What Makes a Family: An Excerpt From The Road From Raqqa by Jordan Ritter Conn

The Road From Raqqa is the story of Riyad Alkasem, who today is chef and owner of the restaurant Cafe Rakka in Hendersonville, just outside Nashville. (The choice of spelling does get explained in the book.) On its most basic level, The Road From Raqqa is a story about the American dream — finding love, raising a family, becoming a successful entrepreneur, appearing on Diners, Drive-ins and Drives. It’s also a classic immigrant tale. Riyad comes to the U.S. from Syria, escaping authoritarian rule and later violent conflict, learning English and American customs — not to mention the finer points of the American palate — along the way. It’s an unforgettable story of both finding home and knowing the home you once knew is both gone and within you forever.

In Nashville journalist Jordan Ritter Conn’s capable hands, this rich, layered story unfolds in vivid episodes, following Riyad, his brother Bashar, and other members of the Alkasem family through both turmoil and joy. It will deepen both your understanding of Syria and your understanding of the United States, and it will make you even more grateful for every person you can call family. The following excerpt comes from the prologue of the book, which Conn says “seemed to feel the most important to Riyad,” even though it’s mostly not about him.

“Any time he begins telling his story, he starts by tracing back his family’s lineage in Raqqa,” Conn says. “He once called me in the middle of the night, a little panicked, because he wanted to make absolutely certain that I had the exact order of his ancestors correct. His and Bashar’s story unfolds in so many settings — Tennessee, California, Aleppo, Germany — but at its core, it’s a story about that lineage there in Raqqa, about the ways those traditions persist in all these other corners of the world.”

Please join us online on Wednesday, July 22, 2020 at 6pm, live on Facebook for a discussion between Jordan Ritter Conn and Riyad Alkasem. The book will be published on July 21. Meanwhile, you can pre-order your copy today and enjoy this excerpt now.

They used to tell a story in the desert about an eighteenth-century warrior named Ibrahim, who led an Arab army across the Levant—known long before as Mesopotamia—fighting on horseback and on camel for the Ottoman Empire. Ibrahim was loyal to the Ottomans and ruthless to their enemies, and so the empire’s leaders rewarded him with a gift. It wasn’t much, just a swath of land in the desert, tucked inside the elbow of the Euphrates River, some of the land bare and desolate, some of it green and alive.

Only Ibrahim didn’t care much for land. He was a warrior, not a settler. So he left the land untouched and continued to roam the Levant and to wage battle, uninterested in anyplace where he could not find a fight. Ibrahim had a son named Issa and a grandson named Hamed, also nomadic warriors, and Hamed had a son named Taha. When they would tell this story centuries later, the boys and girls of the desert would speculate that Taha did not like to fight like his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, because if he liked to fight, then he would have continued roaming in search of violence, but instead he came to the land that had now been passed down to him, and he wondered if perhaps he should stay there, if perhaps he should build a life.

Taha found a spot that he liked. Dangerous tribes inhabited the land’s western and eastern edges, but here in the center was a river and an ancient wall, long ago abandoned, and the river and wall together formed something of a cocoon, and Taha decided that here he would be safe. Here he would stay.

He put up a tent and decided to make coffee. He took a stone rod and used it like a mortar and pestle to smash the beans. When they were fully ground, he mixed them with water he boiled on a fire. He waited.

A breeze wafted in from the Euphrates, carrying the smell of coffee across the desert to small and scattered tribes. They took the smell of the coffee as an invitation. One by one, members of each tribe came to Taha and joined him. Together, they sipped.

Taha asked them to stay. Settle here, he said, and let’s work together, share our resources to build a community. To convince them, he offered pieces of his land. Some said yes, and more tribes came. As the years passed, Taha gave away more pieces of his land until there were twelve subtribes in total, and together they decided that the sliver of land just north of their settlement would be the community land, to be divided among every male descendant of every original founder for as long as their city stood.

A city. Yes. That’s what it was now, with homes and markets and mosques and a school. They called it Raqqa. It would stand for centuries, here on this plot of land passed down from Ibrahim to Issa to Hamed to Taha, and its people would remain close-knit, cloistered as they were and uninterested in the outside world. Yet they would always greet visitors with extravagant welcome, providing warm beds and hearty meals and fresh coffee, just as Taha had once done.

Taha had a son named Jurf, and Jurf had a son named Hammoud, who had a son named Kasem, who had a son named Muhammad, who had a son named Abdul-Rahman, who had several sons, the oldest two of whom he named Riyad and Bashar. And Riyad and Bashar grew up learning the stories of their ancestors and of their city, and they saw themselves as carrying on the traditions passed down from Taha on the land passed down from Ibrahim.

And then one day new warriors arrived, and the people of the city looked overhead to see them, in airplanes sent by leaders in Damascus or Moscow or Washington, D.C. And those warriors dropped bombs, and those bombs pounded the city until it was barely anything more than what Taha had found on his journey through the Levant so many years ago. And Riyad and Bashar wondered what makes a city when its people have fled or died, what makes a home when a house has become rubble, what makes a family when brothers and sisters are sent to scatter across the world.

Excerpted from The Road from Raqqa by Jordan Ritter Conn Copyright © 2020 by Jordan Ritter Conn. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Jordan Ritter Conn is a staff writer for The Ringer. He previously worked at Grantland and ESPN: The Magazine, and he has written for The New York Times and Sports Illustrated. He is a two-time finalist for the Livingston Award, and his work has been cited or recognized by The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Slate.

See Jordan Ritter Conn in conversation with Riyad Alkasem, moderated by Mallory Rubin on Wednesday, July 22, 2020 at 6pm, live on the Parnassus Books Facebook page. Feel free to pre-order your copy of The Road From Raqqa in advance by clicking here.