The distinguished writer Walid Ikhlassi is an eloquent spokesperson for the citizens of a new nation. For Syria is literally a new nation. The present independence and government date from 1946, though the area traces its roots into antiquity. Known for millennia as "Syria" and "the Levant," Syria was part of the Fertile Crescent in ancient times, that swath of fertile land that allowed many peoples to live and prosper. It also attracted outsiders. Interested in its resources, Hittites, Babylonians, Assyrians, Egyptians, and Persians ruled for shorter or longer periods, as did the Roman Empire under Pompey. The rise of Christianity was also important in Syrian history; St. Paul after all was converted on the road to Damascus, the present-day capital. The Arabs arrived in the sixth century of the Christian era, and, though many residents converted to Islam, groups of Christians and Jews persisted. After invasions by Mamluks and Mongols, Syria and the Levant finally achieved a measure of self-rule under the Ottoman Empire, beginning in 1516 and continuing until the Empire finally collapsed during World War 1. In 1919 and 1920, the victorious allies, Britain, France, and Italy, divided up the Middle East, carving out nation states from the Old Ottoman territories and placing them under what was termed "mandate" supervision. Britain took on Iraq, Aden, the Sudan, and Egypt; Italy got Libya; and Syria was assigned to French governance, along with Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, and Lebanon. Movements for independence from these colonial-mandate governments began early and led to success in the 1940s and 1950s. In 1946, when all foreign troops withdrew, Syria was declared an independent nation. The past half-century has witnessed more or less successful efforts on the part of the new leaders to redistribute land more equably, upgrade education and health care, and move toward representative government. A 1958 attempt to create, in coalition with Egypt, the United Arab Republic was short-lived. A complex history.
Walid Ikhlassi is a product of this complex history. The author, whose stories we are fortunate to be able to read here in English, is an activist member of his country's parliament, a politician as well as a writer, who takes his civic as well as his artistic responsibilities seriously. When asked which writers have influenced his prolific works of art, short stories, novels, award-winning drama, he cites Anton Chekhov. Chekhov, he has said, inspired him to look at the world and at his nation through ordinary people and in the everyday activities of their lives. He also credits the Arabian Nights as an influence, and the oral storytellers of his society, like his own maternal grandmothers.
Thus, the majority of the characters in the stories which follow are men, women, and children with the modest concerns of people in all parts of the world: family, work, health, the turning of the seasons. Trees, flowers, houses, and public buildings also figure in the works, just as they figure in the lives of the characters: "A Walnut Tree for This Time" serves almost as a symbol for the young man trying to come to terms with his ninety-year-old grandfather's determination to take a new wife. In "Lost Ornamentation," the protagonist returns to his home town after years of forced exile and bemoans the decline and deliberate defacing of the once nobly ornamented building, which served as the headquarters for the city's first elected council. And even a lowly insect, crawling slowly across a manuscript, gives the central character hope for the future in "The Worm."
Ikhlassi sets his stories in the neighborhoods where people struggle for a decent living, try to raise their children, and occasionally achieve a sense of community. The values of the neighbor hoods and their inhabitants, which emerge from the works, are personal integrity, hard work, and devotion. Excess is frowned upon—an excess of anything, even beauty. The lovely girl Shitaa, center of "My Absent Cousin," is judged to be too much, too attractive for the neighborhood and family into which she is born. And so she leaves—for the promised land known as America.
To an English-reading audience, the stories presented here appear modest, understated. The works in Part One are set in the pre-independence period, when protests and demonstrations were in progress everywhere against the French presence. But the French soldiers do not hold center stage in any of the stories; they appear only through their effects on local people. There is almost no clashing of arms, little dense plotting against the foreign presence, few fireworks, no martial music. Part Two is set in the post-independence period, and again there is no martial music and no fireworks. Instead, Ikhlassi offers subtly told tales of men and women caught in bureaucratic snafus, economic disasters, local corruption, and local political conflicts. The author uses many different narrative strategies to achieve his ends: monologue, flashback, and an artful juxtaposition of past and present, of dream and reality.
However, the title story, "Whatever Happened to Antara," is somewhat different. Antara is a folk hero of Muslim history. Son of an Arab man and a black slave woman, Antara bore the stigma of lowly origins, but through his bravery, wisdom and poetic genius, rose to a position of dignity and power as chief of his tribe. The central character in Ikhlassi's story, named Antar, seems to follow this traditional pattern. He, too, is a boy of dubious origin—his mother is a maid in a public hotel, his father is rumored to be one of the Senegalese soldiers who help the French control Syria. A neighborhood bully, he is reviled and feared by children and adults alike. Yet, in a fierce street battle with armed French police (the only such encounter in the entire collection of stories), Antar charges ahead while others run, and he dies a martyr to the cause of Syrian freedom.
Critics have suggested that for Ikhlassi, Antara (Antar) may represent Syria in both periods, courageous and self-sacrificing during the long struggle against the French, bullying and repressive in the early years of independent nationhood. But, of course, the figure can be read in both ways, and this, I believe, is a reflection of Ikhlassi's achievement. The Syrian audience can appreciate the multiple layers of his Antar tale; the western reader, often ignorant not only of Antara's mythic dimension, but of Syria's history generally, can appreciate its present day relevance: a neighborhood bad guy redeems himself by sacrificing for a larger purpose.
Indeed, most of the stories in the collection might be read in this layered way. The style varies as the narrative conventions shift. The characters' struggles range from disappointment in love to forced exile on grounds of political agitation. But the layered message remains more or less constant: men, women, and children in Syria today survive and maintain their integrity against difficult odds—this is clear to all readers. Methods of survival also vary in the stories: some people immigrate to distant lands such as America, some accept their unhappy marriages, many remain in economic need. What eases such pain and grief? Ikhlassi might answer "poetry." The characters in many stories turn to writing. The husband in "The Worm," who is about to be evicted from the family house, finds solace in the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish. The young, disappointed lover in "My Distant Cousin" inscribes the poetry of his passion on the walls of the local café. The benevolent, wronged father in "My Brother Omar" takes refuge in figures from Islamic history, particularly Omar bin al Khattab, who stand for justice and honor, sentiments which the father tells his wife and children are the finest expressions of humanity. The exiled politician in "Lost Ornamentation" finds solace in a projected book he realizes that he will write in the future.
The reader comes to care about the characters in the stories, as though they were neighbors or friends. Will the wronged father get his judgeship back in the new independent Syria? How is beautiful Shitaa doing in America? And what of the sorrowing city council ex-member in his exile? Is his book coming along well? Ikhlassi's gift, for which he might credit his story-telling grandmothers, is to engage his audience and communicate the common humanity found in the lives of these ordinary people faced with extraordinary challenges. Ikhlassi gives both western and eastern readers a real sense of the daily problems and the hopes of the citizens of a nation still defining itself—contemporary Syria.
Elizabeth Warnock Fernea
My grandfather angrily stomped his boot on the old flagstones. His boots had not been replaced since my childhood, although their leather was cracked. He roared and neighed in a voice that my grandmother had said "would abort a pregnant woman." That afternoon, he seemed to be regaining his youth. He walked two steps toward me, then stopped to gaze at the row of henna trees, about which his third wife used to say, "Their smell arouses his appetite to sleep with women." He then threw out his chest and shouted, "He who opposes my marriage, let him say it openly, without fear."
Again he gave the floor another blow from his foot; something seemed to be boiling up inside him.
The secret meeting of his sons, grandsons, and sons-in-law was noisy, and the opinions expressed numbered over sixty, the approximate number of those who attended the meeting held in the family's largest house, that of the oldest of the grandsons. Although many of the men did not show up, the meeting was considered legitimate. The only thing I did not expect came at the end, when all of them unanimously agreed to give me the most difficult task. I tried to decline but failed. The determination of the males of the family was something that could be neither ignored nor disobeyed.
The news of my grandfather's desire to get married had gone around the neighborhood through the gossip of old women. They were like bees humming about this man who was ninety years old or more but still desired women. My assigned task was to persuade my grandfather to give up the marriage, which was considered lustful and improper both for him and for the reputation of the family. I cursed that democracy to which the family meeting adhered and to which I was sacrificed. When I tried to excuse myself from the responsibility, one of the uncles rose and made a short embellished speech in which he praised my knowledge and persuasive ability. This, he argued, qualified me to deal with strong men like my grandfather, whom none dared to disobey or argue with on any subject. So I found myself obligated, confused, and searching for a proper way to convey the family's peaceful rebellion to my grandfather, who was not used to accepting contradictory remarks from anyone.
I entered Grandfather's house from the long, dark lane that led to the gate. My heart and my mind raced; I found myself shivering. The wooden gate was open. Its nails still held it together, nails the shapes of which I had liked since I was a child. I felt small in that vast opening. My steps slowed. Grandfather was in the front of the house; he sat cross-legged on one of two chairs used in wedding parties of the family men, for many years. Although I was waiting for my turn to sit on that wedding chair, I could not articulate my wish because I was still studying at the university. My beloved knew about these two chairs and she would sigh. Our love was secret and wishful. Nothing would expose it except perhaps too much meditative staring at the twin chairs of happiness.
Grandfather sat gazing at the marble flagstones. I realized that some decisive ideas might be going around in his head. His voice reached me as if he sensed in my footsteps foreboding and confusion. Thus he murmured, "Come closer. You must be the son of the late Abdullah. God have mercy on you, Abdullah."
I approached him with quicker steps, but he refused to let me kiss his hand as everybody does and said, "You are the most educated among them. Do not kiss anybody's hand."
I muttered shyly, "You are my grandfather."
He laughed and stroked me gently with his index finger: "Say, rather, I am your friend." Inviting me to sit on the other chair, he continued: "I am pleased to have a friend like you, befriended by books. Books arouse one's appetite for living."
I tried to steal a look at his face, which seemed to me during those moments to be as beautiful and solid as the entrance of the Citadel, which he told us he had defended in his youth. Death had fluttered around the fighters, he said, but he had not surrendered. He then said with a profound sigh, "The Citadel and I never grow old."
Suddenly I wished that I had embraced him or that he had embraced me with his long arms. I was thinking of my sweeping love for him. I had never won a single kiss from him, though. On the day of the Eid, the feast, we grandchildren used to line up in front of him, and he would survey us like a victorious leader contemplating the readiness of his soldiers in uniform. He would tell a boy to fasten his shoelace and a girl to comb her hair again; he would gently stroke the nose of one child and pinch the cheek of another. We would stand there, completely silent until he had finished distributing the Eid pocket money on the palms of our hands, opened up like hope. Then the disciplined withdrawal would begin; we would proceed quietly to the entrance of the big house, and then our noisy cries would erupt in the lane.
Grandfather would never fail to recognize each child. Here is the son of so-and-so. That girl's face has the signs of her mother's intelligence. Meanwhile we would look solemnly at him, his love reaching us silently. Like some leader of a squadron, he was miserly of encouraging words with his soldiers; nevertheless, he gave us the feeling that we were the most precious things he had.
Now, as I waited some moments that he spent meditatively looking about the home as if discovering it for the first time, he said, "The hall is very spacious, as you see." I nodded, recalling the old days, and felt the years fluttering like a bird inside of me.
He said with pride tinged with sorrow: "They grow up.... and go..."
From my chest came words involuntarily uttered: "You remain, Grandfather."
But then I regained my calmness and said, "And they always come back to you."
He rose suddenly from his seat, covered with a ram's fleece, a fleece that he replaced whenever he took a new wife. On those occasions, he would choose the biggest ram, the fat meat of which was offered to the guests, and put the tanned and wooly hide on his favorite seat. Now he stood up like a young eagle, walking firmly toward the walnut tree, whose dense branches shaded a large area of the pool. He stared at me and lifted his head. His venerable stature was as upright as the old tree. I tried to say something, but stammered, so I kept quiet. Returning slowly to his seat, he said: "The walnut tree is tough and resists time."
During those moments I felt that the man wanted to tell me something but preferred only to hint at it. A solid militant in his youth, he had become in his middle and old age the strict judge concerning the important affairs of the family. But he never behaved in an underhanded way. "If I could be like him..." I thought, but I never dared say it aloud, a wish which had obsessed me since adolescence.
The family meeting about the proposed marriage had been tumultuous. It had been the first of its kind ever. The sons and grandsons, together with the sons-in-law, were united to oppose Grandfather. The idea of a ninth wife for the head of the family was unanimously rejected. The woman nominated for the marriage was said to be a thirty-year-old virgin of whose situation my grandfather had heard by coincidence. After visiting the grave of his last wife, he had neighed like a horse. He had personally supervised the decoration of her tombstone. That woman was just as he described when he spoke to her at the graveside, his tears refusing to flow: "Bless you, woman, best likened to good earth."
In that family meeting, substantial evidence of my grandfather's intent to marry had been available, for it was reported that he had said, "If this virgin woman is strong and good at watering trees and taking care of flowers, then it will be fine to have her as my wife."
My grandfather had been fair all his life, had given every new wife and children their full rights, and had never had two wives at the same time, because he believed in the unity of love between man and woman. Yet now fear was rising in everybody's chest lest a woman come and rob him of his mind and money.
Suddenly, returning to his chair, my grandfather took my hand with a strength envied by young men and spoke loudly: "What is your ambition in this life, son?"
I remembered school days. We often had this question in composition homework: "What profession are you going to choose?" "What are your dreams for the future?"
I almost always failed to write a piece that would satisfy the teachers and often received their reproachful remarks. Now my grandfather's eyes were chasing me, looking for an answer. In spite of my sincere attempts to find reasonable, well-ordered words, I eventually failed to provide a satisfactory reply.
He said in a shrill voice: "I have no ambition but to assert my will for living."
Then he returned to his chair, murmuring quietly without looking at me: "Now, son of the late Abdullah, tell me, what do you want?"
I lost my courage. Apparently I was not worthy of holding the responsibility of expressing the feelings and ideas of the family members. Instead I found myself muttering meekly: "Nothing, Grandfather. I am fine, thanks to God. I am pleased to sit with you, to see you, to listen to you, and to learn."
From within the folds of the shawl which girdled his wrapped waist, he took out a big iron key, offered it to me, and said, laughing, "Bend the key if you can."
I grabbed the heavy iron key and remembered that it was for the big door that had not been used for decades, for it had always been opened for us.
"Bend the key if you can." I did not try. He took it away from me, saying, "You, all my sons, tell me, how many wars have your generations lost?"
Then, using his emaciated hands, he bent the key with a snapping sound. This made me keep silent, and I offered no comment, neither spoken nor signed. I felt completely helpless.
Moments later, Grandfather stood up and walked again towards the walnut tree. He looked up at its branches, gazed thoughtfully at its fruit, which decorated it like green stars, and said loudly: "I always hear you men, so proud of your ideas, saying that cities never die no matter what."
He struck the trunk of the tree with his fist. Nuts fell, and the sound as they hit the ground was like distant gunfire. Grandfather said in a deep voice: "Don't you want proof that cities do not die?"
He shook the tree again, and more nuts fell. He continued: "I am just like a city that doesn't die. Am I not genuine proof of that idea?"
He indicated to me to pick up a walnut. I did, and then heard him say softly, "Taste it, my son, it will give you strength."
I chewed the white heart of the nut with a joy shared by my grandfather; the deliciousness of the walnut overcame my intention of speaking about his marriage, the matter I had supposedly come to discuss. Grandfather kept feeding me walnut meat, the taste of which would remain under my teeth for many years. Meanwhile, he smiled at me and didn't say a word.