LETTER FROM DAMASCUS
Where Were the Shells Fired From?
Where were the shells fired from?
Where did they land?
What building did they destroy?
How many people were killed?
No answer… No comment
There is nothing to be said
Shells continue to fly over your head
Words are dead!
I’ve not met the writer Muna Imady in person nor have I heard her speaking voice. I was introduced to her through Wild River Review correspondent E. E. Whiting who met her in Syria. I communicate with Muna regularly through email and Facebook. When I read her raw, personal, and expressive emails or see her Facebook posts, I feel as though I know her in the way one might recognize a long lost relative.
Before the Syrian conflict began, Whiting wrote pieces for Wild River Review from the famous covered market in Aleppo, the oasis of Palmyra with its Roman ruins, lively beach resorts on the Mediterranean, and the streets of Damascus where she met Muna Imady’s American-born mother, Elaine Rippey Imady; and Muna’s father, Dr. Mohammed Imady, former Minister of the Economy and Chairman of the Syrian Commission on Financial Markets and Securities (SCFMS), which has continued operating throughout the Syrian conflict.
In 2009, Elaine Imady published her memoir, The Road to Damascus, which tells the story of how she met Dr. Imady at New York University in the 1950s, married him, converted to Islam, became a Syrian citizen, and made Syria her home. Whiting’s interview with Imady gives an intimate portrait of upper middle class life in Syria, and what it means to be a foreigner married to a Syrian.
Some – the minority – keep their Christianity and attend church here. One, a woman from San Diego became an Islamic scholar, translated the Qur’an and wrote the story of her conversion in Arabic and then in English. She is more religious than her husband. On the whole, most of the Americans here are married to observant Muslims and give lip service to conversion. They fast in Ramadan, out of consideration for their husbands and children but that is the extent of their Islam. Of my close friends now, three are believing Muslims like myself, two are Christians who fast in Ramadan and haven’t been in a church for years, one is an agnostic Swede and another is an agnostic Dane. There are certain legal benefits to conversion to Islam and some women go through with it because of this… Elaine Imady
Whiting’s reports of her travels in Syria at that time also addressed perceptions many Syrians held about the U.S. and contain clues to why the recent threat of a U.S. strike (even for something as heinous as the use of chemical weapons) was not perceived by many within Syria to be a liberating event.
It became obvious that people were dying to talk to me…The questions were always the same: where are you from and, upon hearing the answer, the shocked question of why have you come? The unfortunate perception is that Americans don’t like Syria or the Middle East at all… E. E. Whiting
During the nineties and into the new century, Syria began to solidify its reputation as a tourist destination. Meanwhile, Elaine Imady raised her children on a tree-lined street in the old city of Damascus. Muna, like her mother, became a writer and began collecting folktales, which she felt were disappearing as the younger generation no longer sat at their grandmother’s knees but were engaged in television, their computers and social media. In 2012, Muna published her collection, Syrian Folktales. With the onset of the Syrian conflict and the displacement of so many people, Muna has felt a greater urgency to collect and preserve those stories.
According to Doctors without Borders:
Nearly two and half years into the Syrian conflict, the war has killed more than 100,000 people. One quarter of the country’s population has been forced to flee their homes. A further 2.1 million people have fled the country.
Life goes on in Muna’s corner of Damascus even as the Syrian conflict has entered its third year. Muna’s and my email exchanges mention domestic details – our children and where they are attending school (her son’s university was bombed a year ago), her mother’s travels to visit family in the States, the condition of the feral neighborhood cats her mother cares for – but Muna’s emails are tinged with anxiety.
From November 11 –
We woke up the first day of the Eid to the calls of the mosque reciting the traditional declaration of the faith, the Takbir, announcing the beginning of the Eid “God is great…God is great…” mingled with the sound of planes flying above us. The sounds were so scary outside that my father, husband and son were not able 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…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, now start early in the afternoon.
The day after Eid, Muna’s beloved aunti died.
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 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. What has happened to all of us? Our city has been divided by so many checkpoints that a once short trip anywhere might take all day.
So many Damascene habits have been changed, altered and even cancelled because of our new situation.
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 messages on Facebook 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.
From October 14 –
Sounds of machine-guns
Echo through the air
Random shells fall
upon the city everywhere
What comes next?
Rocking every street every square
Rising into sky
The beginning of a nightmare…
From September 6
I wake up at the sound of planes zooming above me mixed with the annoying meows of the cats outside… Muna Imady
When I read her emails, I worry with Muna about bombs falling on her street or near her children’s schools, the sound of war planes overhead, of abandoned apartments in neighborhoods deemed unsafe, of the surreal quality of a city where on the surface the old way of life continues apace, but we have never spoken directly about the Assad regime or the insurgency. Her father’s family history dates back to the 15th century in Syria and he has worked with the Syrian government for the length of his career and has the distinction of not joining a political party.
Often, I feel that Muna and I are speaking in code and if we could sit across from one anther, we would have very different conversations. In the meantime, I read as many newspapers as I can. Here is what Al Jazeera reported in September about the chemical weapons attack in a suburban neighborhood of Damascus:
The (U.N.) report said the weather conditions on August 21 ensured that as many people as possible were injured or killed. Temperatures were falling between 2 am and 5 am, it said, which meant that air was not moving upwards but downwards toward the ground.
“Chemical weapons use in such meteorological conditions maximizes their potential impact as the heavy gas can stay close to the ground and penetrate into lower levels of buildings and constructions where many people were seeking shelter.”
A nightmare within Muna’s beloved city. But Muna is equally quick to express the fact that she fears the U.S.’s or anyone’s threat of strategic bombing.
September 16 – Thank God, things are quite the same these days… we still hear the silver birds zoom over our heads… and hear them throw their silver eggs… but anything is better than having total destruction from across the seas… Muna Imady
In one of our email exchanges just before the 12th anniversary of the September 11th World Trade Center bombings, Muna sent a piece she had written years ago that surprised me. It described how in the week before the terrorist attacks, she was treated rudely by an airline attendant when, after visiting her relatives in New York, she went to check into her flight from Newark to Damascus. While her mother does not wear the hijab, Muna has worn it since adolescence and doesn’t think much of it unless attention is drawn to her.
As we reached the Airport, a faint smile touched my lips. It was hard to say goodbye to both my aunt and uncle. For this visit by far, had been one of my happiest trips to America. The love and warmth I felt from my aunt, uncle and cousins had touched my heart. My three-year-old son threw himself in my uncle’s arms while my aunt embraced us lovingly…At the airport a woman in her forties checked our passports and tickets. When she finished with my son’s and mother’s passports, she took my passport and looked at my Islamic dressing with suspicion.
As she fumbled through the pages of my passport she looked at me with disgust and murmured to herself: “Oh my God!”
My eyes widened in shock and disbelief as my heart thudded against my chest… Muna Imady
In the 21st century, religion cannot be untangled from culture and politics. And, in a world where democracies and dictatorships exist side by side with tribal law; men, women and children are murdered in the name of presidents, dictators, tribal leaders, religious leaders, and splinter groups; when resources are reduced to commodities, Muna and her mother, Elaine, tell another story, one containing threads of their (and our) entwined cultures, where the dream of security, having enough to eat, and the freedom to pursue one’s beliefs does not stop at any border.
On both trips (to Syria), the small things are the real shockers: like seeing bright red hair and blue eyes, not uncommon in the population, or being told that Middle Eastern Christians use the word Allah in their services… E. E. Whiting
From Muna Imady, October, 2013:
with every difficulty,
There is relief
Verily, with every difficulty
There is relief
The Qu’ran, The Expansion
For links to reporting by E. E. Whiting, click links below:
BOOK REVIEW: The Road to Damascus: E.E. Whiting Talks to Elaine Rippey Imady about her life in Syria
MIDDLE EAST – ESSAY – The View Along the Road
MIDDLE EAST – INTERVIEW – Dr. Mohammed Imady – The Birth and Growth of the Damascus Stock Exchange: A Labor of Love
MIDDLE EAST – ESSAY – Growing Pains: The Damascus Stock Exchange and Its Second Year
To read from Muna Imady’s collection, Syrian Folktales, click here
AIRMAIL – Letter from Damascus – The Three Spinners: A Syrian Folktale
In 2006, Joy E. Stocke founded Wild River Review with Kimberly Nagy, an outgrowth of the literary magazine, The Bucks County Writer, of which Stocke was Editor in Chief. In 2009, as their editorial practice grew, Stocke and Nagy founded Wild River Consulting & Publishing, LLC.
With more than twenty-five years experience as a writer and journalist, Stocke works with many of the writers who appear in the pages of Wild River Review, as well as clients from around the world.
In addition, Stocke has shepherded numerous writers into print. She has interviewed Nobel Prize winners Orhan Pamuk and Muhammud Yunus, Pulitzer Prizewinner Paul Muldoon, Paul Holdengraber, host of LIVE from the NYPL; Roshi Joan Halifax, founder of Upaya Zen Center; anthropologist and expert on end of life care, Mary Catherine Bateson; Ivonne Baki, President of the Andean Parliament; and Templeton Prizewinner Freeman Dyson among others.
In 2006, along with Nagy, Stocke interviewed scientists and artists including former Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman and Dean of Faculty, David P. Dobkin for the documentary Quark Park, chronicling the creation of an award-winning park built on a vacant lot in the heart of Princeton, New Jersey; a park that united art, science and community.
She is president of the Board of Directors at the Cabo Pulmo Learning Center, Cabo Pulmo, Baja Sur, Mexico; and is a member of the Turkish Women’s International Network.
In addition, Stocke has written extensively about her travels in Greece and Turkey. Her memoir, Anatolian Days and Nights: A Love Affair with Turkey, Land of Dervishes, Goddesses & Saints, based on more than ten years of travel through Turkey, co-written with Angie Brenner was published in March 2012. Her cookbook, Tree of Life: Turkish Home Cooking will be published in March, 2017 by Quarto Books under the Burgess Lea Press imprint . Stocke and Brenner are currently testing recipes for a companion book, which will feature Anatolian-inspired mezes from around the world.
Stocke’s essay “Turkish American Food” appears in the 2nd edition of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America (OUP, 2013). The volume won both International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) for Beverage/Reference/Technical category, 2014; and the Gourmand Award for the Best Food Book of the Year, 2014.
She is the author of a bi-lingual book of poems, Cave of the Bear, translated into Greek by Lili Bita based on her travels in Western Crete, and is currently researching a book about the only hard-finger coral reef in Mexico on the Baja Sur Peninsula. She has been writing about environmental issues there since 2011.
A graduate of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, with a Bachelor of Science in Broadcast Journalism from the Agriculture Journalism School where she also received a minor of Food Science, she participated in the Lindisfarne Symposium on The Evolution of Consciousness with cultural philosopher, poet and historian, William Irwin Thompson. In 2009, she became a Lindisfarne Fellow.
Works by Joy E. Stocke in this Edition
AIRMAIL – LETTERS FROM AROUND THE WORLD
AIRMAIL – VOICE FROM SYRIA
ARTS – ART
COLUMNS – THE MYSTIC PEN
FOOD & DRINK – ANATOLIAN KITCHEN
FREYMAN & PETERSON- Your Life is a Book: How to Craft and Publish Your Memoir
LITERATURE – BOOK REVIEWS
LITERATURE – ESSAYS
LITERATURE – MEMOIR
LITERATURE – POETRY
LIVE FROM THE NYPL
The Euphoria of Ignorance: Being Jewish, Becoming Jewish, The Paradox of Being Carlo Ginzburg
Fountain of Curiosity: Paul Holdengraber on Attention, Tension and Stretching the Limits of Conversation at the New York Public Library
Paul Holdengraber – The Afterlife of Conversation
2013 – Three Questions: Festival Director Jakab Orsos talks about Art, Bravery, and Sonia Sotomayor
Critical Minds, Social Revolution: Egyptian Activist Nawal El Saadawi
INTERVIEW – Laszlo Jakab Orsos: Written on Water
Tonight We Rest Here: An Interview with Poet Saadi Youssef
Georgian Writer David Dephy’s Second Skin
On the High Line: Diamonds on the Soles of Our Shoes
Car Bombs on the West Side, Journalists Uptown
New York City – Parade of Illuminations: Behind the Scenes with Festival Director Jakab Orsos
The Pen Cabaret 2008: Bowery Ballroom — Featuring..
Anatolian Days and Nights: A Love Affair with Turkey, Land of Dervishes, Goddesses and Saints
Daring Collaborations: Rolex and LIVE from the NYPL at the New York Public Library Composing a Further Life: with Mary Catherine Bateson
WRR@LARGE: From the Editors – UP THE CREEK
Up the Creek: Volume 1, Number 1
Up the Creek: Volume 1, Number 2.5
Up the Creek: Volume 1, Number 3.3
Up the Creek: Number 4.4
Up the Creek: Beautiful Solutions
Up the Creek: Blind Faith, July 2009
Up the Creek: Create Dangerously
Up the Creek: What Price Choice?
Up the Creek: Before and After: September 11, 2001
Up the Creek: Candle in a Long Street
Up the Creek: Crossing Cultures: Transcending History
Up the Creek: Man in the Mirror; A Map of the World
Up the Creek: Stories and the Shape of Time
Up the Creek: The Divine Road To Istanbul
Up the Creek: What It Means to Yearn
WRR@LARGE – WILD COVERAGE
UNESCO World Heritage Site Under Threat of Mega-Devlopment Sparks International Protests
The Other Side Of Abu Ghraib — Part One: The Detainees’ Quest For Justice
The Other Side of Abu Ghraib – Part Two: The Yoga Teacher Goes to Istanbul