Daye: A Woman Who Untangles Roots

To this day, hearing her switch between languages — her mother tongue, Sorani Kurdish, and Arabic — reminds me of the melding of cultures I’ve always hoped to embody. Yet I find myself replying to her in Arabic. Mama longed for me to learn Kurdish, but I was pressured to embrace my Arab half at the expense of my mother’s tongue.


{shortcode-be29865d8a9c7908fa05930b7f2d42574eaa573c} was five years old when I visited Syria. I only have flashes of memories: driving up the steep mountainous roads in Jableh, the coastal city from which my father hails, and trying booza at the historic Bakdash parlor, utterly mesmerized by the bold pounding of the traditional Damascene ice cream. As I smelled jasmine filling the streets of Damascus, I didn’t know then that I’d never experience this particular scent, this particular moment, again.

That was 2010. The summer before the war began. The summer before my conception of vibrant, magical Syria became unrecognizable within Western media. Before the world declared that Syria would be reduced to images of bloodshed, rubble, and exile, and nothing more.

Baba has not been able to return to Syria since 1997. When I visited over a decade ago, I was with my mom and little brother. My mother is of Kurdish ancestry, from the soaring mountains of Slemani and Halabja, in modern-day northern Iraq. Despite the fact that her arrival in Syria was under the shadow of the Iraqi government’s genocidal campaigns against her people, Mama spoke fondly of her time in Syria. She lived there for three years after leaving Slemani, and it was in Damascus that she began to learn Arabic.

To this day, hearing her switch between languages — her mother tongue, Sorani Kurdish, and Arabic — reminds me of the melding of cultures I’ve always hoped to embody. Yet I find myself replying to her in Arabic. Mama longed for me to learn Kurdish, but I was pressured to embrace my Arab half at the expense of my mother’s tongue.


{shortcode-16f8ced088e32bb2d90bab8d4861646b946d7fa0}ntering my teen years, I listen closer to Mama as she tells me stories of her youth. Her silky brown hair is softer than the pillow upon which I rest my head, as she describes the violent realities of occupation, of 1988, the year of the massacre of her city, Halabja. She tells me of displacement, of fleeing to Iran for three years, of her return to Southern Kurdistan after the end of Ba’athist military presence in northern Iraq. She recounts her reconnection to Kurdistan, a land that rises in resilience.

Her eyes shine when she describes her time in Syria, a land which did not raise her, but showed her that a notion of home transcends borders. She tells me this in Arabic — a language she holds dearly to her heart despite historic pains rooted in impositions of the language on Kurdish people. She learns the language by choice, a choice she cherishes. A choice I was never offered.

Mama’s love for Syria is unconditional. She does not love it out of obligation, out of a need to fulfill guidelines for perceived identity. She loves Syria for its winding markets and luscious jasmine trees, for the poetry birthed in a land with rich history. Mama loves Syria for the home it gave her, as she does Kurdistan.

I long to see the Syria that my mom was so eager to show me when I was five. The Syria that melds with her love for Kurdistan, without a sense of betrayal for either land.


{shortcode-429a20a43b31c14ee603587b9f7215faac9b0e1d}or my whole life, I’ve felt that my Arab and Kurdish blood run in opposition to one another. I feel burdened by the sense that I’m made of two irreconcilable parts. As Mama told me her childhood stories, I would respond in Arabic. While a core memory of my childhood was my 2010 trip to Syria, I would not get the chance to visit Kurdistan until eleven years later. I seldom remember our family’s few celebrations of Newroz, the Kurdish New Year. And while I watched the world subject my father’s land to a monolithic wasteland of rubble and bombs, I wrapped myself tightly in my Syrian roots.

But in recent years, as I’ve grown into my own conception of the world, my mom’s stories of growing up under Saddam Hussein’s regime have fueled my desire to uplift the Kurdish liberation movement. Since starting college, I feel my desire to relentlessly emphasize my Kurdish identity intensify. On dorm room floors, history sections, and walks to Arabic class, I sense myself sounding like a broken record while recounting brief overviews of the Kurdish cause, one that spans across the borders of Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria.

I can’t escape the feeling that this emphatic uplifting of my Kurdish heritage comes from my guilt that I still cannot understand or speak Kurdish fluently. During trips to Kurdistan, Mama still acts as a translator, while my relatives fail to obscure their disappointment at the loss of my mother tongue. When my English-speaking cousins ask me why I call her “Mama” instead of Daye, the Kurdish word for mother, I hesitate to find the right answer. Instead, I chuckle and say it’s more common in America, averting my eyes in an effort to conceal my childhood of Arabization.


{shortcode-69a9ed06c887cb075e6988b5c6d61980cc21c96c}y detachment from the two lands that give me my bold eyebrows and angled nose is one that sends me into a never-ending “pick-and-choose” cycle. I feel obligated to scramble for the pieces of each identity left behind as I seek to embrace the lands of my ancestors. I echo the chants of our Kurdish women in a clumsy effort to mend my broken ties to a land carved into pockets of four states.

To detach from one part of myself as I reconnect with the other, to resent myself for speaking a language that raised me, are pains I’m still not sure how to grapple with.


{shortcode-69a9ed06c887cb075e6988b5c6d61980cc21c96c}inutes before the countdown to 2024, Mama, Baba, my aunts, and uncles crowd in the living room. Um Bilal, my uncle’s mother-in-law, a jubilant Iraqi woman who spent the beginning of her adult years in Syria, asks us to play “Yamo,” an old Damascene tribute to motherhood. Each of us holds contrasting memories of our encounters with Syria, a land torn apart by dictatorship and violence. I, a young woman of Kurdish-Syrian descent, one who holds a linguistic connection to only one part of myself, one who has not seen the glistening jasmine trees of a land Baba once knew to be home since I was five years old, bore witness to a pained yet nearly magic moment of shared longing for Syria.

I find myself chiming in, because the lyrics are imprinted in my mind from a lifetime of Mama and Baba singing me this very melody. This gathering, which spans several generations, enters a shared sense of harmonious nostalgia.

I watch Mama smile as she recalls this land which gave her joyous years of young adulthood, as she embraces the Levantine dialect that I grew up speaking. The dialect, the language, that in so many ways, I’ve resented so deeply. Mama knows Arabic for its beauty, for a language that sounds like her love for a man who would raise with her two kids, two Kurdish-Syrian kids. She grins at Baba, then at me, as we sing our beloved “Yamo.”

When I glance at my Yamo, my Mama, my Daye, a woman with an undying love for her children’s ancestral lands, I can sense that my Kurdish-Syrian roots flow deeply throughout my veins, persistent and proud, like the Tigris and Euphrates.

—Staff writer Dalal M. Hassane can be reached at