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New Book Focuses On The 'Humanity Of Syria' Lost In The War


The news out of Syria is so horrific that it can be hard to get your mind around it - the factions, the chaos, the mind-boggling death toll. But all of that is barely present in a new book by Syrian-American writer Alia Malek. It's called "The Home That Was Our Country: A Memoir of Syria." And instead of front lines, Malek focuses on the lives of ordinary people. The story revolves around her grandmother's apartment building and the Damascus neighborhood that surrounds it. I asked her why she chose to tell the story of Syria this way.

ALIA MALEK: Well, it's so utterly human and relatable and accessible. And I think a lot of the humanity of Syria has been lost when we only focus on what is happening at a military level or at a political level. You know, Syrians themselves are entertaining, are intelligent. They're the best people to tell their own story. And that's why, you know, I kind of invited the reader to come experience this as if they were a member of the building or a member of the household or a member of the neighborhood. That's the only way that I was going to be able to break through the sort of, like, stone-facedness with which I think a lot of us are looking at Syria these days.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Her book unfolds over generations, generations of her own relatives, actually. The story begins with her grandfather, born under Ottoman rule, and follows her family as it deals with the repression of life under former Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad and his son Bashar, who now rules Syria. And to take this approach, she became a historian of her own family.

MALEK: It was a fascinating activity. You have to wade through the - you know, what is legend and lore about a family and sort of start trying to piece together what is actually real.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All this investigation took place while the war was raging in a country where a fight for freedom was happening. But it was still far from free. She spent the first two years of the Syrian Civil War living in Damascus, researching for her book. But over that time, her family members became increasingly concerned about her safety and theirs. I asked her about that.

Your book begins with the line (reading) by the time I left Syria in May 2013, many in my family were happy to see me go. You talk about this in the book - how it'd become more and more tense over time. Some of them thought you were a spy. Others were afraid you would put them in danger. Was it hard to be in that climate? Was it painful?

MALEK: It was both. One of the ways the Assad regime has been able to control the population is that - you know, if they're going to punish you for your dissent or your behavior, they don't just punish you. They can punish those around you. Like, let's say they detain me. Maybe I'd get out eventually. But many people would still be left behind. I still have a lot of family inside of Syria.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Malek also told me about the members of her family who have decided to stay, despite the protracted conflict.

MALEK: I think it's a hard decision for people to make or to give up on the place that they love. And they also are seeing what is happening to Syrians abroad. You know, that is humiliating to be - to go through these refugee processes and then to become a political, you know, chip that is talked about, you know, by, you know, demagogues and other kinds of politicians. I think it's a calculus that people make individually. And a lot of my family has decided to stay in Syria.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Her work on this book began in 2011 in the early days of the Arab Spring uprising. The book ends as she encounters neighbors who end up as refugees in Europe. Malek tells me she had been hopeful at the beginning of her journey that change would come to Syria - no longer.

MALEK: Well, it's more than a conflict. It's a calamity. It's a catastrophe.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Alia Malek. Her new book is "The Home That Was Our Country: A Memoir Of Syria." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.