My parents are from Syria. My grandparents are from Syria. My Syrian heritage stretches back centuries. But I never lived there.
I was born and raised in the US and Spain, speaking English and Spanish at school and with my friends. But home was strictly Syrian: We spoke Arabic, embodied Syrian customs and, most importantly, we ate Syrian food.
For lunch, my grandma would prepare feasts of stuffed zucchini simmered in a tomato based sauce with cracked mint (kusa mihshi), poached chicken stewed with deep green jute leaves flavored with sauteed cilantro and garlic (molokhiyya) and — a childhood favorite — balls of golden flaky puff pastry stuffed with rice, green peas and spiced ground beef and pine nuts (oozie).
Homemade hummus was always in our fridge. My grandma would even make her own baby pita pockets.
Even after my mom and I left my grandparents’ home in Spain, when we moved to Virginia in the 1990s, our eating habits remained the same.
My grandmother would handwrite recipes and fax them to us. Long glossy sheets filled with the sinuous letters of Arabic would slowly creep out of the machine. Her instructions would say things like, “Use a finger-length of butter,” and my mom would call her to ask, “Whose finger-length? Mine or yours? Which finger? The pinky?”
I finally went to Syria in 2010, when I was 22. The last time I visited, I was a toddler; my only memory was the smell of the jasmine trees in my great grandmother’s garden.
I realized quickly I wasn’t from Syria. My tongue tangled up easily at unfamiliar words — the Arabic I spoke was relegated to the home, and there were so many things I just didn’t know how to say. The rules of the road, or the fact that there were none, shocked me.
The boldness and intimacy with which strangers greeted me made me think I was the butt of some joke. I wasn’t. Ask anyone who has spent time with Syrians: They are endless wells of hospitality and generosity.