The first time I had my mother sit down and tell me about her childhood in Syria, she later told me, because of our talk, that she’d been having vivid, terrifying dreams after decades of suppressing the traumatic events. I wanted, or rather felt, I needed to really understand her family’s escape from a coup that forced them to flee to Iraq because of her father’s political involvement. My mother’s graphic memory of hiding behind a refrigerator with her own mother and young siblings is something that I’ve carried with me as long as I can remember. Years later, in her 20s, my mother moved to the U.S., and never looked back. Eventually, her other seven siblings would settle in various corners of the world; places like Germany, Iraq, and New Zealand. Photographs, heirlooms, journals, and trendy clothing were all lost or left behind. Documentation of my mother’s adolescence would later come along with the development of social media, as extended family would send blurry cellphone images of framed photographs from time they spent with my mother and her family in her early days.
And now, the historic streets she once walked are reduced to rubble, a side effect of persistent political turmoil. I’ll never see the boarding school she went to, where she stood up to the school principal for teasing her little sister. I’ll never see the doodles she and her sisters made on their bedroom walls. I will never walk into my nana’s kitchen and smell fresh herbs simmering on the stove. I will never walk the alleys she once knew, nor hold a photograph she might have kept on her bedside table. The lack of keepsakes from my mother’s youth has left every missing detail up to my own imagination.
As I grew up, both of my parents worked tirelessly to maintain our middle-class lifestyle. Though I never went without necessities, their busy schedules meant we rarely left our small town and I could only dream of experiencing more of the world and meeting more of my dispersed family. But it seems like the day I turned 18, I bought myself two plane tickets and haven’t stopped since then.
As a photographer and storyteller, I rely on representations of reality to visually express narratives. Since my childhood, I have always collected, almost obsessively. I’ve kept every note, ticket stub, drawing, and scribbled idea in shoe boxes under my bed. As I’ve gotten older, and come to terms with the reality of my mother’s past, I’ve realized my collecting, and subsequent photographing, comes from an inherent desire to prove that I was here, because proof of my young mother hardly exists.
In researching my own journals for this book, I was surprised to learn I’d already forgotten so much. Reliving these memories, I’m once again in Eeklo, Belgium, watching Meme fold her laundry out back while fritjes sizzle in the kitchen. I’m walking around Amsterdam with my friend and her father as he shares stories of his younger days in the city. I’m in Hanover, Germany, smelling my uncle’s cigarettes as he dotes over me and how much I look like my mother.
A second in time, taken out of context, can represent copious ideas. A stranger on a smoke break, much like my mother at boarding school, embodies a past that can only be imagined. Still I’m left with sentimentality, aching to return to various times in the past and daydreams of the future; fleeting moments with strangers in passing, each with their own complex identities I will likely never know.