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Coming Back From Damascus

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The last time my family and I came back from Damascus was in 1990, we landed in New York and my sister, Layla, was so happy to be back in North America that she got on her hands and knees in the middle of JKF airport and kissed the ground. She was 12.

I was born in Montreal, Canada but my parents are from Damascus, Syria. They immigrated to Canada in 1968. My father loved it here in North America. My mother did not. Her goal was always to return to her home permanently -- which our family did on three separate occasions during my childhood. I was 9 years old the first time we packed up all our things and moved back to Damascus.

It was a shock. It was more than the basic culture shock that any young girl would experience in the Middle East. Even at 9, even though it wasn't always easy being an Arab girl growing up in small-town Canada, I was accustomed to living in a country where you didn't have to worry about everything you said.

Damascus looks like a beautiful, historic city. Beneath the surface it was one of the most repressive regimes in the world. Syria has been under "emergency law" since the early '60s. Citizens are constantly watched and watching each other. They are multiple secret police agencies in Syria -- all with internal rivalries, different agendas and overlapping responsibilities. It's all rather confusing and chaotic.

I'll never forget sitting in our kitchen in our home in Damascus and saying something silly about the president -- whose portrait is visible in most every public space in Damascus. I can't remember exactly what I said, but I do remember my mother's reaction. Blood drained from her face and she whispered, "Don't ever say anything about the government. They're listening." I remember looking around our home wondering if she had gone crazy.

Syria is a difficult place to understand. The government is not fundamentalist. They promote education for women. In many respects, the condition of women is better than in some other Middle Eastern countries. But it's also an incredibly dangerous country.

When you live in Damascus, you need to find ways to live with the repression. My father told me once that you can't show weakness in a country like this. Weakness in men -- fear -- shows others you have something to hide, that you're guilty of something. I remember my sister and I getting separated from our dad and being corralled by a member of the secret police and being very confused by questions about what we were doing in Damascus. When my father found us, he was very angry and aggressive with the man -- who finally backed off.

When I first started writing Inescapable about seven years ago, Syria was not the war-torn country that it has become in the past two years. Most people were not aware of what kind place it was. Since becoming a filmmaker, I had always wanted to set a movie in Damascus with characters like my family with an ambiguous relationship to the place they come from.

When I shot my last film, Cairo Time, in 2007, I could really feel the frustration of the people of Egypt that I met there. They were fed up with the corruption, the lies, and the abuse. The Arab Spring, though a surprise when it came, was easy to see as an outgrowth of that frustration. Though this was also true in Syria, I never believed that the Arab Spring could occur in a peaceful way in Syria. The Syrian government was just too repressive for there to be a successful democratic movement (even one as incomplete as the one in Egypt). They would never allow peaceful change. I can only hope that the regime will fall soon enough and that whatever replaces it will be better than what came before.

After repeated failed attempts of coming back home (Canada) and going back to Damascus, we settled in Toronto where we have lived ever since. By that time, I was 17 years old and my sisters and I started fighting back. We didn't want to go back and live in Damascus. I wanted the right to choose my own path, my life, education, independence. I wanted to be a writer. Often times now, I watch the news and realize the path I could have easily had if my family had forced my sisters and I to remain in Damascus. Forget about the luxury of making movies and telling stories, I would have most likely been in an arranged marriage to my cousin with a few children. And my family and I would most likely be caught up in the civil war that is happening now. It is hard to express how lucky I feel.