Review – My Country: A Syrian Memoir by Kassem Eid
Kassem Eid’s memoir opens with a mournful preface. The author, a Syrian who has faced the full force of his country’s recent history, accepts he cannot escape its suffering. Eid says he has fled across continents, travelling as far as he can. He has lived as hard as he can, yet he cannot forget. He cannot suppress the bitter memories of which he is the custodian.
His narrative does not begin bitterly. Eid describes his arrival in Moadamiya, in the Damascus suburbs, where he lived from the age of three. His family, of Palestinian-Syrian origin, moved there from the capital and were greeted by ‘old mud houses that looked like something from the fairy tales my mother read us at bedtime’.
The author’s father was a hard-working man whose children nonetheless lived less well than their neighbours. One night, in an anecdote which represents the beginning of Eid’s politically-aware life, his father explains the nature of Syria’s dictatorship and the crimes of the president, Hafez al-Assad. Eid’s father says that he has not joined the ruling Ba’ath party, an act with repercussions financial and social.
Things begin to go wrong. Eid’s father dies of a stroke when his son is in the eighth grade, and Eid starts physically fighting with his teachers.
Parallel to the tumult in the author’s life, Syria experiences something similar. Eid catches the spectacle of Hafez al-Assad’s death through the eyes of a child: the overstated public mourning, the chaos at the top. Eid notes the absurd theatre accompanying the ascent of Bashar, Hafez’s son. The machinery behind Syria’s dictatorship then interjects itself into the author’s life.
Eid is hit over the head while talking to a shopkeeper and beaten by the authorities. He is taken away to be brutalised further – and his suffering is heightened as he hears other men, who are receiving the same treatment, crying out in fear and pain. This is a taste of things to come.
Eid tries, unsuccessfully, to leave Syria. Later, he works as a security guard at a well-appointed hotel in Damascus and sees the opulent way diplomacy is conducted, as foreign leaders and emissaries are ferried through the city in luxury to strike deals with the young president.
Here, the reader sees the uneasy coexistence of politics and everyday life under dictatorship, even in times of peace.
The policies of the state gave rise to sectarian favouritism. Eid’s upset at being passed over for promotion in favour either of members of the Alawite minority, from which the Al Assad family originates, or the Ba’ath party is not mere petulance. It profiles the corruption and inefficiency of the Syrian state in miniature.
Official caprice shaped the landscape from which the revolution came. But although these concerns simmered, it took external events to bring revolution to Syria.
Eid is surprised to see protests across the Arab world; he thrills when revolution reaches Syria. After witnessing altercations between protestors and the regime’s Shabiha paramilitaries, Eid states that ‘I and my entire family dared to hope that freedom was possible in Syria’.
Eid catches the heady emotions of taking to the streets, the expectation of new freedoms and possibilities. He is honest, also, about the way Syrians who looked to the West truly expected to have their demands heard and their cries for help heeded.
Later, Eid documents the beginning of conflict and the formation of his local Free Syrian Army (FSA) detachment, emphasising the difficulty of crossing the line between protestor and combatant, all the while appalled by the government’s brutality.
After the shooting starts in earnest, and based on a shallow reading of American history, Eid tells his friends that the United States would in no time intervene to remove Al Assad. ‘I truly believed this’, he writes – with attendant irony, considering what comes next.
At the heart of the book is Eid’s description of the chemical attack, on 21 August 2013, in which the government unleashed Sarin on the people of Ghouta and the surrounding towns, and nearly brought about its own destruction. The attack itself is viscerally described and hauntingly enunciated. But it carried few consequences for the aggressor.
The chemical attack is not all. Shortly after came brutal siege. Eid provides examples of the privations of calculated starvation. These are not all grand stories of horror, but rather sad, piteous tableaux.
Eventually, Eid flees to the United States. There, he comprehends, and internally accepts, America’s great abandonment of his country.
This brief volume is not the last word on the Syrian war. Its politics are uncomplex and its messages unsubtle. But in the face of real-life tragedy, subtlety is not what is required. Eid’s story is one of hope giving way to fear and finally betrayal, an imperfect narrative of one of this century’s darkest episodes, a necessary perspective, made more prescient because it is personal.
This piece was originally published in The National.