“For the sundown was more appealing to us than the sunrise, ay, more beautiful. The one was so near, the other so far away. Yes, we beheld the Hesperian light that day, and praised Allah. It was the New World’s bonfire of hospitality: the sun called to us, and we obeyed.”
— Ameen Rihani, “The Book of Khaled”
It’s a good summer in Washington when the fence that was erected around the Capitol building after the Jan. 6 insurrection has just come down, and fireworks lit up the evening sky on Independence Day, marking what also felt like the tail end of the pandemic. But the sense of relief remains bittersweet when family and loved ones “back home” in the old country are enduring some of the worst challenges of our time: failed states, economic collapse, war, drought and not enough COVID-19 vaccines.
The dissonance got me thinking about the privileges of life in the West and how I became both a fifth-generation American and an immigrant. In researching the backstory, I uncovered over 100 years of familial and geopolitical drama that sometimes repeats itself.
The story starts in the late 1890s, when my great-grandfather caught American Fever and sailed west to the New World. Kamel was his name, and few in his mountainous region of the Golan Heights in Greater Syria during the final decades of the Ottoman Empire had dreamt so big. But tales of riches and adventure were already trickling back from the Syrian pioneers who had made it to America. Some sent generous remittances to their families, turning them into the envy of the village. Some saved the money they had accumulated in the New World and returned home with fanfare. They dazzled anyone who listened with fantastic tales about a place where “you could shovel gold off the streets.” The image must have seduced Kamel, whose life in the village teetered along a path of ordinariness. Unlike his Christian Syrian neighbors who, under Ottoman rule, endured treatment as second-class citizens and made up the bulk of Syrian émigrés in the Americas, Kamel belonged to the Sunni Muslim majority. He must have enjoyed the privileges of a man generally unaccosted and unpersecuted in his own land, like a free white man in America. Yet, despite all its risks and hardship, the pull to the New World was too much for him to resist.
Kamel arrived at Ellis Island on Christmas Day 1899. He was about 20. The village boy from Syria must have been awestruck, and since his words didn’t survive the decades, I imagine he was no less fascinated by New York than his contemporary Syrian, the author Rihani, who described his first sight of the city:
“Salaam, this enchanted city … super-terrestrial goddess, torch in hand … is this the gate of Paradise, or the port of some sub-terrestrial city guarded by the Jinn?”
Fresh off the boat and well within view of the “goddess,” Kamel felt the need to tame his last name before the immigration officer, given the impossibility of pronouncing it in English. The middle letter in al-A’as, “ein,” is unique to the Arabic language. “Arabic for Dummies” crassly but accurately describes it as contracting the muscles in the throat, “sometimes compared to a ‘choking’ sound.” Personally, I think it sounds more like the primal cry of a newborn, the wail of life, the first breath. Only native speakers can re-create the sound in adulthood. In any event, that year on Christmas Day, Kamel’s last name changed from al-A’as to Hassie, sometimes Hessie.
If the city overwhelmed him, Kamel would have sought the assurance of his own compatriots in Little Syria, a vivacious neighborhood of Syrian émigrés who had been congregating on Manhattan’s Lower East Side since the 1860s. Young, healthy, ambitious and unattached, Kamel relished every minute of his new adventure. He didn’t know it, but he had many good days ahead, years on the up and up, before 1919, when everything would change in ways no one could yet imagine, altering Kamel’s life trajectory and that of his children, his children’s children and their children, including me.
But not just yet.
Kamel’s paper trail disappears for a while after his arrival in New York, a period he spent peddling across the country, as Syrian émigrés were known to do. I imagine he snapped his peddler’s box close to his back and headed off into remote frontiers, knocking on the doors of rural homes and the occasional small business, selling Eastern trinkets and silks and spices that he would have purchased at wholesale prices in Little Syria.
In 1902, he appeared in Burleigh County in North Dakota, in the state capital of Bismarck, and declared his intention to become a U.S. citizen, the first step toward naturalization at that time. It is not clear how he navigated America’s racist streak and to what extent, if at all, he might have endured it. Dixie legislators of the time pegged the racially ambiguous Levantines as the “spawn of the Phoenician curse … nothing more than the degenerate progeny of the Asiatic hordes which, long centuries ago, overran the shores of the Mediterranean.” Jesus was invoked by all parties. Indignant Levantines protested that, surely, America wouldn’t turn away Jesus and deny Him citizenship. Racist judges dismissed the comparison as the quibbles of an “emotional” and feeble-minded people.
A landmark court case known as Dow v. United States, decided in 1915, finally put an end to some of this pondering when it assured Levantine immigrants access to U.S. citizenship. It turned out that the decision would be useful for World War I recruiters who needed this assurance when soliciting noncitizen fighters from the Levantine diaspora who were eager to fight the Ottomans. The “Syrian ethnicity” — an umbrella term for Levantines — became synonymous with Christian, whereas a “Turk” was Muslim. The satirical PUK cartoons that were popular at the time regularly lampooned Turks and Arabs, depicting the former in military uniform and the latter in traditional tribal robe and headgear, both with exaggerated large noses as in the antisemitic depictions of Jews, whereas Syrians — considered neither Turk nor Arab — were largely spared such indignities.
All this might have been irrelevant to Kamel, who found Bismarck full of Levantine immigrants who also “passed.” He applied for a homestead and took possession of 160 acres of land. For the next few years, he tilled the earth, planted crops and raised sheep. He quickly acquired high standing in the community, his name appearing frequently in the local press, which kept track of his latest ventures and wanderlust, documenting his timeline and filling in details where my family’s memory fails.
On May 11, 1906, Kamel ran a FOR SALE ad in the Bismarck Tribune. “About 250 sheep, 160 ewes, from two to three years old; 25 wethers, 55 March lambs; all good breed and extra cheap for cash.” On Aug. 8, the Tribune published a blurb about him: “Kamel Hassie has sold his bunch of sheep and is starting west to the coast to see the country and to meet expenses etc. Will sell a line of silks, stopping at the different towns along the route.” Another blurb, this one on Sept. 21, is marked by a reporter’s self-congratulatory gesture on behalf of the community: “Kamel Hassie returned a couple of days ago from a trip west and he is enthusiastic over what he saw and more than ever convinced that we live in a part of the country far excelling the east in nature’s productions for man.”
By December of that year, back in North Dakota, his days of peddling behind him, Kamel bought two restaurants, one of them “from the Chinaman,” as the Tribune put it. “Kamel Hassie has changed the name to Farmer’s Restaurant and intends on making other changes to please the trade.” In another entry: “Mr. Hessie … will give the public good service. He will conduct both restaurants under his personal supervision.”
It was around that time he met Anna Smith, a fiery Dakotan of Prussian extraction. How the two crossed paths in a time when émigrés stuck together by ethnicity and religion remains a mystery. They married at the courthouse in Bismarck on April 5, 1907. Young and presumably in love, their life together blossomed, at least at first. They owned two restaurants, and I imagine they divided the day-to-day operations between themselves. This explains how Anna, still a newlywed, found herself one day in the precarious position of being assaulted by a drunk customer while at work. On July 23, 1907, the Tribune published this incident report: “Run in — A man whose name could not be learned was run in by the police last night for assaulting Mrs. Hassie of Utopa restaurant.”
In the summer of 1908, Anna and Kamel welcomed their firstborn, a boy they named Fay. Kamel must have been over the moon, itching to show off his acquired wealth and young family to the village folk back in the old country. Within a couple of years, Kamel and Anna sold the family business and traveled to Syria for a yearlong visit.
In Syria, Kamel and Anna found the country on the precipice of seismic change, though at the time, no one could know the extent of this. Seeds of Arab nationalism were sprouting after decades of discontent with Ottoman rule. The printing presses, now in full swing in Greater Syria, traded new ideas about nationalism and feminism. In 1910, Damascus alone had over 40 independent dailies and seven journals (unlike today’s monopoly of state-run media). Trams and trains, including the one that Kamel and Anna rode from the port of Beirut to Damascus, connected towns and facilitated trade as never before and, perhaps, never since. Urban spaces with public parks and wide boulevards gave people places to congregate and hold public events (long before congregating in public became illegal under Hafez al-Assad in 1970). But lurking on the horizon were the Great War and its cataclysmic consequences, which would transform Greater Syria into a chimera of itself.
My great-grandparents returned to America before the big changes. Kamel’s and Anna’s names appear on the manifest of the SS France, having sailed from Le Havre and arrived at the Port of New York on Dec. 14, 1912. This time they settled in St. Paul, Minnesota, perhaps following the allure of a bigger, livelier town. The city directory lists Kamel as running a saloon on 242 East Fourth St. and residing at 33 East College St., where Anna ran a boarding house. If Kamel, the Muslim village boy from the Golan, felt any incongruity about operating a smoke-filled establishment of sin, complete with the devil’s music, alcohol and burlesque, then he did nothing about it. By all indications, my great-grandparents seemed committed to their lifestyle and to raising their young family.
On Sept. 30, 1914, just weeks after the Great War began, Kamel’s favorite was born. Camela Hessie, the daughter of “businessman” Kamel Hessie and “housewife” Anna Smith — as the birth certificate states — would become my grandmother. In Arabic, her name sounds like a feminized version of her father’s, Kamel, which means “complete.” Whole.
In the summer of 1919, a few months after the Great War ended and in the midst of the Spanish Flu pandemic, Kamel made a bizarre and seemingly cruel move. He corralled his three children and sat down with them for a passport photo. Fay, 11, wears a starched suit and flanks his father. Camela and the baby sister, Vera, wear identical frilly white dresses and cropped hairdos, in the style of a bowl cut. In the photo they are perched on their father’s lap, looking straight into the camera without smiling. Strangely, Anna is absent from the family picture. Kamel submitted the photo to the U.S. District Court in St. Paul with his application for a passport, stating the reason as a need to travel to Syria. He made no mention of Anna, nor did he offer an explanation for why the children appeared to have no mother. Shortly after that, he packed up his life’s savings in gold and embarked on a return journey to Syria with all three children in tow. This time it was a permanent move. The children — at least the girls — would never see their mother again.
Why Kamel did such a heartless thing would remain a mystery in my family for the next 100 years, as would the whereabouts of Anna, her absence from the passport photo and what happened to her after her family left. Anyone who knew the truth took it with them to the grave. In conducting my own research, Anna’s paper trail disappears into faint traces, for women before suffrage were still considered the chattel of their husband. They barely made cameo appearances in official documents and almost none in newspapers. Eventually, I hired an expert genealogist who helped shed some light on what might have happened. But that story comes later.
The motherless family arrived in Syria in late 1919, the children looking pitiful and sick with mange and lice thriving in their hair. They spoke only English. Unaccustomed to their strange, new surroundings, they mistook the traditional Syrian bread for cloth. “We thought the raghif was a napkin because it’s flat, big and round. We put it on our lap!” Grandma Camela recalled to me decades later. It was the beginning of the miserable childhood that she and her siblings would endure in Syria, where fast-moving geopolitical developments and a streak of bad luck were already lined up in waiting not just for my grandmother’s family, one could say, but for the region as a whole.
The first year that Kamel and the children were back in Syria, they saw France’s colonial ambitions materialize before them. The number of French troops in the streets of Damascus quadrupled. Many were emissaries from third countries, particularly Senegal, a French colony and former outpost of the slave trade under British rule. The dreaded Senegalese soldiers would stay in Syria and protect their French masters until the very final days before Syria’s independence in 1946. A great-uncle of mine (my mother’s paternal uncle), Frank Soueid, who immigrated to America in 1946, would recall to me in late 2017 in his home in Bethesda, Maryland — after he celebrated his 99th birthday — with thinly disguised irony how Senegalese soldiers in Damascus, armed and donning French uniforms, routinely told Damascenes: Nous sommes ici pour civilisez vous. “We’re here to civilize you.” It was a tragic display of one colonial subject oppressing another, doing the master’s bidding, oblivious to the virtues of resistance.
The anti-French nationalist fervor swept up Kamel, who joined the Great Syrian Revolt and, on June 23, 1921, became embroiled in a plot to assassinate French Gen. Henri Gouraud. The assassination attempt failed, and the French arrested its ringleader Ahmad Mureiwed — Kamel’s childhood friend — then hanged him in Marjeh Square in Damascus. French soldiers spat on his corpse and ridiculed it as Damascenes watched in horror. Kamel and a group of men from the Golan surrounded Mureiwed’s dangling body and gently took it down from its noose. They laid him flat on a plank of wood, his face uncovered in the way of a martyr, and paraded him out of Damascus and onward to the Golan for a proper burial. A few days later, the French came for Kamel to arrest him in his home in the Golan in the village of Jibbatta al-Zeit, where he lived with his children and new wife, Asya — Mureiwed’s sister — who was pregnant.
Kamel found himself in a prison cell inside the Citadel in the ancient quarters of Damascus. His French captors seemed well aware of his previous life in America and the gold he had brought back with him from there, and they pressured him to reveal where he had buried it. A year later, he decided it was worthwhile to bribe his French captors with the American treasure in exchange for freedom. Once released, he reunited with his family and met his new baby girl, Haggar.
But a sudden and tragic loss awaited just around the corner. Asya would soon be killed in an unfortunate accident involving a bubor, the rudimentary gas-powered stove that people used for everyday cooking. It was a painful way to die, and people began to whisper that Kamel had been cursed: God was punishing him for what they presumed to be his abandonment of Anna and the uprooting of his three small children from the bosom of their mother. It was the only assumption that people could make, for neither he nor his teenage son Fay told anyone what had really unfolded before the family left for Syria. Kamel let people talk, perhaps preferring their harsh but misguided judgment to his own recollections of the painful truth.
The family narrative describes that time as difficult for Kamel. Since leaving America, life had delivered one heartache after another. The country whose birth Kamel had hoped to midwife was usurped by the French occupiers and their contemptuous foreign militia; the revolt he had hoped to see through to a successful end was crushed and his childhood friend, Mureiwed, killed, his remains defiled. It must have been a sad and hopeless time, not too different perhaps from Syria’s state of affairs over this past decade of war and rebellion.
And much like the early days of Syria’s 2011 uprising, all around Kamel the atmosphere in Damascus was growing more tense. Syrians continued to rebel, and the French kept responding with escalating violence. Camela and Vera were growing up fast, their “golden hair” the talk of neighbors and friends. Desperate to protect his children, Kamel sent his son away to the American School in Beirut as a boarder. He then succumbed to his own protective and unfortunate impulse of pulling his daughters out of their French-administered school, keeping them hidden at home amid the chaos that was unfolding around them in the city. And lest they attract any undue attention, Kamel covered their “golden hair” with a hijab anytime they stepped outside the house. Camela was in fourth grade.
One day, as French bombardment raged, Kamel, his children and his new wife took refuge in their house in Damascus. Kamel had raised the American flag on his rooftop in the hope that the French would not aim their guns in his direction. But the French attacks were more wanton and severe. A shell raged toward Kamel’s house, piercing one of its walls and detonating with a blast. The terrified children curled up and clenched each other, cradling baby Haggar, bracing themselves. A moment of reckoning. Blast, fire and smoke. Dust settled back down onto the stone of the courtyard and inside and around the water fountain, along with torn pieces of clothing. There was blood. Kamel checked himself and found he was all right, in one piece. He ran across the courtyard and searched throughout the wreckage of his house, frantic and dreading what he might find. His children should have been in their hiding place. He was sure they had obeyed his orders. He rushed there and found them wet with tears and urine, ash around their eyes and mouths. Crying. Screaming. But alive and in one piece. What about his new wife? A head of long black hair lay in the dark beneath the fractured stone. She had been in mid-prayer, kneeling on her knees with palms up to the sky. Now she lay dead on her side. Her marriage to Kamel was too short to bear any children, and no one in the family today seems able to recall her name, so she remains the “new wife who was needlessly martyred in the French attacks.”
It was in September 1929 that my father Hisham was born (not to Grandma Camela, who was my mother’s mom). During the first few years of his life, Syria fell into an economic depression combined with drought and famine. Rural people and animals found themselves days away from a water source. Many died of dehydration. Peasants migrated to the city, increasing the number of street beggars and sites of impoverishment, and spreading disease. Merchants and farmers defaulted on loans, bankrupting financiers and strangling the flow of money. Misery, disease and death lurked everywhere with nothing but another world war on the horizon. It was a childhood that instilled in my father a constant sense of dread, an unwavering pessimism, even though he was generally sheltered from much of the misery in Jibbatta al-Zeit, where his family lived off the apple orchards and olive groves that surrounded them. And exciting changes were on the horizon; the nation was about to be reborn.
In the years leading up to World War II and throughout the war, Syria’s political parties started to take shape, finally laying the ground for the country’s political landscape after independence. Alongside Communists and Islamists, the most prominent and ultimately most successful political ideology was championed by the charismatic Syrian intellectuals, Salahadin Bitar and Michel Aflaq, a Sunni Muslim and an Orthodox Christian. They captured the popular sentiment articulated in the King-Crane Commission (an American truth-finding mission carried out in Greater Syria in 1919) that Arabs — or majority Arab countries with their multiethnic, non-Arab minorities — could unite as one nation. Aflaq advanced this idea by introducing the “universal duty to create an Arab humanism.” Educated in Paris, Aflaq espoused a fresh incarnation of French democratic ideals: Liberty, equality and fraternity, the latter translated within the Arab context as pan-Arabism. In 1939, they were joined by the renegade Zaki al-Arsuzi, a Sorbonne-educated Alawite from a landowning family. It was this threesome that formed the Baath Party in Syria, which my father would join, convinced that it was the path to building a strong and secular Syria. That was decades before Baath became a dirty word synonymous with the Assad regimes and that of Saddam Hussein.
In the midst of the war, Kamel’s life came full circle. He passed away in his house in Damascus, the one that had endured French bombardment and grief. But it was lung disease, maybe cancer, that ultimately brought his end. He was in his 60s, just months shy of witnessing the independence of Syria.
My mother recalls that day with vividness, when the French withdrew the last of their forces and finally went home, not a minute too soon. It was April 17, 1946, and my mother was 6 years old. “The people took out their carpets from their homes and rolled them onto the streets of Damascus! My school dressed us up in white dresses, with big angel wings. And I rode on one of the flotillas through the parade with my classmates, rolling down on red carpet. We waved at people, and they cheered and waved our flags and tossed flowers in the air. It was truly a momentous day, and I will never forget it,” she told me.
Here, the true significance of that day becomes difficult to explain to the American reader, for my people think in terms of centuries and millennia, not months and years. So, it goes to show that Syrians do not call April 17 Independence Day, nor do they celebrate it as such. We call it Eid al Jalaa, which translates to something like Clearance Day, or Expulsion Day, for as the saying goes, Syria has always existed despite its many invaders, from the Persians to the Greeks, Romans, Crusaders, Genghis Khan, the Ottomans and the French, to name a few. April 17 merely marks the latest ouster, and until another one takes its place, it will continue to be celebrated as such.
That same year, at the age of 17, Dad traveled to France, where he spent the next decade pursuing a better life — his version of the American Dream — earning a doctorate degree in chemical engineering from the University of Strasbourg and teaching. By the late 1950s, like Kamel’s generation who returned home “to rebuild” after the Great War — and because exiles and émigrés wax romantic about their homeland — dad also answered the Siren call and returned to Syria. He would remain there for years, proud to be “in service of the homeland.” He would witness a slew of bloodless coups and two wars with Israel during which the Golan Heights, including Dad’s village, was lost. In 1969, political turmoil finally sent him abroad again, this time with Mom and their firstborn child, me.
I grew up navigating these memories of exile and return, a hallmark of most non-Western nations and a cycle repeated by many members of my family, the most significant perhaps being Grandma Camela’s.
I grew up navigating these memories of exile and return, a hallmark of most non-Western nations and a cycle repeated by many members of my family, the most significant perhaps being Grandma Camela’s. Over the decades she tried to recount to me the day her father uprooted her from America, but the tethered neurons of her brain always betrayed her. The best she could do was stitch together fragments and weave them into fairytales. “We were eating ice cream, and it tasted sweet and creamy,” she would tell me, adding that her mother had dressed her and her two siblings up in their Sunday best and sent them off with their father, expecting them back by dark with ice cream cones in hand. But try as she may, Grandma Camela could not conjure up her mother’s face. “Father didn’t even save a single photo of her to show us,” she lamented to me. Tears followed, then came rhetorical questions, posed to no one in particular: What is the worth of a human being without their mother? What’s the worth of a human being without their motherland?
Her baby sister, Vera, had even less material from which to conjure a story, though that didn’t stop her from trying. I saw her in 2014, in wartime Damascus, when she was nearing her centennial birthday, having survived Grandma Camela by some 20 years. My great-aunt Vera was still in decent health and of lucid mind, but she had lost most of her hearing, which thankfully left her unaware of the sounds of war that boomed and blasted outside her modest apartment in a middle-class neighborhood in central Damascus. On that day, she lay in bed and told me a tale, pointing at a painting that hung on the wall. It was a kitschy Hallmark portrait of a girl sitting on a swing, dressed in a white frilly dress, blond curls in her hair and shiny black shoes on her feet, which were up in the air, caught in mid-motion as she playfully swung forward.
“This is me, when I was in America,” Vera told me, perhaps succumbing to her own fable.
She died of natural causes a few weeks later, having witnessed the uprising-turned-civil war in Syria through the muffled booms and blasts that shook her home. Aunt Vera sometimes felt them as vibrations in her bones, which upset her.
She never knew what had become of her mother, Anna, the ancestor who anchored us firmly in America. According to my genealogical research, my great-grandmother appears to have abandoned her family the summer before Kamel returned to Syria with the children. Vera was only a year old, Grandma Camela 4, when their mother absconded to Montana with a Greek émigré, never to be heard from again. That was the end of that, and the rest is a story about becoming an American, complete with the tragic and glorious drama of a past that insists on not fading from memory.