The return

My father always promised he would show us his childhood home in Syria. War made us wait.

By: /
16 December, 2020
The author’s father as a young man in Syria in 1982.

“One day, we’ll go, and you’ll see for yourselves,” my father told us. His thin bottom lip sucked up, almost in a pout, and his eyes stared across an ocean and a sea. We were seated on the living room floor of a small Côte-Saint-Luc apartment in Montreal. He was wearing his regular interior outfit: a white undershirt and Walmart Fruit of the Loom underwear. The subject of conversation had found itself back to his country of birth. Not much was said on why we had not gone already. Instead, I was given an optimistic if fuzzy look to the future. One day, he told us, we would go.

Years later, when I was 19 and my father 55, this promise would be fulfilled. But the word “soon” signified vague postponement for so long that it was almost a surprise when, in the summer of 2019, the word now meant “in a matter of hours.” At least, that’s how long it would take my father, mother, sister and I to reach the Lebanon-Syria border from Beirut. From the Lebanese capital to Tripoli, our road was hugged by the Mediterranean to our left and sparse brown hills to our right. We were travelling in a white van large enough for the four of us, my father’s escorting nephew, the driver and our plentiful luggage. The van’s air conditioning system was weak. We were sweating and tired and had been traveling for nearly 24 hours.

None of it mattered. We were hours away from my father’s village. All we could do was admire the sun setting over the blue, now pink, now purple water and furtively look over at my father for signs of emotion. He disappointed us every time. His face showed nothing. Perhaps he was thinking of the moments that, pieced together from end to end, constituted his life after leaving Syria as a young man some three decades earlier.

There was much to string together. Having completed a degree in civil engineering at Friendship of the Peoples University in Moscow, he returned to his hometown for the summer, left and didn’t look back. After a few years in Sweden, he moved to Montreal. He had heard Canada was a dream destination for ambitious immigrants. There, he studied Spanish at Concordia, met my mother and married her a month and a half later in 1997. Soon after, they moved to my mother’s hometown of Castro, Chile, with the intention of settling there. But Castro, on the Chilean Archipelago of Chiloé, felt isolated and rural and my father grew bored. They moved back to Montreal to start from scratch again. Canada did not recognize my father’s engineering degree. The low salary he obtained from odd jobs left no money for travel, especially after two children, several moves and a parade of unexpected expenses. This is what I imagined occupied my father’s thoughts in the final hours of his return to Syria. He later told me he had been worrying about the border crossing, the emotion of reuniting, even how difficult it would be to recognize some of his fourteen siblings and their descendants.

At one point, years prior, “soon” had been the summer of 2011, until then an inconspicuous year for Syria. By January, all the necessary paperwork had been processed. By April, demonstrations were taking place in cities across Syria. Fascinating and terrifying events that would postpone my father’s return. He had waited 23 years; he could wait some more.

                                                                        ***

At the border, we joked with a Lebanese official who knew a bit of English and Italian, using the latter to interact with our Spanish. He soon began pulling a gag that needed no translation, holding out our passports and yanking them back as we grabbed for them. He laughed and wished us well and sent us twenty metres down the road to the Syrians. The two-star tricolour waved wearily on its pole. Nearby, three multi-storey compounds in a decrepit state shielded us from the sea, the smell of the ocean finding its way over them and through the van’s open windows. A border guard with no uniform directed us to the first concrete building, where a small welcoming delegation was waiting, three uncles. My father had taken us to meet up with the first in Beirut two years prior, when we didn’t yet dare cross the border. His tears for that brother were no less than for the other two whom he hadn’t seen for over three decades.

The concrete compounds that kept us from seeing the Mediterranean were plastered—as was the rest of coastal Syria, I would soon discover—with portraits of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his predecessor and father, Hafez. Inside, a clerk told my father they would have to send his name to Damascus for confirmation. We waited, we gave officials money and were eventually allowed to pass. More people welcomed us on the other side of the border post. The hellos were more polite this time. All cousins and relatives we hadn’t yet met. The rest of my father’s siblings were assembled at their parents’ old house in the village.

“He insisted we go,” my father told us in hushed Spanish. At the border, we had squeezed into my uncle’s car and were now part of a caravan rolling toward the village cemetery. My father made it sound as if he didn’t want to visit his parents’ tombs on his first night back home. I did not understand why not. I had seen him cry only twice before that summer. The first was after a difficult, angry Mother’s Day call, the first in many years. The second was when he received pictures of her near death, surrounded by his brothers and sisters. It was 2014 when Jamila passed away, three years after postponing our trip and twenty-six years since he had visited.

“We pulled into a dark clearing, my uncle stepping out of the car and searching for the right tombs with his phone’s flashlight. My father walked ahead of us towards his brother’s light, leaned over and said hello to his father after 31 years.”

We pulled into a dark clearing, my uncle stepping out of the car and searching for the right tombs with his phone’s flashlight. My father walked ahead of us towards his brother’s light, leaned over and said hello to his father after 31 years. Hassan died of cancer in 1996. Over many months of trips to the hospital, Hassan’s main request was to not let my father know of his condition until after it was over.

After just a minute, my father turned towards us with tears in his eyes and the same half pout, his bottom lip meeting its superior, as if helping it hold up the weight of his grief. We held him as my uncle looked and found his mother’s tomb nearby, again flashing his phone’s flashlight. Stepping over bristle bushes which prickled our legs, we led my father to it. My grandmother’s health had severely deteriorated in 2014. She died in pain, not having seen her son since he had left Syria.

My father stood over her tomb for what I thought was too little time. Perhaps I was disappointed by how little my father had cried when I compared it to how I had imagined the moment would play out. I may have been hoping he could release the pent-up sorrow I knew he held. Maybe I selfishly wanted to see him sob in front of me for the first time. But what could I know of his grief and coping? We walked back to the cars, navigating bristle bushes, and were off to the family home close by.

The view from the author’s uncle’s garden in Syria in 2019.

My uncle’s driveway was a pebble path leading to a couple of houses perpendicular to each other. Our car was immediately surrounded by at least three dozen clamoring family members. There were cries of joy as we pulled in, multiplied when the car door opened, exponentially so when my father stepped out. Flower petals were thrown into the air, red and white raining back down onto my father’s shoulders. I saw his tenseness collapse in a sob. Kisses and hugs were exchanged by all, a welcome deviation from the North American puritanism that I’ve grown up with. Choked introductions were made, names repeated and forgotten immediately thereafter. To my aunts, uncles and cousins, I became Bablo, as there is no letter “P” in Arabic. To this vocabulary I would add several more words including, to my family’s amusement, mumtaz — amazing — my favourite one yet.

In the end, this moment remains the clearest of the entire trip. It justified the before, the long hours of travel, the border crossing and all the encompassing anxiety. It equally justified the after, the frustration my father felt returning to his village and seeing garbage strewn about, the habit of littering out car windows that his relatives possessed and other things he found questionable. Home had changed, and after thirty-one years abroad, my father had changed too. But he was home for the first time in more than three decades, so it was mumtaz. It was, in the truest sense of the word, amazing.