THE ROAD FROM RAQQA
A Story of Brotherhood, Borders, and Belonging
By Jordan Ritter Conn
“Humanizing”— the word often used to praise immigrant and refugee narratives — should be unnecessary: The fact that we are all human should be a baseline assumption, not an argument or a writerly achievement. Yet it’s never been clearer that the basic humanity of others is something that is now continually in question, both in the United States and around the world. Jordan Ritter Conn’s riveting debut book, “The Road From Raqqa,” is a well-wrought portrait of two brothers, Riyad and Bashar Alkasem, and their journeys out of Syria: Riyad as a young lawyer who went to California to learn English in 1990, and Bashar, also a lawyer, who fled to Turkey and then Europe in the midst of the Syrian civil war in 2016. Conn pushes beyond simply humanizing the Alkasems; the book portrays Syria and the United States as multifaceted and complex, both capable of generosity and oppression, with histories as interconnected as the brothers’ own.
As a child, Riyad is steeped in family lore that traces his ancestry back to the founding of Raqqa, on the Euphrates River, through a gracious act of generosity. In government-run summer camps, he falls in love with a version of Syria that exists only in regime propaganda. Disillusioned after learning of the massacre of members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama by the Syrian Army in the 1980s, he leaves a burgeoning legal career to chase the ephemeral America of inspirational politicians and tree-lined movie scenes. If Riyad’s trajectory from dishwasher in Los Angeles to restaurateur in suburban Nashville is quintessentially American — success comes after his restaurant, Café Rakka, is featured on Guy Fieri’s show, “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” — so too are the indignities and injustices he faces. Especially after 9/11, Riyad asks: “Who is a bigot? Who is just a jerk? Does the difference matter?” For Riyad, his new country is a mixed place that has “confounded him,” but also “delivered delirious joys.” As he learns to live with the contradictions, however, he experiences a growing nostalgia for the Raqqa of his childhood.
Meanwhile, until the civil war, Bashar has preferred his stable, if not always safe, life in regime-held Syria (where “the walls have ears”) to his brother’s in America, where he encounters a minefield of prejudice when he makes an extended visit. He takes up the legal career Riyad abandoned and is on the cusp of becoming a judge when the revolution ignites in 2011. Bashar cannot fathom life outside the family home where the Alkasems have resided for generations, even as the war escalates and the Islamic State moves in.
Conn builds tension slowly and with great sympathy, adding necessary context to clarify political nuances. He alludes to the background of Bashar’s wife, Aisha — also a lawyer — who is more critical of Syria’s government and eventually persuades her husband to leave; Conn describes Aisha’s “passion, her will to fight” in contrast to her more cautious husband and I found myself wishing her story had been granted more space, especially because she carries much of the emotional weight of the book’s final scenes. Conn keeps the stakes high and the decisions fraught until the very end, when Bashar, his wife and their children plunge into a journey that feels like both the wrong solution for a family that never wanted to leave and the only choice available to them.
As complicated and ever-shifting as their views of Syria and the United States are, the brothers’ affection for Raqqa is unwavering. Conn translates their memories into a resplendent love letter to an obliterated city, where Riyad swims as a boy in the Euphrates and gathers recipes from his relatives, and where Bashar poignantly lays out pillows and blankets to look at the stars with his daughters in the courtyard of their family home at night before the bombs drop. The loss of that Raqqa feels unbearable.