When I think of Syria

14 April 2017

Munya Redman-Bayasi remembers Syria before 2011, which the rest of the world seems to have forgotten


“Munya? That’s an unusual name. Where’s that from?”

“Well actually it’s a Syrian name. I’m half Syrian.”

“Oh wow, so do you still have family over there?”

“Yes I do. Lots.”

“That must be so difficult. So tell me, whose side are you on, the government’s or the rebels?”

So began every conversation I had in my first month at university.

Let’s forget momentarily how oversimplified that question is. It’s nice that people care. But there’s so much more to being a British-Syrian than what you’ve seen in the news. My experience of Syria is complex, and it’s one that is very personal and often overlooked. I will try to share some of it with you.

When I think of Syria, I think of long summer months spent in Damascus with my family. Sitting on the steps down to the garden, drinking sweet tea under a bower of jasmine, the ground still warm from the sun long into the evening.

When I think of Syria, I think of sand coloured tower blocks and dazzling white light, bouncing off buildings into my eyes, while I wandered the streets in 50 degree heat with my parents.

When I think of Syria, I think of being surrounded by history, of walking down streets of Parisian style architecture, turning a corner to find myself faced with the walls of the ancient city which have stood there for thousands of years. We’d walk down the Souk el-Hamidiyah with its roof of corrugated iron, punctured by bullet holes from WW2. The shops spill out into the road, full of colour and life: the Kaftan shop my dad took me to every year, where I’d try on beautiful hand-embroidered dresses of red and blue and gold, and the sweet shop where we’d buy sticks of pure crystallised sugar.

When I think of Syria, I think of the ruins of the Roman temple of Jupiter which stands in the middle of the old city, giving way to the Ummayad Mosque. Round the corner is the oldest cafe in Damascus, where every night, traditional storytellers sit and weave tales for the punters.

When I think of Syria, I think of midnight trips across the park to the smoothie shop my parents discovered when they were first married. The park was always full of life, children and parents playing on swings and slides in the middle of the night, when it was dark and cool enough to think without sweating. The shop keepers knew our names and asked about home and school every time we visited; we’d get chocolate and banana milkshakes to drink there, in the street, then take a litre bottle home of ‘fruit cocktail’ (mixed fruit smoothie) to put in the fridge for the next day.

When I think of Syria, I think of sitting on the balcony with the family, looking out at the city from my aunt’s 9th floor flat, playing cards and eating fried chicken with my cousins.

When I think of Syria, I think of riding up the mountains which border the city in the back of an old pick up truck, exposed to the sun and simultaneously looking up at the snow, gleaming on the peaks.

When I think of Syria, I think of summers spent with my aunt in Latakia, swimming in the Mediterranean Sea or in clear blue lakes, and the year I was stung by a jellyfish.

When I think of Syria, I think of visiting Palmyra and riding a camel bareback down the central Roman road, amongst ancient ruins. I think of climbing decaying monuments and ancient temples, and stopping for breath on the stage of the amphitheatre. The same amphitheatre which, under ISIS control, became the stage for multiple executions of civilians.

When I think of Syria, I think of all the people I knew, the family friends and familiar faces who I grew up with, who I may never see again. I don’t know whether they’re dead or alive or safe, whether they’re still in Syria or have fled like thousands of others.

When I think of Syria, I think of the fear I feel every time I switch on the news that I will see someone I recognise.

When I think of Syria, I think of my grandad’s grave which I have never visited. He died 2 weeks after the revolution started in 2011.

When I think of Syria, I think of my dad, sitting at the kitchen table last Easter, calling my aunt after her husband died of cancer. She was too upset to speak on the phone; he ended up talking to my cousin instead. It is the only time that I have seen my dad cry. He couldn’t be there with his family when they needed him most; he hasn’t seen them in 6 years.

When I think of Syria, I think of my family, displaced across England, France and Poland. Some of my cousins were sent away to Europe to stay safe – we are lucky, they could afford to move and managed to get out before many borders closed. The family left behind is spread out; fortunately, most live in fairly stable areas, but it’s difficult for them to travel across the country to see each other.

It would be ridiculous to say that my experiences of Syria are the same as everyone else’s. But personally it upsets me that people don’t know anything about the pre-2011 country. This year, we have seen some interesting pieces about the refugee crisis and the experiences of Syrians escaping the conflict to come to Europe. But while these pieces have an important place in the artistic response to what’s happening, they lack what, to me, is the most important point – the experiences of actual Syrian voices who know the country well. What is happening is atrocious, and heartbreaking, and wrong, and we all know it – or if you didn’t, you certainly will now (assuming that you saw either No Human is Illegal or Say it Loud). But it becomes even more tragic when you take into account the beautiful country that was there before. I’m not saying things were perfect. And I’m certainly not saying that my thoughts are shared by everyone of Syrian descent. But I would like to see more theatre which uses the voice of a wide range of Syrians, both refugees and those of us already living in this country, who grew up with a shared connection to a country which is now thousands of miles away and totally cut off from us.

While the shows I have seen at NSDF have made a good job of starting the discussion, it’s essential that we expand our perspectives. I am told that both companies used refugee testimonials as a starting point for their pieces which is a great start, but I question how much further we can get without directly including the voices of Syrian artists. What I saw in those plays was the reactions of theatre makers who are disconnected from the situation, trying to speak to me about an issue which is very close to my heart – and I need more that that.

Remember that when we talk about these topics, we’re not just talking about distant people we’ve never met – it could just as easily be the girl sitting behind you in the theatre. And next time you meet someone Syrian, make time to ask them their favourite memory of the country – they’ll probably appreciate it.


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Photo credit: Giulia Delprato