A Childhood in Syria
The second time Doaa nearly drowned, she was adrift in the center of a hostile sea that had just swallowed the man she loved. She was so cold she couldn't feel her feet, and so thirsty her tongue had swollen in her mouth. She was so overcome with grief that if not for the two tiny baby girls in her arms, barely alive, she would have let the sea consume her. No land was in sight. Just debris from the shipwreck, a few other survivors praying for rescue, and dozens of bloated, floating corpses.
Thirteen years earlier, a small lake, rather than the vast ocean, had almost taken her, and that time Doaa's family was there to save her. She was six years old and the only one in her family who'd refused to learn to swim. She was terrified of the water; just the sight of it filled her with dread.
During outings to the lake near their home, Doaa would sit alone and watch as her sisters and cousins splashed and dove and somersaulted into the lake, cooling off from the sweltering Syrian summer heat. When they tried to coax Doaa into the water, she steadfastly refused, feeling a sense of power in her resistance. Even as a small child, she was stubborn. "No one can ever tell Doaa what to do," her mother told everyone with a mix of pride and exasperation.
Then, one afternoon, Doaa's teenage cousin decided that she was being silly and that it was past time for her to learn how to swim. As Doaa sat obliviously drawing shapes in the dirt with her fingers and watching the others splash around, he crept up behind her, grabbed her by the waist, and lifted her up as she kicked and screamed. Ignoring her cries, he swung her up over his shoulder and carried her to the lake. Her face was pressed into his upper back while her legs dangled just below his chest. She kicked hard against his rib cage and dug her fingernails into his head. The children laughed as Doaa's cousin stretched out his arms and released her into the murky water. Doaa panicked as she smacked facedown into the lake. She was submerged only up to her chest, but she was paralyzed with fear and unable to position her legs to find footing. Rather than floating to the top, Doaa submerged, gasping for air but instead gulping water.
A pair of arms pulled her out of the lake just in time, lifting her to the shore and into the comforting lap of her frightened mother. Doaa coughed up all the liquid she'd ingested, sobbing, and vowed, then and there, to never go near the water again.
Back then, she had nothing else in her world to fear. Not when family was always around to protect her.
Six-year-old Doaa couldn't remember any moment when she'd ever been alone. She lived with her parents and five sisters in a single room in her grandfather's two-story house. Her father's three brothers and their families occupied the other rooms, and each moment of Doaa's life was filled with relatives: She slept side by side with her sisters, ate communal meals, and listened to spirited conversations.
The Al Zamel family lived in Daraa, the largest city in the southwest of Syria, located just a few kilometers from the Jordanian border and about a two-hour drive south of Damascus. Daraa sits on a volcanic plateau of rich, red soil. In 2001 when Doaa was six, it was famous for the bounty of fruits and vegetables the land yielded — pomegranates, figs, apples, olives, and tomatoes. It was said that the produce of Daraa could feed all of Syria.
Years later, in 2007, a devastating drought swept through the country, lasting for three years, and forcing many farmers to abandon their fields and move with their families to cities such as Daraa to seek employment. Some experts believe that this massive displacement gave rise to the ripple of discontent that in 2011 swelled into a tidal wave of protest, and then the armed uprising that would shatter Doaa's life.
But back in 2001, when Doaa was just a little girl, Daraa was a peaceful place where people went about their lives, and newfound hope was held for the future of the country. Bashar al-Assad had just succeeded his repressive father, Hafez al-Assad, as president. The people of Syria were hopeful that better times lay ahead for their country, at first believing that the young president would break away from his father's oppressive policies. Bashar al-Assad and his glamorous wife had been educated in England and their marriage was seen as a merger — he from the minority Alawite branch of Islam and his wife, Asma, like Doaa's family, from the majority Sunni. His politics were secular, and hope was widespread, particularly among the Damascus-educated elite, that under his leadership the forty-eight-year-old emergency law his father had inherited and maintained to crush dissent would be revoked and restraints on freedom of expression would be lifted. Under the pretext of protecting national security from Islamic militants and outside rivals, the government had used its emergency powers to severely restrict individual rights and freedoms and to enable security forces to make preventive arrests with little legal recourse.
The more conservative, poorer populations, such as those in Daraa, mainly hoped for economic improvements, but for the most part they quietly accepted the way things operated in their country. This silent acquiescence was the result of a harsh lesson they had learned back in 1982 in the city of Hama, when then president Hafez al-Assad ordered the killing of thousands of citizens as a collective punishment for the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood movement that was challenging his rule. This brutal retaliation was still fresh in Syrians' minds. But with the new generation in power, they hoped that Hafez al-Assad's son would loosen some of the restrictions that hampered everyday life. To the disappointment of people throughout Syria, the new president merely paid lip service to reform, and nothing much changed, and after Hama, few dared to challenge the authoritarian regime.
On Saturdays when Doaa was little, the old city market — or souk — would fill up with locals and visitors from across the border in Jordan, who came to buy high-quality produce at good prices, and to trade the tools and fruits of agriculture. Sitting on the main trade route to the Persian Gulf, Daraa attracted people from all over the region; people came together here or made a point of visiting as they passed through. At its heart, however, was a close-knit community of extended families and friendships that spanned generations.
Children in Daraa, as elsewhere in Syria, stayed with their families well into adulthood. Sons remained at home after marriage, bringing their wives into the family home to raise their children. Syrian households such as Doaa's were packed with family members, several generations under the same roof, sharing a single home. When a growing family overflowed out of the rooms on the first story of their dwelling, another floor would be added and the house would extend upward.
At Doaa's house, part of the ground floor belonged to her uncle Walid and aunt Ahlam and their four children. Next to him was Uncle Adnaan, with his family of six, and Doaa's grandfather Mohamed and grandmother Fawziyaa had their own room. On the upper level, Uncle Nabil had a small room with his wife, Hanadi, and their three boys and two girls. Doaa's family of eight shared the ground-floor room closest to the kitchen, the busiest and noisiest part of the house. All the main rooms were set around an open courtyard, typical of old Arab houses, where the children would dash in and out, coming together to play when school was out and between meals. The rooftop also offered space for the family to gather, and on hot summer nights, they would relax there until the early hours of the morning, the men smoking their water pipes, the women gossiping, all drinking sweet Syrian tea. On especially hot nights, the cool rooftop breeze would entice the family to roll out their mattresses and sleep under the stars.
The entire family — aunts, uncles, cousins — ate communal meals in the courtyard, seated on a carpet in a circle around steaming plates of food. At mealtimes, Doaa and her sisters ate ravenously, scooping up food with pieces of thin pita bread wrapped around their fingertips.
Doaa's father cherished these moments with his family, for it was the only time during the day that he could spend with his daughters. As soon as the meal was over, and he had finished off the last dregs of his sugary tea, he would pedal his bike back to his barbershop to work until midnight.
The love, conflicts, joys, and sorrows of living with a large clan affected every part of Doaa's daily life. And under the rooftop of this loving family, tensions were beginning to arise.
* * *
By the time Doaa was born, her parents already had three daughters and were facing pressure from the family to have a son. In traditional, patriarchal Syrian society, boys were more valued than girls as people believed they would support the family, whereas daughters would marry and turn their attention to their husbands and in-laws. Shokri, Doaa's father, was handsome, with curly dark hair. He had been a barber since the age of fourteen and had once worked abroad in Greece and Hungary. Shokri had had plans to return to Europe to find a job and a foreign wife, but after he met Hanaa, Doaa's mother, his plans changed. Hanaa was just finishing high school when they met at a neighbor's wedding. She was petite, had long, wavy dark hair, and striking green eyes. She and Shokri were instantly attracted to each other. She found him more worldly and self-confident than the other local guys, and she liked the way he dressed in bell-bottom jeans and played the oud, a string instrument that's considered the ancestor of the guitar.
Shokri and Hanaa were married when Hanaa was only seventeen. Their first few years together were peaceful and full of love, but slowly things changed. The first time Hanaa overheard her mother-in-law, Fawziyaa, complain that Hanaa and Shokri had no son was after Hanaa gave birth to her third daughter. Hanaa was shocked when she heard Shokri's relatives tell him that he should find himself a new wife to bear him a son. Despite having to fight against deeply ingrained prejudices and expectations, Shokri was proud of his growing daughters. However, his mother continued to criticize Hanaa and insisted that Shokri deserved sons. The family home, which had once been a sanctuary for Shokri and Hanaa, soon became a place of strife as some of Hanaa's sisters-in-law joined Shokri's mother in whispering and gossiping about her inability to bear sons.
When Doaa was born on July 9, 1995, Hanaa received the usual halfhearted congratulations and murmurs of "Next time, inshallah" — God willing — "it might be a boy" from Shokri's family.
But when Hanaa looked at the solemn, earnest baby, she sensed something special about the little girl. When a well-respected and wealthy family friend visiting from out of town came by one day to see the new baby, she helped establish Doaa's place in her family. The friend, unable to have her own children, had an acute feel for the family dynamics and sensed the pressure Hanaa was under to have a boy and decided to help her. When the family gathered in the kitchen to welcome their special guest, she took Doaa carefully in her arms and held her gently. She looked down into the tiny baby's serious face, placed a finger on her forehead, and announced, "This one is special." Referring to the meaning of the name Doaa, the friend added, "She is truly a prayer from God." Before departing, the friend gave Hanaa ten thousand Syrian pounds — a small fortune — as a gift for Doaa. The rest of the family was astonished. The friend's exotic status as a wealthy resident of the Gulf States commanded respect. After that, Shokri's mother always insisted on holding Doaa, and for a time no more insults were hurled at Hanaa.
As Doaa grew up, she enchanted most everyone she met. She was extremely shy, unlike her more outgoing sisters, yet people always felt compelled to draw her out of her shell. She had a sweetness about her, and every time Hanaa took her out, people on the street commented on her beautiful chocolate-colored eyes framed with long eyelashes and her calm demeanor. "From the start," Hanaa remembers, "we knew she would bring luck to the family."
Three years after Doaa was born, Hanaa gave birth to another daughter, Saja, and two years later to a sixth, Nawara. Suddenly the talk of "poor Shokri" with no sons flared up again. Also now, the eight members of the family were all living in a thirteen-by-sixteen-foot room with one window.
The rest of the extended family was growing as well, as Doaa's aunts and uncles also had more children. Large families are common in Syria, since the birth of a child is considered lucky, and a big family is a sign of a couple's happiness as well as assurance that they will be taken care of in old age.
Yet with close to thirty people living in one house, friction was beginning to grow among the women. It was impossible to cook for so many people at once, so the communal meals that had once brought everyone so much joy came to an end. Instead each family would have a turn in the kitchen. Hanaa had the first shift, so every day she had to rush to the market, peel and chop vegetables, and cook everything in time to serve lunch when Shokri took his midday break from the barbershop at three. It was the main meal for the family, and for Hanaa it was important that it be special. She had always taken pleasure and pride in preparing this meal, but now she found herself rushing and trying to avoid any conflict with her in-laws.
Doaa and her family now ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner in their small room atop a plastic tablecloth they spread over the center of the floor. That room had now become the center of their universe. It served as a bedroom, sitting room, and dining room, all family activity happened within those four walls.
As the girls grew up, it became harder to cram their lives into it. At night, Doaa and her sisters took out their mattresses and, one after the other, laid them across the floor into every possible space, like puzzle pieces. Doaa always chose the space under the window so she could stare up at the stars until her eyes shut. When they were all finally asleep, Shokri and Hanaa had to step over a sea of tangled arms and legs to get to their corner of the room.
For Hanaa, the atmosphere in the crowded house had become intolerable. All too often, her sisters-in-law critiqued her for not having any sons. One evening when she overheard them gossiping about her in the kitchen yet again, Hanaa decided that she had had enough of these insinuations, the squabbles over the kitchen, and the unending noise. That night, when Shokri returned home from work, Hanaa stood in the doorframe with her arms crossed over her chest and tears fighting to escape her eyes.
"Either you find us another house, or you find yourself another wife," she demanded. "We can't stay here any longer." She stepped closer to Shokri. "It's not just about me now either. Ayat is fifteen and Alaa is thirteen. They're teenagers! They're fed up with sharing a room with all of us. They need their privacy. I'll leave you and ask for a divorce if you don't find us a new place."
Shokri had noticed the growing tensions and the difficulties the family was having getting by in their small room. After sixteen years of marriage, he could also see that Hanaa meant what she was saying. Her tight lips and fierce scowl told him that she would make good on her threat to leave. He knew that he needed to find a better-paying job so they could move to a better home.
Doaa, by then six years old, was oblivious of the simmering tensions and had no idea that she was about to find out, for the first time in her life, that her world was not as safe as it seemed. To her, the big house was still a place of happy memories: of intense smells of simmering meat and aromatic spices; of laughter and endless games with the cousins in the courtyard surrounded by fragrant jasmine flowers; of warm nights out on the roof listening to the hum of the adults chattering and puffing on the shisha pipe.
Barbering was the only work Shokri knew, but he asked around to see whether his old yellow Peugeot could be used to transport goods back and forth across the Jordanian border. The "yellow submarine" was the family's only transportation and also the family joke. Rusty and dented, it tended to break down on weekend drives, but it was Shokri's pride and joy. Now, it was the family's one hope for moving out of their stifling, overcrowded home.
Shokri found a Jordanian businessman who offered to pay him to fill up his car with packages of locally produced Syrian cookies and take them to customers across the border in Jordan.
For the next two months, Shokri left home at dawn to drive to the factory in Daraa, where he would stuff the Peugeot with boxes of cookies and pastries. At times, he could barely see out the rearview mirror because the car was so full. If border traffic was light, he could make the trip in five hours and get home in time to have lunch with the family before his afternoon shift at the barbershop. Doaa and her sisters loved his new job; every time he came home, he would bring them treats from Jordan. They would wait by the door for the kubz ishtiraak, a type of thin pita bread that they couldn't get in Syria, and Barbi-brand potato chips, which the girls liked better than the kind they could get at home. He also brought them dresses and other more stylish clothes than any they'd had before.