All of Suad Amiry’s writing is variations on the memoir, focused on the quotidian lives of its characters. Her latest book is no exception. What is different about My Damascus is that it does not pivot around Palestine, but around an elite Damascene household and their stately home.
In order to enter this secluded environment – and “because of privacy”, Amiry writes in the acknowledgments – “members of the Baroudi family will have to remain nameless”. Those who nourished her with stories she calls “informants”. She also changes her characters’ names, including her own (to Laila, or Lulu for short), which admits nicely to the blurred boundaries between fact and fiction in any family tale.
It is refreshing to read a story about Syria that is not only removed from the civil war, but is about a family and its daily routines: snapshots of domestic life, of quarrels and laughter, Friday lunches that never seem to end, and houses that hold great drama within their walls. Because the tales came to the author from a variety of sources, the book is at times romantic about life in early 20th-century Damascus, and at other times more trenchant, especially when it shifts into the point of view of the Baroudi family’s maids.
It opens in the spring of 1926 with the story of Teta (Arabic for grandmother), who is returning home to the Palestinian village of Arrabeh, between Nablus and Jenin, for the first time in thirty years. She had left at the age of 14 to marry Jiddo (grandfather), two decades her senior, and moved to Damascus where she acquired the disparaging nickname Umm il Banat (‘mother of daughters’), even though she eventually had five daughters and three sons.
It is when Teta’s brother Ibrahim arrives unannounced to take his sister back to Palestine, to visit their ailing mother, that readers are invited into the Baroudi mansion (called Beit Jiddo – grandfather’s house – by Lulu). We begin to get a sense of the home in which most of this story is set, a home that is larger than life and as extravagant as the family residing in it. We join Ibrahim as he walks down a long corridor, through “a vast and beautiful courtyard, and up the narrow basalt stairs, which brought him to the franga, the southern wing, where the winter family living room was”. The house’s structure undergirds much of the narrative, as you would expect given Amiry’s training as an architect and preservationist. She provides an artist’s rendering that readers of her last book, Golda Slept Here, will relish.
As Teta departs through the gates of the Old City of Damascus, she recalls the original journey in the opposite direction when she travelled with her wedding party in 1896. As her mind wanders, we have a glimpse into Palestinian history, her family and their role in Nablus and the region. In her third-person narration, Lulu describes her Teta’s wedding night in great detail, including the consummation. And in spite of what Teta calls her husband’s “insatiable desire” (24), the scene is a tender one without being Lolita-esque.
Teta moves from the life of a peasant to the life of a woman heading the household of one of Damascus’ most prominent families. She describes the grand city Jiddo introduces her to, but Teta’s Damascus is grounded in the Old City where her new home is located:
Though Damascus was called the city of jasmine, fragrances changed as she strolled through the variety and abundance of the merchandise that covered miles and miles of covered bazars. Starting from the Medhat Basha market just a few steps up the road from the Jabri mansion, to the Bzouerih spice market and il-Hariaa ‘blaze’ (after a fire) market, which housed the silk and textile shops – Souq il-Harir and Souq il-Imash. However, no market came close to the world-renowned Souq il-Hamadieh in grandeur, with its elegant steel roof and round openings that filtered in magic light. The perspective of the 400-meter-long market, ending with the Ummayad Mosque, was an experience all its own. A real treat! But no less exhilarating for Teta was the fact that this souq housed the Bikdash [sic] ice cream parlour…
This glimpse around her neighbourhood mirrors the richness and textures of her life and the home she makes for herself at Beit Jiddo.
Yet this is not just the memoir of one family. It’s an account of a city, of a house, and the story of all its inhabitants – in all the tawdry detail of their lives. When Teta returns from her mother’s funeral in Palestine, she notices a maid’s absence. Eventually, her eldest daughter, Laila, reveals that their maid Sajeda became pregnant with Jiddo while Teta was gone. All the reader has heard of Sajeda until then is that she was one of two “slaves” who work in the Baroudi mansion. It’s a curious usage, one that is later borne out, when Lulu details Jiddo’s business trip to al-Hijaz, where Sajeda’s father gives her to Jiddo to pay off debts. The portrait of Teta coming to terms with her husband’s infidelity is one of the most moving elements of the memoir. Teta rues how “like its famous double-faced Damascene fabric made of fine silk, everything about this city and its rich inhabitants was double-faced.” Yet she empathises with the young Sajeda, and chooses to make her and her son Sami part of the Baroudi family.
Sami becomes like another fabric, stitching Sajeda and Teta’s lives together, lessening the boundaries of class in the process: “Running and falling, between the downstairs and upstairs spaces; between his mother’s room in the servant’s quarter and his father and Teta’s bedroom, between the kitchen where his mother, Ghalia and Fatima spent most of their time, and the liwan and courtyard where Teta and his step-sisters and brothers socialised, little Sami wove an unusual, unprecedented fabric of relationships, a fabric of equality between the upstairs and the downstairs in the Baroudi Mansion.” The ease with which characters transgress borders and connect with each other shifts when the books turns to the spoiled Samia, Lulu’s mother and the apple of Jiddo and Teta’s eyes.
With Samia, the memoir enters the next generation, and shifts from Damascus to Jerusalem where Samia moved to be with her husband and raise her children. In 1946, two years before an-nakba (the Catastrophe), Samia lives in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood not far from the Old City of Jerusalem, which never measures up to her beloved Damascus. Although the story unfolds at a tumultuous period in Palestine and Syria’s history, there are few historical details – often merely allusions – to contextualise events in the characters’ lives. We learn, for example, that Lulu’s father was from the coastal Palestinian city of Jaffa, from which he fled when the British issued a warrant for his arrest because of his political activities. But we don’t know the details of his work.
Other stories are shrouded in mystery, as when Samira’s cousin Wasim finds a newborn baby in Jerusalem and smuggles Norma across the border to Damascus to be raised by Lulu’s Aunt Karimeh. This happens on the cusp of the bombing of the King David Hotel by a Zionist militia, the Irgun. Political events such as the Baghdad Pact and the creation of the United Arab Republic (when Egypt and Syria joined forces in 1958) are hinted at, but only as they relate to family stories. The various coup d’états in the 1960s, which ultimately delivered Hafiz al Assad into power in 1966, help the narrator explain the demise of the upper class in Damascus, and the emigration of members of the family.
It is the third part of the memoir, when Samira returns to Damascus in 1947, which catapults the reader deep into Beit Jiddo. The chapter pivots around one of the family’s infamous Friday lunches, and offers the most insight into the daily life behind the grand walls. Through the maids – Sajeda, Ghalia and Fatima – the focus shifts to the inner workings of the home. The most unusual story here is that of 12-year-old Fatima, who has fled her marriage, and sought refuge in the Baroudi home with her infant son Mohammad. It’s striking to have her story woven into that of an elite home, a home with numerous rooms the maids aren’t even allowed to enter.
It is not until the final act that Lulu enters the scene, as a child of nine attending a memorial service for her Jiddo in 1960. Reflecting upon this day, she examines different versions of stories about him – “family stories, vignettes, rumour and exaggeration had it that Jiddo was ‘one of the richest merchants in Damascus’” – though with some skepticism for the tales of her mother, who weaves “fiction into reality, especially when it came to her family, but more directly when it came to her idolised father”.
The memoir closes cyclically: Just as it began with Teta reminiscing as she left Damascus to attend to her dying mother, so it ends with Amiry driving down that same Haoran-Damascas highway, imagining what her Teta saw. It concludes in Amiry’s voice, confessing, “there were at least three characters in my family with whom one never knew when imagination began and reality ended”. These three are clearly the informants who helped her build this narrative. Readers are left to wonder, in their turn, where Amiry’s imagination began and reality ended.
My Damascus (Women Unlimited) will be launched by Suad Amiry and the novelist Ahdaf Soueif on Sunday March 13, 6.30pm, at the India International Centre, New Delhi, as part of the Palestine in India Writers’ Colloquium. The event is open to the public.
Marcy Newman is the author of The Politics of Teaching Palestine to Americans.
Featured image: A sight in Damascus. Texture by Lenabem-Anna. Credit: Игорь М/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.