Carrying Home Within

To the world, Idlib is the site of countless tragedies. To me, it is home

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Carrying Home Within
Welcome to Idlib/ Courtesy of Zaina Erhaim/ Newlines

“I am from Idlib, I say asho,” I wrote on a poster that my 4-year-old daughter Zara held up in front of the Russian embassy in London.

We were protesting Russia’s indiscriminate attacks on our hometown. “Asho” literally means “what” (a closer translation would be “what the hell”), but only those from Idlib pronounce it that way. My daughter speaks Arabic in the Idlibi dialect, although she has never been in Syria. She blends Idlibi suffixes with her English vocabulary, creating funny combinations like “la t-pushiny” which translates into “don’t push me,” emphasizing the “p” like a proper west Londoner, and an elongated “y” like an Idlibi, or “hareat-tek” instead of “I heard you.”

Idlib is also there in her taste for food, the love for flatbread dipped in olive oil, all kinds of olives, and the mint and tomato wrap that defined my childhood.

My grandfather, a farmer from Idlib city, used to tell me that the olive and its dark green oil are part of our DNA. We slather it on everything and use it in all kinds of alternative medicines that supposedly cure anything from the flu to white hairs, allergies and rashes. “It is solved by adding olive oil” was the motto.

I think that’s all I want her to know of Idlib.

Zaina’s daughter Zara/ Courtesy of Zaina Erhaim

My relationship with my city is complicated. I still don’t understand my compassion for it. As a teenager, I was oppressed by the patriarchal conservativism of Idlibi society. There were very few things that girls were allowed to do back then without being shamed. They could go to school, visit their relatives, and join their mothers in the women-only evening gatherings known as “Isteqbal/Qabool” — essentially a reception where women would dance and show off their cooking skills, gold jewelry, and their daughters. Women’s gatherings were the main drivers of arranged marriages.

Some women would even go knocking on doors and asking if the household had any girls for marriage. “No, we don’t,” I told one such visitor.

“Are you married then?” she asked me, and when I told her I am still at high school studying, she began grumbling about “the new lost generation of girls and traditions” while on her way down the stairs.

I challenged some of these gender norms as a kid by joining my brother in his karate classes and by owning a bike. I was forced to abandon both when I turned 15.

While the upper middle-class families used to travel to Aleppo, an hour away by car, to attend a live music event, have a meal in a restaurant, or watch a movie, this was not an option for the lower middle-class families like ours, so we threw ourselves into our studies.

The Central Bureau of Statistics estimated the population in Idlib was around 165,000 in 2010, more than half of whom were working in the government’s bureaucracy, especially in education.

My city was obsessed with studying and degrees. Competition over grades in all classes was fierce – in part because students had nothing else to do but also because for the social classes bereft of wealth or connections with the corrupt government, and boasting few expats, investing in education was the only hope for prosperity.

Among this majority class in Idlib, I was one of perhaps fewer than 10 15-year-old girls that I was aware of who refused to wear the headscarf, and I was told I would never marry an Idlibi man because of this and that I would go to hell.

Zaina and her daughter/ Courtesy of Zaina Erhaim

But the punishment wasn’t only in the afterlife. I faced sexual harassment daily in the streets and was obliged to walk with a male relative, and public spaces were exclusively masculine. It was only after 2006 that it became acceptable for women to sit in cafes. Moreover, I was shunned for studying a “men’s major,” media.

I only realized how much Idlib was isolated when I travelled to Damascus to do my bachelor’s degree 18 years ago. Many people, including my colleagues, didn’t know what Idlib was, and I hated having to explain where it was in relation to Aleppo or Turkey. “We are a province among 14!” I often responded angrily.

Damascus was much bigger, nosier, and more crowded. There were buses there. I had never ridden one in Idlib, nor sat this close to a stranger.

Its population was 10 times that of Idlib and far more diverse. Girls seemed free, colorful and empowered. Many walked alone at night in the Old Town or in Shaalan in the city center.

It was normal for a woman to sit in a restaurant on her own or smoke in the street. Some of them even had boyfriends. The women who enjoyed this sort of freedom were often either from local, open-minded families or had come to the capital from far away, leaving behind their families and communities, and so they felt less monitored.

After four years in Damascus, my friends named me “the Idlibiah,” which means the woman from Idlib, because I was advocating for my hometown everywhere. I even started organizing tourism trips. I once took a Chinese-American who was studying Arabic in Damascus University. She still writes to me to tell me how much she enjoyed visiting Idlib then.

When I started working as a journalist for a local news website in 2006, my “Idlibiah” nickname stuck. People from Idlib reached out to me with their stories, and unlike the state and the other journalists, I cared. My hometown’s inhabitants became my exclusive sources, and their previous rejection turned into empowerment.

I was able to chase down the details of any story in an hour because somebody was always ready to pass on to me the phone number of the person I needed. They gave me their stories.

The influence of these Idlibi trust circles went beyond the borders of Syria. I was awarded a scholarship to do my master’s in London in 2010. An extended cousin who knew that I was nervous about traveling on my own made some calls and came back to me saying it was “done.”

He had reached out to an Idlibi friend of his who had been living in London for more than a decade but maintained strong ties with his community. It was enough to tell him that a woman from our city was coming and had no one there.

When I arrived at Heathrow Airport, I found a tall, handsome man, Mote’ Bilal, waiting for me. He carried my bags and took me to his home, where his wife had set up a private room for me. His mother had cooked three different dishes since she didn’t know what kind of food I preferred. I stayed in their home for a whole month, until Mote’ found me a room to rent. The entire time, I wasn’t allowed to pay for anything.

“Do you want the people of Idlib to say we didn’t properly host our guest?” his mother told me.

On a weekend in October, I went with Zara to visit them. Mote’ has two kids now, and they have befriended my daughter. His mother cooked an enormous yabraq dish — grape leaves stuffed with rice and meat and prepared in lemon sauce. Over tea, I realized there were few things we talked about that were not related to Idlib. Well, we did speak about COVID-19 for five minutes before going back to Idlib again.

Their home was like a piece of Idlib planted in southern London: the spirit, the warmth, and the passion to help in any matter.

Feeling obliged to help “wlad al-balad,” the people of your hometown, has always been a rule in Idlib. When I was studying in Damascus, I was always asked to run errands on behalf of people I didn’t know, especially since Syria was a very centralized state and all the ministries and big institutions were based in the capital. Any free time I had was usually fully booked with appointments to pick up someone’s passport from an embassy, deliver health reports to a hospital, carry homemade bags of food for students who didn’t go home as frequently as I did.

Despite my low income, I kept going back to Idlib every two weeks, a 360-kilometer (around 224 miles) journey by bus that cost approximately $7 per trip back then. On Thursdays my friends would tell me that my eyes were twinkling, surely because it was the end of the week and I was headed home.

Home. My schedule for the first day encompassed a huge feast with my extended family followed by cinnamon tea and then long, meandering chats to catch up with two weeks of gossip. The second day involved a trip to the farm to drink more tea and munch on sunflower seeds in the olive groves, regardless of the weather.

Every family has a small piece of land planted with olive, fig, pomegranate, and berry trees walled with cypress that they go to every weekend and on many evenings.

My favorite one was my grandparents’, where I spent most of my childhood. There was even one particular olive tree that I “managed,” and that all the other children needed my permission to climb. It was while I was sitting on a branch of that tree that I planned to challenge the norms of my quiet town and become its first female journalist.

In the summer of 2011, when protests against the regime began, I saw a new version of my hometown. Pro-freedom slogans were plastered all over the walls, new leaders emerged, and an unfamiliar feeling of camaraderie and love was in the air — the sort of love that would get someone arrested or shot on behalf of another human being they do not know.

One night, I walked through my streets with my mother in a demonstration, then went on by myself and joined the men’s rally. Many objected, but I ignored them until finally a man with a big moustache shouted, “Leave her alone! She is my sister.”

I only learned his name when I saw it posted along with a picture of him in a list of victims who were killed in Idlib a couple of years later.

My last visit to Idlib was completely different. I entered the city as it was in the process of being captured by a coalition of rebels led by the Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate, on March 28, 2015 (the group is now called Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, or HTS). I headed to Idlib from eastern Aleppo, where I was based.

I was crying all the way, perhaps out of longing, or maybe anger. Our car was the only civilian one moving toward Idlib city, while all the others were fleeing from it, carrying hundreds of scared, faceless, displaced families, I could hardly see through my tear-filled eyes how much my city had changed. I changed, too, as I was forced to wear a headscarf and coat to be able to continue working in the rebel-held north.

Zaina/ Courtesy of Zaina Erhaim

Idlib has gone through a lot since then — hundreds of thousands of internal refugees, chemical attacks, relentless bombings. Three million people still live there, one of the last remaining areas outside the Syrian regime’s control.

During most of my life, my hometown was so neglected that the only national festival that celebrated it was named “the Forgotten Cities.” Suddenly it became so famous that the president of the United States tweeted about it, even spelling its name correctly. Two NATO members almost clashed over it. The U.N. Security Council convened to address its crisis. It was trending worldwide when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the previous leader of ISIS, was assassinated in the province, and when more than 30 Turkish soldiers were killed on its soil earlier this year.

I was trying, with some Idlibi friends, to understand how our home had been transformed from an overlooked and hidden place, where we used to take pictures with the few tourists visiting us to keep as souvenirs, into one that was being attacked and bombed by people holding so many nationalities and from so many different countries. How famous we had become!

My dear Idlib, how I wish for you to go back to being forgotten and ours again. Until then, we’ll always have your accent in our world, your olive oil in our cells, your trees etched in our memories. And most importantly, “wlad al-balad” to count on wherever we go.

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