A cousin enters into the ‘goodbye’ party laid on for Nizam. “Hey gran” he says in Arabic, “Why you wearing your veil, Sean is part of our family now? You don’t need to wear the veil for him”. “I do I do…” his gran insists, “Since visiting Mecca I feel I must follow a strict religious code”.
Another aunt had turned-up at the party without a veil, Nizam was shocked. “Whenever my family meets strangers they always wear the veil, my aunt must feel very easy with you Sean”.
This family gathering begins around 1am and will go on till 5 or 6am, I’ve got used to the nocturnal existence here. We sit and talk and play with the kids whilst eating fresh juicy watermelon, handmade biscuits, and drinking thick black Arabic coffee served regularly to keep everyone going. And of course plenty of smoking; In these religious families there is no alcohol, but lots of cigarettes, it seems their only vice.
I talk with another of Nizam’s aunts. She is a fun lively woman who lost her husband a few years ago and now works hard to bring her 5 kids up alone. It isn’t easy she said, “The rent is around $200 a month and we have to survive on the same amount of money for the month”. Despite her struggle she has the most wonderful family, full of life and funny, they all speak good English too.
Arbady is in his late 20’s, as the eldest son he must now be the man of the house, he has just lost his job and now struggles to supplement his income. “He isn’t lucky in life” his mother laments. Arbady looks confused as Nizam shares his dilemmas about bringing himself and his family back here to live. For them the dream is to leave for the West like Nizam did 10 years ago, and the best way for them to do this is to study abroad. Travel is a great thing I say, I love it. But nothing can replace home and I sense this is Nizam’s quest now. He is finding it more and more difficult to see the West as his home.
It all feels confusing to me too. Here I see a simple uncomplicated life, but an affordable one, the dreams in the West are so out of reach at times. I wonder if Arbady realises this. Later, I’m talking with his sisters aged 16 and 18. They complain that their mother won’t let them go jogging in the park “We dream of doing simple things like running in the park but here it is difficult for women, and my mother is afraid”.
By their very nature dictatorships have streets which are generally safe and secure, and Syria is no different. “I can’t believe you don’t let your daughters” out I say… “After my husband died there is only me to look after them so I feel very protective towards them both. When they marry then they are free to go out because they will have a husband to protect them.” “Free, after marriage!?” I question, “Surely their husband will stop them jogging alone as soon they are married?”. “Yes, yes” the sisters say. “I can’t imagine this happening in England” I say, and our parks and streets are far more dangerous then yours.
I am constantly fascinated by the notion of freedom when I travel, what it is that we call freedom, and how it differs from that of other societies and cultures, but here, on my last night in Syria, as a visitor in the warm embrace of a loving family, I feel free and I feel safe.