September 21, 2017

The Hands that Shape Us: Negotiating Syrian Heritage ​in the Wake of War

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By J.J. El-Far

I had the privilege of working as a community consultant on the Play Company’s current production of Amir Nizar Zuabi’s Oh My Sweet Land. The process of advocating for the show, and making connections within the Arab-American community and refugee service organizations on behalf of this remarkable production was truly an honor. It was the also the latest way — but certainly not the last — that I found myself engaged in the American response to the Syrian war. Like many Americans with Syrian heritage, I have spent the last six years watching in horror, wishing I had a more direct way to support the Syrian people, and finding my own cultural traditions as daily reminders of this frayed link between myself and those in dire need.

Like the character in the play, my understanding of and engagement with Arabic culture had been influenced largely by my (former) romantic relationships with Arab men. Like this character, I harbored a cliché romantic fantasy of finding an Arab husband (like my father), learning to speak the language fluently, and getting to eat labne every day. My first trip to Jordan was in 2006 with my then-boyfriend, and while I was there, the war broke out between Hezbollah and Israel. It was the closest I had ever come to the frontline of a conflict in the region, and seeing the images of carnage left a lasting impression. It was also the first time I had met distant relatives bearing my last name who all seemed to instantly know and accept me as one of their own — placing me within a larger social network I never knew existed. After that trip, I owned my heritage in a new way, and found that food, language, and politics are cultural aspects I maintain without the need for outside reinforcement or validation.

I ended up marrying a wonderful Jewish man, and last year we had our first child, a son who carries in him heritage from his father’s Eastern European Ashkenazi Jewish roots, and my own mixed heritage including English, French, Irish, Syrian and Jordanian. As a baby, my parents entrusted me to the daytime care of my Syrian Teta Nour, who provided me a regular diet of rice pilaf, yogurt, and soft pita bread. I was also exposed to the Arabic language, with satellite TV offering a background of elegant Lebanese women, Egyptian comedies, and thickly mustachioed news announcers plus the steady stream of relatives coming and going, smoking, laughing, and complaining. The sensory world of my grandmother’s house became so deeply entrenched in my memories that to this day I can still recall the smell of her kitchen.

In the play, the character describes her own Teta Amina, similar in so many ways to my own, and surely to others who had grandparents of that generation. When she recalls the act of witnessing her grandmother make kubbeh, I could feel myself looking upon my own grandmother’s hands working deftly, with practiced skill and speed. “The body has a memory,” she says, and in both of our cases, those memories can transfer between generations, even if we don’t realize it at first.

When I became a mother, I decided I wanted to try and give my son a similar cultural exposure. It occurred to me that there must be Syrian women in New York who nanny, and wouldn’t it be even better if they had come over recently and were looking for opportunities for work? I contacted Avigail Ziv, the Executive Director of the International Rescue Committee for New York and New Jersey, whom I had recently met as the guest of honor at a benefit dinner for Syria hosted by my friend, Bassema Yousef, a leader in the Arab-American community. I asked her if she could connect me with any Syrian refugee women who might be interested. Avi introduced me to Yusra, a 23-year-old woman from Damascus who had recently moved to New Jersey with her family, and had been studying early childhood education before the war. It was a perfect match.

Yusra barely spoke English, and my Arabic was very basic, so we asked Bassema to help us confirm the terms of the arrangement, and sitting in the IRC’s office in New York, Yusra agreed to come care for our baby. Since that time she has grown into a member of our family herself. The bond between her and my son is so special. Around Christmas time, I asked her what her family still needed, given that she was the sole earner for her parents, younger brother and sister. “Kilshee,” she said — everything. So I put out a call on my local neighborhood email list, and suddenly neighbors started stopping by at all hours with clothes, appliances, household items, toys, and more. Friends shipped huge Amazon orders to my house. One friend even arranged to deliver her old washer and dryer to Yusra’s house in New Jersey. The outpouring of generosity was overwhelming; clearly I had tapped into a collective need to do something for Syria, and this was the ideal way for many to give directly, with a personal connection. The day after New Year’s, my husband and I drove over a car packed with items for Yusra’s family — as well as $1,500 in cash, which would be wired to family in Lebanon and then manually walked across the border into Syria to Yusra’s family still trapped there.

In the months that followed, progress has been slow but steady. I helped Yusra enroll in free English classes at the local YMCA, worked with her to find a pro-bono immigration lawyer, helped her set up appointments and doctor visits, taught her how the New York subway system works, and introduced her to my friends and neighbors. She spoke Arabic with me, helping me finally commit to learning the language I had always wanted to know, and I helped her learn English. We applied to bring her husband (whom she hasn’t seen in five years) from Berlin to the United States, and watched the news carefully for updates about the “Muslim ban.” She showed me videos from the war on her phone, and we sat and cried together for our shared feelings of helplessness. I asked her if she wanted to pray together, she looked at me confused “but I am Muslim, I don’t know how you pray.” So we just held hands and talked to God in our own native languages in our hearts.

This mutually beneficial relationship has changed my understanding of charity in the 21st century, and the nature of personal connections in the face of extreme hardship. I don’t think it is possible for one person to fathom the extent of the horror caused by war, or process the innumerable atrocities humans commit on one another. I also no longer feel particularly confident or empowered by the act of making a donation to a large charity working to address the refugee crisis. The “drop in the bucket” approach feels dated and futile. For me, this is personal. To be able to connect with one person, one family, and offer what I had at my disposal — my spare room, my time, my own need for help — in a way that concentrated their impact has made the difference between feeling powerless, and feeling that I am doing the absolute best and most useful thing I can be.

I have also come to relate to the character in Oh My Sweet Land in the way that I believe anyone would if confronted with another human being in their home who had such urgent needs in the wake of trauma. We respond with compassion, we try to protect them, to create a safe space, and some semblance of normalcy and routine to help them reestablish their own inner calm, their ability to help others around them. We offer human connection in spite of the apparent breakdown of empathy in their society and ours. We try to build trust, to fan the tiny sparks of hope we see in them. And most important, we listen to their stories. We watch the videos. We bear witness. We don’t look away.


J.J. El-Far is an Arab-American creative producer, strategist, and arts and culture consultant based in Harlem, NYC. She brings diverse people together for events that transform spaces and communities, featuring artists who ask really big questions. She is a co-founder and Board Chair of the Harlem Arts Festival, a core member of Theatre Without Borders, and was Arts Officer for the British Council, US.