A Baathist Legacy

It hasn’t been easy to be at home with my mother again after all this long. This is the fourth time I see her since I moved to Europe in early 2015. My mother is the same every time we meet, yet she’s changed a lot. Some things never change about people, but they age. The war in Syria has made most of us age faster. Mom is now 70, although she looks more like 80. It broke my heart to see how old she’s grown since I last saw her two years ago.

The first thing that I told mom upon my arrival was that she did a bad job raising me. Her name is Fatima, which in Arabic means the woman who’ve stopped breastfeeding her child. My mother’s Baathist legacy, however, suggests the opposite. I’m her only son and I feel so much like a failure; for being 32 and yet unable to care for her. Until we last met, she had managed to protect me for most of my life. Once she was no longer able to help me, we both realized how unready I was to help myself or pay her back.

“Aren’t you going to check on your siblings upstairs?”

That was probably meant to be a joke, although it wasn’t funny. Fatima wasn’t talking about my two half-brothers. One of the two lives on the other side of Barada. The other one lives in Kazan, Russia. My mother was talking about a few birds that she keeps caged in a glass room on the roof. These birds are the only things that live with my mother nowadays.

Caged birds represent a culture that I have forgotten about ever since I moved to Europe. My mother in law, Ulrike, is fascinated with birds too. She always buys bird food which she keeps on the balcony. She likes to watch all kinds of tiny winged creatures visit – from a distance. She doesn’t like it when I come too close trying to photograph them. They’re not exactly trusty and scare so easily.

On one occasion, one bird flew too fast away from me and hit a glass window. It fainted, so Ulrike started crying. Sarah went out in the cold trying to warm the little thing between her hands. She stayed there for half an hour until the bird rebooted and flew away. The whole experience was terrifying.

My mother doesn’t do that. She checks on her birds several times every day, cleans their mess and replaces their food and water feeders. The birds don’t freak away every time she comes close. At least, they don’t get too aggressive and start slamming the cage bars. Her canaries often sing, even when I try to photograph them up close. I don’t really know whether this is a good or a bad thing. Are they happy? Or are they just protesting?

The worst thing about it all is that if one of these little things escapes the cage, it will probably regret doing so. It will either find its way back or turn to another family to look after it. No one hunts these birds in Damascus, but you never see them in the sky. Most people who keep them believe that if you let them go, you’re doing them a disservice. They won’t survive the city, or the countryside, not because it’s dangerous but because they’re too spoiled. They can’t live on their own.

My mother is not just an old lonely woman who keeps birds for company. She’s done a similar thing her entire life, as a mother. When I was little, I was not allowed to play with the other kids on the street in her town. She wanted to protect me from what she thought of being a corrupt and undereducated rural environment. Our apartment door was always locked, and I had no key. For me to play with the other kids, I once threw my tiny bicycle from the balcony (we lived on the first floor) and used a wooden ladder to climb down to the street. I wasn’t even six at the time.

I was beaten many times by my mother, and once by my father, for escaping the house.

When I turned 12, we moved to my father’s house in the capital, in the very center of the city. My parents thought that was the best environment to keep me under control. By then, I had been domesticated enough not to desire leaving the house. Even now, I still struggle to go outdoors. Sarah, in turn, struggles with my old habits. As she reads these lines, she will understand why it’s hard for me to go out.

The social environment in the city wasn’t that terrible. I also attended schools where rich people sent their kids. Nothing wild ever happened at those schools. At one point, I met my best high school friend, Uday. We sat at the same desk for four years. He had an overprotective mother, too. We either stayed at my place or his. Our mothers were always comfortable knowing we weren’t on the streets. At some point, however, my mother started to develop some regrets.

Uday was into American culture and his uncle Muhammad was a communist. That had some influence over me. There had been other influences at the time, ranging from living in the relatively liberal city center, to having a window on the world through the internet. All that my parents saw, though, was Uday. As I fell behind in school (mainly because I no longer believed in it) they started to point figures. I hated it when they blamed my failures and theirs on other people. Coming after my friends was especially nasty.

Uday was the last friend of mine that my parents had the chance to properly meet. Ever since, I made sure that they didn’t come too close to any of my friends. If they met a friend of mine, I never gave them a chance to meet his or her parents. I was religious about those rules.

I rebelled many times against my mother, and to a lesser degree against my father, who quickly backed off. Yet, I never went as far as breaking away from home. Fatima was always warm, kind and generous, making sure I always felt grateful. She made it easy for me to compromise my freedom. I was so spoiled that the idea of going anywhere always felt scary and physically uncomfortable.

I lived by myself for the first time after I finished high school in 2007. My entry university was in Homs, where I lived for one month only. I didn’t know what to do with myself there, so I returned home. Until late 2008, public transportation in Syria was very cheap. My parents had no problem paying for my coach commute twice a week to attend “the important lectures”. Once I transferred to Damascus University the following year, there was no reason for me to leave my mother’s apartment. We had moved back to her town in 2007, right before I finished high school.

In Damascus, I went to university once a week just to meet my intimate friends Manar and Kinda and to collect my lectures’ transcripts.

In 2012, the war reached my mother’s town in Eastern Ghouta. My father’s house in central Damascus was rented out at the time. Mom stayed with some of her nephews and nieces. My father invited me to stay with his other family, but neither I nor my mother liked that idea. At the time, so many people from the countryside fleeing the war flooded the capital. There were no places left to rent. The cheapest place for me was to stay at a small hotel close to my university. My mother and I spent most of our savings on the hotel, but at least I was safe. I stayed there for more than a month until I was done with my final exams.

2012 was a year of uncertainty. No one understood what was happening in Syria. Everyone suspected and feared everyone else. I didn’t know whom to trust. Once I was done with my last exam, I booked the first flight to Amman, Jordan. I spent a whole year there mostly with my aunt and uncle and their family. There was no way I could’ve survived that country on my own if it weren’t for them. Still, that was the first time that I broke away from my cage – in fact it was the cage that broke.

My aunt and uncle tried their best to make me feel comfortable in the last Hashemite kingdom. I couldn’t handle that country’s cruelty, though. Jordan is a tough country to live in, even for its own people. I returned to Damascus in September 2013, after my father’s rental contract expired. I spent the following 14 months working on my biggest exit from the Middle East. I found a decent European master’s program, and that was my entry point to Europe in February 2015.

In Austria, I met my best friend Andre for the first time. He first thought I was “gay” – too feminine. He also believed that I was far from ready to live by myself. Andre couldn’t believe that a 27-year-old adult could be that spoiled and incapable of handling the very basics in life. He spent the whole year roughing me up and teaching me how to live. I came looking for a better cage in Europe. Andre wanted to teach me how to fly and succeeded to some extent.

It’s been five years now since I left my family in Damascus. I have reached rock bottom, often feeling homeless, stateless and quite vulnerable in this wild west. I’m 32 now and I must bear with an exhausting kitchen job half the week, in order to look for answers for my life the other half of it. This is merely the fair price for freedom. Yet, I still need to figure out what to do with that freedom.

I have a European family now that pushes me to be more independent. Sarah is four years younger, but ten years ahead of me. She was only 18 when she moved away from her parents’ town. She’s still a little spoiled, because her family still supports her in many ways. The Germans in general are a bit spoiled with what often looks like a motherly (also overprotective) welfare state. Yet, Sarah’s learned a thing or two about how to be free, and she’s taught me some of that.

This isn’t the short story about how I broke away from my mother’s silver cage. It’s not a tale about an overprotective parent. Ten years ago, my mother retired as an elementary school principal. Her generation oversaw educating my generation, as well as the current president’s generation. It’s us who’ve taken this country into ruins, but it’s our educators who ruined us. They wanted us to be well fed and well housed and expected us to sing like canaries.

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Now that I’m in Damascus, all that I see is a dark and filthy large cage that’s survived the war. Time here is so slow, and there is no movement. Millions still struggle to let go of this place. It’s gotten a lot worse than it ever used to be, yet they’re trapped. People here think of freedom as a fancy luxury, not knowing that it’s the only thing that gives us agency. It’s the only thing that makes us strong and safe. People here are so afraid of losing their cage mainly because they’re aware that they’re no longer capable of building a new one.

The cage is already broken. The door is open. The food is running out and no one is refilling the water feeder. The canary is still singing inside, regardless of whether it’s a happy song or a protest. This is very much my mother’s Baathist legacy. This is very much what Damascus looks today.

This whole city looks just like my siblings upstairs.

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