In writing a biography about her father, Santa Fe author Claudette Sutton made a discovery about herself. “I learned how much more my family is part of me than I knew before,” she said.
When readers pick up Sutton’s book, “Farewell, Aleppo: My Father, My People, and Their Long Journey Home,” they also will make their own discovery – that Syria, the country where her father, Meїr, now known as Mike, was born and raised, was not always war-torn or ridden with conflict.
Sutton shared her book with the Rotary Club of Los Alamos Jan. 20 at its weekly meeting at the Manhattan Project Restaurant.
Sutton’s father grew up with his Jewish family in Aleppo, which was located south of the Turkish border. He was born in the 1920s, when Syria was just “fresh out” of the Ottoman Empire. She described the country at that time as “very multi-cultural and multi-religious. Still, religious groups did not mingle together. Sutton called it “benevolent separation.”
Learning about day-to-day life for her father as a child, Sutton said, “There was so much I did not know.” For instance, while Sutton’s mother would go to the grocery store for a carton of milk, her grandmother would get her milk directly from a cow led down the street in front of her house by its owner.
In the 1940s as World War II was starting, Sutton said her grandfather was becoming aware that benevolence toward different religions was changing and decided it was necessary to immigrate to the United States. However, because getting issued a visa to the U.S. was extremely difficult, her grandfather decided to have his two his sons, one being Sutton’s father, travel to Shanghai in China to live his brother who ran an exporting business tied to the U.S.
“He used this as a stepping stone for America,” Sutton explained, adding that Shanghai was an open port, so no visa or passport was necessary.
The two young boys left home for the first time, Sutton said, and sailed for a month across the world. While there, Sutton’s uncle contracted tuberculosis and returned, by himself, to Syria. And when the Japanese invaded China and took control of Shanghai, her great-uncle escaped to America, leaving Sutton’s 19-year-old father by himself in an occupied city.
It was not a completely dire situation. Sutton said a large number of Jewish people fled to Shanghai. “It was a thriving place … remembered quite fondly but those who lived there,” she said.
Ultimately, Sutton’s family was able to immigrate to the U.S. While her grandparents worked to flee the country, Sutton said she and her parents attempted to return to Syria for a visit. They tried twice but the turmoil in the country halted their plans.
Despite not returning to his birthplace, Sutton discovered the strong bond she has with her father and her family. In the U.S., she said, the individual is celebrated – that you can create yourself to be whoever you want. Yet, in writing this biography, Sutton said, “I didn’t make myself up this morning.” She can see who she inherited different traits from and now realizes, “I am a part of a bigger picture.”