LETTER FROM DAMASCUS
Beirut in a Damascene’s Eyes
As the driver drove down the rocky mountain towards Beirut, a dust storm hung over the city. The driver pointed at it and explained that it was much worse last week, when it had stopped a planned peaceful demonstration in Beirut. I remembered how quiet it was in Damascus when the dust storm covered it with a blanket of yellow dust; no sound of bullets breaking the silence of the night, nor of shells flying over the city:
A sand storm struck Beirut and Damascus,
Enveloping them with a cloud of dust,
Calling off fighting east and west,
Threatening peaceful protests,
Removing all sadness and grief,
Blanketing them with tranquility and peace.
Little by little, we found ourselves driving through the bustling city of Beirut. I forced a smile on my face as I thought to myself that I was in “Beirut” but it soon faded away, as I thought that Damascus once was a peaceful, prosperous city too. Now it is full of pain and sorrow. A city showered by random shells, haunted by death.
Death lurks everywhere
In Damascus city, it is said.
Whether you are on the roof
In the street, or on your bed
Even if you try to flee
Consider yourself dead
On every street in central Beirut, Syrian children were begging.
A Nasty War,
That left children on the street together,
Selling candy in the cold weather,
Longing for the stories of their grandmothers,
Dreaming of absent fathers and dead mothers,
Missing lost sisters and brothers,
With hearts full of fear forever.
“Syrians are scattered everywhere, even in the sea!” said the driver as tears escaped his eyes and rolled down his face. “My two sons crossed the sea in a rubber raft two weeks ago and travelled through Europe on foot. We were so relieved when my older son, Amar, called us yesterday to announce that he and his brother had finally arrived in Germany.”
A Refugee’s Triumphant Arrival
Amar dials Damascus,
“Mama we made it to Germany!”
He shouts into the cellphone,
Tears squirt from his eyes,
He throws his backpack into the air,
Sends a joyful cry into the sky.
The driver wiped his tears and sadly said, “Syrian parents are losing their kids as hope goes fluttering away.”
Finally we arrived at the hotel, where my son Sammy was waiting for us. Two years had passed since I last saw him. A mature young man, in the place of the boy I last bid good bye to, took me in his strong arms. I cried as I thought I too was among the Syrian parents whose kids went abroad—maybe forever; a thought that had never occurred to me before.
The next day, the dust had vanished and the air was clear. So we all decided to go to the American University in Beirut (AUB) to search for references for my daughter’s thesis. The hall was crowded with students busily writing and reading. They all looked so ambitious. I sadly bit my lip as I remembered the shells that randomly fell on the university buildings and schools of Damascus, injuring and killing many students. Disasters are overcoming Damascus inhabitants throughout the year.
A season for explosive bullets
A season for random shells
A season for mysterious fires
A season for sad farewells.
Soon it was Thursday, the first day of Eid al-Adha—The Feast of Sacrifice. As the Eid prayer was being broadcast from the mosques, beautiful memories flashed back to me. I remembered the joyful Eid celebrations my sister and sister-in-law used to have in their apartments, with all the plays that were performed and the songs that were sung. Then we would all line up for the special Eid prayer, led by my older sister. As the memories crowded my head, my cellphone rang and it was my cousin May, who lives in Beirut, inviting me and my kids for lunch in a restaurant in the mountains above Beirut.
“What a relief,” I thought to myself. “An escape from my ever-haunting memories.”
Waiting for us outside my cousin’s house was a bus full of her children and grandchildren.
As the bus climbed up the narrow steep roads, memories again came back to me. This time it took me back seventeen years and I was with our entire family on a bus heading to Deir ez-Zor. My parents had organized this family trip to visit the ruins of Palmyra, Mari, and Dura Europos. Now, not only are our family members scattered in many countries, but sadly the province and its ruins are no longer the same.
The thread of my thoughts was cut by an old relative sitting across me who seemed to have read my mind. I straightened my scarf to keep my thoughts from leaking.
“All we Damascenes do is REMEMBER, ” he said in a dry voice. “We even start our conversations with this word,” he said as he shrugged his shoulders. “Our memories are the only things we possess. Everything else is merely illusion.”
I thought to myself, “Even sweet memories have abandoned those of us still living in Syria.”
In the midst of the violence
Sweet memories come to me,
Across the roaring sky,
Sobbing at my window,
The next day, we went to the beach, a place my daughter has longed to go to ever since the crisis. For more than four years, it has become very difficult to travel outside Damascus.
The blue water sparkled in the sun as my daughter happily splashed barefoot in the sea. Around her, children’s shrieks of joy echoed in the air.
Somehow, I could not find any magic in the sea. The magic faded ever since the Syrian death rafts had started to capsize, drowning people. I had visions of corpses floating on the surface of the sea. Stories about Syrians who almost drowned came back to me.
In the midst of darkness,
In the middle of the sea,
In the middle of the waves,
Again and again …
As I watched the waves break upon the rocks, the story of the son of Sheeha, a woman who worked for my family years ago, came back to me. Her son Mohammad was so worried about his future that he decided to flee to Turkey where he planned to take a rubber raft to Greece. Communications were cut between Mohammad and his family and they feared they had lost him forever.
After two weeks had passed, he called to announce he had been on the same rubber raft that capsized, drowning little Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler whose picture went viral on the internet.
When Mohammed finally phoned his sister, he told her that the rubber raft was overloaded and it flipped over after the captain abandoned it miles from the Greek island. They soon had to fight the giant waves. Mohammad survived because he was strong and a good swimmer. He later walked on foot and took trains until he arrived in Germany.
My thoughts were cut by the voice of young boy selling balloons, calling, “Balloons for sale,” in a Syrian accent. His voice brought happiness to my heart.
A Syrian Refugee in Beruit
Out of the crowds of faces
A face shines out to me
Out of many street hawkers
A boy selling balloons wins me
Out of so many voices
His voice rose in the air
A hard-working Syrian
Spreading hope everywhere.
A woman flashing a bright smile asked me: “Are you Syrian?”
Remembering all the negative talk about Syrian refugees on the Lebanese TV channels, I reluctantly nodded my head.
The woman unexpectedly said in a sweet voice: “I’ll never forget how welcomed I was in 2006 when the civil war broke out here. It is our turn to repay your hospitality.”
I thanked the woman but made sure she understood I was here only for a short visit to see my son who lives in Italy. I’ll return to Syria, I said, even though it might be noisy with shells or rockets.
I contemplated the Lebanese woman’s unusual gratitude and thought how many Arabs and ethnic groups Syria had embraced throughout history. Unfortunately, the whole world has now turned its back on us.
Syria never rejected refugees,
It welcomed them from near and far,
Never set up tents for them,
Instead, sheltered them in its heart.
When Syrians were in need,
The world turned its back,
Turned a deaf ear to their cries,
As if they were worlds apart.
The sun was beginning to disappear into the sea, sending its last golden rays of hope to the world.
“We will not lose our hope in a better future,” I said to myself. “Tomorrow is a better day!”
All we have are our prayers
To help end the nightmare
All we have is our love
To undo the knot of hatred
All we can do is hope
To unfold sadness into happiness.
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