By Cecily Jones
The main title of Theresa Kubasak -and Gabe Huck’s book, Never Can I Write of Damascus:
When Syria Became Our Home, is the opening line of a poem by Nizar Qabbani in which he evokes the tastes and sights without which he cannot describe this city that for him is “not a picture from paradise,” but indeed is paradise. Damascus, he writes in his closing lines, is “not a copy of the poem. It is the poem.” Theresa and her husband, Gabe, have written a book-long “poem,” a memoir of how this beloved city in this ancient land claimed their hearts for seven years.
Their story began in Iraq whose treatment by the United States, first in the sanctions, then in the invasion and occupation, they had protested for years both here and in Iraq. Desiring to live as close as possible to that country to somehow “make a token reparation to the Iraqi people,” unsure then what it might be, they moved to Syria in summer 2005. They set about learning Arabic and immersing themselves in the life of their new hometown.
The different locations where the couple resided in Damascus provide apt demarcations for the book’s four parts, offering both a chronological as well as a topical focus. Exquisitely detailed, hand-designed maps add to the reader’s sharing the exploration, first, of the Old City, then of the Yarmouk Camp and then of two different sites chosen for the convenience of those involved in the Iraqi Student Project (ISP), the gift from Theresa and Gabe to young Iraqis (described later in this review).
Authors Theresa Kubasak and Gabe Huck enjoy time in Damascus in 2011.
(Photo courtesy of Theresa Kubasak)
From the start of their Syrian stay, the couple learned not only the language, under the tutelage of two different master teachers, but also the history and culture of Damascus, “perhaps the world’s longest continually inhabited city.” More than that, their memoir describes the lovely exuberance of fruits and vegetables, juices and baked goods available in the souqs (streetside markets) where they shopped. It describes the narrow lanes and charming courtyards. It describes various crafts: mosaics, jewelry, woodworked holders for the Qur’an, quilts of exotic fabric. It describes the mosques, the quiet parks, the museums, the cultural centers. It describes the couple’s participation in weddings, funerals and the festival of Eid that ends Ramadan. Their keen observation translates into a reader’s feeling that she, too, has been strolling through parts of Damascus.
Above all, Theresa and Gabe introduce the reader to the many Damascus residents who became their friends and colleagues, whose welcoming spirits infuse the pages with warmth and hospitality. They include landlords and shopkeepers, neighbors and schoolchildren and professional peers. Two of the book’s chapters emphasize the comradeship that thrived. One details Theresa’s friendship with the women staffing the Bakri Hammam (public bath) she frequented. The other, entitled “Portraits,” describes five women with whom Theresa and Gabe were closely connected.
Barely two years into their Syrian sojourn, they initiated the Iraqi Student Project, a program administered by them in Damascus to enable qualified college-age Iraqi refugees to attend U.S. universities. Having shared the idea with U.S. colleagues, who were enthusiastic, Theresa and Gabe began contacting colleges that agreed to give full- tuition scholarships. They and their stateside supporters sought out benefactors willing to offer room and board, transportation, book fees and emotional support. (The Loretto Center in St. Louis has provided housing for two ISP students attending Webster University.)
Since a full year of academic preparation would be needed before moving on to a U.S. college, Theresa and Gabe recruited volunteer assistants, such as fellow Syrian-language learners and local English-speaking personnel, to help in the program, sessions for which were held in the couple’s apartment. The book contains delightful accounts of writing workshops and literature circles, reproducing the lively exchange of ideas and samples of lovely student-written poetry. All the while, through the next five years, the ISP aspirants became supportive communities for one another, sharing in field trips, music, potlucks, life experiences and successes at challenging exams.
The couple’s efforts prepared more than 60 Iraqi refugee students for academic placements in the United States, offered hope for the future of their cherished home country and fulfilled the writers’ yearning to make some even slight reparation for the violence inflicted there. In addition, the ISP opened ways for citizens here to learn more about their far neighbors in Syria and Iraq.
For five of their years in Damascus, Gabe and Theresa offered to U.S. visitors a weeklong “Springtime in Syria” experience, wanting them to meet the country and its people, sharing the treasured places of their daily lives and leading them on trips to such ancient sites as Bosra, Aleppo, the monastery of Deir Mar Musa and the “Dead Cities.”
This book’s pages hold many photographs and a wealth of sidebars where one can find a variety of texts — recipes, song lyrics, historic information, profound quotes, poems, biographical sketches. The most fitting synonym for the book, as noted earlier, is “a poem.” However, the odes to the treasures of Damascus, the haiku-like descriptions of its sights and sounds, the ballads as Theresa and Gabe narrate their love of this city have been shadowed by the elegiac tones as regretfully they end their seven-year stay.
As I write this, I have just seen a New York Times headline announcing 400,000 deaths in Syria since the start of violence. I have seen too many times the bewildered 5-year-old Omran Daqneesh on his orange chair in an Aleppo ambulance. I plan to re-read this book so I will not forget what I have learned about the poet’s “paradise.”
Just World Books, 272 pp.