I have been in Syria for over three months now. Damascus is where I’m originally from and where I live at the moment. Though I was born in Chicago, my family decided to relocate to Damascus when I was only two.. I grew up here until I was almost 18. I then left Damascus in September 1993.
I don't come here regularly anymore. Last time I was here was over three years ago. That was when I went crazy, quit my Chicago job, and back-packed for six months. Then, I decided to resettle in Damascus but I couldn't.. I don't think I was ready for Damascus.. I suspect she was for me.
Three years later a lot of the circumstances that brought me back here at the time did so again. I am seeking refuge in the lap of a place I'm deeply intimate with.
This place, I care so much for. I care for it like my family.. house.. life. Its backward aspects bother me yet don’t shame me. The system here, or lack there of, decrepit roads, crazy drivers .. provincial-esque infrastructure really are a source of great deal of charm and nostalgia.. frustrating at times but when I stop and think of an alternative more "developed" Damascus I cannot help but reject this generic image in my head. That of a "globalized" Damascus with American fast-food chains, Shell gas station signs on every other corner and lots of corporate soulless buildings. Now before I'm hastily accused of naivety and judged a silly romantic I say that it is this aspect of "development" that I reject and not one that will save the inhabitants of my city from unemployment, poor housing and unacceptable living conditions. All I want is for Damascus to keep its character. Something, I'm afraid, it will loose faster than my lifetime.
The character of Damascus is woven through thousands of years of civilization. It shines through the goodness of its people.. their dignity and generosity.. through the genuine smile of a hopeful Damascene in spite of a cynical looking future.. through the innocence and compassion that still intensely describes people here. It shines through the tastiest food my pallets have experienced.. through the overwhelming scent of Jasmine engulfing streets on summer nights.
You will understand when you get here.
a midwestern levant
Just like being of Damascus and Chicago I am the product of two starkly different families. My Father's very large family (seven sisters and six brothers) that places on the lower end of the Damascene socioeconomic scale stands at a stark contrast with my mother's rather small and more privileged family. My paternal grandfather was an imam of a small mosque and a botanist by profession, and my grandmother (one of four wives) was illiterate. On my mother's side, my grandfather was a well-known physician and an officer in the Syrian Army - my grandmother was a school headmistress at a time when few women received any education at all. What harmonizes this seeming contradiction, I truly believe, is a value that is deeply rooted in both my parents: empathy.
Damascus, Chicago.. Chicago, Damascus.. Two extremely different places.. One is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world - the other is one of the world's newest and most advanced. (Insert corny irony about how both cities were built by one humanity sharing an abundance of common values).. Two extremely different places that define me.
But you see, I'm not a Damascene who adopted Chicago as his second home; nor am I a Chicagoan who, through a spiritual journey, decided to get in touch with his Damascene roots. I am of both cities. I have different relationships with either of them, but I am of them both. I am as familiar with Jame'e al-Afeef (my grandfather's mosque) as I am with Fred Anderson's Velvet Lounge (the one on 21st and Indiana) - as I experienced spirituality in both places.. as familiar with the majestic Chicago skyline as I am with a miniature Damascus from the top of Qassioun.. as intimate with the warm muffled silence of an “historic” Lincoln Park street after a fresh December snow as I am with the call of the mouazin at maghrib at my childhood mosque.. as familiar with the wrestling scents of spices, dust and layers of years at al-Bzoureah spice market as I am with a crisp fall breeze in a Logan Square October morning.. I feel as depressed driving through a Chicago south-west neighborhood off of Ashland or Marquette as I do driving through al-Hajar al-Aswad in Damascus.. I have the same intense sense of pride showing off State Street's unique character or Oak Park's Frank Lloyd Wright architecture as I do walking someone through the narrow streets of Old Damascus with homes and structures as old as the oldest continuous civilization on earth.. I walk, with the same satisfaction, out of "Toast" hipster brunch in Wicker Park as I do out of "Bouz al-Jiddi" (Damascene breakfast) in Souq al-Jumaa bazaar.
I am of both places.