Tuning Up - Autumn 2014

In the Courtyard

The smell of jasmine and the murmur of family life in prewar Damascus

By Vicki Valosik | September 8, 2014


My husband, Khair, was born and raised in Syria, a country many of my Tennessee friends and family could have barely found on a map 10 years ago, the first time Khair and I traveled there together. Now Syria has become a household name, one synonymous with armed unrest and government brutality. Three years of news coverage of the turmoil, however, have not been able to erase the image in my mind of Syria as a peaceful place where jasmine trees dust the interior courtyards of family homes with their white confetti blossoms and scent the warm afternoon air.

Like the other stucco houses stacked at odd angles along a narrow alley in Damascus, Khair’s family home had only a few windows, and those that faced the street were kept boarded or heavily draped. The house instead received its light and air from a central courtyard—making it impossible for passersby to predict the scene inside. It could be perfectly still, the gauzy-curtained bedrooms holding nappers trying to escape the heat, or beyond the thick wall a mix of generations could be sitting, cracking pumpkin seeds with their teeth, drinking sugary tea with mint and talking over the hum of the rotating fan, television news, and soulful undulations of the singer Fairuz on the stereo. When Khair and I would return home to a house buzzing with life, we would immediately be made to sit down, take off anything encumbering us—bags, jackets—and be given heaping plates of fruit that we were expected to polish off before dinner.

During our first month-long visit, I often spent my mornings in the courtyard sorting mounds of parsley for tabouleh with Khair’s aunt, Dalal, and his mother, Faten, or watching them carve narrow tunnels in zucchini for me to fill with ground meat and rice, as we made conversation as best we could—their broken English matching my broken Arabic. One day Faten remembered calling Khair before our trip to ask that he bring American bras for his sisters. She didn’t know their sizes so she asked him about mine. Faten laughed as she remembered his sincere response that I was about a handful, and Dalal ran over and shimmied my breasts to verify his sizing. As they whooped and hollered, I cupped my hand at crotch level and reported in my best pidgin Arabic that Khair was about a handful, too. We doubled over and cried with laughter and the satisfaction that we could find a way to discuss almost anything.

Before Khair and I married and I had met Aunt Dalal, I appeared in her dreams—my white face and fair hair atop a serpentine body. Dalal, the spiritual matriarch of the family, thought this a bad omen, and, thumbing her orange prayer beads, vowed to pray for her nephew to break off his engagement to the “blond snake” and encouraged the rest of the family to do the same. Local myths warn of the misfortune befalling native sons who marry outside their culture, their religion, their country, or even outside Damascus. Dalal feared losing the family’s only son—the default role model and problem solver—to someone so different and so far away.

But that was before. Before she and I would spend our afternoons visiting the Hamadiya market, where Dalal—a Muslim Mary Poppins with her black handbag and going-out uniform of ankle-length navy jacket, white hijab, and sensible dark heels—taught me to haggle like a native Damascene with the big-bellied merchants. In the evenings we ate dinners that had taken all day to make, surrounded by a revolving assortment of family members. It was all elbows and hands and laughter as everyone crowded around small folding tables, sitting on whatever we could find and piling food on each other’s plates.

Every day there was someone new. “This is Abdullah,” Khair said one day as he tousled the hair of his little cousin and bragged about his high marks in elementary school. “He is our family’s hope for the future.” Abdullah, who was shy, barely looked up from his comic book, a pet turtle sitting on his lap. Nine years later the secret police would bang on his family’s door. Abdullah had posted anti-regime remarks on Facebook, and for that he would be tortured. When he was released from prison, he said the worst part was the hunger that made tender young men into animals who fought their elders for slivers of bread.

I woke from a nap one evening to find Dalal kneeling near me, her hand resting on my abdomen. For two days I had done little more than lie on the couch with a roiling stomach, eating only the spoonfuls of dry tea leaves and bowls of instant soup the women had fed me. Dalal concentrated with eyes shut, her face framed by the eyelet edge of her white prayer shawl, pinned snugly under her chin. With her other hand she slid her orange prayer beads along their cord, keeping rhythm with her whispered supplications. I watched for a moment through a sliver of eyelashes, pretending to be asleep, my eyes welling with tears at the thought that this woman praying for me now had once prayed that I would never become part of the family.

On my birthday, one of our last days in Damascus, I was driven to the top of Qasioun Mountain by a gaggle of cousins to watch the sun rise pink over this city of jasmine. From up high, the houses all seemed connected, as if you could reach the edge of the city just by wading across red-tiled roofs. A peppery formation of birds dipped below us and arched out of view. When the sun grew too bright, we wound back down the mountain and retraced our way through the cobbled alleys.

Back at the house, I was made to wait in the front hallway while everyone else scurried in, as if urgent business awaited. I could hear their whispers and excited squeals inside. “Okay, Veekee,” someone called after a few minutes. “Come in!” As I stepped into the courtyard, a shower of balloons fell on me and everyone broke into “Happy Birthday” in heavily accented English. There was a cake and sparklers, a teasing mention of the blond snake, followed by warm smiles and squeezes of my shoulders.

Dalal slipped away and returned wearing a sly expression, hiding something behind her back. Taking my wrist, she dropped it into my hand and closed my fist tightly. As she walked away, I uncurled my fingers and smiled at the gift—Dalal’s orange prayer beads, still warm from her touch.

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