Book Review by Lisa Accadia
Daughter of Damascus by Siham Tergeman
Published by Center for Middle Eastern Studies, University of Texas at Austin, 1994
Damascus in my mind’s eye… is an Arabic house with an open courtyard, in its center is a small pool from which 70 brass pipes pour out cool water. A beautiful woman sweeps the courtyard with water, holding in her hand a pail and a straw broom. Her wooden clogs ring on the stone tiles and her narrow gold braclets jangle at her wrists … her laughter pierces through to the depths of the heart … her whiteness is the pure white of Arabian jasmine and her eyes the color of honey. She fills her pail from the pool and throws the water on the tiles, sweeping it with her broom. Meanwhile, her friend fills a second pail with water to sprinkle the flowers and water the plants and trees. The smell of eggplant frying in oil fills the house and the houses of neighbours. A clever woman beats kibbi in the stone mortar especially made for kibbi, while her sister-in-law plays on the ‘aud’ in the cool sitting room, the soft gold bracelets moving gently on her wrist as she picks out the chords with a feather. Her mother-in-law peels garlic in the shade while the daughter of the mother-in-law pushes at the handle of the pump to fill a large jug of water for washing dishes. The second wife to her mother-in-law climbs a ladder to pick tender grape leaves from the vine in order to make stuffed grape leaves for the next day’s meal. A devilish boy pounds on the door, and runs away. (page 32)
Set around the 1950s, and written by a local Damascene, this special glimpse into the streets, sounds, smells, and tastes of Damascus will transport you to a world seen through the eyes of an innocent youth, besotted by her city and its people. Daughter of Damascus is written almost like a journal of Siham’s memories, yet woven together in a book that is hard to put down. Each chapter gives the reader a different memory, or period of time, a story she heard, or something about Damascus she simply longs to share. It is clear Siham is sentimental about the Damascus of her childhood, and through her affectionate stories and reflections, she gives us an insight into Syrian culture and customs – from weddings, family life, cooking, communal gatherings and more, she reveals a place and time where there was much joy and much to celebrate.
In chapters 1 to 5, Siham’s memories take us back to her early childhood, with subtle glimpses of what life might have been like for women in particular around that time. She shares her mother’s home cooked recipes, and the delights she felt upon witnessing her first wedding. From chapter 6 onwards, we get taken onto a journey through stories she heard or conversations she had, and although the different fables don’t always connect, they still give the reader an evocative preview of Syrian culture and history.
Siham also shares with us a deep nostalgia for the old Damascus, the streets and buildings of a city that was yet to be touched by ‘modern times’. She has a sacred love for the city of old, and her descriptions of the past spring forth in a delight of poetic prose and romantic reflections. Her stories travel from capturing the essence and beauty of life around her, to also revealing a country that is no stranger to the cries of war. Woven within Syria’s long and rich history, Damascus is a place familiar with grief and struggle, yet also recognised for its beauty and poetry, and a place that has for so long encompassed and embraced people of many faiths and beliefs.
This memoir is a delight to read and a charming account of Damascus in the 1950s. It will leave you with a deeper insight into the culture of the Damascenes, give you a craving for pistachios and spices, and hopefully entrust you with a greater understanding of what was once a beautiful city full of vibrancy and life.
by Lisa Accadia
From ‘Beloved Syria – Considering Syrian Perspectives’, 2nd Issue, September 2017
Image above: Mustafa Ali Gallery, old city Damascus, (Image provided by Mustafa Ali)
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