VOICE FROM SYRIA
A Damascene Story
Passing down stories from one generation to the next has long been a family tradition in the Arab World.
My Syrian grandmother “Tete” not only spun folktales from the dark shadows of the night, but also knitted together memories of the family into wonderful stories. Regardless of how many times they were told by her, they never failed to fascinate us.
One favorite of mine was about my father and the notable Christian doctor.
Tete always began the story by reminding us that both Muslims and Christians had lived peacefully together in Damascus city for many centuries. It was not until the arrival of European powers and the Ottoman Empire’s enactment of the tanzimat, a series of reform policies which began in 1839, that some economic friction arose between them. The European merchants preferred to trade with local Christians and the Muslims and Druzes felt that the tanzimat benefited only the Christians.
In addition to all that, the Ottoman government created sectarian friction by giving certain Christians with thom they were working economic advantage over the Muslims and creating for them special privileges and immunities. A large number of Damascene Christians were made honorary citizens even as they were under the protection of the countries of their birth.
The Christians became richer and the Muslims poorer and their relationship deteriorated. Also, the flow of foreign goods competed with local production, causing unemployment in the city when local factories were forced to shut down. Those unemployed workers and the hungry citizens turned against the rich classes. As a result, civil war broke out in May 1860 with an attack on the Christians within the walls of Damascus.
Since Christians outside the walls were not attacked, it is evident that the primary motives were economic not religious. Of course, this does not justify the terrible bloodshed and destruction that took place. If the Turkish Governor had acted quickly, he might have stopped the people who took advantage of the absence of authorities to begin looting, burning and killing. But the Ottoman Empire had begun its decline and it was already having trouble holding on to its empire.
Many Damascene notables tried to rescue Christian families and among them were my father’s great grandfather Mohammed Effendi Imady and his cousin Abdullah Effindi Imady who opened their households and offered shelter, food and protection to the Christians. Also, Abd al-Qader al-Jazzairi, an Algerian prince who had been exiled to Damascus by the French, was able to save around 11,000 Christians with the help of his armed men.<
The Notable Christian Doctor
As we all gather on Tete’s bed, her sweet face glows, her light blue eyes twinkle as her wavy white hair blows across her face. She straightens her back and sits cross- legged and begins telling us the story:
“I was married in the year 1912 at the age of 14 and due to the wide-spread famine and disease during World War One, we had only one child, Sadddaddeen”. He was blond, blue eyed, intelligent and kind-hearted. Every time he saw that I was tired, he promised that when he grew up he would build me a castle, get me servants and whatever I wanted. It was a big blow for me when he caught scarlet fever and died at the age of seven,” Tete said as she wiped the tears running down her cheeks. “It really broke my heart. Then I had another little boy who shortly died too.
“Later on, I had six girls, one every year, until at last your father Mohammed was born. It was one of the best days of our lives and we pledged that we would take good care of this boy.
“Unfortunately, at the age of two, one of his sisters tried to carry Mohammed and he slipped from her arms and broke his leg. I took him to the best doctor in town, a very clever Christian doctor to set the bone. When the doctor finished putting Mohammed’s leg in a cast, I took out some money to pay him and was shocked that he refused to take anything. When I asked him why, the doctor told me that he had promised his father never to take money from any member of the Imady family as long as he practiced medicine. Again, I asked him why.
“My grandparents took refuge in the Imady family home during the massacre of 1860,” he said, “and my father was born in the Imady house.”
“The doctor was so clever that your father never complained again about his leg.
Tete would shake her head every time she ended the story and say:
“This is the real pure spirit of our city Damascus…and this is how we were brought up. We all care for each other regardless of our religion.
Muna Imady was born in Damascus in 1962 to an American mother and a Syrian father. She has a BA in English Literature and a diploma in English-Arabic Translation from Damascus University as well as a Maitrise from the Sorbonne.
Imady has designed a beginners English reading course for children and has written several text books for teaching English as a second language to children. She has also written and translated many short Arabic stories for children which were published in several Arabic magazines.
She has been interested in folktales since she was a child and promised herself that one day she would write a book of the folktales she had collected. Imady lives in Damascus with her husband Dr Nizar Zarka and her three children, Nour, Sammy, and Kareem. She teaches English as a second language to young children and continues to collect folktales in her free time.
She is the author of the collection: Syrian Folktales
Works by Muna Imady
AIRMAIL/VOICE FROM SYRIA
A Damascene Baby Shower
A Damascene Story (Contest Winner: Every Family Has a Story)
A Damascene Wedding
A Damascene Wedding Shower Amid the War
A Death in the Family
Beirut in a Damascene’s Eyes
Damascus – February is the Month of Cats: Shbat Shahr Alattat
Poems from Damascus
Reactions and Realities: A Poet’s Perspective; A Visitor’s View
Snow in Damascus
The Three Spinners: A Syrian Folktale
What Will Be, Will Be