A Late Review of 2019

So much has happened since I last wrote to this blog. The year that passed came heavy with difficulties and heartache, and although I felt the urgent need to unburden, I was frequently torn between the need for brutal honesty, with myself and this writing space, on the one hand, and the desire to make things look pretty, palatable or worthy of publishing on the other. And since I value honesty more than visibility, I kept quiet. During the last quarter of 2019, I found myself in the midst of so many events, that I had first to absorb and internalize. I needed to make sense of what was happening around me and inside my mind before I shared it with the world.

This time last year I felt like the weight of the world has landed on my shoulder. I had my personal grief to deal with in addition to a challenging situation at work, where I was saddled with a supervisory role I was not fully ready for. The team I led, on a temporary basis until the vacant position of chief was filled, consisted of chronic under-performers with huge egos and unpleasant attitudes. I surmounted the difficulties as they arose, but eight months into the task, I found that I was thoroughly tired of being the hardworking odd-ball in a team of slackers.

It stung me initially, that I did not make the cut for assuming the Chief’s role permanently, but later I understood that perhaps I did not have the time and energy to constantly crack the whip behind this team, and I resigned myself to the time-tested method of wait-and-see. I kept things running as best as I could and waited for the next Chief to assume the position and take ownership of this problematic situation. I practiced patience and tolerance to the limit, putting my foot down only when it was absolutely necessary, and thus achieved the maximum cooperation possible from my troublesome and trouble-making colleagues.

I also practiced running, mediation and kept on with my therapy sessions. These simple actions, were my lifeline, and now I think that they rescued me from a total breakdown. The running, for one, was crucial. I was selected in the draw to enter the Berlin Marathon and worked since late 2018 to gradually increase my mileage. I thought that completing the marathon would be a worthy goal that I have full control over, something that I can achieve in the year I was faced with antagonism, failure, rejection, heartbreak and grief. I envisioned this achievement as an antidote to pain, and a remedy for restoring my faith in myself.

I fought hard to make it happen, from carving out training time in a busy schedule, to planning a short turnaround trip and absence from work. And of course, I also had to arrange care for my son in my absence. But as I crossed that finish line, the rapture on my face told it all. I went the distance, and the euphoria carried me on its wings even when my legs could barely function. The very next morning I was on the way back home already, and even as I dragged my aching legs to the office a few hours after my arrival, I felt triumphant and invincible, there was nothing I could not do. I made it to the finish line, and for a short while, I felt certain that I could surmount even the tenacity of my heartache.

The next obstacle was my long overdue visit home. This was brought about by my sister’s illness. My parents made the journey in September and I thought that I could coincide with them there for one week during a school holiday. The logistics of planning this journey were a nightmare, and the whole plan would have come to nothing if it weren’t for the assistance of family in Dubai. This time I dragged my son along, and left him behind with a cousin in Dubai while I took a flight to Damascus.

When I left Syria to the Gulf in the late nineties, I had no idea that my departure would be permanent. I first became a Gulf expat, and visited home a few times. Then I met my ex-husband and moved far to South Africa. The last visit I made to Syria was with my ex husband in 2002. In those 17 years, my sister got married, and became a mother to two boys, now almost young men. During the same period my parents and brother left Syria in their turn to settle in Germany.

Even before Syria’s rapid deterioration from civil protest to unrest to all out civil war, the prospect of a trip from South Africa was daunting, and given the fact that I had the competing priority of visiting my parents and brother, I somehow never got around to making that visit to my home country. And in all honesty I did not miss it that much.

My emotional detachment from my native country is an uncomfortable subject that I would rather tackle elsewhere. Because although there is a universal theme of expatriates frequently feeling like foreigners in their native countries. The Syrian experience, especially after the war, adds another layer of complexity. I had trouble with the Syria of the 1990s, but last year I stepped into a place I did not recognize at all.

The road from Damascus to Aleppo seemed endless as it made a very long loop around the rebel-held areas in Idlib province. Whenever I nodded off to sleep I was woken again by the car stopping for one of the scores of control points. They were mostly amicable and waved us through but their presence was a clear indication that this was still a country at war with itself. My native city of Aleppo was even more scarred, whole buildings gutted and showing their broken insides, with remnants of a living room or part of a kitchen counter overlooking the void where the other half of the building collapsed to rubble and dust. The city itself ends abruptly with concrete barriers cutting off a main street that was once a busy bypass to the north, connecting it to the Turkish border.

Like the city, my sister was also battle-scarred. But unlike the city, which to me changed beyond recognition on many levels, my sister still retained her fighting spirit. She changed too, but I could still recognize her feisty nature, and her ability to laugh at herself, and make fun of a terrible situation. Perhaps I recognized my sister because I still have much love left in my heart for her, whereas my love for my native city has run dry.

I went the distance, here too, to visit my sister. And despite the difficult circumstances we managed to reconnect and make some memories. There were also the awkward moments where I felt like a stranger in what used to be my father’s house, but the love and support that my sister deserved had to come first. Still, I could not help but see that whole city, the whole country, lived under a cloak of misery. Some of this misery was visible in plain sight, but most suffering lay under the surface, and manifested itself perhaps in my sister’s illness, my nephew’s rebellion, my brother-in-law’s dependence on tranquilizers and cigarettes, and my cousin’s obesity.

I choked on my tears as the ancient Airbus 320 lifted off from sad Damascus airport, and climbed to cruising altitude. I prayed for my sister’s full recovery, and I prayed for everyone who was left behind in my broken native country. In my heart I knew that I will never return.

The year was tough, like running a marathon, but I managed to end it too on a high. The last two months were more pleasant. News from my sister was encouraging, and my new chief arrived and quickly assumed his new position. I was pleasantly surprised by his forthright character and his willingness to work hard and confront problems. I gladly took a back seat and allowed him to establish his leadership and authority. I have learned from this experience that I function better as a supportive and diligent first officer, and that I have no interest in command.

I concluded the year with a long and well-deserved proper holiday. My son and I visited the family in Berlin. My parents had safely returned from Syria too. Their return trip was perhaps more eventful than mine. First they missed their original return flight because of the unrest in Beirut and had to reschedule a different departure a week later. Then they spent almost half a day in Beirut airport as the local low-cost flight from Beirut delayed its departure because of the ongoing protests.

My son and I made a city stop in Vienna before we headed to our final destination in Berlin. And it was a long and lazy holiday to finish off a really difficult year. I had time to knit, read, ruminate, and simply enjoyed being with family, without worries about the office. We shared our stories from 2019 and reflected on our hopes for the year to come.

Throughout this last part of the year, I felt I was experiencing a rare period of downtime. In my last visit to the therapist in 2019, she told me that she would not book another appointment for me in 2020, and advised me to call her, if I needed, next year. My biggest fear for the new year was to find myself adrift without a new goal or a challenge. I entered and was selected for the Berlin Marathon this year too, but I knew that running a second marathon is not as motivating as running a first. The stakes for the first one were not that high. It would have been no big failure to try and fail, and the success, when it came, was my big underdog moment under the sun. For this second marathon, however, winning would not be as sweet and losing may be doubly bitter.

I have thus concluded my summary of 2019, with the problems I anticipated for 2020. In trying to solve them, I started a daily gratitude journal and set myself on a course to surprise and challenge myself. A book I am currently reading suggests that life should be approached in a gameful spirit. And to keep my interest and skill in the game I need to devise and accept new challenges. I need to embrace new changes and challenges and believe that 2020 will be my best year yet.

The Dilemma of Belonging Somewhere

It has been over a year since my birth country was plunged into a desperate war. When the revolts against the ruling government started, they were only peaceful demonstrations, which were quickly met with disproportionate force. Soon the resistance armed itself and found allies amongst extremist groups, and some Gulf-state governments who were opposed to Syria’s alliance with Iran. The discourse turned ugly. Instead of justice vs injustice and freedom vs dictatorship, we started hearing Sunni against Alawis and their Shiite allies, and “Us” against the”Them”. The morality of the revolution or those who are fighting for it, came under scrutiny.

I for one, was unable to reconcile the aspiration for justice and democracy with the cruel punishment of enemies, or mutilating their corpses. The savagery of both sides intensified as time wore on. And we all know that war is an insatiable beast, and once blood is shed, it feeds on itself in an endless cycle of cruelty and savage retaliation.

I haven’t heard any news about the battle for Syria (or in Syria) in months. I am sickened of body counts,  and it is enough for me now to hear the grim news from my sister. She and her family are fed up with the fighting and just want their old life back. Dictatorship, corruption, and lack of civil liberties seem a small price to pay for safety now. After all this time I see the logic of their argument. And even though I implicitly still support the revolution as a principle I am not sure anymore of the means it employs.

I have left Syria because I had very little in common with the people there. I could neither relate to overt piety, nor to a life of leisure as a socialite. I was often criticized for my  casual dress sense, my inability to apply makeup or style my hair. My sister, in contrast did not have a problem with taking close to an hour “getting ready” every time she wanted to step out the door. Now, she has chosen to wear a headscarf, I think it is easier to just cover up and leave the house rather than get every single hair in place. I have one dry bottle of mascara that I never use, but over twenty years ago, my cousins tried to teach me how to apply, foundation, blush, eye-liner, lip liner, lipstick, and eye-shadow. I think I gave up as soon as that first lesson was through. I could never justify wasting so much time on all this rubbish. Besides, I am happy with the way I look. One of the first things I did when I got divorced was to stop dying my hair. I suffered for two years with my twin stripes, of carrot/aubergine and salt-and-pepper and was thrilled to finally have my natural grey-highlight. Women in Syria would never understand this attitude. They thought I was awfully uncouth when I walked the streets in a T-shirt, faded jeans and hiking sandals. I think they dubbed me as the African savage. Everyone expects an expat to arrive in designer clothes, expensive leather shoes and flawless skin. I only had my casual wardrobe and proudly showed off my arms and legs, tanned by the African sun. After living in South Africa, I became an alien to my country of birth, but at least I had a good excuse then. When I lived there, I tried my best for years. I wanted to belong, but it never worked. In South Africa, I found a place where it was okay to be myself. I belonged regardless of the color of my skin. Most people dressed casually, just the way I liked to dress. Nobody ever asked me what my religion was.  It was a revelation.

I found that I relate to South Africa better than I ever related to my country of birth. I respect and admire the wisdom of its people and the way they transcended their differences and moved along towards a common future. The idea of Ubuntu and the truth and reconciliation speak volumes on the morality of this nation. Yes, there were incidents of bloody conflict, and even the current majority government has made its shares of mistakes and trouble, but none of these come even close to the monumental destruction still under way in Syria.

The nightmare scenario playing out in my birth country does not correspond to any of my views.  I am so ashamed and unhappy about it that I reached a stage of total apathy. Some of my friends write glowing praise of the country they remember, the beautiful Syria, where different sects and religions lived side by side, in peace and harmony. The cynic part of me questions the veracity of such an innocuous image, when the erstwhile neighbors are now caught in an exchange of violence, that causes more bloodshed at worst, or slides into the worst gutter language at best.

I watch in horror, while people I once considered friends defend the indefensible, or hurl obscenities and accusations at others for a difference of opinion. For one group I may be classified as an Israeli sympathizer, a tool of American imperialism. While the others would call me a non-believer, and enemy of Allah. Both groups are fools, and again, I find myself unable to relate to neither.  Before the revolution strayed into sectarianism I enjoyed listening to a few secular voices, calling for a civilian rule, under a liberal constitution. Today, these voices are drowned by the proponents of an Islamic State.

My dilemma is that I cannot openly criticize the religious tone of discourse, for fear of offending my religious friends. Besides, I do not want to look as if I am supporting the alternative (the current bloody regime that continues to kill people with impunity). On the other hand I feel that I do not have any stake in this battle anymore because, in all honesty, I neither want the religious extremists to win, nor can I ever accept the criminal regime to stay.  Unfortunately for everyone, these two sides have the best chances, because they have the strongest foreign support (Russia, Iran and Hezbollah – on the side of the regime, and the Gulf States, and the western world, on the side of the armed religious insurgence). This balance of power has so far kept both sides more or less evenly matched, but sooner or later the scales will tip to one side.

I withdraw again to the safe cocoon of African politics. For all its faults at least the ANC is still ruled by a civilian constitution. It recognizes the rule of law, not the rule of God or the ancestors. The more Syria slides into anarchy the closer I retreat into the safer ground of my South-African identity. One post I recently read likened a birth country to a mother, and an adopted country to spouse. So according to this analogy I am an ungrateful daughter to the mother country.

If this were true then I could argue that my mother country never treated me well in the first place, I felt like I was kept by an evil stepmother, who constantly pushed me into things that I did not want to do. My adoptive African mother was kinder and loved me the way that I am, I call her my true mother. Again, this is something else where I differ from the people in my birth country. Belonging to the birth country is not a choice in their opinion. It is a sacred duty. And blind patriotism makes the best fodder for senseless wars.