A Syrian reunion

A Syrian reunion
Blog: A family reunion wasn't the retreat Hadani Ditmars had been hoping for.
7 min read
28 Jun, 2017
Kelowna overlooks the Okinagan lake in BC, thousands of miles from Syria [Kelowna City Council]

It's a very long way from the Syrian plains of Hauran, where my ancestors came from, to a Western Canadian town called Kelowna, named after the local First Nations word for "grizzly bear".

And yet, for a few days, in the midst of ongoing unrest in my ancestral homeland, with an Iranian plane shot down by US forces, and the brutal carving up of a once-sovereign state by foreign powers, they became closer than I could have imagined.

The occasion was a family reunion, an every-five-year ritual that began in the 1950s, in the place where my great-grandparents settled.

Najib and Massadi Musallem were seventh cousins from the town of Qaraoun, in the Beqaa Valley, where their ancestors from Hauran had settled. 

They were Christians fleeing Ottoman-era oppression, and the subsequent brutal carving up of various states. Post Sykes-Picot agreement, the borders between "Lebanon" and "Syria" kept changing, and with it their erstwhile nationalities. But they became Canadians a century before their adopted land would take in tens of thousands of their countrymen, even as their close relatives fled to Brazil and Mexico.

They eventually settled in Kelowna, in British Columbia, after first going to a northern port town named Prince Rupert on the way to Alaska - where they connected with local First Nations who adopted their son into the Haida eagle clan - partly because its dry, Mediterranean climate, lakes and foothills reminded them of home.

But the reunion - with Canadian as well as American cousins (some of whom, incidentally, had become Republican evangelicals) was hardly the retreat I had hoped for, but rather a strange family gathering as a crucible, microcosm of Syria.

Hauran, once the breadbasket of Syria, is now home to many displaced families who have taken up residence in depopulated towns

As I drove from Vancouver with my aging mother, navigating for her failing eyes along treacherous mountain roads, we shared family stories.

The family legend (verified in the History of Zahleh by Alexander Malouf, written in Arabic and published in 1911) is that around 1775, in the midst of regional violence, unrest and upheaval in Hauran, four brothers named Hakim- Christian horse warriors or 18th-century guerillas if you will, used to constant fighting to defend their turf - decided to lay down their arms, cultivate the land and become "men of peace".

Two and a half decades before the Hauran agreement - a plan to divide Syria via southern secession designed by various players in the Syrian opposition - the brothers decided to facilitate their new way of life by changing their name from Hakim to Mussallem (meaning, in the vernacular, "man of peace".)

Hauran, once the breadbasket of Syria, is now home to many displaced families who have taken up residence in depopulated towns, among them the old Mussallem clan villages, where once arable land has been ruined by war.

As we drove through fog and rain along dark country roads, I thought of the svihah - traditional Syrian lamb meat pie with pine nuts - I would make for my cousins. It was just a culinary indulgence, of course, and I planned to relax in Kelowna's new world, easy resort as promised.

Except for the business of arranging a visa to Iran for an upcoming assignment, I was surrendered to pure North American vacationing, far, far away from the Middle East.

Such pleasant dreams were dashed when I awoke the next morning to the smell of burning plastic. After years spent in warzones it was not an unfamiliar smell. Yet here in this lakeside idyll, it was not the result of a bomb or a nearby garbage dump, but my aging mother's accidental microwave fire.

She had unwittingly set a plastic cover alight while trying to heat a potato.

While the cousins laughed it off, I spent the better part of the day trying to get rid of the noxious smell - the fumes likely contained hydrogen cyanide (HCN), a cousin to poison gas - hoping to prevent an asthma attack and failing to find alternate lodging.

The Mussallem family in Winnepeg in 1908 {Hadani Ditmars]

Instead of trading stories with families, I ended up on a strange journey from the lakeside idyll into the city of Kelowna, looking for an air purifier. I found the once-charming small town had become an urban warzone of sorts, with junkies and gangsters having taken over much of downtown. I ate a lonely hamburger while watching someone shoot up in the parking lot.

"Don't go to the Safeway," warned the waitress of the perhaps ironically named grocery chain. "It's too dangerous at night."

Instead I found myself - after a pit stop at the oddly named "London Drugs" to buy an air purifier - shopping for produce at a giant, suburban style supermarket. As I sized up giant bunches of parsley under neon lights, I thought of the grocery shop my great-grandparents opened when they first arrived in Canada, and the once-fertile plains of Hauran.

I arrived back to family reunion base camp to find the cousins in full party mode, and my room still full of toxic fumes. When we couldn't get the air conditioning or the air purifier to work, I became a temporary refugee, until a chivalrous cousin with a spare sofa offered me his room for the night.

Now being a single woman writer in her 40s at a family reunion full of childbearing types is a bit like being a journalist in a Middle Eastern police state. You can't ask too many questions or you get in trouble. And no one ever tells you what you've done wrong - you just get expelled - or disposed of.

My mother's fire and my asthmatic reaction to it had now become an "incident", secretly filed away to be used as evidence of my suspect lifestyle.

Not that the Middle East came up much in conversation. It was a place to be avoided and not discussed, an open motherland wound to be buried by insurance sales and suburban sprawl and a sense of "safety". I remembered an elderly aunt's story about Uncle Khalil, who used to delight in telling stories about clan wars and horse warriors beheading rivals with a single stroke.

"Now, Khalil," her mother would scold from her mid-century new world living room, "don't frighten the children."

Nonetheless, I persevered. I told the family "man of peace" story to the American cousins, and held babies and chopped vegetables. But still the lines were being drawn, and various clans retreated to their suites.

Do you stay in the police state because it's safe and familiar, or dare to start your own rebellion and buy into the myth of 'liberty'?

In spite of continued platitudes about family togetherness, no one bothered to ask me how I was, where I'd come from, or about my upcoming trip to Iran.

It was reminiscent of Albanian propaganda from the 1960s -aka "Albania is a socialist paradise" - on a familial scale. I wanted to buy into it, but I had serious questions about what "family values" were doing for me personally.

As I rose at dawn to call the visa fixer in Tehran, I wondered, is the family an insular cult you must escape for your own self-actualisation? Do you stay in the police state because it's safe and familiar, or dare to start your own rebellion and buy into the myth of "liberty"? How long does it take before familiarity breeds contempt? Do you confess all your sins to benign dictators hoping all will be forgiven, or does it end up like that scene in The Killing Fields?

Meanwhile, benevolent patriarchs told stories of idyllic mid-century childhood memories to no-future millenials in a world of junkies and gangsters. No one mentioned the war.

Not the messy divorces, or murderous alcoholic husbands. No stories about childhoods spent alone with the chicken pox while single mothers worked or evenings spent as a six-year-old helping your mother distribute Sears catalogues while your father started a second family.

Later that night I read about the Syrian women and children being forced into prostitution in refugee camps.

At a family dinner, there was much hugging and eating and several photo ops. But after hours of masochistic small talk I was reminded of the old Syrian television programmes I used to watch in 1990s-era Beirut. Wordless images of officials openings dams and factories with everyone smiling and clapping manically in the background.

The next day I went to a suburban pharmacy to get a photo taken for the Iranian visa. The young Canadian girl who took it was confused about whether I needed to cover my head in the photo or not, and I remembered stories of my great-grandmother, Sarah, now buried in a town with strip malls, and the headscarf she refused to remove, much to the embarrassment of her assimilating family.

As I laid roses at the family plot that afternoon, I said a prayer for my ancestors. A prayer for their torn, fragmented country and its diluted diaspora. And with the smell of burning plastic still lingering on my clothes, a prayer for a Syrian reunion.

Follow Hadani Ditmars on Twitter: @HadaniDitmars