Laila Munif - Damascus as I remember it.
Every day we hear news of the the Syrian refugee crisis and the unprecedented suffering of the Syrian people. We asked our friend Laila Munif to share her feelings about her Syria.
When we discussed the pictures that might be included in this post, she wistfully remembered the beautiful ancient theater at Bosra. "At night we would drink our arak (Arabic pastis) in the Amphitheater, sing on the stage & watch the stars. How I miss those days! Now...not one day goes by without a tear."
Here is her reflection
When I was growing up in the Middle East, my family had to flee from wars twice. First due to the Lebanese civil war in 1975, and again shortly after when we were living in Iraq and the Iran/Iraq war started in 1981. My Dad was the editor-in-chief of a petroleum journal at the time. He had few options available to him. Either return to Syria and live under a dictatorship, or find a new country to settle in for few years with a wife and 4 kids. My father, an ambitious novelist decided to transit somewhere in Europe.
We landed in Paris when I was 6 years old and we stayed there for six years. It was in Paris where my Dad wrote his masterpiece novel ”Cities of Salt” in 1986. This five volume novel depicts the impact of oil in the Arabic Peninsula and its repercussions on the Bedouin society.
France was a safe place for us to grow up. We became fluent in French and my Dad was very productive with his writings. But it was not home for my parents. They felt the urge to be closer to their families and friends. My Dad was ready to end his life in exile. It was crucial for him to describe the plight of his people while living amongst them. In 1986 we returned to Damascus and he wrote three novels depicting prisons and the torture endured by the political detainees.
I was 11 years old at the time. My siblings and I started to build a deep affinity for our country of origin and our Arabic language skills quickly improved. We discovered a passion and interest for this rich culture.
I spent most of my time with my schoolmates who were mostly from France and other European countries. After school I had lots of free time to go to the old market, or souk, visit landmarks like the Umayyad Mosque, and wander in the old neighborhoods. I would sip cup after cup of tea in old Damascan courtyards with friends. I have such fond memories of those days. I would then return to our home that had become an intellectual oasis where novelists, painters and drama writers would meet and discuss their concerns and their love for their region. In the typical fashion of the region, my Mother would often cook fantastic dishes for the multitude of guests that showed up every night.
We met many persecuted artists living far away from their countries because of their political affiliations and ideas.
Those special relationships with artists from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Jordan was the way I was introduced to Arabic contemporary art. My Dad collaborated with some of these friends and wrote books about their artistic journeys.
Archeology was also another of my Dad’s passions. He transmitted that passion to me by taking us to archeological sites in both Iraq and Syria. During holidays we would drive and discover the History of the People of Ugarit where the first alphabet in the world was discovered. We would also visit the Roman amphitheaters in Jerash and Bosra, as well as the Byzantine ruins, citadels, fortresses of the crusaders, and other Islamic archeological sites. As a result, I ended up majoring in Archeology in 2000 from the Lebanese University of Beirut.
Despite the political oppression, we grew up feeling happy, secure and with very strong family ties. I enjoyed my childhood tremendously. I’m proud of my Syrian heritage, its history and culture. And these days, it is with deep sadness that I witness its destruction.
Personal family photo provided by Laila.
Other photography by AWIB (Ancient World Image Bank) Erik Hermans.