VOICE FROM SYRIA
A Damascene Baby Shower (Imbarakeh)
I stood in front of my closet, wondering what to wear to the baby shower. Social occasions have become so rare that it exhausts me to decide what to wear whenever I’m obliged to do so. Finally, I settled on a pink suit. “It doesn’t matter,” I said to myself as I looked in the mirror, “since whatever I wear these days I don’t look like myself.” I wonder if it’s the war weighing over me or being so lonely after most of my family members and friends have left
What’s left of myself
Is folded back on the she.
That lonely creature
Is surely not me,
But someone else!
It was a rainy afternoon with the news of many random shells landing everywhere. Somehow mother nature seemed to compete with the sounds of war.
Rain battering the roof,
Like a hail of bullets,
Clouds of rolling thunder,
Silencing the roar of cannons.
Lightning streaking across the sky,
Exposing poverty and misery.
The bad weather and the war sounds cast dark shadows on the happy occasion. Yet all the neighbors who I met at the entrance of the building were determined to celebrate. Our neighbor Salma has been married for five years and this baby girl is her first so everyone was overjoyed for her. Salma planned that this special Imbarakeh (baby shower) would include a Mawlid an-Nabi. A Mawlid is a happy celebration of Prophet Muhammad’s birthday. Although the Prophet was born in Rabi’ al-awwal of the Islamic calendar, Damascenes hold his birth celebration all the year round to express their love for him. Salma invited all the women of the neighborhood to listen to the story of Prophet Mohammad’s birth and life in celebration of the gift that God has blessed them with, their baby girl.
As we entered the apartment, we were welcomed by the sounds of zalageet, high piercing cries of joy that are very much missed these days. Salma’s Tete let us in as she sang a traditional song Damascenes used to chant when their daughter gave birth:
Awha, she gave birth and is fine,
Awha, on her bed, does she recline.
Salma’s mother-in-law brought the baby girl wrapped in a bundle and put her on her lap for everyone to praise God for his gifts. In Syria, swaddling the newly born baby is believed to straighten her back, warm her, protect her from daily accidents, and make handling her easier.
“May she live and grow in your abundant spoil,” we all said as we put an envelope full of money on the table from all of us. People before the war gave gold coins and gold pins as a present, but with the drop of the worth of the Syrian pound, gold presents have become unreasonable. Therefore, a joint present or an envelope with money is more common these days.
Salma thanked us as she lovingly cuddled her beautiful baby girl. Damascene women love having daughters, and feel they give them a sense of moral support. Since the first days of their lives, mothers expressed their sorrows and sadness to their baby girls. My Tete’s lullaby echoes in my ears:
Ola ya olani
Sleep my daughter, sleep
The eye of Allah never sleeps.
How the hearts of people
Have hardened, my daughter,
Their hearts haven’t softened!
Stop opening up wounds.
Sleep, my daughter, sleep
I hope you will never be troubled.
Then young girls entered the room carrying trays of karawiya, a hot sweet herbal pudding covered with almonds and pistachios, which is usually offered to the guests in winter when a new baby is born.
An old woman held a bowl of karawiya and practically put it on Salma’s lap and said, “You must eat this! It will not only improve your health but help produce milk for the baby.”
I glanced at my bowl of karawiya lightly covered with almonds and pistachios and thought how in the past they were very generously covered. My neighbor Huda seemed to have read my thoughts; she looked at me with a tired look on her face and said, “So many of our habits have changed. Even the Damascene hospitality!”
Nada overheard Huda and whispered, “You have no idea how expensive almonds and pistachios are these days!”
Huda gave a wide grin and said, “I can imagine! With the deterioration of the Syrian pound, prices are going up like crazy. Everything is so expensive!”
I bit my lip as I recalled my last visit to the supermarket and said, “Prices change daily as our pound plunges down! No one can afford to live a comfortable life anymore.”
Nada let out a nervous laugh and said, “I wish someone would explain to me what vegetables and fruit have to do with the drop of our pound!”
Her words flashed me back to a recent dialogue that took place between me and a lettuce peddler. Vegetables and fruit have become extremely expensive; a lettuce head that used to cost thirty pounds before the crisis has soared up to three hundred pounds!
The Lettuce Peddler
“Yes, three hundred pounds a head,”
The peddler roughly said,
As he stood behind his stand,
“These heads were picked by hand,
From the grand Ghouta land,
Madam, you must understand,”
He said as he tied them with a rubber band,
“People sacrificed their lives, firsthand,
To bring these lettuce heads on your demand,
I wouldn’t pick them, even if they planned,
To pay me gold for every grain of sand!”
In spite of the happy occasion, one could see the sadness in the eyes of the women and sense how heavy their hearts were with worries for the future. Thousands and thousands of stories, so many bitter tears, hid behind their polished words. Somehow, in these harsh circumstances, the word “happiness” seemed to have disappeared from the Damascene dictionary. Every morning holds violence and uncertainty. Everyday carries fears of having your children kidnapped or killed.
I looked around the room and gazed at all the women and thought to myself: True, so many social habits have been either altered or changed, but in some way, it was for the best. Some Damascene women were obsessed with the latest fashions and showed off with their wedding parties and celebrations, but now they have become the main pillars of our society after so many young men have disappeared, died, or travelled abroad. Women have become the moral and emotional support as well as the breadwinners of their families.
Women of Damascus,
You have endured so much pain,
To drown into waves of deep sadness,
Women of Damascus,
You have strived through shades of darkness,
To lose your way in a deep wilderness,
Women of Damascus,
Grind sadness into happiness,
Shake out darkness,
Soar into the sky,
Towards a splendid brightness.
“Women were greatly touched by the war,” said Salma’s mother, but they were strong enough to endure it. Our neighbor Hala, whose husband disappeared three years ago, listened to our conversation with a sad expression on her face. She summed up her experience in a few words: “I was devastated when my husband first disappeared. I utterly didn’t know how to live or what to do! With time, I changed, gained confidence, and learned how to take charge of my life. I’m not the same dependent person my husband married.”
I thought to myself, How crisis can reshape the lives and characters of people.
A Damascene Woman’s Turning Point
To my great surprise,
My friend sounded so wise
“Out of misery I rise”
She loudly cried,
“Away from my past,
I cut all ties
And now my life,
I strive to organize.”
Despite of the poverty, sadness, and the destruction, life in Damascus is not standing still. Damascenes are determined to cling on to life, love, marriage and family.
All of the sudden Salma pointed at the window and said, “A rainbow! A sign of hope for my daughter and all the Damascenes!”
Colors of hope flow in the sky,
Spreading happiness across Damascus,
Wrapping Syrians with unity,
Filling their hearts with harmony.
“No,” I said, “There are two rainbows, that means twice as much hope for everyone!”
Not one rainbow, but two!
Red, green, yellow, violet, and blue.
Spreading, in Damascus, twice as much hope,
Through its bright colors and shimmering hue
On our way out, we were offered chocolate and mulabbas, meaning covered, referring to almonds with various sugar coatings especially made for the occasion. This is a Damascene sweet with a history more than two centuries old.
As we walked back home, the rain storm was cleared, the sun triumphantly rose in the sky showering hope over the city:
After the Storm
Dips its needle in twilight’s hue,
Sews together torn hearts.
Patches up shattered lives,
Embellishes them with bright starts.
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