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I Don’t Want to Talk About Home by Suad Aldarra: A compelling debut memoir

The story of a Syrian woman forced to flee war-torn Syria in 2012 with her Palestinian-Syrian husband

I Don’t Want to Talk About Home: A migrant’s search for belonging
Author: Suad Aldarra
ISBN-13: 978-1781620625
Publisher: Doubleday Ireland
Guideline Price: £14.99

“Perhaps living a grey life wasn’t bad after all,” reflects Suad Aldarra after a Christmas dinner conversation with colleagues in Galway touches on her attitude to consuming alcohol and pork (”the two biggest ‘no’s’ in Islam”). Her realisation addresses much more than the specifics of her evolving relationship with religious identity since her childhood spent between school in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, an “entire country [that] was designed with women’s privacy in mind, privacy that came out of shame, not respect” and summers in Damascus, where she moved in 2003 for college and work and where she would enjoy walking the streets that “were vibrant, loud and messy”.

Embracing a grey zone of existence marks a turning point in her endeavour to come to terms with the difficulties of explaining a journey of physical, emotional, and cultural displacement that involved having to let go of cherished places, people and practices along the way. Aldarra’s debut memoir, I Don’t Want to Talk About Home, itself exemplifies this grey zone, not least in its distinctive contribution to writing refuge, rather than “refugee writing”, as an expansive, multifaceted space within life writing.

This is the story of a Syrian woman who was forced to flee war-torn Syria in 2012 with her Palestinian-Syrian husband, yet her legal status was never as an asylum seeker or refugee since she left Damascus to take up jobs in Egypt then Ireland, as well as a hybrid post with Unicef in the US. A trained software engineer, Aldarra has held positions in international tech companies and digital humanitarian initiatives (she is now a lead data scientist with Dell), life opportunities that are much harder to access for the undocumented migrant or the international protection applicant.

Yet, I Don’t Want to Talk About Home suggests that the narrativity of seeking refuge for those who escape conflict encompasses more than the recognisable patterns of forced migration, encampment and resettlement in host countries. Aldarra communicates this most powerfully through the details of her periods of involuntary separation from her husband Housam who grew up in al-Yarmouk camp as one of “many Palestinians who never saw Palestine — who were never allowed to — but were never granted a Syrian passport”.


Describing her hot-tempered father’s reaction to her budding relationship with Housam, she writes: “The word ‘refugee’ was repeated, sometimes with disgust, and other times with fear.” Some of Aldarra’s most nuanced and striking engagement with displacement and statelessness emerges when she articulates the impact of Housam’s liminal status. In Egypt, her husband would be regularly summoned by the security directorate to go through the humiliating visa renewal process: “On the way back, Housam sat on a rock in the sandy road to rest and watched a stray dog staring at him. Housam smiled, thinking how much easier his life would be if he were a dog.”

Great depth

Recounting the first moments of her arrival in Ireland, Aldarra notes her anxiety when she encounters a garda at the airport entrance and suspects that he is about to arrest her. It would take her some time to recognise that this figure means protection rather than harm. With great psychological depth, she reveals layers of distrust and insecurity that she painstakingly traces to traumatic experiences. This is a compelling memoir that abounds with intelligent self-questioning, unapologetic indignation and basic frustration at everyday occurrences, from being tired of “satisfying people’s curiosity … while waiting for the bus or having a haircut” to longing for the Arabic language and Damascene rain: “The rain in Syria was a festival, a sonata, a reason to dance or fall in love. The rain in Ireland was slow and repetitive, like one tone playing over and over and over.” Yet Aldarra’s memoir also celebrates the wonders of new encounters with warm, welcoming people who open her up to the power of life and the textures of new places that recreate “home” in surprising ways.

The literature of recent migration to Ireland is a fast-growing corpus that can now boast a pioneering addition: as the first Syrian-Irish memoir, I Don’t Want to Talk About Home explores under-represented aspects of displacement both in relation to the diverse Syrian community in Ireland and in terms of a more individual journey of dislocation and finding home for one woman whose struggles with belonging pertain as much to a national homeland as to the digital world.

Prompted by a taxi driver’s question, “Syrians are terrorists, don’t you watch the news?” Aldarra decides to focus her Master’s thesis on using data analytics in relation to xenophobic misinformation and hate speech detection. A winner of the Techfugees Global Challenges (2018) for the social inclusion category with her project, Aldarra achieves a possibly even more impactful feat through her memoir that impresses with the wit and perseverance of a highly achieved woman intent on making a difference.