I wrote this piece last week and originally decided not to publish it here. I felt it was too serious for something that is a cooking blog, and that readers might rather hear about blueberry crumble bars and smiley happy things. However, it continued to nag at me, and then I read about Herve Gourdel's tragic terrible death, and I read Matthieu Aikens' truly extraordinary piece of reporting here, and well, here you are:
I do not scan pages of the news for familiar faces anymore. When the conflict in Syria first broke out I, like many who once lived in Syria, looked obsessively through the photos in news reports, the online videos, trying to find familiar places, familiar faces. Is that the corner of Baghdad road there, where the sweets shop always had a huge line during Ramadan? We'd peer into grainy photos, pause on stills of videos.
Now I sit in my apartment in Chicago and read headlines about Deir al-Zour, Raqqa, Idlib and Hasake. All places I have passed through, stopping to get gasoline and packages of biscuits as the only way points between the interminably empty and dusty landscape of the Syrian desert. Deir al-Zour and Raqqa were always terrible places, though I remember once a decent rotisserie chicken eaten in Deir. Even the Syrians I knew hated them, dry dusty outposts of nothing, filled with terrible memories of their one year of mandatory military service.
What all these places had in common was that they were poor, which is why I, doing relief work and canvasing, knew them well. Hasake had good spicy food and fun Kurdish music, but overall these were places that no one had heard of. Places, I wrongly assumed, would continue to be forgotten dreary towns.
Now I cannot read the pages of the news reports too closely. Most Syrians I knew have left if they had the means, and those that remain have drifted away in my mind, as if to another planet. Syrians I speak to in America say the same, that the thought of people still there is almost too hard to bear.
I think of the people of Algeria, all those who left, who fled the civil war to France and Canada, and all those who stayed behind. How different those two psyches are, the fear the implants itself so deeply. Yesterday a French tourist was taken hostage in Kabylie, he was captured not far from an area that I drove through only three months ago, albeit I was with a security detail. He was an alpiniste, and I can picture how beautiful those mountains are, the fields of wheat below them undulating down to the sea. I cannot help but thinking, the Algerian people deserve better.
All those place names dot the news articles: Tizi Ouzou, Raqqa, Idlib. I cannot read them too closely because each one has meaning, each one has a memory, a picture in my mind, so instead I make coffee and get ready for another day.
A tiny tree grows amidst the lava path on Mount Etna, Sicily. Top photo of Aleppo taken by yours truly circa 2006.