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Headlines Made Human

Inside a small apartment in an overlooked city in the middle of France, a Syrian couple taught my family how to cook. Both dark-haired and striking, they showed us how to fill freshly rolled circles of dough with crushed walnuts dripping in sweet rose water, and then press the pockets together, making the edges ribboned like a fan.

Two hours later, we sat down crowded around a small table overflowing with a feast. We stuffed ourselves with dish after dish of hummous laced with olive oil, pita bread dipped in bright pink beet root sauce, baked meat and bulgar, olive-stuffed pastries, and piles of chicken and chickpeas. When we were finally stuffed, we finished the meal with glasses of Arabic coffee laced with sugared grains and bites of the pockets we'd filled earlier, now fried to a steaming crisp.

We talked for nearly five hours without mentioning war, but as the clock painted with the Eiffel tower clicked onward towards 10 o'clock and voices grew softer and deeper, maybe we didn't want to avoid it anymore.

When they left Syria almost four years ago, "all was calm," the wife said with a shrug and a smile not quite reaching her eyes. "You never would have thought something could happen." When we ask what the population of Syria is, the husband guesses around 20 million, but his wife jumps in. "Maybe when this is over it'll be 10 million. Anyone who can leave is going, and the other people staying behind are dying." Her voice is gentle: she's not trying to be melodramatic, just realistic. Their families are safe, but one of her sisters hasn't seen her parents for two years because it's impossible to travel from one city to another. That same sister takes a separate car from her husband to work. The reason? If one is bombed on the way, they want the other to be able to look after their children. Yet in spite of the "situation", as they call it, life in some semblance of normality goes on. The couple were able to return to be married in Syria a year and a half ago, planning a wedding in twenty days over the phone because it was too dangerous to travel between their home cities. When we asked what Syrian weddings were like, they disappeared to rummage in their bedroom for two CDs with three hours of live footage from their wedding day.

For over an hour, we watched life rewound to normal - the bride with kohl ringed eyes and a voluptuous white dress and a slimmer, baby-faced groom swaying together surrounded by sparklers shooting into the night. They pointed out their family members dancing in a clutched-hand circle and explained the tradition of gift-giving as the bride was adorned with jewelry from her new family. They said the evening came to a close around 1 o'clock. Although the party would normally go until 5, people were afraid to be out too late, so they cut it short. They haven't been able to go back home since that night, although they want to return. "We have a life and our families there," the husband said. They have one more year to finish their doctoral studies, but they have no idea whether they'll be able to return after that. Like everyone else, they have no idea when peace will come; all they can do is wait in uncertain hope.

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