Greene: Building Empathy

Oct 10, 2018

When Baltimore born and raised Alia Malek entered law school in 1997, she wanted to be an Arab face helping people of all groups defend their civil rights.

She was hired by the Department of Justice at the end of the Clinton administration and worked under the Bush administration until 2003, before leaving to get a masters degree in journalism. Malek reasoned that discrimination stems from a lack of empathy, and presenting realistic portraits of people helps readers connect - if not always identify - with them. By the time a situation ends up in court, she says discrimination has already happened. She wanted to create a different knowledge about Arabs, to try to get ahead of prejudice before it could grow.

She earned her journalism degree, and then went to Damascus under the pretext of renovating her grandmother’s house, but she also wanted to be a part of long awaited changes in Syria, as it turned away from totalitarianism and corruption. With legal as well as journalistic skills, there was a lot she hoped to contribute. Instead Malek witnessed the Assad government’s brutal crackdown on dissent in all forms. And while the unsigned articles she secretly wrote were for foreign papers, some people in Damascus regarded her with suspicion.

Sometimes it is the small details that crack open one’s ignorance about someone else’s circumstances. In her memoir, The Home That Was Our Country, Malek describes the self-censoring to which the most casual private conversations must be subjected. Subtle, even metaphoric criticisms of the Assad regime can land you in jail, or worse.

As an outspoken white person living safely in Vermont, I can’t imagine that sort of circumspection. To have had that one detail brought home changes the picture for me radically.

At the Brattleboro Lit Fest, she will discuss her experiences with Tom Sleigh, author of The Land between Two Rivers: Writing in an Age of Refugees.

Malek always knew that her presence in Syria could endanger her family, but as time went on, and the situation grew worse, she accepted the inevitable and left - for everyone’s sake.