“We’ll be leaving for Syria in a couple of weeks,” says my mother gleefully to 17-year-old me. Fresh out of my exams, my mother dropped this bombshell on me and expected an enthusiastic response — only to receive a sulky, sullen one. It was goodbye to long, lazy summer days on the beach, and hello to awkward encounters with relatives I’d met once or twice.
On our way to the family house from Aleppo International Airport, while my mother caught up with her niece, I took a look at my city — well, not really my city (I grew up in Cairo), but my heritage as an ethnic Syrian. It passed by like an incredibly crowded slideshow, and all I could think about was how busted my summer was (and blaming the mother for it, of course).
A few days into this boring “Hellmouth”, which consisted of the very exciting activity of not leaving my bed, I decided to go outside and discover the city on my own. My first stop was my neighbourhood’s local hang-out spot – the Internet Cafe.
Stepping into the doorway, the looks I got from other kids were similar to looks you’d give an alien stepping out of its aircraft. Slightly intimidated, I walked in and tried to ask for an available computer in Egyptian Arabic – the mother-tongue I’d grown up with – only to fail miserably and find myself gesturing like a deranged traffic police-officer.
Not daunted, and still ignoring awkward stares from the kids, I made my way to the computer the farthest away from the kids to check out what was happening in the world, and what was new on MySpace.
Trying to not snoop on my neighbours’ computer, I couldn’t help but notice that they were playing Counter-Strike – a favourite among Syrian teenagers. I wanted to ask if I could join their game, but wasn’t prepared to deal with the potential rejection. I huffed the idea away and carried on with my business (obsessively refreshing MySpace).
The kid beside me noticed my not-so-subtle stares at his computer screen, ‘Want to join?’, he asked. Of course I did – only 10 minutes into trolling the internet, I was already bored to death. I gratefully accepted and began customising the game options before delving in with gusto.
Halfway into the first couple of rounds, the flow of cussing increased, mainly insulting other players and their sisters’ genital areas. I didn’t understand quite a few of the words being uttered, but the vibe seemed pretty similar to gaming sessions in Cairo.
I leaned over my neighbour’s computer and asked what half of those words meant, he happily explained, and asked if I just moved here. “I’m just visiting from Egypt,” I replied casually. The kid just stared at me.
“YOU’RE EGYPTIAN?” He asked excitedly, causing everyone else to stop the game and stare at me. I started sweating, “Yeah,” I weakly replied. Fearing the worst, I was happy to see that they were laughing and thrilled with my ‘exoticness’, speaking in an exaggerated Egyptian dialect. Unsure whether to take it as a joke or an insult, I just went along with it. Like any self-respecting adolescent, I was happy to be included.
After the game ended, the kid introduced himself as Zakaria, and invited me to grab lunch. The food-court was already packed when we got there, and Zakaria explained that these were students finishing up English classes at the nearby learning centre.
I asked what Zakaria’s school was like, and he responded nonchalantly, ‘Some families don’t focus too much on education here.’ As someone whose family had always prioritised education and academic achievement, I was a little confused and asked him to elaborate. He did, reluctantly, ”Well, I just failed my ninth grade exams, and my parents decided that education wasn’t for me and that I should just focus on the family business.”
I was shocked – he was fifteen. If I’d lived in Syria, would my situation have been similar? I was never the smartest kid in class (the struggle was very real), but I couldn’t even imagine not being allowed to receive my high school diploma.
I asked if he was satisfied, and he gave a weak smile & a nod. The message was clear – he wanted to change the subject. I obliged, and began regaling my new friend with tales of life in Egypt, and talking to him about wanting to experience Syrian culture this summer.
I told him I’d never been on a micro-bus (shocking to him), and it was very quickly decided that we would take a micro-bus to the Aleppo Citadel – which I had always dreamed of seeing – and the markets. I had to visit several shops to buy things that friends in Cairo had requested (or their mothers, more accurately).
At the market, I was overwhelmed. The shops had everything from textiles to herbs – in all colours and to suit all tastes. Every shop I ventured into had an owner ecstatic to meet an Egyptian, all of them expressing deep admiration for former president Abdel-Nasser, Adel Emam, and the Egyptian sense of humour – khefet el dam – unparalleled in the region, apparently.
I met an Egyptian shop-owner, who had married a Syrian woman and migrated a few years prior. Ever the nosy teenager, I asked if he was happy.
“Happiness is a huge umbrella – there’s no set definition for it. Am I content? Yes, things would have been very difficult in Cairo, the market isn’t as stable as it used to be,” I asked him if he ever felt lost in translation, living in a country where he struggles to communicate with residents in their native language and where the culture isn’t his own, “Sure! All the time, but that’s the best part of living abroad – the people, the language, and the cross-cultural examination of yourself and of the country you’re in. They love Egyptians here, so that’s a plus.”
This was eight years ago, and Syria had not yet become the post-apocalyptic wasteland it is now. I was lucky enough to experience Aleppo in, arguably, its prime. I haven’t been back since, but as I watch the news I often find myself wondering what happened to Zakaria, the shop-owner, and the kids from the Internet Cafe.
Did they become refugees? Did they get caught in the cross-fire or perhaps join a side? Are they the faceless migrants that brave the Mediterranean Sea in dangerous boats only to have ‘more developed’ countries dismiss them as barely human, and barely worthy of respect or human dignity?
I remember with fondness and nostalgia how I was treated by native Syrians. How would these individuals be treated by Egyptians if they were to seek refuge? I think about them a lot.
This was the trip that poured ‘Syrian’ into my ethnic cocktail – in that one day, I understood that although I grew up in Egypt, Cairo wasn’t my hometown, Aleppo was. I understand now, more than ever, that even in the face of everything that has plagued Syria, and everything that is sure to plague it for years to come, that I am proud to be Syrian. I am proud to be one of those cross-cultural kids that always feels like they’re lost in translation.