Raqqa and Me
By Rasha Alomari (Pen Name)
The author in Raqqa, Syria
I have always hated my hometown, not for anything specific but because it was unrecognizable. Raqqa was not even known within Syria. Between the age of 6 and 17, I would travel with my family to Damascus the capital or to Latakia, where lies the access to the Mediterranean Sea. There, I would meet other children and when we’d play together, they’d always asked where I was from, then came the questions:” Where is Raqqa? Is it even on the map?” They made me increasingly feel like I came from a place of no existence. I tried many times pronouncing “Raqqa” perfectly with a very light accent, as they might do in Damascus but it never worked. The children knew about the Euphrates river, but nothing about the city. This is a country with only fourteen governorates, how hard can it be to remember fourteen cities?
A man in Raqqa sits reading the Quran in his shop, I took this photograph in March 2013 as a reminiscence of the colorful city I grew up in
I grew up in Raqqa was also rarely mentioned in the Syrian official television channel. It would not appear on the weather forecast either. It was disappointing to see the weather map changing every five years according to the latest studio set renovation, without ever seeing Raqqa on the map.
When I moved to Damascus, I thought my anger would pass, that it wouldn’t really matter anymore. I was wrong, I am a university student now and the questions are only bigger.
I became my town’s ambassador at my university. I mastered the Damascene accent that time, it didn’t prove difficult anyway, but I made a point to keep speaking the way people do back in Raqqa.
Today, my hometown is ironically well-known, but it has turned dark, it is all ruins and death. In my mind and in my mind only , Raqqa remains a city of colors. I recall everything, the bad and the good. The black and the white and the spectrum of colors that made it mine.
As we write this another thirty people were killed in a school sheltering displaced people
I have friends who were forced to get married to older men when they weren’t even 18 years old. Like everyone else in the city, I lived in a place plagued by honor crimes. Once, two sisters decided to leave the city to look for work. They both came back home safely, no one had harmed or perverted them. Yet, two weeks later, their brother couldn’t stand the scornful way people were looking at him and the comments he heard. He went back home and killed his two sisters.
Raqqa was these stories and more. There is my own story as well. I spent my childhood determined to enter university and I did with high grades. Yet the two stories that helped me shape the woman I am today happened back home. I wasn’t born open minded; not many around me were. When I was 13 years old, I studied in a co-ed school in Raqqa. Around this age, girls start to wear the veil voluntarily or by force, depending on their families. That year, all the girls in my class (who were few) decided to wear the veil or as it is known, the “hijab”. At my school it meant a white scarf that covered the head and the chest. It became a trend that year and every two days, a girl would show up newly wearing a hijab. I started to feel that I should wear one as well. Only three of us didn’t, one of them was of Christian faith. I didn’t like looking different but I also wasn’t sure about the veil.
On a very cold evening, returning from school I had to go out with my family and I decided to wear my hijab. The veil looked big on me, it felt like wearing my mother’s oversized dress. Then my father told me: “the veil is a lifestyle more than a piece of clothing. This is a huge decision you know?” I didn’t. Finally, he said: “when you turn 18, you can decide if you really want to wear it.” I thank my father every day for giving me this choice. He was right, I didn’t understand the veil at that age. I was just jealous of my classmates. Today, many of them have taken it off, others still wear it.
I didn’t wear a veil, but I read the Quran and I prayed five times a day. I argued and asked questions in religious class. I was lucky enough to have very understanding religious teachers, who appreciated that I was a good student without wearing a veil. Before moving to Damascus and starting university, I had a discussion with one of them. We talked about Islam. He said: “In religion as with any other issues in life, if you are not convinced, don’t do it.”
I don’t think he would remember this conversation, I am not even sure he is still alive, but I remember it every day: logic is above everything. These days, when I am asked where I am from, I don’t want to answer. Raqqa is in the news every day, it’s one of the hottest inferno on earth. My hometown is finally known, I don’t need a map anymore, Raqqa is where the war is.
It is turning every day more into rubbles, crumbling at the heart of the terrorism war and in my own way, I write this to retain its history, the Raqqa that I know: the violence against women on the one hand, the compassionate father and teachers on the other. An understanding family that still allowed my search to find myself in my own terms. And now I still bleed about Raqqa for the exact opposite reason, I wish it could just go back to being that hometown of mine. The hometown unknown to the world, where girls like me can push, go to university, make their own choices when it comes to faith and retain the memories of a deeply wounded city.