Baltimore native Alia Malek endures war-torn Syria to tell of 'Home That Was Our Country'


It was the spring of 2011 when Alia Malek told her younger sister Rana the news: She was moving to Damascus. The Syrian uprising had just begun. People would be fleeing en masse. Yet Malek — a journalist, author and lawyer — would be flying in.

The prospect was worrisome. What if Malek was killed by a bomb? Or kidnapped, and held for ransom? The U.S. wasn’t paying ransoms.

But Malek, now 42, had made up her mind.

“I wanted to be there to witness it,” she said. And to write about it. Having spent her life on the margins of American life, she firmly believed that the people experiencing an event needed to be the ones writing about it.

For her new memoir, “The Home That Was Our Country,” Malek, a Baltimore native, retraced her family’s roots to the Ottoman Empire, telling their story in the context of Syria’s tumultuous history. She’ll be speaking about the book Wednesday at Bird in Hand.

She saves her harshest critique for the Assad regime, expounding on the lies and toxic impact of the state, its brutal suppression of dissent. The 2011 uprising, Malek writes, began after a group of boys scrawled revolutionary graffiti, and were then tortured by the regime, their bodies burned and their fingernails pulled out.

Malek isn’t afraid to air the proverbial dirty laundry for the world to see, said Mauddi Darraj.

“She’s like a bridge between these two worlds, and she writes about the region in a way that is helpful and explanatory, but not sentimental,” said Muaddi Darraj. “I really admire that as a writer.”

While she was on deadline to finish “The Home That Was Our Country” Malek also edited “Europa,” a guide for refugees and migrants headed for the continent. “[I]t felt like the convergence of everything I’ve been working on. I was in the middle of a book about Syria, so I was steeped in the context that gave rise to their migration.” And of course, she’d lived her own Syrian immigration experience in the United States.

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Rana Malek picked up her sister’s book at Barnes & Noble a few days after it came out last month; it’s hard for her to read. There are chapters that detail dangers Rana didn’t realize Malek was in at the time. A woman Malek had interviewed, in the book known as “Carnations,” was arrested a day after she and Malek met. Relatives had spread rumors Malek was a spy, according to the book.

“Had any of us known, we would’ve gotten someone to put her in a FedEx box and send her back to us,” Rana said.

But Malek is quick to point out that she had a document that made her safer than the average Syrian: a U.S. passport.

Still, “I would go back in a heartbeat. I don’t know if I’m welcome.” Should it catch the attention of the Assad regime, her new book may sever her even more from the country she once called home.

ctkacik@baltsun.com

If you go

Alia Malek will speak at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Bird in Hand, 11 E. 33rd St., Charles Village. For more details go to theivybookshop.com/upcomingevent/3104.

About the book

“The Home That Was Our Country” (National Books, 204 pages) was published Feb. 28.



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