraged from being one of the students who were not noticed. I was left with only one option.
Many teachers in public schools have given their best, guiding generations of learners with limited resources in crowded classrooms. Like many students, I owe some of my teachers a lot of gratitude. But beside education, schools also served another role in Syria. They were factories for discipline through regimented practices, punishments, and rewards.
After taking control of Syria in the 1960s, and especially after Hafiz Assad’s coup in 1970, The Ba'ath Party redesigned the school system. Time and again, you learned not knowledge but fear.
Every morning, students got into long lines organized by height, the shortest first, before going into classes. We had to stand there and be steady, with no movement, right or left, and with no talking to our friends. During these gatherings, students repeated the regime’s slogans. The activity was in the form of a shout from the principal or a high-status student, and then it was echoed back by the rest of us:
Our eternal leader: The president comrade Hafiz Assad.
Our mission: unity, freedom, and socialism.
Our commitment: to push back against imperialism, Zionism, and retrograde and crush their criminal tool, the Islamic Brotherhood.
Be ready to build the United Arab socialist community and defend it: I am always ready.
Besides repeating the slogans, the other purpose of these gatherings was the public punishment of pupils. Certain “high crimes” would mean a kid would receive embarrassing battering in front of the entire school. There was also ample opportunity for the principal to slap this child or hit because they were taking their time to get into the line. School was an exercise in humiliation.
The reward system was quite powerful, as well. Take, for example, the pupil who led the chanting of the slogans. That was usually someone being groomed to be a little “leader.” Generally, they had distinguished themselves by performing well academically or by tethering to the network of power or corruption. At some point later, in middle school, I became that person. I had gained my good standing by performing well academically and not causing much trouble. I was disciplined, from the early days.
On a positive note, we had countless examples of resilience. I had a friend in third grade who was the recipient of the teachers’ beatings all the time. His name was Saleh, which meant “the righteous soul.” Saleh, periodically, did not do his homework. I vaguely remember his stressful home situation. He had a half-brother in the same class.
I felt terrible for him every time he got punished, and I wished there were a way to help him. Saleh had great pride and hated pity. He would say that he painted his skin with oil before class so that the slapping of the wooden ruler on his little hand didn’t hurt as much.
I don’t remember if I believed him then, and I don’t know if it worked. I saw him squirm in pain, and there would often be a few tears in his eyes. But he was a proud young man.
There were also the kids who would not cooperate in repeating the slogans. They’d move their lips without saying anything. At times, they would say nonsensical words just to show their mouths moving. Often though, they laughed at their own silliness, got caught, and received punishment. It was not until high school when I began doing the same. Not participating in the slogans was an option that became available to me, and I wish I had exercised it earlier.
Numerous humbling encounters taught me that I did not lack the capacity to do evil. They also taught me that I could change and grow.
There was a child who sought my friendship. He said that his mom and my dad worked together. When I asked him to explain more, he said that his mom worked in environmental services. I went around telling everyone that his mother was a cleaning lady working for my dad. The child was hurt—deeply hurt. After seeing his reaction, it occurred to me that I had done something wrong.
The following day, his mom came to the school and spoke to the teacher, requesting to see me. In a kind and caring voice, she asked me to be her son’s friend. Then, she gave me five Syrian pounds and gave the same to her son so that we could buy a juice or a snack. I did savor the fruit juice we drank together.
She had also mentioned it to my dad, and Dad had a talk with me that day. He was caring, but stern, and it was clear that what I’d done was not OK. Having finally learned my lesson, I apologized to my new friend. I don’t know if my apology redeemed what I had done to him.
I hope that he was proud of his mother, who had his back. She was a wonderful woman whom I still look up to with admiration—she protected her son from a bully (me!), yet she also showed me care and love. After what I’d done, I didn’t deserve either from her.
I still remember when his mom asked to see me. I wondered what kind of harsh words I’d hear that would all be well deserved. Instead, she gave me a hug! My dad was also kind to me and noted that he was also appreciative for the work she did at his office. Both showed me another path of redemption.
Not very far off from this story was another incident that left a mark in my consciousness. In elementary school, we had a scarcity of books, and students would regularly reuse old books that were in decent shape. That year, the new books arrived late, and the teacher handed me an old book that was in decent shape to complete a set of new books that I had also received. Other students similarly got mixes of new and old books.
When the new books arrived for that subject, I felt envious of those who got the new ones. So, I reached out to the teacher and asked if I could get a new one instead. She replied, “No, you have one already!” I argued that it was old, and my preference was to have a whole new set. I asked if she could give my old book to another student and give me their new one. She thought that was absurd, and the initial little no turned into a big NO with an order to go back to my seat, which I did.
These memories are stuck in my mind and will likely be forever. I’ve told these anecdotes before and found ways toward forgiveness. Yet, they shaped who I became and defined how I view myself. Because of these incidents, I’ve come to believe that we are all equal. I am not entitled to the good stuff any more than anyone else is.
My academic performance did not make me more worthy of the new schoolbook than anyone else. A claim that I could use it better would be false because the text was the same as in the used book. My desire to have a perfect matched set was not without problems, either. Objects did not have to be shiny, new, and perfect to be effective.
I’ve grown to a better moral position because I had the chance to make these mistakes. I am grateful to the teacher who taught me a lesson. Had that teacher submitted to my childish desires, I would have missed the opportunity to share this story. I would possibly have missed a chance to question my entitlements—I want it; thus, I should be given it. She was clear with her denial and that was good.
I also wish to have self-compassion when I reflect at this event from afar. I had struggled in elementary school with a feeling of not fitting in. When all that I yearned was to belong, other kids teasing, whether for speaking with an accent or for being a studious child, left me feeling estranged. I did not feel I was a popular child. There were the children who were loud and superior at getting the group’s attention.
Bullying a child in front of peers to appear “cool” or having a perfect set of books to “feel perfect” were two manifestations of the same struggle. There was a sense of inadequacy, leaving me with the desire to be exceptional as opposed to weird.
While I maybe projecting today’s self-understanding onto my past, I can tell I have changed. What has changed quite dramatically was the direction of my punches. I am less keen today to punch the vulnerable. Instead, I direct my rage at the ones with power who are oppressing them. I am less worried about assimilating and more curious about my authenticity.
My family spent most of the year in Aleppo and went to Rastan in the summer. Several of my buddies were classmates, especially those who lived in the neighborhood. Besides my classmates, there were the neighbor kids I played soccer with. All my friends in Aleppo were boys.
Boys were rough at times and would pick fights with one another. Mom tried to shelter me, and I avoided quarrels with my friends or strangers. Avoiding quarrels did not mean others would not initiate. I remember a friend’s little brother; an unhinged kid who would pick fights with everyone. In today’s language, he’d probably be called oppositional defiant.
One day, he was throwing rocks at us, and a large one landed in the middle of my forehead. It hurt, and I bled. He had a mighty arm for a little kid, and he knew just how to throw rocks like projectiles, so they landed with speed and power.
I wonder now why I didn’t try to avoid the rock by moving one step to the right or left when I saw it coming straight at my face. Did I think a bad outcome wouldn’t happen to me? It was as if I had the innocence to believe that only favorable things should happen and that I deserved the best outcome. Well, the rock knocked that idea out of my head.
I didn’t have any friends who were girls throughout my school years. I noticed few classmates I thought they were kind and sweet, but I could not talk to them. While I don’t blame my family for all my awkwardness. Well, I blame them for some. My natural reaction around girls was to feel shy and self-conscious when confused and not knowing what to do or what to say.
One day when I was probably seven, a cute little girl who was my classmate found me in a bookstore and started chatting about little things. She made suggestions about some prime rulers or erasers that smelled nice or something of that kind.
While my mom and my sister, who accompanied me were nice to the girl, they immediately teased me none-stop. “You like her!” and “She likes you!” I did exactly what little kids do—I denied it fiercely.
I felt a little shame, and I was not telling the truth, exactly. When I think about this incident and similar ones, I wish I were just left alone to do what ordinary children do.
Some of this little shame came back to haunt me when it was apparent that I did like girls. If the adults had then coached me to be kind to others, regardless of their gender, and not make it into a big deal, I would have probably had a smoother transition into adulthood later. But I guess everyone tries with what they have or know, and they do what they can do, so there may be only a little utility to my wish here.
The rules were clear for me when it came to playing outside. I had to get home before dark. I rarely broke that rule. Because while there was no physical punishment for me to be worried about, my mom’s frown was profoundly penetrating. In addition to not staying out late, another expectation was that I would not go far from home.
I did expand that perimeter slowly as I grew up, but I had reason to not wander far away. I felt fear. We lived in Aleppo about 1000 feet from a highway that I was not allowed to get close to by myself or with friends.
I have an image in my memory of a child hit by a car and killed on that highway. Whether I saw the child or not, I don’t recall. In the image, bright red blood stained a little person’s back and chest. On a separate occasion, my mom was the one to call the ambulance after someone had been hit. That time it was the body was of an older man.
This highway separated two massively dense residential areas. Yet, there was no pedestrian designated crossing area. Being away from home could be very dangerous there.
The other reason for not going too far away was a pervasive feeling that the neighborhood was not safe. At night, the electricity would sometimes go off for hours. There were a couple of times when my sisters were chased and harassed on their way home from college after dark. I felt their fear and internalized my mom’s and sisters’ worries.
I didn’t believe the tales about kidnapped children and was sure they were fictional. But when I had to leave the apartment to go downstairs in the dark, trusting in the fictionality of these stories didn’t help.
In Aleppo, we lived in a small three-bedroom apartment. My parents had one room, and the seven siblings split the other two. The line for the bathroom was always long. The apartment was on the third floor. If it was my turn to take out the trash, I would walk down the stairs at a slower pace and run as fast as I could up the stairs. I was afraid of what happened in the dark.
Boundaries were drawn for me. I was supposed to be either in front or back of the apartment so that if my mom went out on the balcony, she would be able to see me. During the day, and especially with my childhood friends, I had desires to go beyond those limits set by my mom.
That slowly expanded, and over time I got to where I could say, “We’re going to this little yard down the road,” and that was good enough. Riding my bicycle was freeing.
I would flirt with the boundaries of space by getting further and further every time. But there was always a sense that there were limits that I could not go beyond.
I wonder if my desire to get away—far away—like to the United States, and even in the United States, to go to Seattle, where I am the farthest from family, might be traced back to those constraints. The crowded apartment may have something to do with it, too.
A peak of my self-efficacy was in the eighth grade. I was cracking the books and doing fine in my schoolwork. I especially liked math, Arabic, and biology. English was okay.
I got a taste of teaching as well. The teachers would, at times, ask their students to prep and lead the delivery of a lesson. The instruction design, not sophisticated in any way, included memorizing the facts and then sharing the highlights. Diagrams and maps were items I used as teaching aids. I did enjoy standing in front of the class to talk about topics, and I felt gratified when working out mathematical problems on the blackboard.
When it came to English, I felt I was satisfactory at grammar and reading but lousy at speaking. I was self-conscious. Some of my peers had private tutoring and were more effective. That made me even more tentative. My parents never believed in after-school programs to develop English proficiency. Learning languages was not a priority at that time.
Still, I always felt I needed to participate in class and felt some discomfort if I had nothing to say. I was not the kind of student who would talk over my peers, but I enjoyed participating. The word for that in Arabic is يشارك, which implies not only taking part but also giving.
With the system that we had instituted at home for studying and doing homework, mastering subjects at my class level was easy. It was an expectation that I did not need to think about much. I went home and did my assignments. I also prepped for the next class. Time for studying was protected, and we did not have other activities at home that would compete with schoolwork. We also had stable home conditions.
I reflect on those conditions today, and I recognize that they were what made it easier for me to engage in something important, my education. Learning became an indispensable part of who I was as a person, and I’ve carried that outlook with me through today. I put effort toward and valued education.
I would assist other students in their classwork, but I would not cheat or help others cheat. Cheating on exams was something I despised, although it was rampant. My friends knew that well.
I remember one day reading over the exam questions during a test and exclaiming aloud about one issue I thought strange. At my exclamation, a peer whispered the answer. I didn’t write it, and I received a reduced score, to the surprise of the teacher and my friends who witnessed the incident. There is no doubt that I could have solved the problem by the end of the exam, so in that sense, the peer who disclosed the answer took away my opportunity to try. I couldn’t convince myself that I would have known the answer had I not heard it.
I had a high sense of moral integrity and aspired to maintain it. For me, it was an identity claim. I did not cheat. This meant I did not cheat, and that was that. Had I accepted the answer, then I would not be entitled to that claim. I would then have to say, “I do not cheat, except when I do not know the question and exclaim something about it, and a peer gives me a hint!” This assertion is too lengthy for my little brain to handle. So, it was easier for me to be morally consistent and not cheat—ever. It took less energy, and I maintained my purity.
I was clearly able to afford to be pure from this standpoint. I was doing well academically, and the one or two points of grade lost would not have ruined my reputation. For that, I am grateful.
At the time, I might have been a bit underdeveloped and either hadn’t yet hit puberty or was just about to. However, some of my precocious classmates were very curious about gender and sex matters.
We had a little library at the school, and I was a frequent visitor. The available books needed attention, though. Not all of them were necessarily appropriate. I was particularly interested in an Egyptian writer. I won’t mention his name to avoid giving him recognition he does not deserve. He wrote heavily moralistic tales, and I was obsessed with his work.
The teacher had made it a habit to encourage students to pick up books from the library and share their reading. So, I’d read this author’s awful books about the dangers of men and women interacting casually with each other. Then, I would summarize what I’d read and present it to my fellow students.
On one occasion, I shared an extramarital affair story the author attributed to not maintaining a strict separation between genders. He took a deep dive into the gritty details in a graphic manner. As an eighth grader, I, like the author himself, was probably secretly enjoying the story. But we were both able to get a secondary gain of maintaining our higher moral ground. I finished telling the story and was ready to share another of the same kind when the embarrassed teacher said, “I think we can stop here; no need for more.”
The students dug the story and were thirsty for more. One of them came to me and said, “You’re really naughty! I thought you were innocent! Looks can be deceiving, can’t they?” I did think I was innocent then, but who knows. It’s not only appearances that can be deceiving to others; our self-understanding sometimes misleads us.
If I look back now, I can admit that I was curious about gender and sexual matters. I wished I had better guidance in that. These issues were not talked about openly in our society. When they were spoken of, it was typically in a distorted way. The first person who asked me if I had hit puberty was a taxi driver when I was fourteen. “Do you have wet dreams? Do you masturbate?” The comment came from out of nowhere, and I didn’t know what to say. I stayed silent and could not wait to get out of the car. I wish school had taught me what was going on in my body, how to name it, and how to set boundaries.
When you were a good student, you got attention from the teacher, and you got delegated tasks. In schools designed not to primarily teach education but discipline, it could get bewildering quickly.
There was, for example, the task of a class representative. The representative was a student selected by their peers or by a teacher. However, they were chosen not to “represent” their classmates but rather to ensure compliance with the rules. They got the class in order before the teacher came in. If the teacher left the classroom, the representative was to be the watchful eye. At times, that person provided the teacher with a list of names of those who were misbehaving.
With shame, I confess that I had taken on that role and provided names to teachers and principals. Some students, as a result, received corporal punishment.
I hit an even lower point in middle school. I took little administrative roles at the school. I was part of what you could call a student leadership committee. Students had recently been asked to donate money for whatever needs the school had, and a few hundred Syrian pounds were left. We had a meeting with the director to discuss what to do with the leftover money. I had to think on my feet to come up with something creative, and those two things were not my strongest suits then. I suggested buying decorative material and framing the president’s photo to hang on the wall. The director shot down the idea, thankfully. I was left with humiliation that I still carry today.
These memories left me with intense shame. I had the capacity to be corrupted. Telling on other kids who were just being kids was appalling. I clearly had the ability to utter inauthentic opinions to amuse someone else. Still, to appeal to no one after being inauthentic is like being swallowed by a black hole. I wish I had picked up how to extricate myself.
Dealing with these memories is agonizing. I wish there were a way to undo some of what was done. I wish I could say sorry to the students who were punished. People in Syria, especially the children, deserved then and still deserve better. It is a shame that we all were entangled in systems of torment and subjugation.
I also wish I could say sorry to myself for being in the places and situations I was in. But as many years passed and because of these specific scenes, I came to accept that I do not need to make stupid remarks just to satisfy the need to speak. I do not need to partake in evil. I can instead just be quiet or leave.
The most difficult memory for me to relate here, took place when I was in eighth grade, and that traumatic event haunted me for several years. I was severely beaten by the physical education teacher.
It was a bright day, and I was in a cheery mood. Attending PE sessions while not wearing exercising attire was customary for students. Often, those sessions were for students to roam around in unstructured activities. That specific day, the teacher decided that everyone should get in on the exercise routine he had planned. So, the group of students who had shown up not wearing their sports gear lined up to the side.
The teacher walked around eating sunflower seeds. The form of punishment he chose was to throw a seed down the throat of each student who did not play. Standing in line, a few of my peers opened their mouths and swallowed the seed. But I was afraid it might go down my airway or that I might choke on it, so I refused to open my mouth and said no.
He stubbornly insisted that I open my mouth, and I continued to refuse. He hit me with his hands, and his legs. He smacked my face until I couldn’t hear. I felt like the world was spinning. I tried to run, but he gave chase, continuing to kick me in the back and my bottom until, I guess, he got his fix.
I was afraid, humiliated, and broken. I was also in physical pain from the beating and had difficulty walking. My hearing was muffled, and my face was numb.
Two of my friends who had also been in the line came to console me. I don’t recall if they had swallowed the seeds themselves, or if their turns had not come up yet. They were very kind, but I failed to say thank you, although their care meant the world to me. I simply could not speak to anyone. I wished the earth had swallow me up. When I think about it now, I realize those caring hands of my friends were crucial to my healing. I cried in class for the rest of the day and could not make eye contact with anyone.
I went home and cried again upon my arrival. I was barely able to tell my parents what had happened, doing so only by saying a few words in between my deep sighs and my sobs.
My mom was furious. I received no physical punishment at home, and for Mom it was infuriating that someone would hit her child. My dad was calmer. Back then, I thought he was too calm. I was hurt and humiliated and needed someone to protect me. I’d hoped he would express more anger. In the end, both my parents went to the school separately and talked to the principal and the director.
The principal was defensive and put the blame on me for provoking the teacher, but the director was responsive and expressed his support. The PE teacher was gone for a few weeks but then he came back. I avoided him.
I don’t recall the exact outcome. What I do recall is how my parents dealt with the situation differently. My mom demanded justice and an apology. To her, there were no ifs, ands, or buts. What had been done to her son was wrong and needed to be undone. My dad’s response was a bit different. When he went to the school, he met with the PE teacher as well as the director. He expressed his concerns. Reporting back to us, Dad made the case that the PE teacher was a “poor man in rugged exercising clothes,” as if what my perpetrator deserved was sympathy rather than rage. I didn’t get it then. I get that better now, as I’ve developed a language to make sense of the incident.
What happened to me then was part of a systemic practice. The arbitrariness of punishment applied in school in Syria was a stylized routine meant to crush the soul. Everyone needed to be ready to be punished for no reason and in a random fashion.
The self-worth of a person and the integrity of their body were all contingent on the whims of those with power. The system of punishment was not external to the society. That incident occurred in the school, which was supposed to be a safe place. It was perpetrated by a teacher, assumed to be trusted to support my education. Yet, what took place crushed my trust and left me with a sense of worthlessness and of being less than a human.
Part of me wonders what happened to that PE teacher, especially after the Syrian Revolution in 2011. This revolution erupted exactly to restore the dignity of the human being in every one of us. Did he join the Shabeeha? The group of thugs who early in the revolution would dress in civilian clothes, and armed with knives and metal bars attacked protesters. I feel like that role would fit him well. Knowing the strength of his fists and the power of his kicks, he would do a superb job hurting people.
Did he perhaps join the rebels? Countless folks changed their life course. He might have been killed in an airstrike. My dad, the economist, judged that he had little wealth. I could guess that he lived in the parts of Aleppo that were liberated in 2012 and then subdued by the regime a couple years later. It is entirely possible that he was a martyr.
I moved on in my life, and I am lucky to be reflecting on this incident from Seattle. I wish I could speak to him and tell him how he wronged me. He owes me an apology. I want him to know that I forgive him. But, for years it hurt.
In the summer, before starting my ninth-grade year (ninth grade was part of middle school in Syria), my parents gathered us all and shared that Dad was considering a job in Jordan. If he had taken the position, dad and mom would move to a city about seven hours from Aleppo.
My mom was worried that in the following year, I would have the middle school final year exam, and my brother would have his high school exam. They gauged our thoughts and whether we would be okay with such a move. It was an onerous decision. My dad was burned out at his job. While he was leaving an impact, it had been a toilsome work. And the pay was minimal. He had reached the highest rank he could as a professor and a dean, yet he only made about $400 a month. The income was barely enough for his large family.
Even then, it was fascinating to us how Jordan, a country with much fewer resources than Syria, were able to pay their academicians incomes that were five times of those in Syria.
We assured them that we would be all right. My parents sought a better life for us, so they moved. But it was quite difficult.
They visited us every two to four weeks, and we missed them dearly in between. We talked on the phone about twice a week. The children would each take a turn so that every one of us could speak to each parent. It was heartwarming, and when the call ended, we would all sigh sadly.
In their absence, to make it less burdensome on them, it was crucial for each of us to perform as if our parents were there. This meant we had to be all right, we did well in school, and we abided by the norms they set for us. We needed to not disappoint them, and our emotions were rarely expressed. We worried about their feelings and did not want them to feel guilty about their choice.
Then my siblings and I managed to negotiate our interpersonal relationships, not always smoothly. But we did what we could. We had written rules, and we edited them periodically.
We settled our conflicts and attempted to adapt our lives to be considerate of others. For example, we enforced the rule of eating dinner together and washing our own dishes afterward. Not using hardcore swear words at home also applied. We allowed some soft dirty words that my mom may not have approved of, but only if they were not directed at one another.
My parents’ move to Jordan introduced the family to a more relaxed lifestyle as we became more comfortable financially. My allowances got bigger.
My parents introduced us to fruits we had not seen before and were quite the delicacy, like guavas. They also brought abundance of what we had a craving for, but never go enough of in Syria, like bananas. They also introduced us to what I had not seen before and did not like afterward, like Corn Flakes.
But something was missing; something deeply emotional or even existential. The move was hard for me, especially during final exams. At times, I needed emotional support. What my siblings provided as a substitute for mom’s was not enough.
I had many tear-filled moments and countless others when I kept my tears inside. My siblings were around, but they were going to school, too, and the house would be quiet and cold. At times, I would come home, and Mom was not there, nor was anyone else. So, I would do my homework and busy myself with whatever a teenager can busy themselves with.
Mom also missed us too. Dad has his job commitment, so it was not an option for him to just come and hang out with us. But my mom craved spending time with the kids, which meant Dad would be left alone. These feelings were expressed occasionally but suppressed oftentimes.
They visited, but you knew they’d be leaving again soon. We could barely savor the moments because their trip would quickly end just a few days after they had arrived.
Over time, those mixed emotions were turning into more of an annoyance or inconvenience.
The tension between who I was and what I needed to be, as defined by my parents, was getting stronger. And no bananas or guavas would help bridge the gaps.
As the years passed, I almost forgot how to deal with my parents as parents. My oldest five siblings were out by then and the younger ones, including me, had grown more independent, and we did our own things.
Comments about doing this or not doing that seemed more like interference. In addition, I was by then an adolescent and becoming an adult. I had gotten used to doing things in a particular way all the time, so why would I change it just because a parent visited for a couple of days?
Besides, when they were gone, I took their bedroom, and then they’d come and take it back. I tried to keep it tidy, but if you spent twenty-eight days out of the month in your parents’ room, it basically became yours. My stuff was everywhere, and the room was a mess. That was only a problem when my parents would visit.
When they came back to live with us in 2002, I was in my third year of college. Negotiating living together again was as painful for me, as it was for them.
When I try to remember high school, my mind quickly goes to the Baccalaureate exam. This national exam was considered the “ultimate test” in someone’s life.
The number of nightmares I had about it throughout my adulthood speaks to that perception. Your score determined whether you could enter a college of your choice. If you did not perform well, you could choose to go to a college you do not like, or you could retake the test, sometimes again and again.
I worked hard that year and attempted to study seven to eight hours a day, in addition to going to classes. I stopped watching TV and was either studying or resting so I could study again. I measured my labor by the volume of scrap papers I compiled. It felt as if I had to show the amount of work externally. If I could measure the number of hours at the end of the day, if I could confirm that my pile of papers was getting bigger, then I was doing what I needed to do. And I mostly did that with little external help.
My performance was solid in the end. But I was not the top student in the school, as I had hoped to be. I was more like the fourth. Since the top three students were classmates, I was not even first in my own class. I shared the fourth position with three other students. All the winners were my friends, but not being the best left a sour taste in my mouth.
One of the friends who performed better was kind to me. I pretended I was content and happy for them. Recognizing that our rivalry had been going for years, he remarked that he still considered me an equally intelligent peer. “That’s easy for you to say when you are the one who scored higher!” I thought to myself.
Exams had for, a long time, I believed, told of what I could and could not do. My performance summarized my ability. What’s more, the exams felt as if they were tests of my moral character. If I wasn’t performing well, then others may think I did not work hard. I tried to show my effort by compiling papers and counting hours, but maybe my friends piled more paper scraps. They probably slept less.
Back then, I protected my pride by saying that the private tutoring everyone else had received gave them an edge. I had no coaching. That defense was probably valid to some extent. I belittled private tutoring as only teaching to the test. But I could not deny that my peers also were engaged; it was not all cramming of information. My attempt to belittle their success was vain.
I laugh now as I look back at those memories. After many more important exams and after cancer, I find those little wins trivial. But when I was younger, they meant a lot to me. I was competitive, and it hurt to not get the final recognition I thought I deserved. I am hesitant to say that I wish I had not been so competitive. And I am reluctant to accept that this competitiveness might have harmed me.
I think that rivalry had pushed my friends and me to work harder and to distinguish ourselves. We were growing together, and we were never malicious to one another. We debated, and internally, everyone probably sought to prove that they were the hardest working or even the smartest.
We did not compete for who could do the most wicked thing to other children or who would score best with girls. We exercised our minds in the good stuff: math, physics, biology, and, for some of us, humanities. Certain competitions were settled quickly and peacefully. A close friend was the best in English, another in poetry. I liked philosophy most, but it was not a subject on the final exam for me to show my talents.
When it came to math and physics, everyone needed to put their nose to the grindstone to win the game. Was that bad? Nah. We were just fine. That group of friends I had then were all hardworking, and I still appreciate them, even though they beat me in the high school exam with little or no remorse.
My taste in reading evolved in high school. I no longer read moralistic stories. Instead, I fancied philosophy, and I still do today.
I believe it was my oldest brother, who bought the book The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant, which became my companion in my late teens. It was a good read, although it was merely a summary of philosophical works. I used it as guide to find some of the original texts. I read them with varying levels of comprehension.
Plato’s Republic provoked my curiosity intensely. With Plato, I had my first exploration of the notion of justice. My curiosity for this concept then may have stemmed from my Syrian context. For Plato, in a just society, citizens would do what they are talented at doing. The state would be governed by the rational. Everything has its right place. It was a beautiful idea, to my 16 years old mind. In Syria, of course, none of that was happening.
Over the years, my conception of justice has evolved beyond what I picked up from Plato. Yet, what I’ve kept from the Republic is the belief in the authority of the better reason. Thoughts are debated, and the final word is for what is the rational.
Another philosopher that interested me then was Descartes. Reading Descartes was my earliest exploration with critique. It was about the radical doubt and about thinking on my own.
The cogito, “I think; therefore, I am,” took on a different meaning for me than what was probably intended by Descartes himself. Known for his Cartesian doubt, Descartes tried to establish ontological proof of existence starting from the position of the subject. He doubted everything, but he thought that because he doubted and was therefore thinking, he could not doubt that he was thinking. And because he was thinking, he argued that he existed.
The cogito is a propositional statement. “I am” is meant in the ontological sense as a true statement. For me, however, it took a normative turn. I interpreted the sentence to mean thinking was the fundamental constituent of who we were. We should think. Otherwise, we would not be. Choosing not to think was synonymous with not existing. That was not necessarily the intention of Descartes’s claim, but it suited me well, so I kept it.
I contemplated cosmological matters and had my critical doubts when I was a teen. I knew that I should not take as fact all that was given as such. I took the stance that we should not consider as valid a position just because it was asserted by someone with authority. I had difficulty submitting to authorities and sought to examine ideas on my own.
I could not do the Cartesian doubt, though. It was too nihilistically difficult. I could not genuinely say, yes, I doubted everything. I could not traverse the path Descartes described. I still remembered being troubled by that. “Well, I cannot truly doubt in the same way Descartes doubted, so what is wrong with me?” I asked my oldest brother. I am sure he explained it to me well, but I did not get what he was saying, either. I took his explanation to mean, do it, it is doable, keep trying! I could not do it then.
I had friends to hang out with, but only one or two to share about my philosophical endeavors. Philosophy gave me a community of thoughts when I could not find a community of individuals with whom to dialogue.
I was raised Muslim, and my doubts were creeping in high school. When it came to choose between religious or philosophical frameworks, I went with philosophy.
Ahmad, my best friend, was my go-to guy for debates. He was then religious, and we would debate religion versus philosophy. I cherished our intense debates, and although then he had a radical position, Ahmad was thoughtful in his arguments. He converted into a fierce advocate for secularization, over the years.
It was twenty years after, when I was diagnosed with cancer, however, when I had genuine doubt, and the guide was Hegel. I read about Hegel only haltingly in high school but investigated in-depth years later. He considered Descartes’s “doubt” as shillyshallying around with superficial hesitations that quickly dissipated, and a person returned to their starting point. In other words, he considered it a farce.
The real doubt, for Hegel, was existential, one that got a person into a state of despair. One of the ways to despair was by facing death in a life struggle where the individual stakes were everything. I had that, and I experienced a fear that shook me to my core and gave rise to uncertainty about all that I thought was unshakable.
I might have matured a little later than my peers, and that left me with some discontentedness with what other kids were doing. The actions of those who were curious about girls did not make sense to me, at first. I was either innocent or hid my curiosity that was accompanied by shame.
I was a shy kid and probably hadn’t talked to a girl outside of my extended family since elementary school. The same person who read lurid moralistic novels in middle school now expressed disappointment with high school friends skilled at talking to girls. The door was closed on the subject of girls for me, because in my family, يجهل, which means to follow one’s desires and passions, was censured as a terrible thing.
Further, Islamic instructions, to my ears, were filled with statements like, “sex is forbidden outside the marriage,” “talking to a woman is HARAM,” “masturbating is bad.” There was something particularly troubling there. You have an adolescent who was going through changes in their body that they barely understood. They grappled with desires they could not control and urges they did not even have words for. Then, you have the others with moral authority tagging any expression of those desires with condemnation.
As the subjective world of the individual began to flourish, with passions and feelings and intentions to act following those affections, others force their way in to name as wrong or scornful whatever I was thinking or desiring. A teenager drowns in cycles of frustration, masturbation, and guilt—and the cycle repeats. There was no language for my feelings but those of shame, and because it all occurred in my body, there was no one else to blame but myself.
I already had quite a sophisticated rationalizing machine working for me at that time. My mind would find ways to conceal my desires. But, how could I conceal an endless craving with no space to express or sublimate it?
Reading Freud was useful, later, for language regarding libido and repression. Still, even that reading, while available to me in high school, was as if written about some other person. It was not about me therefore it did not apply to me, my mind would say.
I latched onto my image as “innocent,” even at the cost of having a rift with close friends. Instead of the group of friends I had for few years, then I sought a buddy I hoped would be less mature. My buddy was much shorter than me then, and I assumed he must be innocent, too. It turned out when I was in high school that there was no one left with any “purity.”
I’d often claim that when I saw a girl, my curiosity was simply for the beauty that “God has given us.” I asked him once, “What do you notice first in a girl who comes your way?” He exclaimed, “Her breasts, of course!” I was shocked. I asserted that I only saw her face and did not notice anything else. That was probably not true.
If I could go to the rescue of my younger self, I would say, “Morhaf, you were technically not a big liar!” I was making an identity claim that was quite bewildered and bewildering. I was asserting how I wanted to be and what “I was” in the sense of “I should be.” I’d say, “I do” in the sense of “I should be doing” and “I try to do.” The normative part of my identity dominated. I had not read Kant then nor mastered his distinction between “ought” and “is.” I might have realized inconsistencies, but I overlooked them. I avoided taking notice of a few misses and did not include them in who I identify myself to be.
I did not allow space to explore who I was. I did not have words for my urges or desires. I did not have the language to engage with my subjective world in any meaningful manner. I, as someone who felt, as someone who desired, as someone who wished, found all those aspects reduced in relevance or concealed from my mind. To borrow the notion of colonization from Habermas, the normative world had invaded my subjective world and colonized it. That was the real picture.
Whenever I had an urge, desire, or what I could express with words like, “I have a desire for this girl!” A more powerful voice would come to say, “You ought not have that!” or, “You are a scandalous boy for thinking about it.” I would quickly shut down and not act. To an observer, I was a shy kid. But it was literally because I’d just been humiliated by my moralistic and repressive mind.
The language of the superego from Freud could be fruitful here as well, I think. For me, it was an internalized normative position that constituted a gripping conscience. Its tools were the voices of my parents. The scene was like the space of a schoolyard where I would receive humiliation. The audience was, well, my siblings for sure but also countless other people. In the audience were all the kids I had scorned with my high moral stance. Now they had come to not only look at my beating but to call me phony for judging them claiming the higher moral position.
I wish someone were there for me to tell me that I would be ok. I wish I had a space to explore my true feelings and desires.
I might have channeled into the classroom some of my repressed emotions and conflicts, whether with my parents being away or my struggle as an adolescent. While working to maintain harmony at home among the siblings, I found a space to be defiant with teachers.
My philosophical readings and my reflections were shaping my positions on topics. I would argue for my opinions and defend them if they were challenged. I picked from grappling with abstract ideas and conversing with universal audience that no power is greater than that of truth or justice. Truth and justice have an authority that is beyond the influence of any person.
In the absence of the parents at home, the authority of teachers became the target. I would argue and argue. But just like my mother, who had nine kids and needed efficient strategies for regulating the chaos, the teachers who had fifty pupils were left with little energy to debate with one stubborn teenager.
No one taught me that I could make my opinion clear without going to war. I did not know how to back off and hear the subtle clues that it was best to suspend the discourse. I would throw my one rock, two rocks, and ten rocks until the other person would make me stop.
My Arabic teacher did not like my rock throwing. So, he punched back where it would hurt me the most, my competitive relationship with my brother. I had gone back and forth on the debate until he was fed up. He had taught my extremely bright brother before.
“What is wrong with you? Your brother was not like that!” the teacher exclaimed, and that burned.
After the class, I followed him and said, “I am Morhaf. I am not my brother; never again compare me to him. We are two different people!”
My teacher was taken aback by my defense. But I was not satisfied with his appeal, which was along the lines of, “You have the potential to be smarter” or something similar. With his statement, he had disarmed me, while kept comparing me to my brother. I think about it now, and I wish I could go back and say, “STOP comparing me to my brother, really STOP!”
My interaction with the math teacher was not much better. He did not teach my brother, so that was a plus. But my back and forth arguments pushed him to the end of his rope, and he blurted out, “Stop arguing; you are rude!”
I defensively stopped participating for the rest of his class and for weeks after that. Did I hold grudges for longer than I should? Probably.
While my action in those two incidents was the same, and the responses of the teachers were also similar, the outcome was very different. I reconciled with the teacher in the first incident, but I kept hurt feelings and annoyance that did not heal after the second. Was the drive a genuine desire to come to an agreement or merely to win the debate?
After several bad debates, I figured out what grown-ups meant when they said, “Let’s agree to disagree.” That became clear to me especially after I my health and energy declined, years later. I’ve learned to set boundaries primarily to protect myself from exhaustion, but mostly to spend the energy I had left on what mattered the most.
I have further grown to cherish relationships. It was no longer about winning an argument or even about coming to a better truth. I have accepted that I could compromise with less than an ideal truth to save a meaningful connection. We could resume the intercourse later, or may never do so, and that was all right. Most importantly, I’d get the assent to debate from the person or else simply abstain.
Have I reconciled with the fact that someone I respected may think I was rude while I thought of myself as a fine gentleman? I am still working on that.
I remember the first moments of walking through the gate onto campus at Aleppo University in September of 2000. My ears were greeted with Vangelis’s “Conquest of Paradise” from the movie 1492. It felt good, and it was a special moment. If I were to do it again, I think maybe a song from a different film would be better. Something from the Disney movie Monsters University would have probably been preferable.
I thought I was entering what would be glorious and transformative. The college would be wonderful and open doors to my mysterious, but guaranteed to be bright, future. My journey then was not always glorified. It didn’t take me too long to figure that out. In college, I quickly discovered that the promised transformation was a delusion.
I entered the university in the same year Bashar Assad rose to power after his father’s death. His message early on was about reform. The regime loosened what had been a very tight control over society for almost 40 years.
I, like many Syrians, were skeptical. At the same time, activists who were motivated to make a real change in the public sphere, took advantage of the regime loosening some grip.
I imagined the horizons of edification would be open, but the year after I joined, they literally put a fence that encircles the whole campus. You would not be able to get in and out without passing through checkpoints. Periodically security would inspect the student’s ID right at the gates. You could not but think of this fence as a way to control the university and isolate it from its surroundings.
Not many years later, these fences were efficient to trap protestors inside and to close campus from those who wished to join in from the outside. The regime always had their eye on the university and made sure it was under control. To secure that control, administration buildings took a central location. In these buildings was the office of the university president, and next to it was the office of the Ba'ath Party representative. The party representative was considered to have authority equal to the president, and in some matters, it was higher. The two did not act outside the bounds of what the secret security agencies would dictate. But there was an important distinction.
The party personnel and its active members at the university served as a direct extension to the secret agencies. They would form supportive counter protests and at times would partake in beating student activists. The administration, on the other hand, focused on student affairs and education. Although dismissing activists from the university was a decision signed by administration.
A third layer was the student union, which was supposed to provide a home to all the students and advocate for them. The union had an ambiguous relationship with the Ba’ath party and with the University administration. On the one hand, they were given a voice when it came to administrative matters, like defending a student that cheated in an exam. On the other hand, because the union’s leaders were vetted and approved by security agencies, they rotated in the sphere of the Party. It was simply a tool to keep another eye on students and to build tethers of connection to those with power.
Because of the colonization of the space by the regime and its extensions (security agencies, the Ba’ath Party, and the student union) you were watched at every moment. Casual remarks with peers would get quickly reported and transmitted verbatim. Reports would be written by spies you would not know, and you would not think you saw. Secret agents and their eyes wore regular clothes and walked around looking just like all the real students. And, indeed, at times, they were students. The bottom line is that you were watched, and you could trust no one except very close friends.
I was disenchanted in college and learning did not come easily to me. In Syria, medicine was a six year program, and not a graduate professional school the way it was in the United States. I matriculated to be a doctor at age seventeen, and that was tough. The subjects felt heavy and dense. Cell biology, botany, zoology, chemistry, biochemistry, pathology, and anatomy were all cumbersome courses from massive fields of science. Each one alone had no real beginning or end. It was never clear to me what I needed to know, and what I should focus on learning.
I was overwhelmed. When the challenge was to sink or swim, I was drowning. My siblings before me had done well or exceptionally well. And they did so seamlessly. I was not sure I knew how to learn. I was in a class of a few hundred and had no advisor or a peer-mentor to go to.
My siblings had previously been medical students, but that did not help me much. When you do well with relative ease, you can sometimes lose empathy for those who are struggling. It also can be harder to reconstruct how you solve problems simply because you have never thought about how you did it; you just did it. Having family members who had succeeded on that path, to me, was counterproductive. Then, I felt I needed to prove that I was good enough on my own, just like them. They came with an added burden.
Teaching methods in Syria could have benefited from improvement back then, also played a role in my academic struggles. The didactic-based class teaching was lousy, especially in lecture halls that held hundreds of students on top of each other. Furthermore, while laboratory sessions were part of the curriculum, with limited resources, many of them became more comical than educational.
Take, for example, anatomy. In the United States, students got their own cadaver to dissect, or at least they watched the dissection of ones donated afresh. Well, the deltoid muscle we poked at when I was first year was probably the same one my brother’s class messed with years earlier. We had plenty of bones, though.
But I should not only push the blame outside myself. In the first few years of medical school, I was not engaged enough. I disconnected and busied myself with other activities that were far more exciting. I cared very little for the content of what I was supposed to memorize.
I lost the ambitious desire to be number one that I’d had in high school. I only tried not flounder. But soon, I failed pathology and had to retake the course. It was humbling, and I think it was good for me. Not that it made it easier to fail again, but it showed me that I needed to do something. That realization was in my third year of med school. But knowing that I couldn’t keep on that way did not mean my path would change. It would take a few more traumas for me to begin changing my academic trajectory.
With my struggle, I had little interest in studying and more in anything non-medicine. I coped by requiring to not be defined by grades. I belittled test scores and those who cared for them: these “top students” were annoying, boring, and one-dimensional. I, on the other hand, was cultivating my character and living life. But I do not think I was true to myself then.
I was calling sour grapes what I could not taste. My capacity for rationalizing reached a new peak. Was it a self-deceit? I was not doing well and was struggling with the vanishing of a core component of my identity: being a good student.
When I reflect further now on my privileges, I feel some guilt. I was taking a college space, and early on, I was not giving it my best shot. Being accepted to college felt like entitlement I took it for granted. In many ways, more hardworking students in the country did not have that opportunity and probably would have done a better job. This awareness troubles me.
At the same time, I also think that any learner deserves to be granted conditions for their success. This takes resources: excellent teachers, instruction technology, and mentoring. Students in Syria, and I was one of them, deserved more of that and didn’t have it. This awareness troubles me just as much.
The university had other elements to offer besides grinding away in class. I cherished the intellectual space in lecture halls, book galleries, and the music festivities. However, all were few and far between. I also blossomed in one-on-one conversations with friends.
I sought to find my community and thought the university was the right place to be in a diverse one. True, there were classmates from every village and city in Syria. They also came from outside the country. But, with the scarcity of venues that brought folks to know each other, most students congregated with familiar faces from their region or city of origin. There was a group from Idlib, and one from Aljazeera (northeastern part of Syria). If you came from Homs, you associated with your people. The conservative Muslims from Aleppo had a group, and so did the Christians. I could not fit anywhere.
My parents were from Rastan (a rural town near Homs), but was born and grew up in the city of Aleppo. I was never considered from Aleppo since my parents weren't native. I did not have an Aleppo distinct accent, and I stood out.
As I did not fit into one group, I’d easily connect with outsiders. Those were the ones from a wide variety of backgrounds, often not from Aleppo, who themselves were only loosely connected to their "tribes." I had Syrian friends from almost every city. I also was curious about my Mauritanian, Yemeni, and Iranian classmates.
Those friendships with eclectic individuals did not develop into one cohesive group. They were based on values and interests shared between the other person and me, but not with everyone.
Most groups in college were separated by gender as well. Even on college trips, there would be one bus for boys and one for girls. I saw how groups of sexually frustrated individuals (like I was in high school) did not treat the other as a human but instead objectified them into things.
The misogynistic jokes and songs were troubling to me. Then the two groups would come into closer proximity to occupy the same space but have minimal interaction. The public had little space for a healthy relationship between a man and a woman. Of course, sex without marriage was Haram, yet, all the fantasies and dreams were about sex. I felt the hypocrisy was intolerable, and I could not fit.
My heart was filled with passion in college. There was something in me longing for connectedness and for someone to love. I probably “fell in love” too often, usually with one person at a time. Occasionally, my heart could not settle and decide its target.
One could think it was the spring or the hot summer, and those beautiful Syrian women passing by to turn on the fire in my blood. I probably called what I had “love,” while it was a mixture of feelings and sensations. It was not all sensual, though; I had a curiosity about the mind just as well.
There was a desire to feel safe with someone who knew me as who I was. I also reveled in the feelings, especially to be consumed with a lover who occupied all mind and senses.
Romantic relationships were hard but not impossible for college students like me in conservative Aleppo. Lovers in Aleppo were quite creative and found ways to share moments of joy. If you were from out of town and renting an apartment, then you got your safe space. Without a space of your own, your friends could lend you a key.
The parks were also open for sweethearts to love one another. There were coffee shops as well. Lovers were creative in finding ways to get behind the walls. The burqa served as a cover for the young man sneaking in to meet his lover in the dorm. A big coat and a cap did the job for the young lady to return the visit. There were also historical sites.
Aleppo Citadel was a beautiful place for lovers to meet. Not only could you see the entire city from so high up that no one saw you, but you knew there was a history of love in every corner of this ancient building. When you were up there in the citadel, love was superior to all judgments.
There was one lover in my life that I will not forget. I was nineteen, and she was two years older. She had a beautiful black straight hair and black eyes. Her scent gave me butterflies. When she laughed, my heart would race. She was full of joy and wild dreams. We’d read poetry and listened to music. I also played music for her. I would then play the same tunes again and again when I was alone and thinking about her.
We met at the peak of my activism. The passions we had were mixed with dreams, hopes, and fears. I remember one day the secret police had occupied campus to prevent protesting. I was scared, but she felt safe.
We would steal our visitations. That was all groovy until one day, her dad came into the house, and I thought, Today, I am gonna get killed!
She managed to distract him in the kitchen while I ran into the street and escaped. I was looking over my shoulder, certain he was going to come after me.
After that, I felt maybe love was too dangerous. Meeting in public places was not necessarily easier. If we went on a date, my mom would hear about us before I got home. I had no idea how she would know, but it felt like there were eyes everywhere. She disapproved of the relationship because I needed to focus on my education, and in our family, dating was not ok. My dad was open to the idea of me getting married, but I was too young and had no job.
When push came to shove and they squeezed me financially, I thought I could not continue, and we broke. Deep inside, I felt I was betraying the dearest thing I had in my life.
My activism in college began immediately in first year. I, my brother, and a few of his friends would have gatherings to discuss relevant issues like religion, modernity, freedoms, women’s rights, and others.
I was not the main organizer, but I joined in most of the meetings. I contributed thoughts. Organizing was not my thing then, and it still isn’t. But I appreciated having a space to speak and felt I had something to offer.
One of our activist friends was involved a youth scouts’ organization. They let us have our gatherings at their location for a while. But they kicked us out when our group grew larger in size.
When we lost our meeting venue, we sought to move our gatherings to campus, so we could have larger audience and impact. The way to do that was to become active in the student union.
We tried to occupy elected positions to have leverage. Hence, a few of us ran for leadership positions in the organization. We believed the union belonged in essence to the students and we should take advantage of the structure that is in place. We could then, from within, develop spaces to bring groups of students together around issues that mattered.
Our eclectic group developed an election platform with over ten items, some related to keeping campus clean and others about extracurricular activities. We had an agenda while other individuals ran for election supported by the groups that shared their areas of origin. There were groups from Idlib and surrounding rural towns, and there were those from Aljazeera. Folks from Aleppo could not have cared less about the union. Hence, it was left to people from rural areas.
We called ourselves, صرخة ثاتر, or the Cry of The Revolutionary! We got the name from a song by Marcel Khalife that says, “Here is my voice coming from the farmlands, from the mountains where kind plebeians live, and from my people’s suffering. My heart left behind its nostalgia and came as a slap on the face of every slumbering conscience. I brought in all of what was in my soul and come to you as the Cry of The Revolutionary.”
It was our anthem that we sang at every protest. We also had a logo that symbolized our resistance. We put that logo on our posters and flyers. We were a group of young men and women, mostly physicians, but we expanded to include peers from law school, humanities, and engineering.
We aimed to open spaces for the community to come together and fill in a gap that was intentionally left by the regime. The regime’s preference was to push the public into pre-civil associations by creating structures of oppression to overlay academia and infiltrating campus with spies. The design was to shut off and kill groups and communities that worked toward forming civil relationships. The citizen was then to face the state/regime alone or within their family and tribal network.
We competed in the elections every year until a few members of our group won. A friend became president of the medical school union chapter, and that gave us significant leverage. We oversaw the whiteboard that served as a newsletter and was updated monthly. We would post articles about matters of social and political significance regarding events taking place on campus or in the region, such as in Iraq and Palestine.
That was the year when the Palestinian Intifada erupted. As a group, we led a few demonstrations on campus and took to the city streets. We viewed as a matter of justice what was happening in Palestine. The oppression was one and the same, whether the perpetrator was a dictatorship or an apartheid regime. Further, the injustices experienced in Palestine were a byproduct of the Arab dictatorships that suppressed people and prevented their potentials. We would also demand reform in Syria around the constitution, freedom of press, and right to form political parties.
We would speak about these topics whenever we had a space to rally students or an audience to listen. At a protest, we would have the same thirty or so core people, and at times, we managed to have over a few hundred protestors. We’d also “disrupt” public lectures by asking questions left unasked regarding political reform in Syria.
During the union’s annual meetings, individuals from our group gave speeches at chapters in schools of medicine, engineering, law, and economics. We all delivered the same message, at the same time, with a voice that became more empowered year after year.
We would test the waters by speaking about generalities, let’s say, “political and economic reform.” When the response was not harsh, we went into specifics, such as removing the state of emergency imposed since the 1960s and releasing all political prisoners.
As our message became more focused and our capacity to bring crowds to the street increased, the stakes were getting high.
The pressure on us mounted, and it was felt by our families; mine was not exempted. In my case, dad would receive weekly phone calls and in-person remarks from officials on campus to “deter his kids". And the threat quickly became real.
One day two friends of mine and I were interrogated by the secret police. That was my third visit to a security agency. All of us were in our early to mid-twenties, two medical students, and one resident physician.
Because we declined to sign an attestation that we would not organize any future protests, we were taken to the underground jail and ordered to stand still with our faces to the wall. When a friend moved slightly to shake his weight off his legs, the agent yelled at him, “Stop moving right and left like a prostitute!”
My friend did not take that well and replied, “Do not talk to me like that!” That one statement was enough to make three or five men jump from out of nowhere and beat him with their arms and legs.
That day, I signed the paper and left for the fresh air outside. I felt I was born again, while my friend was kept for a few more days. Still, I was filled with survivor’s guilt and the shame of compromise. My friend, fortunately, left jail a few days later. He did not sign.
The pressure was not only directed at me but also at my father and at my siblings. At that time, everyone else in the family made it clear that “We did not sign up for this; you could not put us all at risk!”
They did not disagree with my motivation, but the risk was undeniable. Everyone had memories of tens of thousands disappearing or dying in prisons in the 1980s. Cities, like Hama and Aleppo, were turned into ruins. The regime was known for its unpredictability.
I wanted to make my own decisions about my activism and spare my family. So, I made a vain attempt to leave the house permanently. I didn’t have the means. Since limiting my access to allowances had been my parents’ primary strategy to make me stop my activism, I thought I should become independent and find a job. But I had no skills. I was only a student, and no one would hire someone who was only a student.
I finally found a commission-based job. I’d go around to shops and small businesses and soliciting their advertisements for a website that had, literally, no content and no visitors. It was pure spam. I went from store to store, and in a country where the internet was a couple of years old, and half shops’ owners didn’t even have computers, some were like, “What is that?” I made zero money and discovered my uselessness. My attempts to be financially independent were vain.
I had no choice but to comply with my parents’ demands. So, I stopped going to the group meetings and stopped participating in all political activities. Deep inside, I felt my decision to comply was morally wrong.
In one of my recurrent nightmares just recently, my parents cut off my allowance. I argued, “But you can’t do that! How am I going to buy coffee and hang out with friends?” In the dream, there answer would be, “Well, you don’t need to do that!”
Obviously, I was not entitled to their financial support. There was food at home that they hadn’t cut me off from. They banned me from using family cars, but I could walk to school and back. It did hurt, deep inside. I felt I was coerced into giving up the core parts of who I was as a person: first the love of my life, then my commitments, and even my friends.
What made the situation way worse was that soon after, what my family was afraid of happening to me, did happen to my friends. Now the, “See, we told you! We saved you” refrain became the music of the house.
The activist group, without me, had moved their action to a new battlefront. This time, they had succeeded in organizing a major protest about a matter that was imperative to people’s daily lives—their jobs.
The regime had announced that they would no longer commit to providing jobs for graduating engineers. That was a serious social matter with hundreds if not thousands impacted.
The group did a phenomenal job of orchestrating the protest with other activists and affected students. Hundreds of people were at the sit down. But that didn’t fly well with the regime. Protesting about a purely domestic matter was a red line.
The university administration cracked down on the protesters suspending twenty-four of them, including some of my closest friends. Later, secret services raided a meeting some of my friends were having and took five of them to prison. Three were let go thirteen days later, but two of them wound up spending a full year locked in prison.
There had been back-to-back events that were the most tormenting experiences of my life. I was drowning with the overlying struggles: the breakup, giving up activism, leaving friends behind, watching from afar the crackdown on students who were just standing up for their rights, and living in near social isolation.
Emotionally, I was resentful of my parents, and I was feeling the guilt of a survivor, along with relief that I was not in prison or suspended.
Then, in the middle of everything, my mother died in a car accident.
My turmoil surged to a level it had never gotten to before. Her death overwhelmed my mind and senses, and I was sucked into a dark space that swallowed me for years after.
It was then June 2004. My family went out for a picnic trip—my parents, brother, sister, brother-in-law, and nephew. I did not go with them because I had to study for an upcoming final exam.
While everyone got to the car and were waiting for my mom, she and I saw each other for the last time. I told her to enjoy their trip. She said, “We won’t enjoy it as much without you!” then she said goodbye, and so did I.
The house became empty. Two hours later, I received a phone call from my brother-in-law, asking me to drive the other family car to meet them at a local hospital. He said they had gotten into a car accident.
When I arrived at the hospital, I saw my brother first. He announced that my mom had died instantly. My dad was in critical condition, and my sister was injured but would be alright. My nephew and my brother-in-law had also gotten hurt, but not critically, and my brother had fractured his arm.
What we faced was incomprehensible and indescribable. My mother’s death left me with a loss that is so immense. Something broke inside me that day fifteen years ago, and it has yet to heal.
My mom always said, “I prefer a quick death; an immediate falling to the grave!” and she was granted just that. My reaction to her loss was not as stoic as hers was to the deaths of her parents. I fell apart and cried inconsolably. I let my rage out by kicking the walls. I broke the glass top of a dresser in my parents' bedroom with my hands during my meltdown.
Sitting in the passenger seat next to my uncle, following the coffin on the way from Aleppo to Rastan, I was in dismay. I had just gone to see her dead body. Yes, this is my mom. But no, this is not her. This cold body can’t be her.
The fragility of our existence was suddenly exposed, and it felt as raw and painful as it could be. Someone so vital in my life had left, just like that. It is arbitrary, as well. The course of the matter might have changed, had they left one minute earlier or later.
Had we not said the few words by the door, or had we spoken for a bit longer, could that have changed the outcome? What if I were with them? Questions like these intruded all the time, and I put them to the side as irrational. I keep her memory, though, as she lives on within me.
My mom was gone, and while I grieved her, her image was still there, trapped with no reconciliation along with all those memories. My lover, whom I’d reached out to, some years ago, shared with me about the amount of agony she had endured after our breakup. The friend who spent a year in prison, a few years later, was abducted again by the regime. He has not been released to this day, and we don’t even know if he is alive or dead. The distance that grew between me and my friends was like a chasm that would not close. But my immediate response back after my mom’s death was to look ahead and get on the path to move to the United States.
My mom comes to my dreams every few weeks. She is there in a space where we shared memories of our hometown, Rastan. Everything is perfect, and she announces that what happened was some sort of mistake and all is fine now. I feel her closeness and the warmth of her arms. She says that she will be here forever. Then, suddenly she is gone again, and I feel her hollow loss. Her absence comes like a void into which my heart sinks. Then I scream and cry in my sleep. I often wake up with tears on the pillows.
Even now, after all the years, I can barely disentangle the losses, guilt, and grief. I cannot think of my college years without an immense heaviness on my chest and clouds wrapping around my mind.
I am inclined to unravel what took place. But I am apprehensive to attempt to do so as I have tried countless times in vain. It’s as if I’m climbing out of a deep hole or an old well. Whenever I come close enough to see the light, I fall back in. I fall, the well closes off, and I suffocate.
I know that if I process my tragedies, I’ll be in a better place mentally and emotionally. At the same time, part of myself prevents me from healing precisely because I would be in a better place if I did. I would be in a better place while my mom is dead, my friend is in prison or dead, and the pain I caused to my lover is unforgivable. To move on would be another betrayal.
In Syria, the kingdom of fear, we had rampant corruption and a brutal dictatorship. My friends and I thought that to make a difference, the society needed to speak up. It was clear that there was risk if you poked the bear, but we thought we could move slowly and work toward gaining momentum. It was the right thing to do, and there was a call of duty.
My parents, on the other hand, while recognizing the corruption and the need for change, knew the regime better. They were around when Hama’s and Aleppo’s massacres occurred in the 1980s. They also saw prisoners released after, in some cases, over fifteen years in prison, only to die outside shortly thereafter.
The regime was merciless, and my parents believed that nothing changed. Talk about reform was a pure lie. The regime consisted of the same bloody group of criminals that had controlled Syria for decades. My parents had reason to worry, especially when the threat felt real. I was interrogated and they received threats. If you got taken by a security agency, there was no guarantee that you’d come out the same day or even after a year, if ever.
My love life, I believed, was my own affair. No one should have told me whom I could love or not love or whom I could date and how. Because of their cultural backgrounds, however, my parents thought their son was doing something they would not allow in their household. While the rules were lax with boys in our society, my parents, who’d had six girls, needed to be consistent. We were living in Syria, where there was little mercy for those who chose to act outside of the social expectations. “Social reform” was not my parents’ battle, and Mom and Dad were both content with norms the way they were. They were entitled to their social positions.
I was entitled to my view, but I had little means to make it actual since I was living under their roofs. I made the compromise after negotiating the boundaries to their limits.
My friends felt they were making a sacrifice and I was not. They also had parents who were worried and fearful. They’d maintain that if everyone were afraid for their own well-being and that of their children, the situation in the country would never change. My friends took an admirable stance, and yes, they made sacrifices that, for some, meant years of being out of college or in prison. I didn’t make that choice.
If I were to use the language I’ve developed over the years but did not have available to me back then, I would explain my position as follows.
Yes, I could have stood up for what I believed in, but I would do so only if I could stand up. In many instances, I didn’t want my bones crushed or my legs broken. What I did was consistent with a position that said you needed to be able to be there to take a stance. If you died, you were making a stance once, but no more.
I knew that this position was morally ambiguous. It was the definition of compromise. When it came to core values, this position became even harder to grapple with. No one aspired to set their moral stance with a conditional “if.” I would do the right things if I could, or put more explicitly, I only did what was right if the conditions were right. And likewise, I could accept not doing what was right or even doing what was wrong if I must. This position was challenging for someone who required their narrative to be consistent and true to their actual beliefs.
But if I think about this more, what I have just said is precisely true, right, and authentic. To put this more explicitly, some circumstances need to be provided for the person to act morally. Further, it is not right to demand that a human acts morally if the conditions for doing so were not given. An example of conditions necessary for acting morally is the absence of consequences that threaten the person’s well-being or the well-being of their loved ones. Finally, I have a say in deciding what is considered right and ethical and even what I view as a constraint. I make the commitment to the values I choose, and I judge for myself whether the conditions for acting morally are provided or not.
I should not be pulled or pushed to do what is defined for me as right. I assent to what is right, and I decide when to abstain from pursuing what is right if I find the cost too high to pay. Of course, I do not do this moral judgment and appraisal of conditions alone; I would do it with a rational other, whether implicit or actual. This other can verify whether I am being genuinely authentic or only deceiving myself and others.
If I accepted this framework for myself and everyone else, I would disentangle my parents from the burden. They simply believed that the demand I was imposing on them to do right or to let me do right was beyond their capacity to tolerate. That is understandable, and I therefore have no real reason to be mad at them.
Similarly, I also think that my friends were not supposed to call me a coward. I set the limits I could afford to cross or not cross, and I decided when to stop. For the record, they did not call me a coward, at least not to my face. Instead, I internalized a perception that what I did was cowardly.
In terms of my relationship with my lover, you know, lovers fall in love, and they can break up. Relationships are quite complex. Any person can leave a relationship, even for no reason. I do not owe anyone anything for ending the relationship.
The fact that we hurt when someone breaks up with us absolutely sucks. I am sorry for the pain, and it hurts me to see the pain of the other person. I wish there were a way to undo that suffering. I do not think, however, that the breakup was in error. It was just someone’s choice. Even though I was squeezed, it was still my choice. I made my decision and accepted the compromise to maintain my entitlements at home. I had the option to leave, but I did not. I chose my family and decided to stay on a more secure path to my future.
No, I did not say that it was an exciting and wholeheartedly amazing choice, but when in life do we ever make decisions that are that black or white? I own my decision.
My mom was caught in the memory in the middle of all my bewilderment. She did what she thought she should do to protect me, and she did that well. Yes, she called me names and frowned in my face. She banned me from driving the car and cut my allowance. But she pressured me in that sense to protect me, her son. If I had a son or daughter, I might do the same exact thing.
Her last words to me were, “We will not have joy without you.” I have no doubt that she loved me. She did what she could, and she gave it her best. Did she not make mistakes? I am sure she did. Did she always choose the right words? With me, she was again and again at a loss for words. She would look for help from my dad and from my siblings, and all was in vain.
One day, one of my sisters said, “You killed Mom!” The whole family had known how much suffering and fear Mom lived in. I knew it, too. I would see her when I came in late at night, whether after escapades or because of my political activism. She had the same fear I noticed on her face when she saw us walking on the side of the highway. But this time, her fear was mixed with despair.
We could not communicate well. They had moved to Jordan years earlier, and they only returned when I was in the second year of college. I had become a person with my own stubborn thoughts and positions on life matters. Several of my beliefs were radically critical of not just this and that but of almost everything political, social, religious, and social. Family dynamics were not excluded.
I didn’t have sophistication in language to disentangle the complexity of the situation. There were walls between us, and we could not understand one another. But I did not kill Mom. Yes, it weighed on my chest that I had resentment right up to the time she died. We had argued until the morning of that day. I had been on the internet for a “long time” while I was “supposed to be studying for exams.”
I know what constitutes killing someone. To be part of what can lead to a person’s death would be devastating to me. I am a physician, and my utmost priority is maintaining life and take that as my moral duty. I also know what constitutes a person’s responsibility for the death of another person, and I do what I humanly can to not contribute to someone dying. Nonetheless, I am constricted in reconciling with Mom’s death by where I was in relation to it. My resentment before that day has only made this a more challenging task.
Maybe I will begin exactly from where it is the hardest, my resentments. I acknowledge my resentments for mom as we disagreed on so many subjects. But in what every one of us did, there was still unconditioned love for the other.
I fully meant it when I wished them an enjoyable time on the picnic. She meant it when she said with care that my absence would be noticed. I saw her joy when I’d spend more time at home, and she would express it herself. “There is nothing like seeing you around!” was something she would say to me. She had that same joy when any of us, her kids, were by her side.
Yes, we had our disagreements, but we had the love that brought us together, and that stayed always hovering in the background. She took the positions she did because of love. I made my decisions in the end also because of love. That’s true, even though we did not name it.
I loved my mom dearly. I've realized how much I missed her in the past few years. As I grappled with my cancer diagnosis, I’ve wondered what she would feel if she were alive to see me suffering.
It has occurred to me that if she were here, she’d feel an unimaginable pain seeing her child suffer. Maybe she was spared this pain. But then I'd remember her life story and how strong she had always been. How dare I think she would not have become resilient enough to endure even the devastating loss of one of her children? I trust she would have been a shining example for other women.
Still, she had prayed that she would never be a burden on anyone. She stated that she preferred a quick death. Is it not possible that she was afraid that as time went on, she could see a child of hers die? Maybe. This idea makes me think of her more as a real human, and I like that.
I know I have not processed my mom’s loss sufficiently. The dreams come more urgently to remind me of her presence but also to point me toward myself. I am curious about the dreams. I won’t lie; at times, I go to sleep just so I can have them.
But my mom lives on, not only in my dreams but also in my thoughts when I am awake. I remember her, and I bring her memory into my life. My hands remind me of her distinguished ones; her long fingers were just like mine. Nothing was like my mother’s warm touch.
The image that comes to mind is of me as a little child holding her fingers with my whole tiny hand while crossing a street. Her arms were always caring and loving when she pulled me closer and hugged me. Her hugs brought infinity to time.
Even when Dad and Mom chose to go to Jordan for Dad’s work, when I was a teen. Of their visits, it was the hugs I remember most. Their visits to us started and ended with hugs. They were eternally good.
My mom cared for the nine of us and my dad. She did her duty well. There is no payback, and I do not know how I could say thank you now.
One thing that I can and should do is pass forward the love and care she gave me unconditionally. I will share with others and participate with care as much as I can. Reconstructing my suffering after her loss and writing about it is one way I choose to give forward.
As I explore my most painful memories, I realize that my struggle was small compared to countless Syrians over the past fifty years. My pain does not correspond to that of the ones who don’t know if their loved ones are alive or dead.
Did I turn my head away from all the suffering to escape? I probably did.
Not unlike many folks with intellectual curiosity who couldn’t do much about their reality, I took a culturalist turn. I buried myself in a world of thoughts and found space for writing in online forums.
I would share my ideas to advocate a secular view of the world, something the regime was not necessarily against. I did, however, genuinely feel constrained by society and its strict views, so my expressions were justified.
Reading continued to be my way to keep my mind busy. I read more philosophy. I gleaned frameworks for understanding that were liberating and open. On the other hand, religion was, to me, a closed system. As I perceived it, you were either in for the whole thing, or you were out. The social interpretations that put religion in action were also too narrow or foreclosed.
I was troubled by how religion sets an aprioristic judgment of how social conduct should be. Instead, I thought everyone must have a voice in how they live their lives and what they wish to do with their bodies and with their souls. People are free to believe in God or not. Individuals should be free to exercise their personal liberties. They are free to pursue what they desire with their bodies and their souls.
Instead, religion was presented to me as something that you take in and practice as rituals. You had a space for direct subjective interactions with the supreme being. The form and the content of these interactions were all set a priori. It was left then for the person only to follow instructions to encounter connectedness with the absolute and live a good life. The hope was that they would be resurrected in an afterlife and be saved.
While I appreciated the meanings condensed in the text and its history, I was not satisfied. I longed for a space to ask questions openly and take the given answers as mere attempts to be refined and, if necessary, altered altogether. I was determined to discover for myself and to inquire. I never was the one to perceive edification in the sense of opening my head as a vessel for an already constructed “knowledge.” I had to experience knowing, or at least partake in constructing our understanding of truth.
One school of philosophy interested me in college: existentialism. Camus was particularly important to me. His book, The Stranger, was one of my favorites. A Frenchman in Algeria who, for some arbitrary reason, kills another man. The man’s mother dies on that same day, and he deals with her death with the same numbness he felt while killing a human.
Waiting to receive the death sentence, the man held on stubbornly to his atheist stance and rejected acknowledgment from the priest offering atonement. At that time, I was a Muslim, and I reflected on my faith and its certainty taking on the perspective of a person facing death.
My faith, I discovered, was faltering. I lost my certainty. I did not have an elaborate schema to realize that the existence or nonexistence of a supreme being was not to be examined in the same structure as we perceived material objects. But that was precisely how religious beliefs were proposed. They were claims about an objectified being, or transcendent, in the Kantian sense.
I could not accept a blind belief that was not convincing to me, so I said no and stopped practicing, one day, in the middle of a prayer.
Similarly, Sartre was crucial to me, and with his language, I marked years of existential crises on the cognitive–emotional level. I was doing fine physically, and while I might have suffered from a degree of depression, it was not a clinical diagnosis. But I had profound, deep-seated feelings with no words to describe. Sartre and his existentialist friends gave me a language that I still don’t know whether I’ve yet succeeded to rescue myself from.
Expressions like existential crisis, boredom, numbness, and nausea were used generously in my reflective writing in a problematic way. Here was an entitled middle-class brat complaining day in and day out about being existentially troubled. I had limited terminology to name my loneliness and little sophistication to detail my desire to belong.
I wish that I had used statements like, “I did not have a community,” “I feel lonely,” or “I am not fulfilled at school.” Instead, I was going about my existential crises, being tired of this life, and getting fed up with living.
Had I been without food or shelter or had I been hungry or cold in the winter, such existential fancies would likely not have come. Had I been similarly concerned for others’ well-being, especially those who were struggling, I would likely have been spared these existential whims.
But on the other hand, if I had empathy with myself then, suffering from issues related to higher needs was also valid. I needed community and purpose. I simply did not have language to understand myself and others.
Philosophy and thinking in the abstract helped me cope but also distracted me from seeing reality as it was then in my here and now. The enticing big words and phrases came to distort my vision and blinded me from seeing the simple existence as such.
I was not alone, however. I had several friends back home who were, like me in those existential moments, alienated and disengaged, nauseated, and bored.
Besides the books, in college, I also found a refuge in music. I had wanted to play music to express myself, even before my world crumbled. I picked up the Oud when I was eighteen.
An oud is an instrument of the lute family. It’s made of wood and has six strings, just like a guitar, but more pear-shaped. My brother-in-law taught me how to play. He lent me his instrument and showed me the scales. I remember the first time I played the musical notes, do, re, mi, fa, and he cheered for me, which made me feel good. It was hard at first to coordinate between the two hands. But I got better with practice.
My mom and dad were supportive and would encourage me to play. But my oldest brother, who was more focused on the production of music said, “Why would you spend hours and hours training if you can get a software that plays any music you feed it?” I didn’t know how to respond. I kept doing what I was doing.
I never became professional at playing the instrument, but I did enjoy it, especially when I had bursts of feelings, like if I was in love with someone. The oud became one way to express love. I also used it when I felt sad, which was often. Oud was associated so much with nostalgia and heartache that I thought it didn’t play anything but melancholic tunes. That is not the case. Musical instruments play what you play on it.
After my mom’s funeral, my siblings went back to their own lives. Those who were in the United States and Europe returned. Dad moved to Damascus and lived near my oldest brother.
What I had begun contemplating before my mom’s death then became an urgency. I needed to leave Syria for the time being. With the losses I’d had and my isolation, it was urgent that I find another horizon.
In the middle of my struggles, I dug up a choice that was more familiar to me, being a good student. I turned more of my attention to school. My last two years studying medicine were very different from the first four.
I did not think I had clarity for my long-term plan. After all, I was twenty-one for planning my next move. If you had asked me then, I might have said something as broad as I’d like to go to a Western country to pursue a postgraduate study.
I had the option of going to Europe or to the United States. I had established siblings who could support me in both places. They had all left Syria on their own and integrated themselves in other countries. I thought The United States was a better fit for me. I believed that once you were established there, the path to progress was unlimited. Furthermore, The United States was further away.
I began to study more. The books I read elaborated on topics in a more clinically relevant way. Learning began to make sense. We reviewed this or that basic science because it related to this or that clinical topic. Aha! It clicked.
I was a bit older now. There was something strange about a seventeen-year-old child in a cadaver lab. Was I emotionally mature enough to deal with death? Was I cognitively developed enough to comprehend it? I was probably more ready in my early twenties than in my late teens.
I was studying in English. Reviewing materials in a language foreign to me meant I was spending more time on the subject. Arabic was my primary language, so to learn in English, I had to put in way more effort.
After learning in English, I appreciated the material more even when presented in Arabic. As I began to converse about medicine, I enjoyed what I was studying even more. My sense of mastery was developing, and I felt fulfilled.
Maybe, I only needed to work a bit harder and use the right tools. My performance improved, indicated by my exam scores. Most importantly, though, I understood better what doctors did in patient care. Medicine and caring for patients finally started to interest me.
Still, my learning was more knowledge-based than practical. Our medical school had mostly a hands-off learning style. It was hard to give an opportunity for 500 students to lay their 1,000 hands on a patient. Motivated students found their ways into the front seats. I was a bit timid and mostly stayed in the back.
I was not the kind of student who would poke and probe, and that came at a cost. While my knowledge of the clinical sciences was quite robust, my clinical skills were only good enough, not stellar.
When I thought about America, I did not have the bravery or imagination to be able to leave and cut myself off from my home country. I wanted to keep belonging to my home. The idea of being a global citizen was appealing. I could always be here and there.
I sought to become a psychiatrist. I imagined I would enjoy it a lot. I liked talking to people and wished to get to know them on a deeper level. I also wanted everyone to find their authentic selves and be content.
I had realized that mental struggle was just as devastating to the person as the physical suffering. At that time, I was physically healthy, but I had many conflicting feelings and thoughts, and I would sink into deep states of despair. I was aware of my own emotional turmoil and of others’ as well.
But to get into a residency, I had to take licensing tests. So, I launched my preparation for these exams. These are tests American students and international graduates take before seeking training opportunities. Residency programs look at the scores and consider that as a surrogate for academic performance.
I studied for the tests at home most of the time. I had a quiet space. I did not lack discipline or motivation but reviewing materials for the licensing exams was not always easy. Often, it felt like a long and tiring haul.
Other students studied at the hospital library to exchange tips and be motivated by one another. I could not study there. Comparing myself to others and seeing how they study would drain too much of my energy.
Also, I did not feel I had a community there. For me, such association must be based on shared values and not strategic interactions to exchange information or externally motivate one another. I did miss out on tips and success stories.
I wonder if I had looked at it differently and had been humble enough to go there, would I have been in a better place. I needed information; it is not like I knew it all. But I also was not confident I would succeed in my plan. It was as if I would study alone at home, and that way, if I floundered, no one would notice.
I needed a visa to get to the United States, so I applied for one. The first interview did not go well. I was not prepared. I had assumed that I’d go in and say, “Give me my visa!” and they would do just that.
To my surprise, there was an interview process. The interview was in English. Who would have guessed? I had no idea that that would be the case. The interviewer asked me questions that I could not answer. I barely understood his American accent and had not prepared answers to any of his inquiries. He gave me the yellow card and declined my application because I lacked English proficiency.
My soul was crushed again. Here I was, after all my hopes that I would get the visa and travel, suddenly grounded, and the door was shut. I fell into despair. However, I did not linger in my low and got busy taking English classes. I hired a tutor to quickly improve my English proficiency and prepare myself for the second interview.
The tutor did an excellent job. In my second interview, I had answers prepared for all the questions the interviewer asked me, and I had refined my narrative by then. I explained that I needed to go to the United States so I could specialize in psychiatry. I added that I was looking at some of the top programs (I mentioned Hopkins or Harvard) and that I imagined in the future a job that would keep me going back and forth between Syria and the United States in some academic capacity.
The interviewer was impressed, and she granted me the visa. A month or so after I got my permission and only a week after my final exam for med school, I was on a plane to the United States. I said goodbye to family and friends quickly. With little capacity for the painful emotions of departure, I felt a need to leave as soon as possible.
When asked about the reason for hurrying, I would say that I was moving early so to get used to living there and be ready for the next step. I would add that it was not just to work but also to adapt to the culture, master the language, and find a community. But in truth, I was tired, and my soul just needed an escape.
My flight left Aleppo on August 10, 2006 to Milan, Italy, and then to Boston before finally arriving in Columbus, Ohio, which felt like a big achievement. After the many hours of flying, the rush of adrenaline made me so excited and astonished.
I could barely believe it when I exited the airport and met my sister. But just like Columbus himself, who was probably excited to hit dry land a few hundred years back, I had not gotten permission from the people who had already established themselves on that land.
I had followed all the rules, but as I reflect here, I still don’t have an answer. What do I do with the history of colonization in this country?
After a few years in the United States and the destruction in my home country, I became an immigrant. Being an immigrant continued to be my dominant identity. How would I reconcile with being on the lands of the natives without receiving an invitation or permission?
Back then, however, I had just arrived and did not busy myself with these questions. I quickly went on my path in the next journey. I was twenty-three years old and a recently graduated physician. I wanted to move fast and be done quickly. Where did my sense of urgency come from? Was it the fragility of our existence as I had lived it through and through?
I knew that it would take a while to get integrated in a new country. I knew that—but I also knew that I had no time to waste.