Fifteen years ago, I visited Douma, a city south of Syria, with the confidence of a 21 years old woman who crossed the Jordan River, got a taste of war zones, traveled overseas alone, walked the streets of San Francisco believing that the entire world looked like her otherwise the world is inferior just to discover overtime how wrong she was.
I was the only woman walking the streets of Douma wearing a pair of pants and no head cover. In fact, i did not see other women at all in the streets. By the time i arrived at my destination in Douma, the news of my arrival have circulated and reached my host.
I was shocked by the part of Douma that I saw. It was very underdeveloped and badly maintained, rural and secluded, quite the opposite of Damascus the metropolitan; with its high communal buildings, busy streets, liberal and adorned with Russian and Syrian beauties. The buildings in Douma were high, shabby and cramped, the roads were not paved. People used motorbikes to travel from one place to another with their wives draped in black from head to toe along with their kids.
I remember seeing some of the most beautiful women in my life hidden underneath all that black and when I say women, I don’t mean my modern conception of a liberal woman competing head to head with men, fighting every day for equality and running around the mountains with her friends for hikes. No, these women were trained from birth to embrace their femininity, take care of homes, of men, and children, cook, clean, speak softly but never week. Very capable women. I came across coarse, masculine and very ill-equipped. And boy do they have kids, many kids.
The houses were crowded from the inside, food was limited, and they used “Turkish Toilets”; the ones where you have to squat and test the strength of your thigh muscles otherwise you fall in the hole. They all made do with no complaints with a high sense of dignity. There hospitality was impeccable. In fact, they offered me the best of everything, including scares food. I was asked to eat first then I realized that their kids waited to eat my left overs and I knew then how awful it was to walk in this world with a since of entitlement, misconceptions, or limited views.
As for women’s education, it was restricted to the ones who were not so pretty and can’t secure a husband so they must carry a certain degree and a job to help with the family finances. Again, I came across on the wrong side; coarse, educated, masculine and ill-equipped in women’s ways.
My host was extremely educated and he kept a wooden box of Russian books and translations given to him by a great man who endorsed communism at the wrong time and paid dearly for his beliefs. We spent many hours talking about this mans life and his translations that had never seen the light of day until my arrival and they were a true treasure; from Dostoyevsky to Gorky to Trotsky and Tolstoy; books that brought tears to my eyes and enabled me to develop wisdom and new understanding of life.
Two days later, I left Douma. The purpose of my visit accomplished and I held my treasure of books and translations tightly in my hands. I took one of those very old Syrian buses decorated to extremes to Damascus not knowing that my visit was going to be the only and the last visit, and the last of Syria as anyone knew it.
Being the center of rural Damascus, Douma witnessed many demonstrations that led eventually to an all out civil war. A stronghold for the Syrian Opposition, the city has been bombed heavily. Now the building I knew disappeared. My host died a natural death which is a privilege nowadays in Syria, one of his sons almost drowned in a boat that capsized in Libya on its way to Italy, the other two sons are gone missing, presumed dead, my knowledge that one was fighting with the Syrian Army and one fighting with the Rebels; the irony of life in Syria! I do not know what befell of his wife and daughters. And I am left with memories from a place that has turned into ruins, memories of it generous, good people that have disappeared and a legacy of books passed on to me, giving me some since of relief that I managed to save something, to salvage these books and translations from the shelling that left Douma ablaze and in total ruins since the beginning of the Syrian Revolution.
More photos from Syria
Samar M. Salma