(This is my “Asia” entry for my Around the World Reading Challenge. https://debrabooks.wordpress.com/around-the-world-reading-challenge-2015/)
It seems that the only news we in the U.S. hear about Syria (or the Middle East more generally) is of war, terror, chaos, refugees, and other forms of suffering. For that reason, I am always happy to find published works that portray everyday life in the Middle East, especially everyday life during less chaotic times.
I discovered the memoir Road To Damascus by Elaine Rippey Imady recently in a new, local bookstore focusing on women’s works, international works, and works about human rights. The store, located in St. Paul, is called Daybreak Press http://daybreak.rabata.org/. (A fun fact about Road to Damascus is that, as I discovered when I bought the book, it was written by the mother-in-law of the owner of the bookstore.)
Road to Damascus is written by an American woman who moved to Damascus, Syria in the early 1960s to be with her Syrian husband, Mohammed. She lived there happily the rest of her life (or at least until the book was published in 2008). Imady’s memoir provides an intriguing glimpse into Damascus as experienced by one American woman, a point-of-view I haven’t seen much before.
Elaine Rippey Imady
One of the pleasures of the book for me was that many of Imady’s descriptions of Syrian culture reminded me fondly of my experiences in Bethlehem (in the West Bank) when I was there in 2012. More than 50 years had elapsed between my stay and Imady’s, and Bethelem was in a different country, but the culture struck me as very similar. This shouldn’t be surprising, I suppose, since the country boundaries are artificial, and Palestinians and Syrians are both Levantine Arabs.
I have reproduced below some excerpts from Imady’s memoir, followed up with my own more recent memories in Palestine.
- Our friends “had a terrible time finding us because we had no phone, and although they had our address with the name of our street and the number of our building, Syrians are accustomed to a different way of locating places, what I called ‘the landmark method.’ A Damascene would give direction to our home by saying, ‘The Imady building is one street up from the tram street in Mohajareen. Walk up one block from Abu Saoud’s drugstore at Shutta Street, and then turn left. It’s the tallest building on the block.’ (37-38)
This anecdote made me laugh because I had the same experience with the rental apartment where I stayed for six weeks. Before I arrived in Bethlehem, I asked my landlord (via e-mail) for the address of the place I’d be staying. He said it was just a few houses up the street from Abdul’s Bakery. I was confused and repeated my question, saying it was for mailing purposes. He repeated the same thing about Abdul’s Bakery. I gave up. He may have had a street address with the number of the home and the name of the street, but nobody ever used it. I used taxis all the time to get around, and I always told him it was near Abdul’s Bakery or gave the name of the local grocery store, and that always worked.
- “I found the main thoroughfare lined cheek to jowl with small shops. Most had some of their merchandise on display outside, either piled up on the sidewalk or hanging above the shops on “clothes lines.” But the merchants didn’t stop there. They sent young boys out into the crowds to entice you into their dens with insistent cries of “Tafuddily.” (Come in.) . . . In ten minutes of walking in the souk, we saw for sale wooden clogs, slippers, children’s clothes, underwear, perfume, head coverings for men and women, brass rays, gold and silver jewelry, chess boards, lutes, rugs, prayer carpets and rolls of fabric of all kinds—but no pots and pans. Beguiling and exotic smells wafted through the air. There were fragrant scents from the perfume and attar shops, pungent odors coming from the spice market and the distinctive smell of tanned skins from the leather souk.” (46)
To me the souks and small “hole-in-the-wall” shops are a major pleasure of travelling in the Middle East. They still exist in Bethlehem, but in some major cities, they are being replaced by Western-style shopping malls. I suppose the malls are more comfortable, but I do think something important is being lost with their triumph over traditional souks.
Small shops in Bethelehm
Small shops in Hebron
- “Characteristically for desert weather, the temperature could drop twenty-five degrees Fahreneheit or more from noon to midnight, and the tile floors, high ceilings and drafty windows meant bone-chilling rooms at night. I had never been so cold indoors before: no central heating, and only one room of my in-law’s five-room apartment had a heater.” (42)
I live in Minnesota, which is known (rightly so) for its cold winter weather. Yet, I have NEVER been cold for any length of time while inside a house. Our homes are all well-heated, and we take this heat for granted. Therefore, I was surprised to find out how cold my Bethlehem apartment was. When I first arrived, they were having a cold, rainy spell. I spent several days shivering under the blankets. The home did have central heating, but the cost of heating was high, and my landlord only turned on central heating for about an hour a day. He let me use a space heater in my bedroom, but even then, I was supposed to ration it to a few hours a day. Fortunately, the weather warmed up after a week or so; otherwise, I don’t know how long I could have lasted in that ice-box!
- ‘Referring to some visitors to their home, Imady writes, “Sometimes the voices of two or three guests would rise, their faces would look agitated, and they would gesture excitably. I would be sure they would be furious with each other or that something was wrong and would worriedly ask Mohammed what was the matter. He would laugh and explain that it was nothing, that Syrians were simply more vehement, fiery and emotional than Americans.” (37)
My landlord was a mild-mannered man when he spoke English (at least to me). He spoke it fluently, by the way. I noticed, though, that when he spoke Arabic, he often sounded angry to me. Perhaps he was angry, but I did notice that Arab speakers were more likely to be loud and emotional than we reserved Minnesotans are/
- “Fat-tailed sheep crowded the narrow road, and sometimes our car had to stop while young boys or girls shepherded their flocks across the road.” (35)
Bethlehem is in most ways a modern 21st century town. The streets are full of cars; everyone has cell phones and computers, and so forth. And yet, it was not at all uncommon to see flocks of goats and sheep crossing the street—in the middle of the city. I never quite got used to that sight.
a young shepherd with his flock
- “I could hardly believe that Lamat went on this picnic wearing a good suit, stockings, and high heeled shoes. Her heels sunk in the plowed furrows between the trees, but she didn’t seem to mind.” (35)
One of my favorite pastimes while in Bethlehem was hiking. One day I joined a public hike that focused on Sufi shrines. Both Western tourists and local Palestinian women were on this hike. The Westerners wore casual pants and hiking boots. The Palestinian women wore street clothing and shoes—the type of clothing one might wear at an office job. None of them wore athletic shoes or hiking books. I have to confess I found their lack of proper clothing irritating, because they slowed down our pace considerably.
Perhaps the most significant commonality between Imady’s Syria and my experience of Palestine, though, is the warm hospitality she and I encountered everywhere.
I have never been to Syria, and I would like to go there. Now is obviously not a good time. Watching the devastation their country is going through now is heartbreaking. I hope they can resolve their conflicts soon.
Have any of you been to Syria?