The Road To Damascus:
E.E. Whiting Talks to Elaine Rippey Imady about her life in Syria
“…but we’ll only stay for a short while.”
With these famous last words, Elaine Rippey Imady, young wife and new mother, set sail in 1960 from New York on a steamer bound for Damascus, Syria. Had she asked any of the friends bidding her farewell on the dock where Damascus actually was, she would have met with stares as blank as her own on a snowy day in 1955 when a handsome Syrian graduate student at NYU named Mohammed Imady introduced himself.
In the mid-1950s, young American women were on the borderland of change. Ahead lay the upheaval of the women’s movement and behind lay the landscape of their mothers. Girls were encouraged to get an education at moderate cost and a husband at all cost. A middle class girl from Palisades, NY, was not supposed to take up a life on a whole new continent.
Road to Damascus, Imady’s autobiography of the first years of her marriage is a sharp-eyed look into the delights and detours of being a foreign wife in a country that most of her family and friends had never heard of. The book is both a tribute to her adopted country and the story of the Imadys, an old and distinguished family descending from a line of scholars and public servants dating back 600 years.
Mohammad Imady is the long-serving Minister of the Economy for the Syrian Arab Republic who helped found the nascent Damascus Stock Exchange, and who now is Chairman of the Syrian Commission on Financial Markets and Securities. Elaine Imady has stood alongside her husband throughout his career and subtly became an unofficial representative of American culture within the Arab world.
Since their departure in 1960, the Imadys have shared every step of that journey that began in Manhattan and is still winding its way through the narrow, ancient streets of Damascus. Nearly 50 years after leaving New York, Elaine Imady, now young-at-heart wife and great-grandmother has presented the saga of her life in her adopted country.
Having embraced Syria with a joy that is palpable in her writing, Imady shows the land and its people to a Western audience with the unapologetic intention of dispelling preconceptions and stereotypes. Her life has coincided with years of great change and progress and her tale provides an honestly unique perspective on the old and new, the ancient and the modern.
Her position as the wife of a cabinet minister afforded her an unrivaled perspective. Her life was not that of a cosseted, sheltered “little woman”, kept in the background and blissfully ignorant of the history being made around her. She has been a teacher at the American School and the American Language Center (an adult learning center for Syrian students), a copyeditor for the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, and the head of the UNICEF desk in Damascus.
While not inflammatory or sensational, she is not coy about describing her experiences. Her description of the bombardment by Israel on residential areas near her home in October of 1973 is the tale of all women who see war coming while they and their children look on.
In Road to Damascus, Imady openly presents Syria, warts and all, demonstrating through family stories the same struggles and foibles familiar to any Westerner. At the same time, she reminds her Syrian readers of days gone by, of a way of life that has almost disappeared amid the rush into the modern world. Passages depicting her cooking lessons, literally at the knee of her mother-in-law, when neither of them could speak a common language, are warm and insightful and profoundly familiar.
Yet, she does not shrink from addressing the hard questions that point out the vast distinction between American and Syrian attitudes and traditions. Hers was a balancing act between choosing to adopt or reject the ways of her new home. She speaks candidly of the difficulties that other Western wives had in adjusting to their new society and mourns the loss of cherished friends who could not find their way to stay. Having converted to Islam, she discusses the issues facing women in the faith. The mother of three, she speaks candidly about attitudes on childrearing and education.
I met Elaine in Damascus in May 2009 when, coincidentally, Road to Damascus was being released. Response to the book has been enthusiastic and I returned to Damascus in October to discuss the work and her focus on promoting Syrian American friendship.
WRR: Let’s begin at the beginning. What was the initial impetus to set down your personal tale?
Imady: I wasn’t driven to write Road to Damascus as I was in the case of Mom’s book [Imady wrote a biography of her mother, Mildred Post Rippey, Postscripts from Palisades in 2004]. Road was different. Although Mary [best selling biographer Mary S. Lovell] truly did nag me to write my story, I worried that the book would either be too bland or conversely, too truthful and hurt people’s feelings and get myself or Mohammed in trouble.
Finally, with Mohammed’s encouragement, I decided to go ahead. I definitely wanted to counteract the one-sided picture of the Middle East, Arabs and Muslims given by the many stories written about failed marriages between Arabs and Western women. Also, I have yet to read such a book set in Syria, but Americans tend to lump all such stories together. Americans assume any bad thing that happens in one Arab country happens in all Arab countries, which is not necessarily true. Syria is truly an unknown country in America, indeed in the West in general. Western media has nothing positive or even objective to say about Syria. I hope my book can correct misconceptions and provide a rounded picture of Syria and Syrians that will humanize instead of demonizing them.
Also, I have always been sorry about the old photographs and daguerreotypes we have of what my kids call “the unknown ancestors”. I think it is sad to live and die and eventually be completely forgotten. I wanted to get down in writing as much as I knew of Mohammed’s family members – to ensure them what little immortality my book could give them – and us. At least our descendants will know something about their forebears.
WRR: How did you decide on your point of view and the technique of using family stories to tell your family history?
Imady: I don’t think I ever decided on a point of view. The book faithfully reflects my own outlook, my own version of my first years in Syria. My correspondence with my mother was the raw material for my book and I kept these fresh impressions in my story. As for the historical parts, I badgered many family members for their memories and read several books (mentioned in the bibliography) and then wrote what I believed to be a fair account. However, I did give a lot of thought as to how I could best incorporate the Imady family stories into the book and ended up with the four chapters which are somewhat of a book within a book. Since most of the stories were told to me by family members, I thought I should write them down as I first heard them instead of retelling them in my words. I felt this would give them more immediacy, more freshness.
WRR: What was the family’s response to the idea of a book especially as it evolved to weave in the family history and stories?
Imady: Mohammed and my children were very supportive. One or two family members got a bit nervous and one sister-in-law would sometimes say when someone was reminiscing about the past: “Be careful what you say! It will end up in the book!” However, since the book is in English – which none of them read – they did not worry too much. Once or twice Mohammed said, jokingly, “Now all the family skeletons are out.” But he never asked me to leave anything out. My daughter, Susu, however, argued about my version of her grandfather (whom she never met). She felt I gave too harsh a picture of him and convinced me to soften what I wrote somewhat. She felt she knew him from reading his writings.
WRR: As the wife of a Minister, did you have to have any permissions to write the story or was the manuscript vetted in any way?
Imady: No official permission was asked for and no one vetted the book. However, I did work closely with Mohammed and got his okay on anything to do with him or his work. Of course, having lived here all these years, I basically know what one could write about anything sensitive and what one could not write.
WRR: You allude in Road that you were a disillusioned Christian. Yet, going to church played a large a role in your upbringing. What factors beyond your love of Mohammed did you weigh in making your choice to convert?
Imady: Yes, church was a big part of my life growing up. Even as a young girl, I loved the sermons (!) and the hymns. But as I became interested in left wing ideas I gradually began to question important tenets of Christianity such as the trinity, the divinity of Christ, original sin and especially the concept that Christ died for our sins and that one could only be saved by accepting Christ as one’s Saviour. By the time I met Mohammed, I was really no longer a believing Christian. Mohammed grew up in a family where, like mine, religion mattered and we spoke a lot about religion from the beginning.
My Islam is Mohammed’s Islam – a tolerant religion that encourages good deeds, charity and kindness. I began fasting in Ramadan in 1956, as I write in my book, and started praying the five daily prayers about 20 years ago. I made my pilgrimage to Mecca with Mohammed and our son in the nineties.
An interesting aspect of Islam is that whereas Christianity says “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions” Islam encourages and even emphasizes your efforts even if you do not live up to what you strive for. I really like this.
My wonderful mother never was upset about my conversion to Islam. She used to say she was glad that I was no longer an agnostic and I had found a religion I could believe in.
WRR: Do most Western wives convert or were you an anomaly?
Imady: As for the foreigners here married to Syrians, they are of all kinds. Some – the minority- keep their Christianity and attend church here. One, a woman from San Diego became an Islamic scholar and 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.
Converting does allow you to be buried with your family and not in a separate cemetery. I wrote in my book that special permission had to be obtained from a Welsh friend who was a Christian in order to be buried with her family. She died with her Syrian husband and two children in an Israeli bombing raid. An exception was made for Mair because of the special circumstances of her death – during war and with her entire family.
In addition, you can inherit from your husband and bequeath to your own estate if you are the same religion. If you are a Christian and your husband is Muslim you cannot inherit form him. Of course, while he is alive he can transfer property into your name and/or set up a bank account for you.
However, there are other non-legal benefits if you and your husband are both Muslim. There is the benefit that the children will not be torn between two religions and also, your in-laws will probably be more favorably disposed toward you. It eliminates one cause of family conflict in an international marriage.
WRR: You state you were very reckless as a child, even taking chances with your physical safety. This rebelliousness streak continued through into college with your attraction to left wing politics and demonstrations. When Mohammed came into your life you became more settled. To what do you attribute this shift in focus?
Imady: After marrying Mohammed, I did begin to think twice before jumping into risky situations so as not to embarrass or upset him and I am a much more prudent person than I used to be, but that reckless streak still lurks under the surface and Mohammed has been very tolerant. Did you know I took up windsurfing in my late forties and up to around 1997 I was still out on the Mediterranean on my windsurfer? It must be true that opposites attract because Mohammed has been cautious and careful all his life. He does not believe in revolution (nor do I now) as a successful way to improve society, but believes in slow, careful reform and solving problems politely and diplomatically.
WRR: Mohammed is consistently presented as a steadying influence. He demonstrates understanding and tolerance, from the first genial meeting with your family through your immersion into his family and further in his own ability to maintain a political neutrality in his professional career. Yet, his father had been so authoritarian. To what do you attribute his even temperament?
Imady: Mohammed’s even temperament is an absolute reaction to his father’s unpredictable and terrible temper. In my book I write: “He [Mohammed] has spent his entire life trying to be many things his father was not…” Mohammed clearly saw how unproductive his father’s outbursts were and determined to never be like him. Also, Mohammed had the model of his mother who set an example of diplomacy, tact and graciousness. Mohammed got these traits from his mother.
WRR: How much exposure to Western thought and traditions did Mohammed have before coming to NYU?
Imady: He says he read many books in Arabic about America and was particularly impressed with Lincoln. He was befriended by an American professor who was teaching at Damascus University and even had some English lessons from his wife. Just a week or so after arriving in America, he was invited by this professor for Thanksgiving dinner. He was offered a four year scholarship to get an MA and PhD from France or a three-year scholarship to America to get only an MA. He didn’t hesitate to choose America because, as he says, he considered it to be the “Garden of Eden” where democracy and freedom flourished. He really wanted to study at Columbia, but someone in the Ministry of Finance insisted that NYU was a better choice and so it came to pass.
WRR: I’d like to explore your own preconceptions and “myth-busting” experiences when you first arrived in Damascus. You had the advantage of living in New York City for quite a while before moving. During that time you met many of your husband’s contemporaries and would have heard about life in Syria. But even that couldn’t have prepared you for the reality. Did the fact that you had several years together in the States help with your transition?
Imady: We had known each other for four years and had three and a half years of marriage before coming to Syria. And, yes, it was a great help. I have seen American women come here to get married and face not only getting used to marriage, but also a new culture, language etc. at the same time. It can be overwhelming.
WRR: What horror stories were presented to you about making the move? What were you expecting as a reception from Mohammed’s family?
Imady: I can’t even recall how many horror stories I heard – many from people who had no personal experience of Syria – stories of very unhappy women who were badly treated by their in-laws and who fled without their children.
My friend, Jill, went to Syria a year and a half before me and “checked out” my in-laws for me. She visited them in Ramadan and said they all had bad breath (it can be a result of fasting) and all were grimly dressed in black (my father-in-law had just died and they were still in mourning). The only family member she had anything good to say about was my brother-in-law who, she said, “looked like the actor, Ricardo Montalban”. I took it all with a pinch of salt because I knew Jill so well.
Mohammed also used to tease me and say that the family’s animals (donkeys and camels) lived on the first floor of the building – of course just a joke. I was not worried about Mohammed’s family. I could not imagine they would be anything but good people, like Mohammed himself. I guess I am just a cockeyed optimist, but I was not really concerned. I was not surprised – but very pleased – to be warmly welcomed by my in-laws.
WRR: One of the most obvious “culture shocks” that I experienced in my travels last spring was the lack of privacy. To the Western mind, especially back in the 1950s, family meant primarily a husband, a wife and children. We had moved away from the concept of family = kin. I personally was struck by the concept of personal space being much smaller than we expect, i.e. people stand much closer to you when they talk.
Imady: Yes, lack of privacy was an issue. However, I had had good training to cope with it. My best friend in high school invited me, along with another girl, to Canada Lake in upper New York State where her family had a summer home. We three girls slept in one bedroom and I came to feel I was almost part of the family. Also, when a college student (before meeting Mohammed) I stayed for two summers with another family – neighbors of ours in Palisades – at their summer home on a lake in New York State. I helped to care for several of the small children and, again, came to feel part of the family. In both these cases, I didn’t have a lot of privacy and had to accommodate my host family’s different ways of doing things. However, I am good at tuning out, which is a help.
Of course I noticed how Syrians are very comfortable with a much smaller personal space than Americans are used to. At first I would cringe at all the knee patting, (even stomach patting!) kissing, linking arms when walking in the street, etc. But rather quickly I got used to it. However, my sister-in-law was a seamstress and made most of my clothes in the sixties, and everyone was very surprised when I would not strip down to my underclothes in front of my sisters-in-law to try on a new dress. They laughed about it and said, “Lulu is very shy”. I never did get used to this. As for “family as kin” – coming from such a small family, I kind of liked being part of an extended family.
WRR: How did you come to terms with this domestic setting that was 180° from what we experience?
Imady: Maybe I am just a flexible person; it wasn’t such a problem. Missing my family, not being understood and not being able to understand were the major problems. Everything else was minor. Having my own apartment was a great help. I could just continue to do things my way in my own home. Although my in-laws could freely enter, they didn’t really abuse this right. Also, they never criticized my way of doing things. They really were – are – very tolerant. At first perhaps they cut me a lot of slack because they loved Mohammed so much, but soon they began to like me for myself.
We really hit it off from the first.
The lack of central heat and a sporadic supply of hot water bothered me a lot. It really complicated life and I never got used to it.
WRR: What other aspects of daily life surprised you?
Imady: Like all Western women here, I was taken aback by the men who pinch you in public. They even pinched my mother! One time I got my revenge. I was on my way to my Arabic lesson, carrying my books when a young man pinched me on my butt and then after passing me, turned around and leered at me. I saw red. I ran up behind him and hit him so hard with my books that he reeled. Then, from nowhere, a crowd of people appeared surrounding him and shouting at him and even pushing him this way and that. They said he should be ashamed of such behaviour to a school girl! I was thirty-two at the time, but it was twilight. I was doubly pleased to be taken for a school girl, but hurried away to my class before they got a better look at me.
The child servants shocked me and upset me and I also never came to terms with that aspect of Syrian life. Today, all the little Syrian girls are in school, but they have been replaced by young Indonesian, Malaysian and Philippina girls who are in a worse position here than the little Syrian maids were. These foreign maids are literally indentured servants with no days off and no freedom to leave the house. I would never hire one of them. We have a Syrian cleaning woman who comes twice a week.
The fact that my brother-in-law still lived at home (at the age of 25) and happily let his sisters (all much older than him) run his life was surprising to me. He did not marry until he was 46 and it was his sisters who picked out his wife for him!
WRR: When looking at the pictures in Road, I see everyone predominantly in western dress including members of Mohammed’s family. Was there not the emphasis on wearing scarves and coats in those earlier years?
Imady: Not only were my sister-in-law and my mother-in-law the only ones in Mohammed’s family who wore a scarf on their heads, but also they only wore their scarves in the street. In their own home – or in the home of relatives, even if men outside the family were present, they would take off their scarf. Today’s women are very strict about wearing the hijab – inside or out – in the presence of any male other than a father or grandfather, husband, brother, uncle, nephew, or young pre-pubescent boy.
In the sixties the hijab in its present form of coat and scarf (tied in a specific way) did not exist. I should explain that prior to the late sixties, most Syrian women knew little about their own religion. In 1958 I met a young Syrian girl named Rima in New York whose husband was studying at Columbia. She told me that her Catholic landlady had told her a lot about her religion and had asked Rima about Islam. Rima said she was embarrassed that she knew so little about her own religion. She was very typical of Muslim women of her generation.
Islam has been interpreted by male sheikhs for centuries, but in the late sixties, Muslim women in Syria began reclaiming their religion and several charismatic female sheikhas started interpreting and reclaiming women’s innate Muslim rights from the patriarchal male sheikhs whose slant on Islam naturally was biased in favor of men. The scarves and coats these women donned were their proud badge that indicated they were truly following Islam. For these women, no man could limit their freedom to drive, get an education or a job by saying this was “unIslamic”. These women knew better. As for the coat and scarf “uniform”, these sheikhas came up with this solution as a practical outfit for a Muslim woman who would be out in the world, participating in society.
WRR: You said that your daughters and granddaughters have all chosen to be in “hijab”, i.e. wearing scarves and coats. This issue, frankly, is one of the bigger stumbling blocks for acceptance that I hear in discussions about Muslim culture. Many people see this as another aspect of the suppression of females by authoritarian males, forcing them to be drab, subservient and anonymous. We have no knowledge of the distinction between the full range of dress, from the burqa with only airholes to the brightly coloured scarves or no scarves and western dress I saw the young girls in Damascus wearing.
Imady: Yes, hijab is a very emotional issue and I frankly despair about Westerners ever really understanding it in all its permutations. My daughters, my granddaughters (except Amyna who is nine) and the wives of my grandsons are all in hijab. They have never criticized me for not donning hijab and Mohammed and I do not feel it is mandatory. The Qur’anic verse which stipulates this dress is ambiguous and while many see in it a clear call for hijab, others (like us) say it is just calling for modesty in dress (for men as well as for women).
There are not only all the different styles of hijab from burqa to chador etc. but also, and more importantly, the reason behind the hijab can vary from person to person and from country to country. First, you have the countries where hijab is legally mandated, like Iran and Saudi Arabia. Then, you have the rest of the Arab countries where hijab is a matter of tradition or conviction or even fashion. I can only speak with authority about Syria, but I strongly suspect that what I say about Syria applies more or less to Jordan, Palestine and Lebanon.
There is absolutely no legal basis for hijab in Syria. There are girls in sleeveless low cut tops and even bare midriffs. Three-quarter trousers or what we used to call “Capri pants” are popular here now with the “non-hijab” set.
The girls and women (including my girls) in long beige, brown, navy blue or black coats with white, navy blue or black scarves are all dressed like this from conviction, from their personal choice. It is sometimes even the case that a girl’s parents or husband oppose this choice, but the girl or woman will plead she is following God’s wishes and usually wins the day. This group – and it is a large group – does not wear make-up and I suppose Westerners see them as drab. However, they have chosen this and it by no means signifies they are oppressed or subservient. On the contrary, they place a high value on education and many are professionals working as medical doctors, engineers, pharmacists, teachers, government employees, professors and bankers. The director of our bank is a woman in this type of hijab. These women lead full lives; most have full-time jobs, they drive cars, join (all female) exercise classes and some run companies with male employees.
Then there are the girls you mention in colorful “Western” dress and make-up, but wearing scarves. The families of these girls come from areas (often rural) where hijab is based on tradition, not religion – a big distinction. These families expect their girls to cover, but are liberal in their interpretation of what this entails. So, actually, these girls are covering because their families insist upon it. It is not their choice.
Finally, there are the women who simply are following the herd. The trend in Syria is definitely more conservative than it used to be and as more and more women don the hijab, others will follow just to be like everyone else. These women would not take up the “somber” type of hijab.
Will Westerners ever take the time to sort out all this? It is much easier for them to just think the hijab is an oppressive outfit forced upon unwilling women by men – and in the case of Saudi Arabia and Iran, of course, this is true. However, I get very tired of having Syria lumped in with all Muslim societies. This is one reason I wrote my book.
WRR: Do you think that there is a move to a more conservative way of life today?
Imady: When I arrived in the country, secularization and Westernization seemed to be the wave of the future. But there certainly is a strong conservative trend now in the Middle East. There are a couple of factors: the blanket support of the West for Israel and the rise of the appearance of the sheikhas. Young girls were attracted to these charismatic teachers and adopted the hijab from religious conviction.
WRR: So many Western wives were not able to deal with life in Syria. You say that you were “always saying good-bye to someone”. How did your experience differ?
Imady: Other friends of mine had in-laws who were good to them. Most of these women are still here. Those who were rejected or treated badly usually left quickly, but often they took their husbands with them. Marriage is something you have to work at whether you marry a foreigner or not. Marrying across the boundaries of nationality, culture, religion and language only increases the difficulties. If you have not chosen someone well, you are bound to have trouble. Also, your attitude towards marriage is important. I think many people today marry with the idea if it doesn’t work out, they will divorce and try again. In my day, people would make more of an effort to work out a troubled marriage. The commitment to marriage was stronger, I think.
What were/are the distinctive hallmarks of all the many marriages that did work, like yours?
Imady: In a way, successful marriages here are no different from anywhere else. First, you should marry for the right reasons; next, you should choose your partner carefully; and, finally, you should work at making your marriage successful. Probably the biggest downfall of marriages here is that some Syrian husbands change once they get back to Syria. We foreign wives even have a phrase for it – we say “they revert”. Sometimes a man who was tolerant and easy going in the States would, when he returned to Syria, expect his wife to conform to his family’s expectations and become a difficult, controlling husband. Mohammed never changed at all. However, I do think you also need a generous dollop of luck for a good marriage. It is always somewhat of a lottery.
WRR: No discussion of marriage can avoid the next question. How prevalent is polygamy and how can it be addressed to a Western audience?
Imady: We have no statistics on this, but Mohammed’s guess is about 5% of Syrian married men have more than one wife – and the overwhelming majority of these men have only two wives. These days very few men can afford the expense of more than one family. Also, it is not socially acceptable and this is a big deterrent.
As for addressing this to a Western audience, that is a hard thing too. However, there are arguments in its favor. When a wife is incapacitated for one reason or another – in a coma or has lost her mind – it is argued that it is better for the husband to marry another wife and yet keep the first and support her. People here say that polygamy is better than having a wife and a mistress. At least the second wife has a legal position and her children are legitimate. They also say that serial marriage partners (as in the West) are no better than having more than one wife.
However, Mohammed and all true Muslims, point out that what the Qur’an says is that a man can marry up to four wives IF HE TREATS THEM EQUALLY IN ALL RESPECTS (Imady’s caps) – and this stipulation makes it, in effect, forbidden. You can treat wives equally financially, but never emotionally so, for any true believer, this makes polygamy off limits. However, since many men will only focus on the “marry up to four wives” part of the verse, you find Muslims who feel they are entitled to marry more than one.
WRR: Another profoundly delicate question that is a stumbling block for us is that of honour killings.
Imady: We have all heard stories in Syria, and I can only speak to this matter in this country. It does occur here but primarily within rural cultures. Syria has recently passed a law that recognizes the act as murder and imposes prison sentences for conviction. Perpetrators can no longer simply walk away. The government in cooperation with women’s groups has begun amassing much more detailed statistics to track and analyze this profoundly un-islamic tradition. It is an unfortunate part of traditional Middle-East culture and occurs within both the Christian and Muslim communities.
In fact, a major issue for women’s rights groups is spousal abuse, something very familiar to Americans. The biggest roadblock for groups attempting to establish shelters is the law that states that if a wife spends one night outside the house without the husband’s permission that is grounds for divorce. Efforts are focused on changing that law right now.
(Author’s note: I have been advised by friends of Elaine Imady who are active in women’s rights efforts that private organizations and government bureaus have recently begun to amass reliable statistics on so-called honour crimes. This more accurate reporting may make it appear that such crimes are more prevalent in Syria than in other countries for which data is not as comprehensive. These efforts to quantify the problem are part of a concerted effort to eradicate the practice.)
WRR: Did Mohammed’s family, beyond your brother-in-law who already spoke English, pickup any words and phrases?
Imady: Several of the nephews and nieces who were little children when I arrived not only picked up words, but also became fluent in English. None of the adult relatives learned more than a word or two.
WRR: Your sister-in-law Kawsar was your cooking teacher during your first years in Syria and in so doing helped you acclimate yourself to the culture and the language. Did you teach her some of your family recipes?
Imady: No, I was too involved in learning to cook Syrian dishes from Kawsar and everyone was content to have me prepare my specialties whenever there was an occasion. But, again, it was the younger generation that wanted to get recipes from me. Only yesterday a nephew asked me for my recipe for lemon meringue pie. Several of the grandchildren are experts at making all my favorite American recipes.
WRR: Did Syrian friends and family, even unconsciously, adopt some of your ways of doing things, perhaps in the area of childrearing or household management?
Imady: Yes, many of my American ways were adopted such as husbands helping in the house, fathers taking an active role in their children’s lives, parents reading to their children and encouraging their children to read by buying books etc. One niece bought a piano and her children had lessons. Birthday parties and birthday cakes were unknown in Syria in l960 and I like to think their widespread prevalence today is in part due to me and all the birthdays I celebrated for my family members. The idea of keeping the best room in the home for entertaining guests is dying out and many Syrian family members and friends use what would have been a “guest room” in the past as a family room. However, ironically, we still do have a salon or guest room which we keep cat-free for our allergic daughter-in-law.
My niece May declares that she has modeled her life on me. My daughter Susu claims that she does everything, from childrearing to running the home based on the way Auntie Lulu does it. Susu on the other hand does many things differently from me. However, she has said: “Mom, you aimed at raising children who think for themselves and you certainly succeeded with me!”
WRR: Stereotypes play both ways. Did people ever tell you “I never knew Americans were/did/thought X!”
Imady: I think one of the things that surprised people here the most was/is how close I am to my American family. They all had the idea that Americans are cold-hearted people who turn their eighteen-year-olds out of the family home to fend for themselves. Everyone here was surprised when my mother came to Syria a year and a half after I arrived and then made nine more visits. My sisters, brother, brothers-in-law and sister-in-law as well as a niece and a nephew also visited us. However, in general, Syrians are far less likely to judge Americans by the actions of the American government than Americans are to judge Arabs by the actions of Arab governments or of a few terrorists. In general, Arabs are much better informed about America than Americans are about the Middle East.
WRR: You write that your uncle-in-law Hamdi came home drunk one night. Is there much of an alcohol problem?
Imady: No, there is not much of an alcohol problem and yes, there are alcoholics here. Aside from Hamdi, I have heard of only two other family members who drank: Hamdi’s son and the husband of a cousin. The good thing is that since it is not socially acceptable (except among Christian Syrians who mostly drink in moderation), young people are not exposed to it and there is no peer pressure among young people to drink. Maybe drugs are more of a problem among the children of the elite.
WRR: Your children and your grandchildren are now mostly married and your family gatherings reach upwards to 80 people. How has the family become a cross section of Syrian society?
Imady: We are an eclectic group in many ways. For one thing, there are three foreigners among us: two Americans (me and my daughter-in-law) and a Japanese girl who is married to one of Mohammed’s cousin’s grandsons. Another of her grandsons is married to a girl whose mother is Egyptian and whose father is Lebanese. Among the cousins, we have in-laws from Circassian Mountains of Russia, from Lebanon, Algeria. One cousins’ wife is the granddaughter of an Armenian whose family was slaughtered by the Turks when she was an infant. The baby was rescued and adopted by Muslims in Deir-Ez-Zor, near the Iraqi border. We have Shias and Sunnis in the family, so there is hardly a segment of society we haven’t encompassed.
As for professions, we have Mohammed who as you know was with the government for years. His brother Abdo got a degree from Damascus University in law and was in the foreign ministry, and was posted to the Syrian Embassy in Belgium and in London. Several of Mohammed’s sisters taught school or worked for government ministries where they rose through the ranks.
Of the 14 in the next generation, nine of them have university degrees. My three children are in education, five cousins are in business, and one has a tourist agency and is active in an environmental group. We have a medical doctor, with a med student currently in school, accountants and translators in the family. As for the family being a cross section of Syria, it is quite inclusive – more so than most families I would say.
WRR: Are you planning a sequel that will take you up to the present day? If so, how will you approach the difficult question of 9/11 and all the mistrust that it spawned?
Imady: The truth is I haven’t really decided to write a sequel and if I do, it would not come up to the present. There are a lot of messy issues I would have to write about that I don’t want to go into.
WRR: What is the general perspective of the everyday Syrian about the attacks of 9/11 and the West’s reaction?
Imady: The average Syrian was very glad that there were no Syrians involved in the attack. Most people I know here were very appalled at this attack on innocent civilians, but when the Bush administration started its “war on terror” and set up Guantanamo prison, initiated a war on Iraq and started a hate campaign which ended up in the arrest of many innocent Arabs in America, Syrians were also very appalled by these actions of the American government. They will say that around 3,000 people died in the attack of 9/11, but untold thousands of Iraqi civilians died during Bush’s war.
WRR: One of the hardest attitudes to change is the tendency here among some to view the Middle East in absolute black and white terms. We have been bombarded with the idea that everyone there is horrible and hates us, regardless of location or background. This attitude seems to have become carved in stone for certain ideologies. What efforts do you think can be taken to help dispel this notion and what approaches do you think work well?
Imady: I have a suggestion that is probably very impractical; if Americans watched Arab TV as much as Arabs watch American TV it would go a long way to promote understanding of the Arab World. The best TV channel for this would be Al Jazeera which has an English channel. It is a wonderful and amazingly objective window on the Arab World and on Arab thinking. I know it is available in Vermont and several other American states by cable. You would be surprised at how open-minded and professional its reporting is. Also, CNN International has a weekly program called “Inside the Middle East” hosted by Hala Gorani (born in the States of Syrian parents) which is excellent. I am sure the average American has never even heard of these possibilities. Best of all – and again very impractical – is for more Americans to visit the Middle East – especially Syria. I have never heard of anyone coming here and not wanting to come again. It is always a pleasant surprise for Americans.
Just before you came over, there was a news program on Al Arabyia, an Arabic network. It reported on the recent poll, undertaken by Coexist Foundation and the Gallop Organization, which encompassed 90% of the Muslim world. This multi-year project sent pollsters out into the farthest reaches of each country covered, pollsters who spoke the dialect, women and men so that all aspects of the various societies were included. Such a broad analysis is unprecedented and the results reported in this program were eye-openers to the listeners.
Author’s note: The project mentioned above is The Muslim West Facts Project. It was launched in 2005. The Coexist Foundation and the Gallup Organization have a ten-year partnership to analyze and disseminate the data.
However, I am very pessimistic about making a dent in the average American’s thinking about Arabs or the Middle East. The pro-Israel media in America is simply too overwhelmingly powerful.
Having said that, I was thrilled to read about a new best-seller called Zeitoun which is about an American-Syrian family living in New Orleans during Katrina. This is the true story of a Syrian who came to America, married an American and settled in New Orleans. The book is written by an American journalist David Eggers. The reviews were wonderful. Books like this can be very influential in changing false perceptions. That is what I hope for my book, as well.
To read E. E. Whiting’s impressions of Syria, click here: The View Along the Road.
E. E. Whiting
An attorney by profession, E. E. Whiting has freelanced for several years writing on a variety of topics from estate planning to travel to her personal favourite, food. She currently lives in Princeton, NJ and escapes to odd destinations at the drop of a hat. A native of Maine, she lived in Wales while attending college and frequently returns to visit the places few tourists go. She was introduced to Syria by her friend, the biographer Mary Lovell, whose books on Jane Digby and Sir Richard and Isabella Burton kindled Mary’s own love affair with that country years ago. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College with an MA in Mediaeval Studies, Whiting indulges her fascination with history on all her travels.