When I was around seven I remember asking myself for the first time why I was born Syrian. Growing up abroad, being Syrian was one of the key things that differentiated me from my international friends and sometimes I used to feel annoyed that I was not like them. Once, during a pre-school class - yes I can remember that far back - I remember answering the teacher's question, and was surprised to realise that she didn't understand me. I said it again, using the different words I knew, and found that she understood me this time. That night as I lay in bed, I resolved to put this new found knowledge to the test. The next day as I played with my friends, I said some more of these different words to them, and found that whilst some of my friends didn't understand what I was saying, some did. Refusing to leave it at that, I kept interrogating one poor boy, incredulous that he didn't know the meaning of one of the words I used, though I found it to be the most obvious thing in the world! This was how I became aware of language, and that the words I used at home were different from the words I was using at school. Eventually I realised that there were other words that I didn't know of, and some people also found these to be obvious and clear though they baffled me.
When I was young my family never forced me to speak Arabic at home, or insisted that I reply to them in the mother tongue. In fact I always felt silly if I spoke to my parents in Arabic, because this was the language I spoke to my friends in, and it just wouldn't be cool if I used that language with my family. Of course my Arabic friends and I also used Arabic to form our own special club at school. There was an Iraqi, some Lebanese, a Sudanese, a Palestinian and myself. My first exposure to Islam was actually through them rather than through my family, though I do recall that around that time my mother transliterated the Fatiha into English for me and encouraged us to memorise it. I can still today, in my mind's eye, see her tidy handwriting on the paper that she wrote it for us. Once whilst I was at school I remember drawing a burial cross, because I had seen it somewhere, in my notepad. My mother saw that one afternoon and asked me why it was there. I told her I just liked the shape, but it seemed as if I had done something wrong. Quietly and patiently, she explained to me that this shape was not for us, and that we are Muslims.
I asked her what it meant, and I don't remember what she told me. By then I had already been introduced to Allah, that invisible person who saw everything even if my parents didn't. I was also introduced to the birdie, who my mother assured me told her everything about us if we were naughty. The final test was the brow. Apparently if I was lying then it would be written on my forehead. In spite of thorough investigation, I could never see anything written, but my mother could always tell if I was lying, and trying to hide my forehead didn't help. It was these first mysteries that confounded and challenged me in my early years.
I saw a cartoon once about a monkey with a brass crown fighting against his enemies somewhere in China. Apparently this is a masterpiece of Chinese literature, but I didn't know that back then. In the cartoon, a bearded figure in the sky punishes the monkey for his wickedness, and pins him under a mountain until he repents. I thought that this was Allah, and kept this shrewd secret to myself for a few days, intent on surprising my Mum with this discovery. Unfortunately when I told her that I knew what God's face looks like, and that I'd seen it, she wouldn't believe me, and when I drew a likeness of the face as I remembered it, she just shook her head and said that wasn't it, and that he couldn't be imagined because nobody had ever seen him. Now that was something, how on earth did this guy see everything I was doing without me knowing it, and without anybody having ever seen him. I couldn't fathom this whole thing, but having heard about this "fire" that he would throw bad people in, I decided it best not to take any chances, and did my utmost to avoid doing bad things.
The big problem happened when my Mum told us to ask Allah for what we wanted, as he was always listening. Unfortunately this didn't work, and I remember coming home one day and telling my mother that I asked Allah for something to happen and it didn't, so I've decided I will be one of those people who does not want to believe in anything - this was a new idea I heard in class from the teacher. I figured that if I kept a nice neutral stance, then Allah wouldn't mind and would respect my neutrality, like Switzerland. Not surprisingly that didn't go down very well, and I was given a long lecture about how we should always believe in Him even if he didn't answer our prayers. It couldn't have been a very convincing argument because I can't remember what my mother told me. All I remember is that Allah didn't get me what I wanted, and I had wanted it badly.
From these hazy and early memories, my consciousness and understanding started to materialise. The myths of my childhood were extremely powerful, and continued to influence me and shape my thought for a very long time, maybe even till today. My place in the world and the universe were a complete mystery to me then, but thinking back now, I still could not understand how I was born from one people or background and not another. Later, as I would read books on geography, I would look at how many million people lived in this country or that, and I would find it incredible how in all those numbers, I was a Syrian, and only a Syrian. I could not rewind and choose to be another person in another country, I could not be anything other than what I was.
This thought experiment, of course, brought another terrifying thought, which is that if I could be from another country, then that would mean I would have different parents. The idea of living with strangers, instead of my parents, and leaving them behind forever, horrified me and I decided quickly that it was far better to be who I was and stay with my family than to live with a family who were strangers. I did think that then I wouldn't know about this life, but that just left me with a sadness. I imagined my family going about their lives as if I didn't exist, and that I would be far away and alone, and this touched something deeply primal within me, a fear of being alone, of losing family, and of being lost.
Today, in a stranger manner, that is precisely how I feel. Far away from all my loved ones, and from the only city in the world that I truly love, I pine away and look at another life, one that I cannot join and I can never be a part of. I watch as Syria is falling apart, and how my family cannot come to be with me because they haven't got the same papers. Your whole life, determined by the accident of your birth. I wonder to myself now, after all these years, whether Allah did answer one of my prayers, and did change me into another person with another life. I'm looking back through the prism of my past, and I can see my family through a window, living their lives without me, and where I cannot help. I bang on the glass silently but nobody looks this way. Despair.