VOICE FROM SYRIA
A Death in the Family
On the way to our usual weekly trip to the supermarket, my father called my mother and asked her to pass by my sick aunt. Fortunately we were close to her apartment and the roads that are usually hindered by the endless traffic and checkpoints went smoothly that day.
My aunt was not her usual self at all. Her little blue eyes had lost their gleam and her tongue seemed heavy. I reached my arms to hug her but she protested that every part of her body hurt. Yet she did not forget to ask us about our family members, one by one. Then she murmured out loud as if talking to herself: ‘There is no comfort for a believer, except when he meets his Creator’ She seemed to rejoice at the idea of departing this world. She says she has been visited recently by many late members of the family and she must miss them all. I remembered the latest dream my other aunt dreamed just a couple of days ago and felt a shudder as I thought how most of my aunts’ dreams come true. The dream was of my grandfather trying to cut the dead leaves and vines from an old tree in the courtyard, but after working on it for a long time he lost hope and decided to cut the tree down. Since that day, my aunt feared it meant there would soon be a death in the family. I drank the last drop of Arabic coffee and kissed my aunt goodbye and promised to visit during the Eid. Sadly, that was to be my last visit to her.
We woke up at the first day of the Eid to the calls of the mosques reciting the traditional declaration of faith, the Takbir, announcing the beginning of the Eid “God is great.. God is great” mingled with the sounds of planes flying above us. The sounds were so scary outside that my father, husband and son were not able to go to perform the Eid Mubarak prayer at the mosque nearby. Little by little the sounds faded away but we all voted not to leave the house that day although we had promised to take my daughter and son to a restaurant.
Unfortunately, the next day, it was even noisier than the day before. When I called my cousin wondering whether to come and visit my aunt, he said that it would better for us and his mother to postpone the visit until tomorrow. “She might look at the calendar and realize it was a Wednesday” he said in a soft voice so my aunt wouldn’t hear him. Although most of my aunts were college educated, like many Damascenes of their generation, they were superstitious about visits to sick people on Wednesdays. They believed the sick person might get worse or even die. Of course my aunt never admitted she believed in these superstitions. In fact, when I was collecting old traditional Damascene beliefs, she utterly refused to help me “Stop wasting your time with this nonsense and start doing something useful!” she said.
So again our visit was postponed until the third day of the Eid. Sadly, my cousin called us that day in the morning at 9:30 in tears and announced that my dear aunt had passed away.
We all rushed to my aunt’s apartment in spite of any noises outside. The roads were very crowded and by the time we arrived it was about eleven o’clock. My cousin greeted us sadly and led us into a bedroom where my aunt was peacefully lying on a bed. I kissed her goodbye on her forehead and was amazed how the few wrinkles she had on her face had disappeared. I sat down on the other bed facing her bed and recited the chapter Yasin from the Qur’an. To my shock I suddenly realized that the Indonesian maid of my aunt was also sitting next to me and reciting it with her heavy accent as tears streamed down her face. My aunt had taught her how to recite this chapter- as she did with all her maids.
I felt as if the angels were floating around the room so I decided to read two more chapters of the Qur’an; the Bakara and the Inam, my aunt’s favorite- a total of 71 pages.
When I finally finished reading, my cousins and many other relatives had filled the apartment. Also a professional woman was brought to wash my aunt.
My cousin Maya, my aunt’s only daughter, asked me and my mother to come into the bathroom to help wash her mother.
Inside the bathroom, my aunt was placed on her back on a metal table. The woman made her intention to wash my aunt’s body then put a white sheet from under the arms down and started washing her starting from the right side. She used soap first then rinsed the body with water three times. The woman mentioned the hadith in which the Prophet said: “Wash the dead body an odd number of times, that is three, five or seven, or more if you feel it is necessary” Then my mother helped in washing her hair while I poured water from a metal basin. Next, we all helped in turning my aunt’s body from one side to another while the woman washed her body from the neck to the foot, in front first, then in the back. After that she turned her on her right side and washed her in the same way. Then she rinsed her hair and the entire body. The woman then dried the entire body with a clean towel and combed her hair. Finally she wrapped her in a white sheet while other sheets were torn as: long pants, a dress or long shirt, a head cover.
My aunt was carried by her two sons and other male cousins of mine and put in the wooden coffin that was waiting for her in the hall while we all recited chapter “Yasin”. After that, the coffin was carried to the mosque for the funeral prayers and then to the cemetery.
Back in the house, forty women mourners sat in the big reception room. Most of them were relatives or very close friends and neighbors of my aunt.
The salutation of Eid Mubarak “May you have a blessed Eid” was sadly replaced by condolences.
“What a sad Eid” said a middle- aged woman sadly.
An old woman, shook her head violently and said:
“What kind of an Eid is this? May God relieve us of this hard situation” Her words seemed to gain momentum as the sound of an explosion echoed from a distance.
Despite the sad occasion that assembled this group of women, they seemed strangely happy to have an excuse to get out of the house and to actually carry on a civil conversation with someone. These days, no one leaves his house except for a good reason. There were two old sisters who were sitting next to me who haven’t seen each other for months.
“How sad” I thought to myself “What has happened to all of us?” Our city has been divided by so many checkpoints that any short trip anywhere might take all day.
So many Damascene habits have been changed, altered and even cancelled because of our new situation.
Wedding parties which used to be from eight o’clock in the evening to twelve midnight, are starting now early in the afternoon.
The women’s condolence reception used to begin at the time of the afternoon prayer, now it begins after the noon prayer because it is dangerous to be out after dark.
As all Syrians say “What can we do?” In fact there is nothing to be done, except find ways to alter old habits and adapt to the new situation. Most of my friends and neighbors didn’t show up at the condolence reception. Instead, they sent me messages on face book and whatsapp to express their sympathy for my loss.
It used to be that after the three days of condolence receptions, a weekly reception for women on the day of the week the deceased had died was held for forty days. This practice was eliminated completely because it is so hard for people to get around.
My train of thought was cut by the voice of my cousin Maya who announced that no one could leave before having dinner. She said she had promised her mother that everyone who came the first day would be invited to dinner.
The food was the usual things offered in funeral dinners; “ouzi” which is a large round ball of rice, meat and peas covered in filo pastry; cheese pies, yogurt and warbat b’il kishta (a cream pastry) for dessert.
While the women ate their dinner, their conversations were mostly about the incredibly high prices, the homeless and the kidnappings which are taking place.
While I was struggling to cut into the ‘ouzi’ ball, I looked at my poor daughter and remembered my promise to her: to take her to dinner to her favorite restaurant “Road House” for the Eid. I shook my head and thought “Not exactly the same kind of food!”
As we were eating my cousin Maya insisted that she would have something done for her mother on the fortieth day after her death. The usual practice when my grandmother died was to invite people to a reception and dinner and to have the maylaweeyeh come to the house to perform their ritual dance. I still can remember how scared I was of these “whirling dervishes” to the extent that I ran back home. Nowadays, there is nothing left of these “forty day” traditions except the dinner.
As we were having dessert, my father’s cousin ‘Fadia’ approached me and started to talk… Somehow, I felt she was talking to herself:
“I still can remember when my father used to take me with him to visit my aunt – ‘your Tete’ she said. “Your grandfather always had a bitter coffee pot on his brass charcoal burner, ready to serve any guest that put his foot in the door. Your aunts were always very busy studying in the little room on the top floor and I would be left alone with no one to talk to or play with. So your Tete would put me next to her and tell me one of her delightful stories. My favorite was the story of the “The Stubborn Bird”
Fadia began telling me the story but her memory failed her and the light in her eyes faded away. It seemed as if the chain of her memory was cut off.
“I’m sorry” she said “I just can’t remember.. My mind went blank! Here is my phone number.. call me tomorrow I’m sure I’ll remember it – or maybe not!”
“Okay, don’t worry!” I said as I gave her a hug.
On our way home, I kept thinking about the folktale. I could remember my Tete’s eyes twinkle as she told it to me… but her words seemed to slip away. Then I remembered that my late aunt had sent this folktale to me in a letter when I was living in Paris. It must be somewhere. Where could it be?”
When I arrived home, I searched all my drawers and closets until at last I found a small folded yellow paper. To my great joy, it was the letter that my aunt wrote with the exact folktale Fadia had begun to tell me. I clutched it happily to my chest. It would be a great addition to my next book of Syrian Folktales.
The Stubborn Bird
Once upon a time, there lived an old Hen and a Rooster in a small chicken coop. The chicken coop was so small that the poor Hen was frustrated most of the time.
One beautiful spring day, the Hen looked outside the chicken coop and complained as usual: “I’m sick of being cooped up in this small chicken coop. How I long to go out on a picnic”
“Okay, my dear Hen” said the lazy Rooster reluctantly. “Go ahead and prepare the picnic food we will take with us while I fetch my long stick!”
The Hen prepared delicious food and some drinks for the picnic and put them all a cloth bundle. Then she hung it on the stick and hopped on it. The Rooster let out a loud crow as he dragged the stick behind him towards the field.
The Duck was the first to see the Hen and the Rooster. “Quack, quack, quack” said the Duck as she clapped her wings happily “Where are you going my dear friends?”
“We are going on a picnic” answered the Hen happily.
“A picnic!” said the duck “Oh it has been such long time since I went on a picnic”
“Come on” said the Hen “Hop on the stick behind me.”
The Duck quacked joyfully and hopped on the stick.
Next they passed by the Goose who was busy cleaning its white soft feathers.
“Honk, honk, honk” honked the Goose “Where are you going?”
“We are going to the field to have a picnic” they all said at once.
“Oh, a picnic!” exclaimed the Goose “I would love to go with you”
“Then hurry up and hop on the stick behind us” said the Hen.
The Goose happily hopped on the stick behind the Duck and they went along until they met a sheep grazing in the field.
“Baa baa baa” bleated the sheep “Where are you going dear friends?”
“We are going to the fields to celebrate this beautiful spring day” said the Goose “Come along with us!”
The sheep happily wiggled his fat tail and trailed behind them.
All of a sudden a little fat bird flew around them in circles: “Tweet, tweet, tweet” chirped the bird “Where are you heading to on this beautiful Spring day?” he asked.
“We are going on a picnic” they all answered at once.
“I never went on a picnic” sighed the bird “Can I go with you?”
“Certainly, you can! ” said the Hen.
So they all walked and walked while the Bird flew above them, until they reached a beautiful field with a river running in the middle.
The Rooster placed a big blanket on the grass. Then the Hen unwrapped her food bundle and spread out all the food and drinks on the blanket. They all sat down and ate and drank.
Soon the bird chirped happily and said:
“Oh I’m so happy I feel like singing!”
The animals were horrified by his suggestion and said:
“No please don’t sing dear bird!
Your song will be soon heard
By the sly Fox, Abo Hussein,
Who will come and eat us all! ”
But the Bird couldn’t stop himself from singing, and sure enough there appeared the sly Fox Abo Hussein who smacked his lips and then seized the Hen, the Rooster, the Duck and the Goose with his sharp fangs and swallowed them one by one. Then he gobbled up the poor sheep.
The bird flew towards a high tree and perched on a branch.
The Fox longed to eat the bird as well. So he decided to trick the bird by his sweet talk:
“Come down from the tree
My little dearie,
I’ll buy a diamond necklace
Just for thee!”
The little bird hopped happily on the branch and said:
“No, I never will!”
The sly Fox Abo Hussein tried his luck again:
“Come down my dearie one
I’ll spoil you and treat you like my son”
But the little bird kept hopping from one branch to another and sang:
Burst, burst Abo Hussein
My meat is full of fat
Burst, burst Abo Husain
And you’ll never eat any of that”
Abo Hussein was so frustrated by the behavior of the bird that his heart burst. His stomach popped open and out came all the animals one by one, looking very frightened “How dark it was inside the stomach of the fox!” said the Hen.
The animals all scolded the Bird for not listening to them and swore to never to take him with them on a picnic again!
The Moral of the story: One should always listen to the advice of those who are wiser than him.
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