New Books on Syria by Imady, Ellery, and Saldaña

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.

Read this interview with Elaine Imady

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

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

Comments (5)

Chris Ellery said:

Here is a poem from The Big Mosque of Mercy by Chris Ellery (Ink Brush Press, 2010):


According to my president this country sponsors terror.
This claim discourages the tourists,
but Mary likes to visit anyway.

The politicians have forgotten Mashta al Helou,
with its cool summers, Mediterranean air,
so the people have it pretty good here,
going about their business of boiling corn.

From here you can visit ruined castles.
Safita, Salahiddin, the Krak des Chevaliers
visible beyond the peaks and valleys.

From heaven you can view the whole world’s suffering.
From heaven pain is pain.
No matter who or where or what the cause.
When you enter that kingdom
put away your passport.
Nobody demands a form that states
your “State of Origin.”
There “ethnic cleansing” means to cleanse
of ethnic hate.
The shade of skin’s no more
germane than the color of fur
to a lover of cats.

So Mary comes to this pinnacle
they call the Mountain of the Lady.
She’s not particular who sees her here.
The good and not so good
can catch a glimpse.
Muslim, Christian. Religious, not religious.
Children, women, men. Anyone
with eyes to see the human shape of love.

These folk have built a simple shrine.
Of course they paint it blue.
They trek here once a year
up the narrow, steep, and twisting road from the town square.

Something they can do together.

February 21st, 2010, 2:56 am


Henry said:

Speaking of new books. Many of you may be interested in the book by Lee Smith entitled “The Strong Horse,” on the Middle East and the sources of inter-Arab conflict that has recently been published. We will definitely hear more of this astute analyst of the Middle East and the Arabs in the future.

The Brookings Institution had an event on the book with the author, Jeffrey Feltman, and Eliot Abrams.

CSMonitor has a review:

The Strong Horse
A journalist argues that inter-Arab conflict is the central crisis of the Middle East.

By Jackson Holahan / January 27, 2010

With fists raised and mouths agape in apparent discontent, the several men gathering outside a mosque compose just a fraction of the unruly mass mobbing the local streets. Are they protesting or rejoicing? Either way their strained looks and fist-pumping fervor do not bode well for the photographer snapping this image only a few feet away.

This scene is the cover photo of Lee Smith’s The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations. After eight-plus years of United States military involvement in the Middle East, this snapshot might seem accurate enough to the casual book browser. Disgruntled demonstrators nestled below minarets, protesting some injustice unbeknownst to the viewer, may seem to standard fare to some American readers, many of whom are tired of hearing about soldiers from Kentucky, Vermont, Texas, and California being bloodied and maimed on the other side of the world.

But just pages into the introduction, Smith, who is the Middle East correspondent for the Weekly Standard, shatters the stereotype evoked in the jacket’s photograph by stating that, “I give no credence to the idea that the Arab-Israeli crisis is the [Middle East’s] central issue.” Just one of a number of provocative assertions, Smith wastes little time in introducing a reexamination of Middle Eastern history that calls into question even the most conventional of American and Western beliefs.

To begin with, he argues that 9/11 was not an attack on America but rather the extension of an inter-Arab fight exported to the new battleground of lower Manhattan. “Bin Ladenism is not drawn from the extremist fringe but represents the political and social norm [of the Arabic-speaking Middle East].” Smith explains these two conclusions, as he does the Middle East’s political philosophy writ large, using the “strong horse” principle.

Borrowed from an Osama bin Laden quote, Smith’s strong horse theory is grounded upon the conviction that, “[V]iolence is central to the politics, society and culture of the Arabic-speaking Middle East.” The strong horse is the person, tribe, country, or nation that is best able to impose its will upon others, the weaker horses, through the use of force.

Smith’s conclusion here is hardly novel. It is a reapplication of Thucydides’ famous aphorism from “The History of the Peloponnesian War”: “The strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must.” However, Smith’s use of this age-old doctrine to better understand US-Arab relations is far from conventional.
In a climate increasingly attuned to avoid offense, Smith’s strident declarations are bound to attract significant criticism. Despite this, Smith never wavers in his bold thesis that the Arab world has long been at war with itself and is currently on a path toward certain self-destruction.

“The Strong Horse” is both succinct and accessible. Smith’s conclusions are introduced early, restated often, and buttressed by both history and the author’s personal encounters during his travels throughout the region. His willingness to venture into the provocative sometimes has the effect of making his suppositions less sound. After rightly calling the rising epidemic of suicide bombing what it is – a death cult – he concludes that the Arabs as a people are, “losing their will to live.” His induction here is overblown, as no sweeping conclusion can accurately describe the mental state of hundreds of millions of the world’s people.

Intermittent inaccuracies aside, “The Strong Horse” is an important read for anyone interested in the Middle East, and particularly in the involvement of the United States in the region since 2001. Some will cast Smith’s zealous diagnosis of the cradle of civilization’s ills as ethnocentric jingoism. As harsh as his conclusions may be, they certainly are not unfair.

Smith is equally critical of a US foreign policy that has been shortsighted, inconsistent, and ill-informed. He is rightly wary of US alliances with regimes that at best pay lip service to our antiterror aims and at worst overtly support the very groups and individuals we are trying to target. Just as the American experiment with democracy in Iraq was an endeavor rich in optimism and egregious in miscalculation, so too, Smith argues, are US alliances with certain countries in the Middle East.

Smith advocates a US diplomatic and military approach to the Middle East that mirrors the nuance and complexity characteristic of the region’s numerous ethnicities, languages, histories, and competing claims to power. It is clear the US will need a large measure of Smith’s willingness to call the shortcomings, successes, and lies of the Middle East what they actually are if anything beneficial is to result from our activities in the region.

Jackson Holahan is a freelance writer in East Haddam, Ct.

February 21st, 2010, 5:04 am


Joshua said:

On Lee Smith’s book, read Max Rodenbeck – devastating. “A new diagnosis of Arab maladies buries the region’s true problems under a pile of oversimplified generalisations, writes Max Rodenbeck.

The Middle East is a troubled place, a prickly zone whose propensity for conflict fuels much noisy punditry. Yet, amid the racket of clashing opinions, agreement seems to have emerged about at least one source of regional woe. From left, right and centre, all concur that Arab governments are bad. Dim-witted, dictatorial and frustratingly durable, not to mention frequently venal and brutal, they are universally seen as a cause of the Middle East’s relative backwardness.

Many have tried to explain this generalised shortcoming. Economists point to Arab governments’ reliance on rentier income rather than taxes as a reason for their lack of accountability. Sociologists cite traditions of deference to patriarchal authority, reinforced by Islam, as a reason for the failure of mass protests to shake regimes, as in Eastern Europe. Historians say the fragility of post-imperialist borders and polities has prompted insecure governments to pursue state-building at the expense of citizens’ needs.

For Lee Smith, none of this really counts. The Arabs, in his view, simply have the misfortune to be guided by something he identifies as the “strong horse principle”: an apparently unique, ancient system whereby one tribe, nation, or civilisation dominates the others by force, until it too is overthrown by force. The “strong horse”, he says, represents the fundamental character of the Arabic-speaking Middle East. This is a perennially violent, xenophobic place where, in his words: “Bin Ladenism is not drawn from the extremist fringe, but represents the social norm.”

Smith believes he has much to teach us about this corner of the world, a patch he covered, from Cairo and Beirut, for the Weekly Standard, the small-circulation flag-bearer for American neoconservativism, before landing his current perch at the right-wing Hudson Institute in Washington. His book, a mix of citations from primers on Arab history, bald assertions, and anecdotage populated by a parade of mournful natives that Smith seems to have attracted in his travels, purports to be an expose of the true nature of the Arabs. It is meant as a corrective to the misty eyed romanticism of other journalists, scholars of the region, and such pitiable types as “Americans too young, confused or rich to love or respect their own country”.

Yet despite the jarring apparition of occasional perspicacity, his 200-page effort at myth-busting is potholed with mistakes, misjudgements and lapses in logic. Right up front, for instance, Smith asserts that Sunni Arabs have crushed minority challengers and ruled “by violence, repression and coercion” for 1,400 years. Yet one might have assumed that Sunni rule would be natural here, considering that nine-tenths of Arabs happen to be Sunni Muslims. (And not the 70 per cent that Smith strangely proposes, a figure quite unattainable even if one throws in not just religious minorities, but ethnic ones such as Kurds in Iraq or Berbers in North Africa.)

More inconvenient still to this theory of an endless Sunni Arab reign of terror is the simple fact that during most of the years since the birth of Islam, the region’s rulers have not been Sunni Arabs. Some have been Shia by sect, such as the Fatimid caliphs who ruled Egypt, the Hijaz and much of the Levant from 969 to 1171. Since that time most of the region’s rulers have been ethnically Turkish, such as the Mamluk and Ottoman sultans who controlled the Arab heartlands uninterruptedly from 1260-1918.

If basic historical errors damage Smith’s argument, so too does his shrillness. In one passage, he declares that there are only two rules of Arab politics: to seize power, and to maintain it. This is a system, he says, where survival is the sole objective. But surely, one cannot help thinking, such has been the main goal of politics everywhere since the dawn of time. It is hard to avoid the impression that in ascribing uniqueness to Arab approaches to power, Smith’s real intent, despite his protestations to the contrary, is to convey a subtext, the essence of which is that the only language Arabs understand is force – and that force, therefore, should be America’s policy as well.

Based on such skewed premises, Smith certainly draws some cockeyed conclusions. In one peculiarly acrobatic section, he attempts to show that it is Sunni Arab regimes themselves, and not social factors, nor claims of injustice, nor unhappiness with policy, that lie behind the phenomenon of jihadist terrorism. Thus, in his view, America could justifiably have attacked any number of Arab countries in retaliation for September 11 – when, he writes, “19 Arabs had struck the United States on behalf of Arab causes – Palestine, US sanctions on Iraq, US troops in Saudi Arabia, and so forth – supported by Arab rulers and the Arab masses alike.” The necessary response, Smith writes, was “a punitive war against the Arabs” – and Saddam Hussein simply “drew the short stick”.

Still, to Smith the invasion of Iraq was a stroke of genius, because it wrecked a regional framework that had relied on jihadist terrorism to bolster Sunni Arab power against such rivals as Shia Iran. According to this bizarre reconstruction, “The Sunnis’ other way to deter Tehran was to back the same militant organisation that threatened to topple Arab regimes, al Qa’eda. Once the Americans deposed Saddam and dealt a withering blow to al Qa’eda in Iraq, the Arabs had lost both their local security pillars.”

This is nonsense, and not simply due to the plain fact that al Qa’eda had never gained a foothold in Iraq before America’s intervention. Whatever the complicity of some Arab governments, such as Syria’s, in stoking violent resistance by Sunni Iraqis, it was the occupation itself that facilitated al Qa’eda’s arrival, and which briefly boosted its popularity. Across the wider region, far from being a “security pillar” of Arab regimes, jihadists have devoted much of their energy to attacking them. Smith fails even to mention the deadly jihadist bombings that have struck a dozen Arab cities and which have, by and large, now united regimes and their citizens in disgust with Bin Ladenism.

Smith explains elsewhere that although Arabs constantly bicker, “Perhaps the more serious concern is that the Arabs will not fight each other, and choose instead to bind together… in order to focus their energies elsewhere, like against the United States, again.” That last word is what really gives pause. To what past event exactly is Smith referring? Might he mean that dark day when the joint Arab high command sent veiled storm troopers on black helicopters into Wyoming? Or is he just subtly reasserting his sweeping charge that the Arabs as a whole were responsible for September 11 – and hinting that they might do the same again unless America spanks them regularly?

This disregard for reality appears to be prompted by two things. One is an attitude towards Arabs that may be delicately described as anachronistic and patronising. How else can one explain lapses into what sound like 19th-century depictions of barbarians? In one departure from constant praise of Bush-administration policy, for instance, Smith sneers at its naivety in thinking democracy might have flourished here when this great American gift was presented, “like an iPhone left out for the Arabs to figure out on their own.”

Elsewhere Smith informs us sagely that Arab women “hold men in contempt if they are not willing to kill and die for Arab honour.” Arabs, we discover, regard any man who says he wants peace with his neighbour, “not a peace that comes through destruction and elimination, but a real peace,” as a traitor. No wonder, for this is a people so tribally ferocious, he insists, that they hate Americans, “Not because of what we do or who we are but because of what we are not: Arabs.”

Such pseudo-anthropological hokum would be bad enough, had Smith not ridiculed other writers, such as that perpetual bugbear for America’s right wing, Edward Said, for his very own sin of using too broad a brush to paint his subject. “Said’s work, inadvertently or not, lent itself to a monolithic definition of Arab culture,” is Smith’s deadpan dismissal of the author of Orientalism. One wonders if Smith may have succumbed to a malady he terms the default condition of the Middle East; namely, schizophrenia. This might explain why, rather like some Victorian voyeur, he admits to having found Beirut’s Gemmayze district, with its bars and saucy girls, many times more alluring than New York’s East Village, “because it was in an Arab city pulsing with eros.”

The other motive for Smith’s smearing of the Arabs appears, predictably enough, to be political. From early in the book he sets out to prove that American policy, and in particular its support for Israel, has absolutely no correlation with America’s unpopularity in the region. On the contrary, enthuses Smith, the Jewish State is not merely a great strategic asset, but a regional strong horse that the Arabs have grown to fear and therefore to follow. Suffice it to say that his resort to obfuscation, insinuation and cant reflects the extreme difficulty of making such assertions persuasive. As Smith seems unable to appreciate through the smoke of his own rhetoric, the Arabs’ weakness is not so much the result of the instability that cripples their states and societies, but its cause. Whatever America’s intent, its hapless indulgence of Israel does nothing to address this, and much to weaken even its closest Arab friends.

This book is saddening, and not only because unwary readers may swallow some of this Kool-Aid and conclude that America’s proper role is to cudgel unruly Arabs. That certainly appears to be the author’s purpose. It is saddening also because Smith, like the imperialists of old, is not completely wrong in his critique of Arab society. Yet to picture Arab faults as both sui generis and hopelessly beyond repair is no help at all. Had Smith argued with sympathy rather than contempt, and sought to understand rather than smugly condemn, he might have been worth listening to.

Max Rodenbeck is the Middle East correspondent for The Economist.

February 21st, 2010, 5:25 am


Idaf said:

Thank you Joshua,

All three seem to be unique books. American poems on Aleppo! I didn’t see this one coming.

Chris’ poem says:
According to my president this country sponsors terror.
This claim discourages the tourists,
but Mary likes to visit anyway.

It seems things are changing slowly on that front, Chris. The tourists are not discouraged anymore:

USA lifts travel warning for Syria
The US state department has lifted its advisories warning American travelers of security concerns in Syria. ‘After carefully assessing the current situation in Syria, we determined that circumstances didn’t merit extending the travel warning,’ said Tracy Roberts Pounds, a spokeswoman at the US Embassy in Damascus.

February 21st, 2010, 2:12 pm


Idit said:

Has anybody else read Elaine Rippey Imady’s book?
It sounds very interesting.

February 21st, 2010, 7:18 pm


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