Letter from Damascus -- Where Were the Shells Fired From?

By Joy E. Stocke

Where were the shells fired from?

Where did they land?

What building did they destroy?

How many people were killed?

No answer... No comment

There is nothing to be said

Shells continue to fly over your head

Words are dead!

Muna Imady

I've not met the writer Muna Imady in person nor have I heard her speaking voice. I was introduced to her by one of our magazine's correspondents, E. E. Whiting who met her in Syria. I communicate with Muna regularly through email and Facebook. When I read her raw, personal, and expressive emails or see her Facebook posts, I feel as though I know her in the way one might recognize a long lost relative.

Before the Syrian conflict began, Whiting wrote pieces for us from the famous covered market in Aleppo, the oasis of Palmyra with its Roman ruins, lively beach resorts on the Mediterranean, and the streets of Damascus where she met Muna Imady's American-born mother, Elaine Rippey Imady; and Muna's father, Dr. Mohammed Imady, former Minister of the Economy and Chairman of the Syrian Commission on Financial Markets and Securities (SCFMS), which has continued operating throughout the Syrian conflict.

In 2009, Elaine Imady published her memoir, The Road to Damascus, which tells the story of how she met Dr. Imady at New York University in the 1950s, married him, converted to Islam, became a Syrian citizen, and made Syria her home. Whiting's interview with Imady gives an intimate portrait of upper middle class life in Syria, and what it means to be a foreigner married to a Syrian.

Some -- the minority -- keep their Christianity and attend church here. One, a woman from San Diego became an Islamic scholar, translated the Qur'an and wrote the story of her conversion in Arabic and then in English. She is more religious than her husband. On the whole, most of the Americans here are married to observant Muslims and give lip service to conversion. They fast in Ramadan, out of consideration for their husbands and children but that is the extent of their Islam. Of my close friends now, three are believing Muslims like myself, two are Christians who fast in Ramadan and haven't been in a church for years, one is an agnostic Swede and another is an agnostic Dane. There are certain legal benefits to conversion to Islam and some women go through with it because of this... -- Elaine Imady

Whiting's reports of her travels in Syria at that time also addressed perceptions many Syrians held about the U.S. and contain clues to why the recent threat of a U.S. strike (even for something as heinous as the use of chemical weapons) was not perceived by many within Syria to be a liberating event.

It became obvious that people were dying to talk to me...The questions were always the same: where are you from and, upon hearing the answer, the shocked question of why have you come? The unfortunate perception is that Americans don't like Syria or the Middle East at all... -- E. E. Whiting

During the nineties and into the new century, Syria began to solidify its reputation as a tourist destination. Meanwhile, Elaine Imady raised her children on a tree-lined street in the old city of Damascus. Muna, like her mother, became a writer and began collecting folktales, which she felt were disappearing as the younger generation no longer sat at their grandmother's knees but were engaged in television, their computers and social media. In 2012, Muna published her collection, Syrian Folktales. With the onset of the Syrian conflict and the displacement of so many people, Muna has felt a greater urgency to collect and preserve those stories.

Nearly two and half years into the Syrian conflict, the war has killed more than 100,000 people. One quarter of the country's population has been forced to flee their homes. A further 2.1 million people have fled the country.

Life goes on in Muna's corner of Damascus even as the Syrian conflict has entered its third year. Muna's and my email exchanges mention domestic details - our children and where they are attending school (her son's university was bombed a year ago), her mother's travels to visit family in the States, the condition of the feral neighborhood cats her mother cares for - but Muna's emails are tinged with anxiety.

From September 6 -

I wake up at the sound of planes zooming above me mixed with the annoying meows of the cats outside... -- Muna Imady

When I read her emails, I worry with Muna about bombs falling on her street or near her children's schools, the sound of war planes overhead, of abandoned apartments in neighborhoods deemed unsafe, of the surreal quality of a city where on the surface the old way of life continues apace, but we have never spoken directly about the Assad regime or the insurgency. Her father's family history dates back to the 15th century in Syria and he has worked with the Syrian government for the length of his career and has the distinction of not joining a political party.

Often, I feel that Muna and I are speaking in code and if we could sit across from one anther, we would have very different conversations. In the meantime, I read as many newspapers as I can. Here is what Al Jazeera reported in September about the chemical weapons attack in a suburban neighborhood of Damascus:

The (U.N.) report said the weather conditions on August 21 ensured that as many people as possible were injured or killed. Temperatures were falling between 2 am and 5 am, it said, which meant that air was not moving upwards but downwards toward the ground.

"Chemical weapons use in such meteorological conditions maximizes their potential impact as the heavy gas can stay close to the ground and penetrate into lower levels of buildings and constructions where many people were seeking shelter."

A nightmare within Muna's beloved city. But Muna is equally quick to express the fact that she fears the U.S.'s or anyone's threat of strategic bombing.

September 16 - Thank God, things are quite the same these days... we still hear the silver birds zoom over our heads... and hear them throw their silver eggs... but anything is better than having total destruction from across the seas... -- Muna Imady

In one of our email exchanges just before the 12th anniversary of the September 11th World Trade Center bombings, Muna sent a piece she had written years ago that surprised me. It described how in the week before the terrorist attacks, she was treated rudely by an airline attendant when, after visiting her relatives in New York, she went to check into her flight from Newark to Damascus. While her mother does not wear the hijab, Muna has worn it since adolescence and doesn't think much of it unless attention is drawn to her.

As we reached the Airport, a faint smile touched my lips. It was hard to say goodbye to both my aunt and uncle. For this visit by far, had been one of my happiest trips to America. The love and warmth I felt from my aunt, uncle and cousins had touched my heart. My three-year-old son threw himself in my uncle's arms while my aunt embraced us lovingly...At the airport a woman in her forties checked our passports and tickets. When she finished with my son's and mother's passports, she took my passport and looked at my Islamic dressing with suspicion.

As she fumbled through the pages of my passport she looked at me with disgust and murmured to herself: "Oh my God!"

My eyes widened in shock and disbelief as my heart thudded against my chest... -- Muna Imady

In the 21st century, religion cannot be untangled from culture and politics. And, in a world where democracies and dictatorships exist side by side with tribal law; men, women and children are murdered in the name of presidents, dictators, tribal leaders, religious leaders, and splinter groups; when resources are reduced to commodities, Muna and her mother, Elaine, tell another story, one containing threads of their (and our) entwined cultures, where the dream of security, having enough to eat, and the freedom to pursue one's beliefs does not stop at any border.

On both trips (to Syria), the small things are the real shockers: like seeing bright red hair and blue eyes, not uncommon in the population, or being told that Middle Eastern Christians use the word Allah in their services... E. E. Whiting

From Muna Imady, October, 2013:

So verily,

with every difficulty,

There is relief

Verily, with every difficulty

There is relief

The Qu'ran, The Expansion

Joy E. Stocke is founder and Editor in Chief of Wild River Review and founder of Wild River Publishing. She is the author of "Anatolian Days and Nights: A Love Affair with Turkey, Land of Dervishes, Goddesses & Saints," based on her travels through Turkey. Her essay "Turkish American Food" appears in the 2nd edition of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America.