Posted by Joshua on Saturday, February 20th, 2010
Here are three new books about Syria that I can recommend wholeheartedly. I have corresponded with the authors for some time.
The Road to Damascus:
by Elaine Rippey Imady
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.
Another book I highly recommend is this collection of poems by Chris Ellery. I got to know Chris in 2005. His poems are beautiful. Many are about Aleppo. I will ask him to copy one poem to the comment section once this is posted so we can read a little of his work. Here is the blurb from his book. He sent a copy and I have read about a third of them. I look forward to reading the remainder, The Aleppo poems swim with images that capture the city and its people in a new way. His images make simple and common things fresh and unusual; they shark off the page in subtle surprise and grab you. Here is one of his poems – “Long Walk” – that I published on SC in 2005, when I first got to know Chris.
The Big Mosque of Mercy
by Chris Ellery
Temple, TX: Ink Brush Press, 2010
In The Big Mosque of Mercy, poet Chris Ellery transfigures his encounter with Islam and the Middle East into a meditation on Mercy. The architecture of Ellery’s mosque is revealed in poems both politically and psychologically probing. These poems reflect the spirit of the seeker, one who understands that illumination requires the humility to set aside preconceptions and pierce the attitudes of one’s own culture and conditioning. Thus, Ellery’s poems are rooted in the realist’s powers of observation and description, sometimes with a directness stripped of poetic device. Ellery obviously seeks beauty in the psychic and cultural terrain of his sojourn, yet his idealism is etched in an unsentimental rendering of landscape and society. These poems acknowledge conflict; a tragic sense of history intersects with a persistent faith in the possibility of union. The collection reflects the difficulty and promise of that union in the mining of culture and geography for common symbols and in the diminishing tension between stereotype and insight, between the urge to judge and the yearning to cross boundaries and comprehend the real significance of slogans. Whether in a voice feverishly prophetic or as unpretentious as a pistachio cracking open, Ellery expresses a vision of a transformed self and society. At home in the language of mystics and inspired by seekers of every faith, Ellery guides the reader through geography, history, religion, politics along a way where the clamor of hostility and difference is silenced, to a field where Mercy transcends its signifiers.
For more information contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org
There is one other book I must mention by a friend I got to know in Damascus in 2005. She is coming to the University of Oklahoma next week to talk about “Jesus and Mary in Islam,”
The Bread of Angels: A Journey to Love and Faith
by Stephanie Saldana, February 2010, 320pp. Knopf Doubleday
Kirkus Review: Learning about Christianity from the Muslim point of view.
In 2004, Saldaña arrived in Damascus, where she learned Arabic, studied the Quran, mingled with the micro-societies inhabiting the old city and frequented the Mar Musa monastery, where she rekindled her Christian faith. Raised in San Antonio, Texas, to a half-Mexican Catholic family with a history of manic depression and violence, Saldaña fled to the Middle East after college, where she felt strangely safer. She reinvented herself as a journalist in Lebanon, before moving back stateside to attend Harvard Divinity School. The author arrived in Damascus during the second Iraq war, as U.S. bombs were dropping on Baghdad, yet she received no hostility from the denizens of the Christian quarter Bab Touma, where she found a room off Straight Street. She happily ensconced herself in this “neighborhood of exiles,” full of Assyrians, Palestinians and Iraqis fleeing violence, and befriended the shopkeepers, recognizing soon that her medieval Arabic was unusable and laughable. Yet taking a practical language class at Damascus University only yielded tedious sentences full of current terminology like “guns,” “bombs,” “politics” and “explosion.” A month’s stint undergoing rigorous spiritual exercises at the Mar Musa monastery plunged her into meditation on what her calling was—to become a nun, or a writer? Ultimately, she resolved to engage in the “messiness” of life, and fell in love with a young French monk, Frédéric. In the second half of her memoir, the author chronicles her apprenticeship under a famous teacher of the Quran. This “lesson in personal humility” is the most affecting part of the book, and the American author’s reading of the Quran in Arabic proves gracious and moving.
A beautifully woven exploration of language and spirituality.
Praise for The Bread of Angels:
“A remarkable, wise and lovely book from a truly gifted new writer, The Bread of Angels brims with originality and insight. There is poetry here—the language and the depth of attention recall the young Annie Dillard. But this is, above all, a love story, and a compelling one. Not many people can write transcendent, mystical prose and also create a page turner that keeps you up nights. Stephanie Saldaña’s achievement is extraordinary.”
—Geraldine Brooks, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of March
“In the tradition of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, Stephanie Saldaña’s The Bread of Angels is a stunning memoir that is both a contemporary spiritual quest and a sweet, surprising love story.… Carefully observed, beautifully detailed, structured like a ceremony, The Bread of Angels takes us from a fallen world into a luminous, resurrected one through faith and love and the exquisite skill of a fine writer, who writes like an angel!”
—Julia Alvarez, author of How the García Girls Lost Their Accents
“Brace yourself for an intense inner and outer journey. Bread of Angels is a many-layered personal story, ricocheting from Damascus to Texas to the desert fathers to scruffy Cambridge. A passionate young scholar confronts war, love, the mysteries of language, and God. Stephanie Saldaña is up to the task. A brilliant debut.”
–Frances Mayes, author of Under the Tuscan Sun
“A fragrant, elegantly observed journey that captures the dilapidated glory of Damascus and the resilient wit of its people. Saldaña’s tale of spiritual dislocation and self-discovery is remarkable for its poignancy and keen intelligence.”
—Azadeh Moaveni, author of Lipstick Jihad and Honeymoon in Tehran
“The Bread of Angels is dazzling, delicious, wise and brilliantly funny, endearing in every way. It is a love letter to the Middle East and to one’s own entire life, replete with doubt and fear, faith and deep connection. A masterpiece.”
–Naomi Shihab Nye, author of 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East
“Reading The Bread of Angels, I smelled the souks of Damascus, tasted the black coffee, and heard the calls of the minarets. Stephanie Saldaña writes with humor and intensity about her search for God, love, and a place to be. This is an unswerving look into the loneliness and darkness that shadow all of us, by a woman who has known depression and loss, but who also knows a shining joy…. A fiercely courageous book.”
–Harvey Cox, Professor, Harvard Divinity School, and author of The Future of Faith