IRAQIS, SYR­I­ANS AND THEIR MEM­ORY BANK

Torn apart by war, they pre­serve bits of home in their mu­sic, cloth­ing and food, writes STEPHANIE SALDANA

New Straits Times - - News - The writer is the author of ‘A Coun­try Be­tween’ and the founder of Mo­saic Sto­ries

As I met mi­grants and refugees from Iraq and Syria in churches, border towns, sub­way sta­tions and restau­rants in the Mid­dle East and Euro­pean vil­lages, the sto­ries they tell re­veal not only what they have lost, but also the beau­ti­ful things they have saved, or re­made.

SEEDS and saplings, mu­si­cal in­stru­ments, el­derly par­ents leav­ing home for the first time. Tele­phones con­tain­ing record­ings of voices, fes­ti­vals, pic­tures of the miss­ing and the dead. Recipes for egg­plant stuffed with hot pep­pers. A nurs­ery rhyme sung in a dy­ing lan­guage.

These are just some of what Syr­ian and Iraqi refugees and mi­grants bring with them as they travel across bor­ders and into new lives.

In Septem­ber, when I set out on what will be a two-year pro­ject to tell the sto­ries of the dis­ap­pear­ing cul­tural her­itage in the Mid­dle East, I found my­self strug­gling to grasp the mag­ni­tude of up­heaval be­cause of war: count­less lives lost and up­ended, ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sites de­stroyed, tex­tile weavers and ar­ti­sans in ex­ile, re­li­gious com­mu­ni­ties and an­cient lan­guages van­ish­ing. I hoped that by speak­ing to some of the mil­lions of dis­placed peo­ple, I might be­gin to un­der­stand what had been lost.

As I met mi­grants and refugees from Iraq and Syria in churches, border towns, sub­way sta­tions and restau­rants in the Mid­dle East and Euro­pean vil­lages, the sto­ries they tell re­veal not only what they have lost, but also what they have saved, or re­made.

I learnt in Jor­dan that a city can be sewn into a dress. In a cramped apart­ment on the out­skirts of Am­man last fall, I met Hana Slewa Mosaky. She, along with most of the Chris­tian in­hab­i­tants of the north­ern Iraqi city of Qaraqosh, had fled on the night of Aug 6, 2014, as the Is­lamic State seized con­trol.

Two years later, with no hope that the po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion there would sta­bilise, she was wait­ing with her fam­ily for visas to be re­set­tled in Aus­tralia.

As fam­ily mem­bers hud­dled around the tele­vi­sion set, watch­ing images of burnt build­ings in Qaraqosh, Mosaky brought out a folk­loric wrap­around dress she had re­cently sewn. Over four months she had em­broi­dered Qaraqosh’s her­itage against a bold back­ground of red-and­black checked fab­ric: images of the church of St Mary al-Tahira and the nearby monastery of Mar Behnam, the city’s agri­cul­tural fields, the tra­di­tional wed­ding dance. On one corner was her name in Ara­bic. In the other, “Bakhdida,” the name of Qaraqosh in her na­tive Syr­iac lan­guage.

“When I knew that we were go­ing to travel, I thought that it was one last mem­ory that I could take with me.”

Both the church and the monastery on her dress have been ran­sacked.

I met Naseer Al­ham­dani, also from Qaraqosh, in a church lobby in Am­man. Once a pro­fes­sional singer in Iraq, he, too, had lost hope of re­turn­ing home. He sang a haunt­ing melody for me in Syr­iac, a di­alect of Ara­maic spo­ken in north­ern Iraq now in dan­ger of ex­tinc­tion. For Chris­tians from Qaraqosh, it was per­haps their great­est her­itage — a di­alect of the lan­guage prob­a­bly spo­ken by Je­sus.

They had fled their homes in the mid­dle of the night, with no time to pack, but their lan­guage was some­thing they could bring with them.

“We can’t leave the Syr­iac lan­guage be­hind,” his wife, Rana, said.

“We’ll have to con­tinue to speak it to our chil­dren.”

In Ramtha, a city on the Jor­da­nian border with Syria, I came upon small, pur­ple egg­plants and red pep­pers in the mar­ket, and learnt that refugees flee­ing the city of Daraa in Syria had crossed the border car­ry­ing seeds to plant in ex­ile. The egg­plants and pep­pers in Jor­dan didn’t taste the same, and small egg­plants were nec­es­sary in mak­ing “mak­dous” — the stuffed egg­plant dish beloved in Daraa.

Ma­jeda Ja­bali, a refugee from Da­m­as­cus, opened a Syr­ian restau­rant with her sis­ter out­side Paris, serv­ing re­gional spe­cial­ties like kibbe, ground meat cooked in a shell of bul­gur. She cov­ered the restau­rant ta­bles with the fa­mous Da­m­as­cus agha­bani table­cloths and hung win­dow frames on the wall with views of the Syr­ian coun­try­side pasted in­side. When her brother-in-law re­cently trav­elled from Syria, she asked him to bring a jas­mine sapling, not­ing that the jas­mine in France doesn’t smell the same.

For her, cook­ing was a way of hold­ing onto the large com­mu­nal meals they had shared in Da­m­as­cus. “Here, even when my hus­band goes out, he’ll come back with an en­tire crate of or­anges or ap­ples. I’ll say to him: ‘What are you do­ing? We’re only two peo­ple!’ But this is who we are.”

What refugees car­ried with them, tan­gi­ble and in­tan­gi­ble, taught me not only about the places they left be­hind, but also about the peo­ple they had been in those places, be­fore war took over.

Mouiad, a Mus­lim refugee from Daraa liv­ing in Ir­bid, Jor­dan, spoke of the easy re­la­tion­ships he’d shared with his Chris­tian friends be­fore the sec­tar­i­an­ism of the war had taken over.

“Dur­ing Ra­madan, some­times the Chris­tians wouldn’t eat — they wouldn’t smoke in front of us out of re­spect for us,” he told me.

“I would say, ‘Smoke, my friend!’ But they would refuse.”

When Chris­tians fasted in prepa­ra­tion for Easter, on some days he would also choose to fast with them as a ges­ture.

Though he had left most of his be­long­ings in Syria and his apart­ment in Jor­dan was spare, he wanted to show me one thing he kept with him. Though a de­vout Mus­lim, he had an Ara­bic copy of the New Tes­ta­ment on his shelf.

Mo­hanad Al­jara­mani, a pro­fes­sional oud player and per­cus­sion­ist from Sweida in Syria now liv­ing in Paris, brought his mu­sic with him, not­ing that his small re­gion in Syria had been the home­land of Farid al-Atrash, the “King of the Oud”.

When Al­jara­mani’s 70-year old mother vis­ited from Syria a few years ago, she asked what she could bring with her.

He and his brother Khaled, also a mu­si­cian, re­quested that she carry a qa­nun, a trape­zoidal wooden string in­stru­ment made by the mas­ter in­stru­ment maker Ibrahim Sukar, whose work­shop had been re­port­edly de­stroyed in the war.

“Per­haps one of our chil­dren will play it one day,” he said.

Mi­grants and refugees have no com­mon story. Some travel in­ten­tion­ally, by boat, in the back of trucks, by plane if pos­si­ble. Oth­ers leave home for what they thought would be only a week or two, never to re­turn. Some are wait­ing to re­turn home, oth­ers have given up hope of ever go­ing back and are sim­ply try­ing to move for­ward. One spoke with fear of the Pales­tinian ex­pe­ri­ence and the pos­si­bil­ity that their ex­ile might ex­tend for gen­er­a­tions.

The cell­phone is the one de­vice that they seem to share in com­mon. This is how they re­ceive news of the world they left be­hind. But it is also where they keep their photo al­bums, filled with images of birth­days be­fore

the war, fam­i­lies now scat­tered, houses now aban­doned, broth­ers now miss­ing.

Samer Tara­bichi, a painter and doc­tor from Aleppo, could not have known when he trav­elled to France to study that war would break out while he was gone and that he would not be able to go home.

Now, af­ter treat­ing pa­tients, he paints images from his child­hood. In one paint­ing, a woman sleeps be­neath a blan­ket cov­ered in images of Aleppo, pas­tel build­ings piled one on top of an­other. Tara­bichi points to each im­age and says its name: the citadel, the alTawhid mosque, the Ma­ronite church.

“I don’t choose by look­ing at the map. I take the im­age from my mem­ory.

“The church there was near my grand­mother’s house. The restau­rant of the Amir Palace was where we went for wed­ding par­ties.

“It’s not be­cause the places are more or less im­por­tant that I paint them, but be­cause it’s what I re­mem­ber.

“I’m try­ing not to for­get my city. I try not to look at pic­tures of Aleppo de­stroyed. I want to re­mem­ber what she was.”

He named the paint­ing “Noc­turne” af­ter a piece by Chopin.

“I play the pi­ano, and it was the last piece I played on the pi­ano be­fore I left Aleppo. I didn’t know that it would be the last piece I heard” be­fore go­ing to France, he added. “But it was.” NYT

AFP PIC

An im­age grab taken off a video re­port­edly re­leased by the Is­lamic State show­ing mil­i­tants de­stroy­ing a statue in­side Iraq’s Mo­sul Mu­seum in Fe­bru­ary 2015.

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