In the March issue of FW:
, editor Sami Moubayed wrote a charming piece about "Ahlam", a baby girl born on April 17, 1946, whom he described as having "magnificent Oriental beauty and a smile that simply would not go away. She came from a wealthy and prestigious family that boasted of heritage and traced its roots back to the beginning of civilization."
I wrote to Sami to congratulate him, saying:
"that's a lovely piece Sami, although you forgot to mention that Ahlam, though beautiful, was not born intact in 1946 and is missing major parts of her body."
Of course, what I mean is that the Syrian Arab Republic – whose independence is commemorated on April 17, Ahlam's birthday – cannot full claim the heritage of Syria
. The Syrian Arab Republic contains most of Syria, embodies the essence of Syria, and pays homage to Syria, but the Syrian Arab Republic is not Syria
Syria is as old as civilization. It is a geographic region, it is a historical concept, it is a constant of humanity throughout the millennia. Its memory transcends the ages. And it is far above the quibbling over colonial boundaries drawn by outsiders who cannot even hope to grasp its inheritance. And its people – ALL its people – carry its spirit, no matter what emotional baggage of conflicting modern nation-states burdens them, or how separated from their roots by time and distance they may be.
Syrians in America bear witness to that legacy. Seven years ago, I stood beside my grandfather as he read in the newspaper that Hafez Assad had died. Practically with tears in his eyes, he said in a sorrowful tone:
"He was the best Syrian president we ever had!"
"We? Who is 'we' Jido? You were born in the United States in 1917. Hafez was not even born until 1930, and you only visited Syria for the first time in your life in 1993!!!"
For him, it did not matter. To this day, Jido still talks both in English and Arabic, as if he lived his whole life in Aleppo and moved to the United States 2 weeks ago. When we installed satellite TV at home several years ago for him to keep in touch with his roots, he was confused by the political coverage. To this day he cannot comprehend why "Syria" and "Lebanon" have separate Presidents and separate governments.Jido
, and I by extension, are Syrians in the mold of Khalil Gibran
, the acclaimed poet who wrote in 1926 the following:
"Stand before the towers of New York, Washington, Chicago and San Francisco saying in your heart, 'I am the descendant of a people that built Damascus, and Byblus, and Tyre and Sidon, and Antioch, and now I am here to build with you, and with a will.'
Be proud of being an American, but also be proud that your fathers and mothers came from a land upon which God laid his gracious hand and raised His messengers.
Young Americans of Syrian origin, I believe in you."
It is the Syria of Antoun Saadeh
, the patriot who advocated for a single independent political Syrian entity based on the principle that "Syria is for the Syrians and the Syrians are one nation."
It is the Syria of Abraham Mitrie Rihbany, who wrote The Syrian Christ
, and said:
"whatever else Jesus was, as regards his modes of thought and life and his method of teaching, he was a Syrian of the Syrians…
It is most natural, then, that Gospel truths should have come down to the succeeding generations—and to the nations of the West—cast in Oriental moulds of thought, and intimately intermingled with the simple domestic and social habits of Syria. The gold of the Gospel carries with it the sand and dust of its original home."
Indeed, St. Matthew wrote in Chapter 4, verse 24 of Jesus Christ that "His fame spread to all of Syria."
Sometimes Lebanese, Jordanian, or Palestinian friends will ask me what my origin is:
"Halabi," I proudly reply.
They respond with a confused look. "Souri, yaeni…"
"I don't understand, why don't you just say that you are Syrian?"
"Why don't you?"
Then they ask me, a third-generation member of my family born in the United States and whose ancestors left their homeland on Ottoman and French passports between 1913 and 1921, if I am a dual citizen of Syria:
"No, my political allegiance is to the United States - but I hope one day a true, integral political entity will come to exist, worthy of the name Syria."
For now, Syrians must play with the cards they have been dealt. No one can deconstruct the modern nation-states that comprise Syria. To advocate that would be silly and counterproductive. But Syrians should never abandon their idealism, never forsake their true heritage, and always remember that whatever political action they take in the here and now must only be taken to restore Syria for the coming generations, because the true Syria is forever.George Ajjan is an American of Syrian origin and a member of the Arab American Institute's National Policy Council. This article first appeared in the June issue of the English-language Syrian Magazine "FW:".