I first met Riyad Alkasem one afternoon in January 2016, when I pulled up to a restaurant in a Tennessee strip mall, tucked down the street from gun shops and bait shops, underneath a sign that said Café Rakka. This, I’d been told, was where I’d find the best Arabic translator in Middle Tennessee. I’d just returned from one reporting trip to the Syria-Turkey border, and I was gearing up for another. In between, I needed someone near my home in Nashville to help me place phone calls to an Arabic-speaking source. A friend at The Islamic Center of Nashville pointed me toward Riyad.
That day, we called my source, and I watched Riyad fight back tears as the three of us discussed the war tearing apart his homeland, the people who believed they were fighting to build a better Syria than the one Riyad had years earlier left behind. Afterward, he took me to a table. We sat. He summoned two cups of pomegranate tea and mountainous plates of shawarma and baba ghanoush. Finally I asked the only question on my mind: What was a restaurant named after Raqqa, Syria—a city then known as the “de facto capital” of ISIS—doing here in Tennessee?
His answer unspooled over many hours that day and for several years afterward. Much of it centered on his relationship with his younger brother Bashar. Between them, they represented two experiences of immigration—those who leave home in search of a brighter future, and those who leave because their original home has become unrecognizable.
In the years since I met him, I have twice written about Riyad for The Ringer. In the wake of Donald Trump’s 2016 election, I wrote about Riyad’s immigration experience in America. He’d fallen in love with the country from a college classroom in Aleppo, where he’d been spellbound by the American Constitution, by the ways this country promised its people that they could hold corrupt leaders to account. He moved here expecting wonders—which he found, alongside bigotry, bouts of poverty, and an aching longing for his original home. Still, in America he’d built a family, a business, a life. Even after Trump was elected while promising to keep people like Riyad from entering this country, Riyad still said, “America is the only home I have.”
Then this April, I wrote about Riyad for The Ringer when his world changed yet again. COVID-19 was spreading across the country, devastating the restaurant business. I told the story of Riyad’s struggles to decide whether to keep his restaurant open, and about the experiences of his employees—many of them immigrants from Ecuador or Mexico or Jordan, all of them forming what Riyad calls, “my new tribe.”
In between those two pieces, I wrote a book, out July 21, that tells the story of Riyad and his brother Bashar and their family. The Road From Raqqa chronicles Riyad and Bashar’s divergent journeys out of Syria—and back to each other. While Riyad left Raqqa as a young man, pulled by the promise of another nation, Bashar remained, anchored by the comfort of family and home, until ISIS overtook the city and the American-led coalition began to bomb it, forcing him to leave.
The excerpt below tells a piece of Bashar’s story. It’s from a moment in early 2013, just after Raqqa has fallen from regime control into the hands of the rebels. Bashar has just sat down to supper with his family, digging into plates of bread and olives, tomatoes and cheese, when all of a sudden, the family hears a blast, and they feel the earth beneath them begin to shake.
Your first bombing could be anything. That was how Bashar came to think of it in the years to come. When it hits, some part of the brain says it’s no more than a car crash just outside the front door. Or maybe a building being demolished for new construction. The mind tries to tell itself quick, comforting lies.
This bomb arrived loud and angry, shaking wall and earth and bone. Bashar froze. Across the table, his elder daughter, Jenan, reached for her grandmother and yelped, while his younger daughter, Wajid, buried her head in the body of her mother and screamed. The ground shook for another split second, and now Bashar’s wife, Aisha, was screaming, too, and for a moment Bashar and his mother let the fear overtake them, and now the girls saw that the adults were afraid, all of them, in a way unlike anything they’d ever seen, and so their screaming and crying grew until it consumed the entire room.
After a few seconds, the room was filled with dust, something shaken upward by the impact of the explosion, rising from the earth to the air and through windows and doors into their home, their eyes and lungs. They coughed. They wiped their eyes and their noses and coughed some more. And then, for a few seconds, silence. Now the mind played catch-up, realizing that this was not some accident, not some fluke, but the noise of an instrument designed to kill, something dropped nearby that had perhaps killed some other family, gathered around some other table in some other home.
At least that was how it worked for Bashar. For his children, ignorance still served as an inhibitor of greater fear.
“What was that?” asked Jenan.
Bashar rushed to give an answer. One of the lies the mind tells now passed from his brain to his lips to his daughters’ ears. “They’re doing construction,” he said, and this was correct; technically, there’d been construction all over the city for months. “A building fell down.” The other adults nodded, and Jenan nodded too. It sounded comforting. It sounded true.
He dismissed them from the table, sent them with their mother into another room. “Watch TV,” he told them. “Turn the volume all the way up.”
When they were gone, Bashar’s mama fixed her eyes on his. “So,” she said, “what are we going to do?”
She knew already that they needed to strategize, that they lacked the luxury of spending another second overtaken by fear. But Bashar wasn’t sure what to do. He was racing to process the reality of what he’d just felt. His city was under attack, bombed by its own government. Bashar knew it. This had to be President Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian Arab Army, bombing either to retake the city or just to get revenge. Bashar assumed, for the moment, that the bomb had dropped a few feet from his doorstep. Only later that day would he find out that it had hit a mosque, right next to an old prison that had been used as a meeting point for rebel soldiers, nearly a kilometer from their home. He assumed they would wait, see how things developed, then decide how best to proceed.
“Remove your emotions,” his mama said. The look on her face showed that she’d already done just that. “You need to make every decision wisely.”
“They are trying to paralyze us with fear,” she continued. “Don’t let them.”
Soon they lost power. The lights went out. Bashar spent the afternoon alone in his study, weighing terrible options while his daughters played, all of them gathered together in the dark.
So this was war. Finally, after their city had remained peaceful two years into their country’s conflict, Raqqa began to experience what its citizens had heard so much about. Living under a dictatorship had been one thing. They’d long ago learned how and when to dispense the necessary bribes, how to keep their cool in a country where cronyism was rewarded and hard work often ignored. Bashar had made himself a master of never saying the wrong thing, never aggravating the wrong person, keeping his complaints to himself. This was how he’d thrived in the country his brother Riyad had left behind.
Surviving a war, though, presented an altogether different challenge. For so long, the war had seemed a distant thing, arriving only in the tales of the internally displaced, the men and women from Deir ez-Zor and Homs, who’d been expelled from their homes and filled Raqqa’s vacant buildings, bringing with them stories of neighborhoods flattened, innocent women gunned down, children who’d witnessed horrors that would leave them forever changed. And now with the very first bombing, Raqqa would endure these horrors too.
Bashar checked in with friends and neighbors. Most were afraid, some less so, but all imagined that soon the regime would return to reclaim Raqqa. While his brother Riyad hated Assad and thirsted for revolution, Bashar’s feelings were more complex. He’d been happy with his life in Raqqa, working as an attorney and raising his family, even under dictatorial rule.
That night more explosions arrived, this time in the form of Scud missiles, bombs shaped like massive sharpened pencils, launched from the ground and ripping holes through the sky. Days passed, and the shelling continued. Sometimes the family knew to be ready. Perhaps regime soldiers had been murdered in nearby cities, provoking anger. Or perhaps rebels had been inching their way toward a regime stronghold, drawing rebuke. Or maybe someone had driven through the desert and seen a Scud launcher pointed at their city. Phones rang. Men ran from home to home, shouting warnings: Take cover. Now.
They would rush across the street, where their cousin had a basement that could be used as a bomb shelter. They went time and again, whenever they heard the hum of an airplane overhead, until, after two days, they decided the shelter wasn’t worth the hassle. Endure enough bombs, run panicked enough times, and eventually the panic itself becomes exhausting. Sure, they could run. Or they could stay. But death could find them anywhere. It was amazing how quickly terror turned into resignation. In their homes, in their shelters, or in between—it didn’t matter where they were. As long as their city remained under attack, any day felt like the day they could die.
Bashar told himself the city would settle. Probably. Eventually. The regime would prevail, and he would pick up his old life again, as an attorney. He would finish the exams he’d been taking to prepare for judgeship, ascending finally to the bench. If the regime didn’t succeed, though, then the new occupiers would likely form new courts. And the way things were going, it looked like those courts might be built entirely around sharia law. Attorneys trained in Syria’s secular system would be viewed as threats. It didn’t matter that Bashar was a devout Muslim, that he spent his Thursdays in prayerful meditation just to prepare for his Friday prayers, that he’d lived a life so pious that friends often teased him, nicknaming him “Sheikh.” None of that would satisfy the fanatics, he knew. Nothing would. So for at least a time, he would have to give up his legal practice. Days ago he’d been preparing to become a judge. Now he wasn’t even an attorney. He had other identities, though. He was still a father and a husband. He was still breathing. This was still a life.
And yet he had to consider that he might be wrong. This life might grow untenable. If it did, he’d have a few options. They could flee for a regime stronghold. Perhaps Latakia, the Alawite-dominated city on the Mediterranean coast. Or maybe even to Damascus, a city that had enchanted him ever since he’d lived there while serving in the army decades ago. As a last resort, perhaps they’d have to flee the country. He couldn’t imagine this, felt ashamed to even consider the possibility. Leaving Syria’s borders would mean giving up on a future for his homeland. But his brother Kasem had carved out a life for himself in the Gulf, and Keith had found safety and security in Sweden. And then there was Riyad, all the way in America. He knew his older brother wanted to bring the whole family across the Atlantic. He wanted Bashar to work in his restaurant, Jenan and Wajid to study in American schools.
Bashar could imagine this, sure. But for now they would stay. They would wait. They would hide during bombings, and he would hold his daughters when the missiles flew. This was their home. No government or rebel army could sever the Alkasem family’s connection to this land.
It was getting late in the day. Dinnertime approached. Sometime after that, he imagined one or two more bombings would come. He had been sitting in his den—his vast collection of books had always been his refuge for critical thinking, being transported by stories, or simply sinking into the beauty of words. Now he stared at the words but did not read them. Instead, he took a moment to indulge his own panic while pretending to read. His daughters would never know the difference. But soon he smelled his mother’s cooking and rose to find out what she’d made.
On his way to the kitchen, he heard a knock at the door. He made a move to answer but saw that his little sister had beaten him to it, scurrying out the main door and into the courtyard, all the way up to the gate. Soon he heard a squeal, and for the first time in days it was a sound not of terror but delight. Bashar poked his head out the door, and then he saw him. Riyad.
This piece has been lightly edited to fit the excerpt format.
From the book The Road From Raqqa: A Story of Brotherhood, Borders, and Belonging by Jordan Ritter Conn. Copyright © 2020 by Jordan Ritter Conn. Published by Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.