A hundred years ago, my father’s family left Aleppo, Syria. Some went to Jerusalem, others to the Caribbean, Latin America, and the United States. That’s pretty much all I know. My grandmother was born in the US, and so has no memories of Syria, though she speaks Arabic. My grandfather was very old by the time I reached the curious age of childhood, so I never heard much about our family history.
In my family, we call ourselves Syrian, or S-Y. We don’t actually mean that we’re from the country, since none of us have ever been there, but we mean it in that American-identity way. We are proud of where our family came from, but also fully integrated as Americans.
Here in Jordan, I am working in an MSF project designed to help Syrian refugees. For the first time, I am coming into contact with Syrians who, until recently, lived in Syria. My parents and I had planned to travel to Aleppo in 2010 to see it for the first time but never did, and now, thanks to the war, it is gone; we will never see it as it was. This is my only opportunity for the time being to come into contact with that part of my identity.
My mother is from Colombia. Because she herself was born and raised there, my connection with that country and that side of my background is much stronger. I have spoken Spanish from birth, and I understand and identify with the Latino community in the US. I don’t speak Arabic. I am not culturally Middle Eastern. But my family still eats Syrian food.
At gatherings, we eat kibbeh, rice with lentils or noodles, sambusak, ka’ak. My aunt discovered a wonderful cookbook from Aleppo, which my entire family then bought, and we cherish it. My Grandmother taught me some profanity in Arabic (thanks, Grandma), and every time we talked on the phone, her final words were always in Arabic – something like “go with God” and “I kiss you.”
When I arrived in Amman, everything was new. I saw traditional clothing that I had only seen in movies. I saw Arabic writing on all the signs. I couldn’t communicate at all, and was relieved when passport officials spoke some English. I had no idea what to expect. As I interacted with people, I tried to absorb as much of the culture as I could, in order to understand where I am working. Eating kibbeh and knowing how to curse in Arabic doesn’t help much.
On my first day in the hospital here in Irbid, we had a delivery. The women usually come in wearing a hijab, and they remove it during labor. With the hijab off, women look quite different. I looked at the woman who had just delivered – at her strong face, her pale skin, her dark, curly hair, her freckles, her sharp nose with an endearing bump. And then I realize, I have a strong face, pale skin, dark, curly hair, freckles, and a sharp nose with an endearing bump.
What does that mean? Am I just reading into things? In some places in the United States, I don’t blend. In college, and in California, I sometimes felt surrounded by redwood-height twiggy blondes. When I lived in Uganda, my skin color stood out so much I practically glowed. In New York, I don’t stand out, but that’s because it’s so diverse that no one stands out. In Colombia, people look like me, but they dress very differently and wear more make-up and just look all-around more glamorous (or rural, depending on what part).
But when I go places like Spain or Argentina, I am mistaken for a local. These are places where people are pale, but generally have dark hair. Where not everyone is Amazonian tall, and curves exist. People routinely walk up to me and ask directions. Because I speak Spanish, this doesn’t feel weird (though because I have no sense of direction, I can’t help).
Here in Jordan, patients walk up to me on the Maternity ward every day and start talking in Arabic. I look like I could be from here. I don’t wear a hijab, and I’m wearing very Western clothing, but the female doctors dress the same way I do. But to me, there’s more cognitive dissonance because unlike in Spain or Argentina, I don’t feel remotely Middle Eastern.
And that’s when I realize: though my cousins and I refer to ourselves as “Syrian,” it had a different meaning. Our family may be from Syria, but the meaning of that has been diluted through time and assimilation. We eat some of the food, but not all of it. We cook the complex dishes, but usually from a cookbook. We don’t speak the language. We aren’t of the culture. So what does it mean to say that I am Syrian?
It’s a strange feeling. To be, for the first time, in the company of people who represent my ancestry. To know that, as soon as I open my mouth and speak English, they will make no assumption that I am like them. On the other hand, I learned enough Arabic before I left home to be able to say that my father’s family is from Syria. And when I do, Syrians and Jordanians alike are universally thrilled. An instant connection is made. They know and I know that I am truly American, but there is something in those roots that bonds us.
Our housekeeper tells me, in a mixture of Arabic and English, that my (ample) butt is Arab. One of the midwives tells me that when she first saw me, I was talking and laughing loudly, and she thought at first that I was Arab.
In the end, authenticity is irrelevant. This is a world of tumult, of migration, of mixture. I am American, I am Colombian, I am Syrian. I am all of the above, and none of the above.
I am here, in this country, with these people, and we are finding connection wherever we can. When I leave Jordan, I will be a different person from when I came. I will have a better understanding of where my family came from, even if I never set foot in Syria. I will have experienced the Middle East for myself. I will speak some Arabic. I will turn my nose up at the falafel in New York, and exclaim with a sigh how much better it is in Jordan.
I will understand that a hundred years ago, my family left a very real place, and that place left its roots within me, even if I never quite realize what they are.