Thursday, August 30, 2012
The signs of her struggle are subtle.
She’s quiet and calm about the loud and unnerving things taking place in her childhood home of Damascus, Syria – even as her family’s house is rendered uninhabitable by gunfire. Her jewelry is easy to miss, but the gold necklace is engraved with a scripture from the Qur’an, a close-to-the-heart reminder of her Arab heritage. Her voice is without accent, but now and then you’ll hear her answer the phone, addressing her parents lovingly as habibti or habibati.
Danna Agha, 20, was born in America but raised in Syria’s capital, an immigrant with fair skin and dark hair. (She’s also a niece of locally famous/infamous developer Nader Agha, though the sides of the family are estranged.)
I first picked up on her struggle as Agha and I sat in the local pizza parlor where we work. When a headline on BBC reported on the civil war in Syria, Agha said something quietly: “There’s nothing civil about war.”
As President Bashar al-Assad and the government perpetuate a violent conflict with rebel fighters that has already displaced 1.2 million Syrians, she laments what’s been lost. “It was once one of the most beautiful places on Earth,” she says.
She remembers feeling normal there, and even today can sound a little naïve when she says, “Syria [was] just a normal country and really quite democratic.” But she still picked up on the hints of nationalism in school, when her class was required to swear allegiance to Assad.
“We were always taught to love the president,” she says.
But her perspective on Syria has changed since the bloodshed.
“My family is sleeping in [strangers’] houses,” she says. “They can feel tanks roll by. My aunt flew out of her bed because a bomb went off nearby.”
She believes most people know the basics of the Syrian conflict, but are unaware of what is taking place on a more human scale – and don’t expect that insight from someone so soft-spoken and pale-skinned.
That speaks to another of her struggles: Eroding the ignorance of Americans unfamiliar with the complexities of the Middle East.
“People don’t understand that Syria has been there for a long time and is rich in culture,” she says. “It’s not just Arabs, it’s people from all [ethnicities] and walks of life.”
Later she reminds me that she’s not just Syrian, but Persian, Turkish and American too. The lesson there isn’t so subtle: Not all Arabs are the same.
Perhaps the biggest test for her was growing up in a divorced family that tugged her between West and the Middle East.
“I’m not going to lie,” she says. “It was hard.”
Her mother looked at things like tank tops a little differently than her devout father – “one of the biggest Islamic leaders in the community,” she says – which led to schizophrenic childhood conditions.
That difficulty persists. A shadow seems to fall on her face as she adds, “Sometimes I look at him and I know he’s disappointed in me because I didn’t turn out anything like he planned. I don’t cover my hair. I don’t cover my body. I’m not married. I don’t have kids.”
But then she lifts her chin proudly. “But… I’m just doing my own thing.”
That “thing” is actually many things. In addition to working at the pizzeria she is studying English at Monterey Peninsula College and writing a memoir about her childhood with help from former MPC professor and playwright Alston James. For now it’s untitled, but she’s thinking of calling it The Golden Years of Syria.
“I noticed she had a eye for what I call the ‘telling’ detail in the way she described a simple jar of pickled beets in a Syrian marketplace,” James says. “It was no surprise to find that she was a painter and photographer. Growing up in two cultures as different as California and Syria has shaped and sharpened the way she sees the world.”
“It’s an early Monday February morning,” she writes. “Grandmother is storing my lunch, a dried yogurt and thyme pita wrap, in my bright pink lunch pail. The windows are pushed open and gradually the cool morning breeze from the Green Eye Mountains opens them up completely.”
Her double identity surfaces in her art, too: One of her charcoal drawings is a self-portrait of her in her hijab.
But it’s hidden as Agha comes and goes at the pizzeria, taking orders, serving drinks and saying “hello” and “good-bye” politely in seamless English.
When the restaurant isn’t so busy, though, and Agha has a moment, she belongs to herself. She sits at an empty table doodling, writing, or just thinking, processing something that was once so close, now so far, but always her.