By Dr. Maysoon Shocair Ali
A beautiful city that I deeply loved and continue to love, is the city of Damascus, the capital of Syria, where I spent my late childhood and adolescent years, enjoying life while growing up.
I wonder if it is still the same? The clean streets that used to be washed by trucks overnight for us, the early morning citizens who enjoyed walking through its streets, getting to work or school, or just taking morning walks to smell the fresh air, the Jasmine, the roses, and enjoy the site of the fruit trees.
Has it changed so much since I left in the early seventies?
Do the streets recall a young girl who used to look forward to every morning, rushing to get up and have coffee, served, with water and milk, on a silver tray in special cups that were too fancy, but not enough for the Arabic coffee which was so fresh?
We used to share that special time, my siblings, my mother, and sometimes my father when he was around. My mother always wore her beautiful fancy Kimono, as she sat down with us her daughters who enjoyed the early morning hours, surrounded by her plants and flowers, talking about our plans for the day.
On school days, we had to rush, eat a fast breakfast, put our clean uniforms on with the special socks and shoes, and wear clean simple hairstyles. For some reason, mine was always on the short side; my mother used to say that I looked better with short hair. (My hair grew long after I moved to the States. Working in medicine day and night did not give me the luxury of going to a salon! Then I kept it long because it was easier and more practical.)
Most of the time, we had domestic help, which made it easier to find our school items while rushing to get ready in the morning. Our high school was almost a mile from our house. My mother and little sister and brother, our youngest sibling, would stand on the veranda that was close to the main street and waive us goodbye.
Ours was an all-girls public high school. It was famous for its difficult curriculum and the quality of education — and its basketball team!
Each student had only one uniform. We were each responsible to keep our uniform clean — we had to go through an inspection every morning while standing in line at 7.30 am. After the headmistress was satisfied with our attire and cleanliness, the students, teachers, and staff stood up and saluted the flag while the band played the national anthem. I loved the morning ceremony; when it was over, I felt ready to go to class.
Classes started at 8.00 am sharp. There were special classes for the elite students who were the highest achievers in exams. The administration expected one of its students to get the highest grades in the entire country. During our last year of high school, we had to pass exams in order to graduate. The higher your grades, the better your chances to get accepted into the graduate program of your choice, so you could pursue your chosen career. Medicine and engineering topped the list for the high achievers.
The final exam results were announced in the local paper and on the public radio. TV was in its infancy at the time. My oldest sister got that honor of scoring the highest grades in the country. I was close, but missed that honor by a few points.
The classes were intense, and all students were expected to excel. Rich or poor did not matter. The school focused on advanced sciences, literature, and other subjects, including art and music. Sports were necessary for grants, but the focus was on scholastic achievement.
By 3:00-3:30, we were dismissed for the day. I always rushed to get out of school and back into the fresh air. I looked forward to my walk back home. Sometimes my sister had to spend extra time in her advanced classes, but I did not wait for her. I was in a hurry to get home to share with my mother what I had learned, and some of the little gossip I used to enjoy — what the chemistry teacher was wearing, how unpleasant the math teacher was (she always made me feel inferior to my sister). I came to hate math, which worked against me for years to come. I always credit the influence of a teacher on their students’ success and indirectly on their failure. Unfortunately, I was very sensitive, and the constant criticism and comparison with my sister affected me very seriously in a negative way. After my sisters arrived home from school, we would have a snack of healthy Mediterranean food, play for a short while, and then do our homework.
Dinner was a special event in the evenings, especially when my father was able to join us. He was a doctor, a general practitioner, and he sometimes had to stay late at work to take care of a patient. My brother was the youngest child and had Down Syndrome, so he would sit next to our mother so she could attend to his needs. During dinner, each of us would share events of the day with my father (since my mother had already had that pleasure), and there was my father with his beautiful smile, charming personality, listening attentively to each of his daughters and sharing his advice and wisdom.
Later on, my father had to leave the country to seek asylum in Europe because of his political views that were a threat to the ruling party. We had so much turnover of governments; each was gradually more oppressive, and my father was known for his advocacy of democracy and freedom of the press. He had the choice of going to jail or escaping and going underground. When he was gone, my mother kept our routine going, but there was always his empty chair at the head of the dinner table. God knows how much we missed him.
We managed to get bits of information about him through my mother and some of his close friends, but we weren’t allowed to contact him, we could only contact his family. How can I forget our neighbors and their kindness? How many nights they helped my mother take my brother to be treated for illnesses that sometimes triggered seizures. The couple was in their late sixties, and they were always there for us in emergencies while my father was gone. I was raised to believe in and respect the goodness in people. It was so true then when I reflect on it now.
My father managed to return home from time to time. During that era, there was a special pardon depending on who was in power at the time. If they were moderate, they would pardon my father. Each time he was free and back in Damascus, he would practice medicine in his famous clinic. He was called the Father of the Poor.
I was accepted into college after the high school, and I walked almost 5 miles to get there. Sometimes I walked alone, occasionally with a friend. But the city was welcoming and safe then. On a few occasions, my father and his friend who drove him to work, would drop me at college on their way to the clinic, especially when it rained.
Do those streets of Damascus recall my walks to the University? That young lady who enjoyed watching people walking or riding bicycles or using the buses or just exercising? How friendly they were; how safe it was to walk alone back then!
Then there were the vendors with all sorts of fresh vegetables and fruits. They were along the sides of the streets since some of them could not afford rent.
The aroma of fresh Arabic coffee! How many times I was tempted to stop and get a cup, but I was always pushed for time. I had to get to school early to find a good seat for the lecture. I learn better through listening, and that feeling of being rushed prevented me from stopping to get coffee!
Many times on my way back, if it was not late at night, some of the vendors were still open, and I would enjoy their hummus, falafel, and that heavenly taste of coffee!
The University was located in the most historic part of the city. On my way there, I enjoyed looking at the Barada River. It was still a river when I left Syria. The old museums were on the other side of the river, as well as the University, the art and music center in its glorious building, and on further, across from the old Damascus University, there was the famous Public University Hospital, where my father was trained.
O Damascus! Do you recall how many weekends my sisters, cousins, and I waded in your streams around our house? How many games of hide and seek we played in that section where my maternal grandparents lived? How many moonlights we enjoyed?
I understand now that they dried up your river Barada; your water has become scarce. It used to be so clean, but no more. I am told the chemicals of war cover everything; your clean beautiful streets are filled with human ruins and blood; your beautiful old statues are tarnished, if not destroyed.
I can’t watch the news about your continuous destruction anymore. I have shed so many tears until I have no more tears to shed. Your people have lost everything since they continue to destroy you. Some of them are forced to leave you, but they will never be happy. No city in the world will offer them what you did.
O Damascus! I still love you! I have always loved you, and will continue to love you until I die! How many secrets we shared while I was growing up, thinking that I would have the whole world opening opportunities for me all my life. But I had to leave you. You offered me the opportunities; you gave me my identity; you will always be, in my memory, the city that I loved most.