Illustration by Sidra Dahhan

Syria: A Dream, A Room, An Earthquake

I can not pretend the country does not exist in a state beyond family and memories. I can not just pretend that feeling empathetic about the situation is enough.

Feb 12, 2023

I can no longer pretend that Syria is a mere dream.
A couple years back, I penned a Gazelle piece on my fading memories of Syria. I wrote about how I only know the country through my summers in Damascus and Aleppo. In Sham and Halab. I only knew the country through dreams.
I remember even less about Halab than I do about Sham. All my memories of the city revolve around one apartment building: my jiddo and nana’s house.
I see the living room first, where countless hours were spent playing on my GameBoy or Nintendo DS. Then, the balcony where my dad sat, telling me about the trees of his childhood, comes to view. I briefly glance at a bedroom on my way to the bathroom, where I am met with the strong earthy scent of Aleppo soap. I recall another bedroom, where sounds of sirens and the city penetrated through the window, day and night. I see a dining room. I see my jiddo smoking in the kitchen.
There is a room I do not remember at all, next to the Aleppo soap scented bathroom, and will never have a chance to know. In the videos sent after the Türkiye-Syria earthquake assessing the damage on the house, I see that the door to that room will not open. The rest of the home stands bravely, with periodic cracks dispersed through caused by age or earthquake. But that one door is permanently shut, likely weighed down by debris. I will never know it.
From a photograph taken outside the apartment, I see the glaring, exposed corner where the room once stood, slightly charred, surrounded by rubble. The room has fallen. All that remains is half of a brown closet, hanging on by a thread and refusing to fall.
I glance up to the apartment above, and to the apartment below, which have similarly suffered the loss of a room. I wonder about the families who inhabit those homes. What do those rooms mean for them? I switch to social media and see other images of the city. Apartments have been reduced to rubble. A shivering, ashy child is pulled out of a sea of gray concrete. Many more do not make it out alive. The death count rises. And rises. And rises.
I feel guilty; when so many people are dealing with another harsh winter, when so many people are being refused aid, when so many lives have been lost, why is a room occupying my mind? I mourn the room for my grandparents, for my father, for the decades spent there. The room has also punctured a hole in my heart — of the apartment I associate with the city. It is a wake up call. Syria is more, much more than just my childhood memories. For good and for bad.
I think back to all the images of destruction I have seen of Halab in the past decade. Of punishing earthquakes and bombs. Of apartments nibbled at, teared, shattered. Of broken china and photos standing visible on streets, private items forced to become spectacles for people to gawk at. Of all the fallen rooms, thousands upon thousands of them.
This week has been a reminder to me that Syria is still in crisis. It is easy for me to treat the current state of Syria, the scars within it, as something abstract — if I do not see it in front of me, if I do not live it in my everyday life, how is it real? How is it part of my existence? How could it be the Syria I know? I am aware of the suffering that is happening, and I can keep up with the latest news about the nation, but do I know that this is my Syria?
I have spent days, morning and night, looking at the picture of the brown wardrobe and exposed corner. It is the first time I have seen direct damage to a place I knew, a place I remember, in Syria. Because of this, now, I can not see the apartment, I can not see Halab, I can not see Syria as it once was. I can not live it through the illusion of dreams. While I do believe in remembering and sharing with others the beauty of the nation, its people, and its cultures in the face of negative media representation, it would be wrong for me to completely disconnect myself from all the pain currently being experienced there as well.
It would be easy for me to just not recognize the country as it stands today. But how can I say I come from this country if I do not make an effort to understand, to help, to know the people actually inside of it? What gives me the right to disconnect just because I am a member of the diaspora?
The situation is still not “normal”, and it will not be for a long time. So many people have lost, and continue to lose, and I can not detach myself from the reality of my people anymore. I can not pretend the country does not exist in a state beyond family and memories. I can not just pretend that feeling empathetic about the situation is enough. I need to do something. I do not know what yet. But I need to do something.
Perhaps it is time to dream for the future, rather than the past of the Syria I knew.
Sidra Dahhan is Managing Editor. Email her at
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