A Fractured Identity

 November 23, 2010            Amman, Jordan

***I have really debated about whether to post this piece about my identity as it feels really personal and exposing and I am unsure of how it will be received. Finally, I decided that this trip is all about risks and pushing myself to not always do the thing that is easiest but the thing that will provide the most growth. So in an attempt to be authentic and true to that, here it is…honest and raw.

I spent the last month hiding a piece of me. One that I thought would be easy to push away but once I did, felt like cutting off the blood supply to a vital organ. I could not exist as a fractured person.

Revealing it now feels exposing; like I am naked in front of the world. I tucked this piece of myself deep inside because it innately represented a political debate. How could I, as one single person in this world be the intersection of the most controversial, deep-rooted conflict in the Middle East?

Being a Middle Eastern Jew has become a dichotomous relationship; one that on the outside is fiercely being pulled apart but within me is still strongly intact. I feel torn and confused with no space or time for ambiguity. Yet, my identity is nothing but vagueness.

My position is pre-determined by which piece of myself I reveal. I feel compelled to choose a side, take a stance, pick one part of who I am over the other. Deep down I know that even if I try, I can’t ignore either piece of me. One does not exist without the other yet the piece I repress is paradoxically the one in the forefront of my experience.

Waves of guilt take over when asked about my religion I reply, “Yes, I am Muslim.” My ability to ‘pass’ in the Arab world is not only a protection but a mechanism through which I gain access to a culture and connect with people who might reject me if they knew who I really was. But at what cost?

Turning a blind eye and walking across the Israeli flag on the floor of the Damascus souk, I feel like a trader filled with internalized oppression. Swiftly reversing the years of sacrifice my ancestors have made.

Walking by the abandoned houses of the once Jewish neighborhood in the old city, I feel deeply connected to the loss my family members have endured.

Hearing “I hope you are not one of them” or “I don’t like them…the Jews” I feel scared and exposed. Like someone is seeing right through me and all I want to do is go deep into hiding.

Finding out officials will monitor my trip to the desert, I feel vulnerable and threatened….secretly aware that I have something to hide unlike everyone else; implicated in a crime that I did not commit.

Learning about the 10 Syrian Jewish families who were forced to leave the country or convert, I feel fortunate that through all the historical turmoil, I am still connected to this part of who I am.

Listening to a local say, “It’s wrong that they were pushed out. Everyone should be free to be who they are. Just like we don’t represent the actions of our government, we know they don’t either,” I feel comfort and hope for mutual compassion.

Driving by the Palestinian refugee camps, I feel responsible… guilty that my right and privilege to a homeland, has caused the same pain and displacement for another community that has been inflicted on my family.

Being asked if I will visit Iran and reluctantly saying, “No, I can’t,” I feel disappointed to be separated from a country within arm’s reach that I am so intimately connected to. One that owns a large piece of me yet I cannot legitimately claim.

Responding “America” when asked where I am from, I feel disingenuous …like  I am wearing a mask. Trying on a label that doesn’t fit but is the only one in which I can avoid explaining the anomaly of my heritage.

Showing my American passport to exit the country and being told “You are Iranian, you must wait here,” I blatantly feel the pieces of myself that I can successfully hide and the parts I cannot prevent from being exposed.

I am not the average backpacking tourist in the Middle East; there are many layers to my relationship with this land that makes my experience emotionally difficult. I feel a denial of my existence, not as a Jew, and not as an Iranian but as the two together: an Iranian-Jew. Though I have reconciled these two pieces within myself, this part of the world has forced me to dislocate them from one another. I feel pressured to either mask my Jewish identity under my Middle Easternness or my Middle Eastern identity under my Jewishness.But in each country, my internal struggle and foreignness is invisible to others. I am anonymous to everyone on the street. Presummed that I belong but on the inside, no matter where I am, I know I am an outsider.

 I have chosen to come to the Middle East to feel raw, to be open and ironically allow the pieces of who I am to harmonize through feeling the sting of denying one or the other. A Palestinian friend advised to not let my identity carry the weight of the world. “It will tear you down, and drain you,” like it did her. Right now, I feel that weight. I badly want it to be lifted but I succumb to baring it for the time being…In hopes that one day, the strength I gained from carrying it will allow me to put the pieces of myself that have been torn apart back together, heal the fracture and be who I am…in total completeness.

Lipstick, Lingerie and Hijabs

November 16, 2010                  Damascus, Syria

Walking through the souks of Damascus and Aleppo, it is common to see women fully covered from head to toe, rarely working outside of the home and usually with a man.  At first glance, it is easy to assume these women are oppressed. Digging deeper you see clearly there is more to the story.

One of the things that is very common to see in the souks of Syria are these risqué lingerie stores with a range of options visibly displayed in the windows. Items which in the US would only be accessible in particular stores and would never be on display in a public setting. This really puzzled me as it was so contradictory to see something so sexually liberal in such a conservative society. I would watch as veiled women walked into the shops and purchased pieces of lingerie in the same way they would their fruits and vegetables in the market.

This phenomenon intrigued me and I I tried to dig deeper and learn more about the status of women in Arab countries, how they think and what their daily lives are like however, I realized my contact with women here is almost nonexistent. All of my interactions have been with men: men are the taxi drivers, men are the vendors in the souks, men work in the hotels and restaurants, men ride public transportation. This is not to say that women don’t also do these things as well, but as a tourist, gaining access to women in this society has been very hard as they cross your path only occasionally making it difficult to forge a relationship under these circumstances.

One afternoon in Damascus, I decided to go to the hamman (traditional Turkish bath) to relax and unwind for a few hours. Unfamiliar with the rules, I carefully entered the steamy dome like bath, trying to emulate the other women while waiting for my scrub, sure that my foreignness was strikingly obvious. To my surprise, it wasn’t; women started speaking to me in Arabic and when I gave them a blank look and said, “I don’t speak Arabic,” I expected them to turn away as they usually do in the souks or bus stations. Instead, their interest was sparked and they started talking with me, asking me about my life, where I am from and what I am doing in Syria. In a space where we were stripped of everything (literally) the walls between us came down and the artificial barriers that existed on the outside world seemed irrelevant. While getting my scrub from the overweight women (who scrubbed my skin until it was raw) a young girl shared with me about her struggles in school, being in a long distance relationship with her boyfriend and the complicated dynamics in her family. After, I joined three generations of women who come to the hamman together every weekend, bring their lunch and spend the whole day there. Through our conversations and simply just sitting next to one another, we simultaneously realized our lives are not that different.

After my scrub, the young girl and I sat together in the lobby and drank our tea. We chatted a bit about casual things (comparing tourist and local entry prices) and then got dressed.  I watched as she put on her very fashionable skinny jeans, revealing trendy top and finally spent 30 minutes carefully applying her make-up making sure every eyelash and eyebrow is meticulously in place. As I stood beside her getting dressed, fixing my hair, and putting on my make-up, very little differentiated us from each other.  After completing our beautification process, I put on my shoes as she draped her body in a long black cloak and covered her head with her black scarf. We left the hamman and went in two separate directions as our commonalities faded away and our differences rapidly resurfaced.

I think often as westerners we have a standard of what it means to be free or equal and judge the rest of the world based on that. Spending a day in a hamman certainly didn’t reveal everything about the status of women in the Middle East but it taught me that we are not as different as we perceive ourselves to be. You really never know what is behind the curtain until it is unveiled.

Armenians in Aleppo

November 16, 2010           Aleppo, Syria

Staying in Damascus several days longer than I anticipated, I was finally able to tear myself away from this city and move on to Aleppo, the second largest city in the north of Syria. I contacted a girl through a website called Couchsurfing in which people can create a profile and open their home to travelers and she quickly accepted my ‘couchsurfing’ request. After a 5 hour very luxurious VIP bus ride, we arrived in Aleppo. We got off the bus and into a taxi headed towards the girls home and suddenly my friend and I both realized we left the sweets we had bought as a gift for the family on the bus. The taxi driver quickly turned around, returned to the bus station and explained the situation to the local police officer. The police jumped in the taxi with us and the two of them (the police and taxi driver) strategized on how to retrieve our box while my friend and I quietly sat in the back seat. I turned to her and said, “Can you imagine a police officer in the US driving around to locate a box of cookies?” After about 30 minutes of phone calls and driving back and forth, we finally located the box and when we opened it to offer everyone some sweets, the police officer looked at us thinking, “You made me do all this for a box of cookies?” Of course he was gracious and didn’t make us feel bad but as he got out of the car he said in perfect English, “Miss, please be more careful with your belongings.”

We finally arrived at the family’s house around dusk, hauled our luggage up 5 flights of stairs and entered their small two-bedroom apartment. We sat down and the family fed us a wonderful dinner as we learned more about each other. The family of five (mother, father and three girls ages 20, 19 and 14) are largely defined by their  Armenian cultural background. Several generations ago, their family fled Armenia due to ethnically motivated killings by the Turkish (with help from the Germans) which tragically resulted in the Armenian  genocide,  instigating a forced diaspora throughout the Middle East. The girls’ mother was born and grew up in Lebanon and then was forced to flee there as well after her brother and cousins were killed in the Lebanese civil war. Their parents met in a bomb shelter in Beirut while they were hiding out from the war and then escaped together to Syria where the three girls were born and raised.

After a good night’s sleep on the couch in the family’s living room, we woke up and attended an Armenian church service. On our stroll through the neighborhood the girls shared with us a bit about the Armenian community (BTW, I have been to more church services in the Middle East then I have been in my entire life in the U.S.). They explained that Aleppo has one of the largest Armenian populations in Syria and being a very insular community, everyone in the suburb they live in is Armenian.  The community has their own schools, churches and stores and rarely has contact with the rest of Syrian society. In fact, many Armenians don’t even speak Arabic. Learning about the Armenian community, I thought of the many diasporas across the world and how difficult it is for immigrant groups to resist the pressures of assimilation and retain their language, culture, and traditions. It was so interesting to see how the Armenian community has maintained such strong ties to their heritage and identity even though they have been out of their country of origin for over 90 years. 

Clearly, this preservation does not happen naturally but is intentional and purposeful. The girls’ parents have developed mechanism in which to ensure their childrens’ roots are deeply planted in the Armenian community. In order to shield them from all the perceived negative influences on the outside, their girls’ father is really strict. They are not allowed out of the house after 8:00 pm and all their whereabouts are monitored. After years of arguing and struggling with their parents for more freedom, the girls said to them, “If you are not letting us out, then we are bringing people in.”

Since that day, the girls have had 98 couchsurfers in their home. Although their father is not totally keen on the idea, he tolerates it because at least the girls are in the home. The biggest issue with Couchsurfing is that it is actually banned in Syria partly because it limits the government’s ability to monitor tourist activity in the country (the secret service has a very strong presence in Syria). When the government discovered the girls were hosting so many foreigners, they approached them with a warning about their activity and possible consequences (which is jail time). The girls calmly explained that they are not doing anything wrong and refuse to be cut off from the rest of the world. This seemed like such a huge risk so one day I asked one of the girls why they do this and she told me, “You have the opportunity to travel the world and see and experience things. I don’t have that same opportunity but I still have the desire. Through others’ travels at least I can see the world, hear stories and experience things even if I have to do it from my own couch. It makes me feel like I am traveling with all of you.” I thought about how brave and courageous she is to defy the rules. When I shared this with her she explained, “We really have no other choice. We have to find small ways to expand our world given all the restrictions in our life.”

The following day, we visited the old city of Aleppo. On our trip into the city, I noticed the more conservative nature of this city. In Aleppo it is much more common to see women, fully covered with even their faces hidden behind a black scarf.  Soon we entered the old city where everything is centered around the citadel, a preserved ancient city. Being in old Aleppo (Halib in Arabic) I felt an air of mysticism that stems from the thousands of years of history of this city. We paused at a restaurant on the boardwalk that runs along the entire length of the citadel for lunch. After lunch, we went inside the citadel and saw the layout of the old city, the roman theater, old bathhouses and homes. We then visited the beautiful old souk that was packed with people preparing for the 4-day Eid holiday. Hundreds of sheep were also herded outside for the ritual Eid sacrifice.  

Looking around at the modern style cafes lining the edge of the 3000 year old city and the ancient souks, I realized I am standing somewhere where my ancestors possibly lived centuries ago. This awareness has made my experience in the Middle East so powerful. Everywhere I go, a history follows me; not one that is distant or detached but one that is actually relevant to my life and my family today.

After this day, I spent the week in Aleppo not doing much in terms of activities and site seeing but instead gaining insight into life in Syria beyond the superficial layer. I had the unexpected opportunity to live amongst an enclave of Armenian immigrants in a conservative Muslim city and witnessed the reality of their lives day in and day out. I learned so much during this week and the girls truly made me feel like I have a home away from home. The dynamics between the family, chaos, occasional fights and of course the love they all shared reminded me of my own family. Throughout the week we shared so much together including serious conversations about our lives and families, watching silly movies like Mama Mia, sleeping through an earthquake (which I thought was their cat shaking the bed), cooking a traditional Persian dinner, laughing a lot, and of course, a few beauty sessions. I admire the girls so much because even given their intense restrictions, they have found a way to make connections with people from all walks of life. Living in a society like Syria, where you never know who you can trust or the implications of your actions I would think would harden you…. cause you to close off. However, for these girls, it has amplified their willingness and openness to relate to people.They are tearing down walls and barriers and are doing it with courage, strength and a tenacity for life.  I now know that no matter where I go, I have 3 adopted Armenian sisters in Syria who are working to build bridges and make the world a better place.

Marmusa and Maalula

November 9, 2010                    Maalula, Syria

Traveling on your own can be lonely at times but it also presents you with the opportunity to form relationships with people really fast. Within the last week, I have been lucky enough to connect with a girl from Bulgaria who recently moved to Syria to find work. As we were talking over dinner one night, she mentioned that she wants to go to a place called Marmusa and I told her I also want to go to Maalula, one of the only towns where the ancient language of Aramaic is still spoken. Since there is often an English and Arabic name for each city, we logically concluded that Maalula and Marmusa were the same place and made plans to go together the following day. After a few hours at the hamman (traditional middle-eastern bathhouse), a taxi ride, and plenty of consulting with locals, we finally arrived at the bus station in Damascus. We were asked to show our passports to the Syrian official (all tourists activities are monitored, recorded and logged in Syria) and purchased our tickets. After some back and forth with me asking how to get to Maalula and my friend asking how to get to Marmusa, a crowd of men gathered around us attempting to decode our crazy request. Finally someone who spoke English said, “Do you want to go to Marmusa or Maalula? They are different!” My friend quickly replied “Marmusa” and thus the adventure began.

I boarded the mini-van realizing I had no idea where we were going or what we were doing but was just going along for the ride. From the mini-van, we transferred to a private taxi and dusk was setting in. Approaching a mountain in the desert, we realized our driver was trying to communicate something to us. He made a signal that we need to be strong. My friend turned to me and said, “I think he is saying we need to hike to Marmusa.” In denial, I said “No, he is just saying the car needs to be strong to get us up the hill.”  However, to my dismay, he stopped the car at the bottom of the mountain, pointed up to some lights at the top and said, “Marmusa is up there…you have to climb.” My friend and I both looked at each other with fear in our eyes and said, “No, we can’t, it’s completely dark and we don’t know the way.” Though unspoken, we both knew we had no choice other than to hike up the mountain or sleep at the bottom. With our broken Arabic, we told the driver that we won’t get out of the car unless he walks with us up the mountain. With a bit of reluctance mixed with sympathy the driver said, “Yala!” and we both put our backpacks on, sucked up our fear and began our ascent up the hill, pausing every 5 minutes for the poor man to catch his breath.  Luckily, I had this powerful headlamp in my backpack that was given to me as a gift from my friends before I left that at least allowed us to see the path in front of us. After about 20 minutes of climbing in silence in the pitch dark with only my tiny headlamp, we heard voices and both my friend and I looked at each other and screamed, “There are people!” We asked them how much longer we had to climb and they said another 20 minutes. At that point we told our driver he can go and finally made it to the top of the hill.

Upon arrival to the site, I realized that Marmusa is actually a monastery where both nuns and monks live together. A young woman greeted us as we came in and said, “Welcome, now we have one hour of meditation in the sanctuary.” We entered a small church with candles lit all around and bibles in a variety of languages. We joined the rest of the guest sitting on pillows on the church floor and after a short prayer our hour of meditation began. I am not a very religious person and I clearly had no idea what I was getting myself into however, the meditation time gave me an opportunity to process everything that I had experienced, seen, and felt over the last few weeks (although I still did feel a bit awkward). After our meditation session we ate dinner and were shown to our room which was basically a cave with 2 beds in the monastery.

 The next morning we woke up, did a few chores to earn our keep (accommodations are free in Marmusa but you are expected to contribute by helping) and then explored the Syrian Desert. When we arrived the night before, since it was so dark, we had no idea what the landscape even looked like and me and my friend just looked down and thought, “We climbed all that way in the dark?!” We walked around the desert a bit and it was so beautiful, calm and relaxing. We then began our climb down the hill (which was much easier than going up) and headed to our next destination: Maalula.

We asked around and found out that Maalula actually is not that far from Marmusa so we got directions and were on our way. We arrived at a small connection hub and randomly ran into our driver from the night before and he looked at us, smiled and said, “Alhamdulalla (thank god) you are ok!” We boarded our second bus and after 30 minutes the driver stopped and said, “Get out….this way to Maalula.” At this point we had become so accustomed to these situations that we just got out and waited on the side of the freeway for another bus. After 20 minutes there were still no signs of a bus and then finally from a distance, we saw a little white minivan coming our way. I started waving my arms for them to stop and….they actually did.

With our bags in tote we ran and with a proud sense of accomplishment boarded the bus. As I walked down the isle I noticed all the women were totally covered and dressed in black. My friend and I both sat down in empty seats apart from each other; we were just so relieved to not be stranded in the middle of the Syrian freeway.  The driver didn’t collect any money from us (which was odd) and as we were driving, I started listening to the people around me and thought, “Wow, this language sounds really familiar.” Then I realized an older woman in the back was attempting to ask my friend where she is from in Farsi. I had a mini debate in my head about whether I should respond and reveal my identity or not and what kind of reaction I would get and before I got too far in my thought process I turned around and in Farsi blurted out, “She is from Bulgaria and I am from America but my parents are Iranian. We are traveling together.” Suddenly every single persons head whipped around and just stared at me in disbelief (including my friend who thought to herself, wow, Roxana really learned Arabic fast). Once they got over the initial shock their curiosity kicked in: What’s your name? Where are you from? Where are your parents from? Why are you here? Have you been to Iran? Why don’t you come to Iran…it’s much more beautiful than Syria? What did you study? Are you safe here? They were all so excited and interested and when I apologized for crashing their bus tour (which was a private tourist bus service not a public bus) they said, “Don’t worry, that is the Iranian blood in you. It was our luck that you did so we could meet you.” They asked me more about my family and life in America and when they asked my last name and I replied “Norouzi” they exclaimed, “Wow, we have a Mr. Norouzi here on the bus.” They then introduced me to Mr. Norouzi and I put my hand out to shake his hand and the man quickly pulled away (one of the many cultural faux pas I have made). Once we entered the church in Maalula I saw many more Iranians (the Christian town and churches are a place of interest for those even on Muslim pilgrimage trips as it houses a picture of the martyr Maryam) and all the women asked to take pictures with me and said “Yes, we will take your pictures to Mashhad (city in Iran) and show everyone that we met an Iranian girl that lives in America in Syria!”

After we said goodbye to the Iranians, we visited some of the ancient churches in Maalula and although they were beautiful, I really was more interested in learning about the culture and people of the town. So we took another bus down to the small town center and just started walking around. Unsuccessful in our attempt to meet locals, we realized there is no way we could have the experience we want to have without a contact. We were both tired and burned out so we decided to just call it a day and wait for our bus back to Damascus. We had about an hour to kill so we walked into the 

Maalula tourist office and of course were immediately offered tea. The staff there explained to us a bit about the town of Maalula and some of the sites.  We asked about the language of Aramaic (the oldest language in the world and supposedly the language of Jesus Christ). They explained that although Aramaic is still widely-spoken by the majority of the population in Maalula, it is actually a dying language because it is not being passed down to the new generation. The institute to preserve the language has been closed because the Syrian government has stopped funding it (partly because the written script of Aramaic looks similar to Hebrew which is a huge issue in Syria). A young man who previously taught Aramaic at the institute came into the office and shared more with us about the roots of the language and the current concern with preserving it in Syria.

The staff at the tourism office also told us that though tourism is growing in Maalula, this is problematic because it does not directly benefit the people or local economy of the town. Tour buses bring people in to visit the church and historical sites and then leave. In order to promote more sustainable tourism the staff told us about new project in which they coordinate homestays for foreigners with local families. After about 30 minutes of hearing about the project, my friend and I both looked at each other and said, “We should just stay tonight.”  And just like that, we were in for another adventure and launched their new project into action.

We were shown to our local family’s home with a private room on the second floor balcony and met the family (a husband, wife and 7 year old girl). They were all so hospitable and did everything to make us feel comfortable and welcome in their home. We joined them for dinner and were served fresh hummus, falafel, olives, fried potatoes, eggplant and other typical Syrian delicacies as well as homemade red wine. Through broken Arabic (and the help of an English-Arabic dictionary) we learned that the father is Maalulan and speaks Aramaic but his wife does not because she is from a different town. Due to the failing economy and shrinking infrastructure in Maalula, schooling is only provided locally through 8th grade and then youth must leave the town to attend high school in Damascus (which is where the family’s other children are). This is not only an economic hardship but also results in a fractured and strained family structure. Leaving the town also makes marriage outside of the community very common, another reason why the language is not passed down to the children. I shared with them that my great-grandmother was from Syria and spoke Aramaic but that similarly, the language was lost in my dad’s generation.

The next morning we went on a tour through Maalula with the young man who we met the day before who teaches Aramaic. He took us to all the historical sites as well as these amazing caves and walkways carved out of stones that he described with such enthusiasm and pride. As we walked through the street of the town, people would smile and the local children would practice their English with us. A shopkeeper called me into his store just to give me a packet of cookies as a welcome gesture. After our tour, we went for lunch and entered this little European style café with bright colored walls, eclectic décor and an espresso machine (which is hard to come by in Syria). We had a delicious lunch and talked with the female owner who explained she recently opened the restaurant all on her own and was inspired by her brother’s restaurant, Maaloula, on a small island called San Juan in Washington State. I got so excited and told her I am from Seattle and have been to the San Juan.  We took pictures together and talked about what a small world it is. After we finished our lunch, all the people we had met in the town came to say goodbye and send us off as we boarded our bus back to Damascus to attend the International Film Festival that night (from roughing it to the red carpet).  

Leaving Maalula I thought about how much deeper an understanding of a place is gained when you take the extra time to make connections with people. If we would have just gone to Maalula, seen the tourist sites and left, we would have missed out on the culture of this amazing town and the warmth of its people. The one thing I have learned so far is traveling is ALWAYS an adventure that you have to embrace every minute of. Even when you are standing at the bottom of that dark, steep mountain looking up…there is always light at the top!

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