Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 30 October 2020

It has been a decade since I celebrated Eid in my Syrian home town of Hama

Every year, Eid brings a melancholic set of memories. I remember the family gatherings back home in Syria, the great food, new clothes, gifts and toys. As years passed by, I never got used to being indefinitely exiled. Each year brings its own new set of memories. Life goes on. This year, however, I have found myself marking a milestone that I never wanted to reach in the first place. It is now a decade since I left Syria. It was the first morning after Eid in 2010 that I closed the door to my room for the last time and left my home.

A lot has happened since then. It has been more than nine years since the onset of Syria’s civil war. More than half a million people have been killed, and nearly half of all Syrians are internally displaced or have sought refuge abroad. Those who remain must endure terrible living conditions, repression in regime-held areas, as well as daily violence. Those who have escaped have to live with the fact that they may never be able to come home again.

I was living abroad before the conflict started. My parents had a very tough time making a good living as teachers in Syria. This left them with little choice but to seek employment elsewhere.

In 1998, my father was offered work at a school in Riyadh. He took the job and travelled there, forced to leave us behind. Luckily, his financial situation improved and my family was able to move to Saudi Arabia in the autumn of 2003.

After that, we started spending our summer vacations in Syria. Every year, I would essentially leave my life in Riyadh behind and go live a new one for a couple of months in my home town of Hama.

During that time, I did not have a phone, access to the internet or any connection with my school friends in Saudi Arabia. Honestly, during those first years abroad, it became quite hard to go back home. It even felt like a chore.

The holidays started to become more and more exciting as I grew up. By the time of my last visit in 2010, I was almost 17 and living my best life. That year was wonderful. It was the year of the World Cup in South Africa and people were out celebrating in cafes all day.

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Although Hama is quite small, I came to realise there is a lot to see and explore. My brother and I developed a serious obsession for collecting DVDs and records. We walked all over the city and looked for interesting material in the least expected places. That new passion introduced us to a unique side of our city. The enjoyment I got from going on the hunt for Hama’s hidden gems was like nothing I had ever experienced before.

To this day, these are some of the things I am most grateful for during my last summer in Syria; 2010 was also the year when I became genuinely interested in my local history.

A family in a courtyard in the Syrian village of Jussiyeh, March 6, 2012, just across from Lebanon's eastern Bekaa region. AFP
A family in a courtyard in the Syrian village of Jussiyeh, March 6, 2012, just across from Lebanon's eastern Bekaa region. AFP

I had been passing by all those beautiful water wheels and old buildings for years without looking twice – probably because I was only a child, but still, we really do take things for granted sometimes. I know I did and I regret it. But who would have thought that a decade could pass by without being able to go back home? Certainly not my 17-year-old self.

My father taught me a lot about Hama and its sombre past on my last night there.

By the end of 2013 we knew the crisis would not end anytime soon

As we walked through the old city, late on a Ramadan night, he showed me something that will forever be etched in my memory. I was well aware of the horrors that followed the 1982 uprising in Hama, when more than half of the old city was wiped off the map along with its residents, for daring to challenge the rule of the Assad family. Among them was the husband of my father’s aunt and his eldest son. One night they were having dinner in their home courtyard when army officers broke into the house, arrested the two men and executed them along with a group of neighbours. That evening, many years later, my father took me to the exact same spot where they were shot. I could see the bullet holes with my own eyes.

As we silently walked away I had a revelation and, without thinking, I leaned towards a random wall and kissed it. I still don’t know why exactly I did that, but one thing I remember was love filling my heart. I knew I had a home I can freely love and be proud of. My father stopped, looked at me and gave me a warm smile. I felt extremely awkward at the time. He said nothing and we kept on walking. Neither of us knew that that was the last time we would see Hama.

A few days later, I packed my things and left Syria for the last time. The revolution started only five months later. At the beginning, we were hopeful that things would soon change for the better.

In 2011, Hama rose up again in what is still considered the biggest protest against President Bashar Al Assad, and once more its people were brutally silenced. By the end of 2013 we knew the crisis would not end any time soon.

In early 2016, I lost my father. His passing was extremely painful. It hurt to know that he died in exile, away from the one place he truly loved. He was separated from his friends and family and I knew this truly pained him. With his passing, I also lost my compass and my guide; the reference point I saw most of Syria through. Even if I get to go back to Hama one day, it will never be the same without him.

It has already been 10 years. My abandoned room is now a time capsule. A window into my past, frozen in time, with all my books, my toys and the clothes that don’t fit any more. Maybe one day I will go back, and step into the space that was once my haven. Maybe not.

Syrian men who wish to go back home despite the dangers risk being recruited into the army against their will. Military service is mandatory for men between 18 and 42 years old, and failing to enrol is considered a crime, with consequences ranging from forced conscription upon arrival to detention and torture. There are many documented cases of people going back and simply disappearing. I recently found out my name was on a list of men wanted for this so-called crime.

For the past decade, nothing scared me more than the thought of seeing the home I was raised in collapsed to the ground. I am lucky and privileged to still have my family house intact and to be safe in Europe. Others have lost their homes – or worse.

Ten years have passed, and today, the regime has managed to impose its iron fist on most of Syria, including Hama. I realise that I can only ever see my home town and walk its streets again when it is in a better shape and in better hands. But I also believe these hardships have made us Syrians appreciate our home country even more, especially those of us living abroad. Some of us may have taken it for granted before. After a decade of bloodshed, there still is hope. Now I am certain that if I do go back, it means that Syria has finally become a happier, more democratic place.

Adnan Samman is a Syrian visual artist and researcher based in Budapest, Hungary

Updated: May 23, 2020 10:02 PM

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