Remembering Syria in a Jewelry Box

(Object is an essay series exploring the meaning of clothes, jewelry, make-up, and accessories.)

Start near the citadel of Damascus. With the Barada river on your left and the walls of the citadel on your right, walk through streets that smell of history and spices. Just before you reach the Umayyad mosque, you will see the entrance of Souk Al-Hamidiyah, where the sunlight, coming through the latticed roof, falls in intricate patterns on the ground.

This is where my favorite jewelry shops are, these narrow alleys full of artisans who have spent years at their antique craft. I have spent many delicious hours here, talking to jewelers, listening to their stories, asking them to make me this kind of ring, that kind of necklace. Giving and receiving jewelry is an important ritual in Syrian life. I loved ordering a special piece of jewelry as a gift, choosing the right gemstone for a loved one. I was mesmerized when I watched the jewelry take shape in the clever, precise hands of men who had learned this art from their fathers and grandfathers. They are all clustered here in this corner of Damascus, near the ruins of the Jupiter temple, where the doves circle the skies.

"Temple of Jupiter in Damascus, by the Entrance to Al-Hamidiyah Souk" by Alessandra Kocman, licensed under CC BY 2.0

"Temple of Jupiter in Damascus, by the Entrance to Al-Hamidiyah Souk" by Alessandra Kocman, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Except – these smiling faces are not there any more. And neither am I. Many of the jewellers have left and their shops are now shuttered. The few who remain have stopped making new designs. Some have started selling cheap trinkets to survive. In many other Syrian cities, old streets such as these have been completely destroyed. I, too, left Syria, in March 2014 and now live in Istanbul. I was one of the few lucky ones. I left while I still had a choice whereas millions left because they lost everything. Today, there are around 1.7 million Syrian refugees in Turkey and 4.5 million Syrian refugees around the world. Host countries are rapidly changing colors, imposing new restrictions. Razor–wire fences have come up to prevent Syrians from entering various European countries. And most recently, the Danish government enacted a law to seize jewelry from Syrian refugees to pay for the costs of hosting them.

The Damascus of my childhood is now just a colorful fairytale.

So begin instead here, in my little room in Istanbul. On those days when I cannot pretend to myself anymore that the street outside could be a street in Syria, that around the corner could be the jasmine-scented home of my childhood, I sit in my little room and open my secret box.

First, there is my birth jewelry,  golden gifts from family members and their friends to celebrate my arrival. There are blue stones, glass and turquoise, set in gold – in Arab culture, these blue eyes are given as blessings to protect the infant from evil eyes. My first ear-rings. The first letter of my name in gold. S for Sana. S for the person I used to be and the country that I left behind.

My mother used to hide this jewelry in a secret drawer. I was only allowed to wear it on special occasions. When she opened the drawer and allowed me to glimpse the jewelry and sometimes wear them, I felt like a little princes with a secret treasure.

As I grew, so did my collection, and each rite of passage came with a new piece of jewelry. The gold and pearl bracelet I got for doing well in school; the bird-shaped ear-rings for my fourteenth birthday; the necklace with my father’s picture inside the locket, to celebrate my high school graduation. Then there came the day my jewelry graduated from my mother’s secret drawer to a special box inside my own closet.  I was finally an adult, and I started exploring my own taste in jewelry. My jewelry box now included silver and gemstones, especially in the antique Arab style.

Of all these, my favorite is the necklace, with purple amethyst stones set in silver, that my mother gave me, five years ago, while I was undergoing chemotherapy. Today, this necklace reminds me that I am a fighter, a survivor, someone who will live to tell the tale.

This is not just a jewelry box, it is a map of my childhood. It reminds me that I used to belong to a place, that I am alive now to hold it in my heart forever. Perhaps it seems unreasonable that someone who has lost much already will hold on to their jewelry. But our jewelry is also our memory and history. They may be covered with the dust of the continents we traveled through, but when you are far away from home waiting for an ID from another country to define who you are, your necklaces and rings tell stories that remind you of who you were. And as futile as it seems, they offer the promise of someday returning, of walking down a street in a souk where even the stones on the ground seem like precious gems.

(Sana Aljendi is a doctor who specializes in general internal medicine. She also writes children’s stories. Sana was born in Damascus, Syria and now lives in Istanbul, Turkey. She will never say no to a dance class, from tango to ballet.)