Posted by Joshua on Thursday, March 4th, 2010
A Damascus Life: Walking a Tightrope, How a Multi-cultural Family can Thrive
By Elaine Rippey Imady
for Syria Comment
I was very surprised and pleased to find my book, Road to Damascus recommended on the Syria Comment blog. Since my publisher, MSI Press, is small, there has been no campaign to promote my book and it can only be ordered on-line from Amazon or Barnes and Noble. The only bookstore that stocks it is Ex Libris in Damascus so I welcome any publicity I can get.
Since last Sunday, March first, marked exactly fifty years since I arrived in Damascus, my thoughts have naturally gone back to that unforgettable day and the events that led up to it. Half a century has passed since my arrival with my husband Mohammed Imady and our daughter, Susu, after a three-week trip from New York to Beirut across the rough Atlantic by freighter in the dead of winter followed by a wild taxi drive in the dark over the two mountain ranges separating Lebanon and Syria. Traveling to Syria meant leaving behind my mother and my two sisters and uprooting myself from my small Hudson River town where my mother’s family had lived since 1765. How surprising that I would end up thousands of miles from home in a country where I did not know a soul and could not speak the language and how even more unlikely that I would still be here today, fifty years later.
Mohammed and I met at NYU in December 1955 and we knew from the first day that we were destined for each other. I told my mother that night that I had met the man I would marry and she laughed. Seven months later we were married. We felt our meeting and marriage was maktoub – that it was written, ordained.
When I first met Mohammed, we talked a great deal about Islam and, as a disillusioned Christian, I listened with interest. To tell the truth, at this time in my life, my understanding of Islam was quite superficial. I merely felt that if Islam was Mohammed’s religion, it must be good. I had my letter of confirmation in the Palisades Presbyterian Church removed and made the shahada, the profession of faith in Islam, in front of two witnesses. That is all there was to it. I was now a Muslim.
Some time after this, I saw a film about the Middle East at the Organization of Arab Students in New York. In one scene, there was a man in flowing robes praying in the desert while the voice-over – first in Arabic and then in English – recited one of the famous verses from the Qur’an: Qul hua Allahu ahad … Say, God is One… The voice seemed to speak directly to me, and I was electrified. This was the moment of truth that sealed and affirmed my acceptance of Islam.
April came and, with it, my first Ramadan. I told Mohammed that I intended to fast, but the first day he found me in the university cafeteria drinking coffee.
“I thought you were going to fast,” he said.
“I am – I haven’t eaten a thing.”
“But you’re drinking coffee.”
“You mean you aren’t supposed to eat or drink? You didn’t tell me that.”
The next day I was caught smoking a cigarette, and the third day I was chewing gum, two more things that broke the fast. Finally, I got it sorted out. I remember one afternoon mowing the lawn in Palisades while watching the slow, the very slow progress of the sun across the sky. It wasn’t easy, but I kept the fast all that Ramadan without any more mistakes and was thrilled to have shared this special month with Mohammed.
After we married, Mohammed sometimes took me with him to the Islamic Student Organization of New York, and we would join the small number of Muslims who gathered for Friday prayers. Half a century ago there was not a single mosque in New York City, and we Muslims had to make do with a chapel on the campus of Columbia University which we shared with Christians and Jews. On Fridays, we would unroll the beautiful Persian carpet donated by the government of Saudi Arabia and conduct our prayers. Students took turns being the imam, the one who leads the prayers and gives the sermon. Things were much more relaxed in those days. We girls prayed in skimpy scarves that did not really conceal our hair; only nylon stockings covered our legs and some of us even had bare arms sticking out of short sleeves. None of this would be acceptable today…
When I arrived in Syria, secularization and Westernization seemed to be the wave of the future. Two factors reversed this tide beginning in the late sixties: one was the blanket support of the West for Israel, particularly after the 1967 War, and the second was the appearance of several female Islamic scholars who began to reclaim Islam for women from centuries of male interpretation. Young girls were attracted to these charismatic teachers and adopted the hijab from religious conviction. These teachers encouraged their students to get the best education possible and many of these girls became medical doctors, pharmacists, engineers, members of Parliament, bank directors and teachers. They actually achieved more than many of their feminist, secular mothers had.
In 1960, I was a young mother of twenty-five with a small daughter. Now I am a great-grandmother of seventy-five with four great-grandchildren in addition to my eleven grandchildren and three children. Unlike most of my friends whose grown children are studying or living abroad, all our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren live in and around Damascus and every Friday they visit us and our home and garden reverberates with their laughter, their tears and their uproar. English, Arabic and “Englibic” – what my children call the mishmash of Arabic and English that some of the younger ones speak – all compete to be heard. My granddaughter’s young fiancé sometimes leads the prayers with his beautiful voice, but more often our patriarch, my husband, is the imam and several generations line up behind him.
Let me introduce my children: Sawsan, my oldest child, has a Masters in Education from the University of Southern California and is in charge of the English curriculum at a private school with classes from Kg to 12th grade. Muna, my second child, graduated from Damascus University in the English Department and later got a diploma in English/Arabic translation. She teaches young Syrian children English with her own books and curriculum in two private schools.
Omar, my youngest is the newly appointed Dean of the New York Institute of Technology in Amman, Jordan. He has a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania and commutes home to his family in Damascus every weekend. Three of my granddaughters teach English and three of my grandchildren have certificates for memorizing the entire Qur’an. My children, their children and their grandchildren are all bi-lingual, bi-cultural and observant Muslims. In fact, my daughters and five of my granddaughters, all but the youngest, wear hijab.
Sometimes I ask myself, how did all this happen? How is it that all our children decided to return home to Syria after many years abroad? How is it that even to the fourth generation, our bi-lingual, bi-cultural English/Arabic family tradition persists? Part of the reason is that early on I made the conscious decision that I didn’t want my children to feel like strangers in their own country so I shared them generously with my in-laws who lived in the same building. Children in Syria are encouraged to feel dependent upon their parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles which helps knit the family together in a way Americans might envy on the one hand and find stifling on the other hand. First Susu, and then my other two children were to walk a tightrope between the expectations of two very different cultures. Upstairs with their Syrian grandmother, uncle and aunties they would fit in seamlessly, accepting the dependent role unquestioningly. Downstairs, with me, they would be independent, assertive and self-reliant. As they switched from Arabic to English effortlessly, so they seemed to adjust their behavior automatically.
As for the children’s religion, I left that to the aunties – my sisters-in-law. The children knew I had accepted Islam, they saw me fast in Ramadan and yet we had a Christmas tree, a turkey dinner for Thanksgiving, parties for New Year’s Eve and Halloween and picnics for the Fourth of July. Observing these American holidays helped me feel there was some continuity between my old life and my new. It not only was a link to my past, it also enriched my children’s lives as they grew up with not one culture and its traditions, but with two. My children were very confident in their Islam and, at the same time, very accepting of their American relatives’ religion. In my mother’s parlor there was a large picture of Christ called “The Light of the World”, a reproduction of a popular 19th century painting by William Holman Hunt. Over the years, many of the photographs of our children were taken with this picture on the wall behind them. Susu would blithely refer to it as the “picture of the Prophet Issa” and my mother would smile. My mother was amazingly supportive of my decision to become a Muslim and always respected her grandchildren’s religion. My mother – who was always “Mommy” to my children – wrote the following about her visit to Damascus in 1974 and it will give an idea of how the differences in our family were bridged. Omar was eight years old at the time.
Mother wrote: One night in the year, the 15th of Shaaban – the lunar month just before the month of Ramadan – Muslims believe that the gates of Heaven are open and that everyone who prays this night will have his wishes granted. This year I happen to be in Damascus on this special night and my darling grandchildren tell me the things they are going to pray for. Omar wants to be superman and Muna wants her own bedroom. They both say they will also pray that I have a long life and come to see them many times.
Mother continued: Omar, when he was very tiny, used to go around the house saying, “Ya Rub” (Oh Lord!”) over and over. Now he goes with his father to the mosque every Friday and no matter where we are, Mohammed always manages to find a mosque. Omar comes back and tells me that he prayed for me.
I guess Omar feels I am in need of his prayers. One hot afternoon when I am trying to catch a nap, I hear Omar shouting angrily over the courtyard wall. I can also hear the taunting voice of the neighbor’s son shouting back. Minutes later Omar bursts into my room with a red, excited face.
“What’s the matter?” I ask, “Why were you and the boy next door shouting?”
“Mommy,” says Omar earnestly, “I hate him! He called you a name and I told him I would kill him if he said it again.”
Piqued, I ask him what the boy said.
Omar says, “He called you a Kafir (unbeliever) but, don’t worry he won’t dare to say it again!”
Dear little confused boy. I decide to take off the large cross I had been wearing recently. Omar, I knew, would eventually sort out his motley family and end up, like all his Syrian/American family, very tolerant and open-minded. (And so he did.)
My mother died in 1995, but my children remember her with love. Her tolerance and the way she, a life-long Presbyterian, embraced her Syrian Muslim family sets an example for how a multi-cultural family can thrive.
My journey on the road to Damascus has been – still is – an amazing trip, one I would not have missed for worlds. To learn more about my adventures, you can read my book, Road to Damascus.