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Volume 30, Number 2March/April 1979

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Growing up in Damascus

Written by Mounir R. Sa'Adah
Illustrated by Neville Mardell

My maternal grandfather, who kept a meticulous record of his earnings and expenditures, has an entry dated June 19, 1909 for a half-majidi that he gave to the messenger who brought him the news of a birth: mine, the day before, in Damascus. That birth, otherwise unremarkable, had almost taken place in April, two months earlier, when Damascus was shaken by the first of the great political and social changes that would shape or affect my life while growing up in Damascus...

In April, spring is in full swing in Syria. The extensive fruit orchards around Damascus are in bloom and the whole city traditionally goes out to the orchards to shake off the confinement of the long winter, to greet the coming spring and, as we used to say, "to smell the air."

The most attractive of these orchards on the outskirts of the city is an apple orchard, the Mazra'a. Legend says that because the crowds often helped themselves to blossoming branches for home decoration, the owners of the Mazra'a once built a wall around the whole plantation to prevent the entry of the strollers who came "to smell the air." That year, the trees bore no fruit, only blossoms and leaves. So the wail was demolished and the orchard was open to the people ever after to come and smell the air of spring.

On April 26, 1909, my parents were among the crowd "smelling the air," when news arrived that Sultan Abdulhamid of Turkey had been deposed by the Committee of Union and Progress - the "Young Turks." The news created a panic among the crowds of strollers and they stampeded out of the orchard to reach the safety of their homes.

Why would an event so far away cause such a panic? For several decades the Ottoman Empire - of which Syria was a part - had been declining and the European powers were most anxious to add Ottoman territories to their own empires. Part of their strategy was to create dissent and discord within the Empire, and to that end they claimed the right to protect the various Arab Christian minorities that lived and had lived for centuries within these territories.

The Russians claimed the right to protect the interests of the Greek Orthodox; the French, not to be outdone, claimed the Catholics and the Uniates; and the British us Protestants - along with the Druzes. The ambitious Germans even went so far as to proclaim themselves, on the occasion of the German Emperor's state visit to Damascus in 1898, "the sword and protector of Islam."

In fact, this "protection" was generally unnecessary. The Arab Christians in the Ottoman Empire lived in harmony with the Muslim majority, partly because they were, under Islamic law, ahl al-dhimma - "people of the covenant" - whose lives, liberty and property were protected. Indeed, the intervention of the great powers upset this harmony and, in the long run, endangered the minorities rather than protecting them.

As a result, some of the more enlightened Arabs, sensing the danger into which they were drifting, began to encourage the idea of an Arab nation in which the people would be citizens by virtue of nationality, rather than religion. They had hit upon an idea whose time had come - Arab nationalism.

In Istanbul, the Young Turks, who advocated a homogeneous state and saw minorities as a danger, decided to discourage the nationalist movements. The Christians in Damascus, therefore, panicked at the news about Sultan Abdulhamid; as a minority group - and as Arabs largely sympathetic to Arab nationalism - they felt vulnerable that lovely spring day. So, with my father carrying my brother on his shoulders and my mother dragging my sister along, my parents rushed home. In fact, nothing at all happened, but the event so shook my mother that she nearly bore me prematurely.

All that, of course, was a long time ago, but it is a family tradition and like certain inddents of childhood it lingers in memory. Such memories are difficult to trace; they tend to float to the surface in the wrong order. Still, there are some that a boy never forgets...

I remember vividly for example, that Saturday in our family was cleaning day and that each Saturday the washerwoman arrived early in the morning, lit the kitchen fireplace, placed a huge cauldron over the fire and filled it with water that she pumped from the well in the garden. Then she sorted out the laundry. While the water was being heated she gave the white linen materials a preliminary washing with soap and water. Then she rinsed these and put them in the boiling cauldron and poured on them two or three gallons of water from a huge jar in which we had some water softener. She let the laundry boil for some 15 minutes, gave it a soaping and a couple of rinsings and hung it in the sun. I remember what joy it was to sleep in those clean sheets and pajamas Saturday night after a hot bath. They smelled of the sun.

While the washerwoman was busy in the kitchen, the rugs were rolled and beaten to get the dust out of them, the house was swept and the windows washed. We, the children, took charge of cleaning the glass chimneys of the kerosene lamps. We filled the lamps with kerosene which we bought in six-gallon cans with an Indian head embossed on them. In those days the lands that now float on a sea of oil used to import oil from the United States.

I also remember how, on one such day, I got very tired and decided to roll myself in a rug and go to sleep. I was only about four, after all, and it seemed natural. But in midafternoon my mother missed me and the search was on. My cousins and neighbors were recruited, but could find no trace of me. Fear gripped the whole neighborhood until, rested and groggy, I crawled out of the rug.

I remember too the glorious summer nights in Damascus when the nights were clear and cool, the stars were close by and we and our neighbors would go out onto the flat roofs to sleep.

On such nights it always took us a long time to sleep, because the spectacle of the sky fascinated us. My father would point out one constellation after the other and the firmament, by the time I was five, was friendly because I could call many of its stars by their proper names. Occasionally some clouds would sail by and we'd play the game of what each one of them looked like. Our imagination expanded as we watched their ever-changing forms and, fortunately in those days there was no one to psychoanalyze our musings.

There were other nights, too, when we felt social and neighborly. On such occasions we would climb to the higher roof level, which was adjacent to our neighbors,' and we'd call them to come up. Before long all the neighborhood, crossing from roof to roof, would congregate and as there was always someone with a beautiful voice or an 'ud we would often stay there until midnight, singing, gossiping, cracking roasted watermelon and pumpkin seeds, or sometimes just sitting for long periods of silence; in those days we could sit, unembarrassed, with nothing to say.

One such night I shall never forget. The roof of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral, one block from our home, caught fire. The smoke and the blaze were frightening. The firefighters arrived with their inadequate equipment and were doing their best to contain the fire, but what I remember best is the silhouette of a solitary kneeling figure with arms raised to the sky - that of my friend the Patriarch on his own rooftop, praying to God to have mercy.

Whether it was thanks to his intercession or to the firefighters' efforts I do not know, but the fire was soon contained; later I was to think that the Patriarch knew full well that it was God's will to preserve the cathedral and he was invoking that will with the certainty that it would prevail. He had put himself, his God and us believers in a box from which there was no exit but atheism. A Muslim, watching the fire from his rooftop, might have said it differently: 'Allah will do what he wills, as he wills, if he wills, to whom he wills, when he wills." But the principle is the same.

When World War I broke out, we were spending the summer months in Bludan. For parched Damascus, Bludan is a summer resort sent from heaven. Out of the dry, bare rocks gush springs cold as ice, pure as the snows from which they are filtered, and life-giving to the orchards they create. The sun shines brightly while constant breezes fan the countryside. The Zabadani plain spreads itself below and on the horizon the Barada River sparkles in the sun, idling its way to create and sustain Damascus.

I remember my parents debating whether the family should not remain in Bludan until "the thing" was over. It could not last, in their view, more than a few weeks. So my father went back to work in Damascus and we stayed behind. By mid-October he changed his mind and took us home. Of course, there was no possibility of my going back to the Irish Mission Academy, which I had been attending; as the Ottoman Empire had joined Germany in the war, the Academy had been closed and taken over as enemy property.

Instead, I was sent to the Orthodox School. It was a happy little school, and one of the teachers, Nayla, was the essence of kindness; we would have done anything for her. She and we shared a deep secret: she started us in French - then, in wartime, the language of the enemy, and forbidden by the Turks. What a tremendous incentive to learn a language. We took to it avidly. One day word came that the Turkish inspectors were on their way to the school. There was no escape: Nayla ordered us to put our French books into the Franklin stove that heated the classroom. Every single French text was burned, and we remained bookless for the rest of the year. It was our good fortune that we began our French not as a chore but as an adventure and as an act of defiance. The French language, therefore, became a symbol and when, ironically, Frenchmen replaced Turks as our rulers we managed to disassociate the culture from the colonizer, and went on defying the ruler and loving the culture. Another day during the war, I came home from school and found three huge bonfires. I was horrified: my parents were burning books. Word had reached us, through the grapevine, that an inspector was on his way to search our house for any evidence of enemy-connected activity. Our community was a hotbed of Arab nationalism; already three prominent members of our congregation, including the minister, had been arrested and sent to exile in Tokat, and my father was next on the list. So we burned any books or papers that might be used as incriminating evidence.

At that time the slightest thing could be construed as opposition. When Turkey entered the war in October, for example, the police went to the French school to take down the French flag. A man who was watching said, "This has a long tail," a reference to the rope used to lower the flag. But in Arabic this expression can mean also, "This is not the end of the story," and that man languished in prison for the duration of the war. Through his connection with Jemal Pasha, the Turkish commander in Syria, a cousin succeeded in procuring an exemption from military service for my father, who was unwilling to fight for the Ottoman side. The exemption was supposed to be good indefinitely, but some bureaucrat along the way had changed the term to three months. A renewal was not issued. One day, my father was asked to show his papers at a checkpoint. He readily produced the expired exemption, while his knees melted like butter. To his great relief he discovered that the chief inspector was holding the paper upside down; he was illiterate, but, impressed by the number of seals on the document, he signaled my father to move on.

My wartime memories also include examples of kindness and brotherhood. Before the war, my father had been in the habit of going to the Victoria Hospital on Sunday afternoons to visit the sick. In his school days, his ambition had been to become a doctor, but his family could not afford it. Perhaps, with his great ambition unrealized, he compensated by giving spiritual strength to those who were being physically healed. I have no other explanation for his regular visits to the hospital and to a leper colony situated outside the city walls, that dated back to Biblical times. When the war came, the missionaries left and the Turkish military took the hospital over for British casualties and prisoners of war. My father, however, continued his Sunday visits and we went along. He asked for no permission, but just went there as a matter of course. We took baskets of fruit, but what touched the patients most was to see someone, with his young children, look at them not as enemies but as human beings to be loved. In recognition of these services, done purely for God's sake, my father was mentioned in dispatches, and at the end of the war he received a letter of gratitude from the commander of the British forces. This unexpected recognition gave my father much joy and pride.

Another example has to do with a family in our neighborhood which lived from hand to mouth. When there was work they lived well, when there wasn't they became suddenly destitute. Then they went to neighbors and asked if they could "borrow" bread or cheese or eggs or even oil and vegetables. We all understood and responded generously: it is the obligation of neighbors. Yet food was getting quite scarce, because of the British blockade and the influx of refugees.

One day in 1918 my father came home with two months' supply of flour. I heard him tell my mother that there was no more to be had for love or money "We shall eat this," he added, "and then God will provide." A few days later there was a knock at our door. I went to open it and found the daughter of our neighbor, asking if she could "borrow" 12 loaves of bread. I went straight to my mother and told her, my nine-year-old voice loaded with annoyance, that the neighbors wanted to "borrow" twelve loaves. Without any hesitation my mother said, "Of course, give her what she asked for." In October of that year, and before the flour was gone, Damascus fell to the advancing Arab and British troops, and my father was appointed director of relief work in the Damascus area. There was much to eat and to spare. God had provided.

Not far from my home was a little grocery not more than two yards by three, run by a hajji, a Muslim who had made the Hajj, the Pilgrimage to Mecca. It was a strange thing to find a Muslim grocer in the Christian quarter, but he was there and, of course, faithfully observed the prescribed daily prayers. No matter what was happening at the moment, he would let it go and attend to his prayers when the muezzin's call was heard. One day motivated by mischief, I stopped at his grocery when I saw him getting ready for prayer. Business at his grocery was never too heavy and customers were anxiously waited on. I told him what I needed to buy, but he would not attend to my needs. He spread his prayer rug, faced Mecca and began his prayer. Living in this world, I learned that day one often has to choose between God and Mammon; and for the hajji the soul had priority. No matter how eloquently my minister preached, he could not have made the point more convincingly than the hajji did that afternoon.

The hajji was also involved in another lesson, although indirectly. A cousin had come on a visit from Brazil and one day as he, my brother and I were passing the hajji's shop, we decided to help ourselves to some lovely oranges that were on display.

My cousin from Brazil, who knew the ways of the world, worked out the strategy. We would walk up to the shop. He would come from behind and push us. We would fall upon the basket of oranges. In the confusion we would pick up a couple of oranges and hand them to him, and he'd walk away with them while the hajji was busy with us. Clumsy? Yes, but it worked. Unfortunately, as we rejoined my cousin to enjoy the loot, my father materialized as if from nowhere and asked us how we got the oranges. We were too surprised to tell a lie, so he took the oranges away from us and told us to go home. But that was not the end of the affair. That night at dinner he ate nothing, and after dinner, in the presence of the whole family even my little sister aged three, he turned to us with grief showing all over his face and told us how crushed he was when he had to walk to the hajji's store and tell him that he was the father of two thieves. He had lost face, he told us, and his dignity was diminished. What had he done to deserve this from us? We had no answer. He was a wonderful father and a generous provider. We truly lacked nothing. Of course, he probably could not - or maybe he did - appreciate the excitement that drove us to steal; it was an adventure that most children love to experience. But to have caused grief and loss of dignity for our father was too high a price to pay. Never again, we decided, would we do anything to either grieve or humiliate him.

It was about this time too, I think, that I had my first encounter with death - and learned still another lesson. I think of it as the funeral of the swallow. I found a swallow that had crashed into a window. It was perfectly understandable - I myself had run into windows several times - but the swallow was hurt: one of its wings was broken So I took it home and gave it all the care I could for much of the night. The next morning I fed it and made it comfortable before I went to school. At school, I could not wait for classes to end. As soon as school was dismissed I ran home to the bird. It certainly was not better. There was a white film on its eyes and it was not struggling any longer. I picked it up and cradled it in the palm of my right hand while I stroked it with the left It felt warm and I was happy to make it comfortable. But my happiness lasted only a minute or two. The swallow opened its eyes, looked at me intently whispered a squeal, and then gave a shudder that I felt in every cell of my being. Then it died.

That was my first intimate experience of death, yet I was not touched by either grief or sorrow I cannot describe my feelings of that moment, but they were nearer to awe and anguish than anything else. The bird remained cradled in my hand until it began to stiffen. Then it was no longer a part of me: it was dead and I was alive.

But I had responsibilities. I had seen funerals pass by our house and I decided to give my departed friend a decent burial. So I passed the word around to my friends at school, and after school the next day we all gathered for the funeral. There were pallbearers and official mourners and all the necessary paraphernalia. The funeral passed from our reception room, through the courtyard and into the garden. We laid the bird in a grave at the root of my little olive tree and I delivered the eulogy. Meanwhile, however, my old aunt, Sophia, under whose window much of this happened, had become curious, then, when she found out what was going on, furious. She saw the whole ceremony as an ill omen; crippled with arthritis and aging, she was naturally concerned with the subject of death. So when my father returned home she told him the whole story about her terrible nephew and his classmates.

I do not know what kind of diplomacy my father used. After he talked to my aunt he came to me, smiling gently, and persuaded me to remove the marble marker, "TO OUR DEPARTED SWALLOW." He also told me to see my aunt before I left for school the next day. I did and found that Aunt Sophia had forgiven me. Indeed, when she died, a few weeks later, she left all the gold pieces she had carefully hoarded to me, her "beloved nephew." To this day my brother wishes he had buried a swallow under Aunt Sophia's window.

Meanwhile, the war had begun to bring about some psychological changes in Damascus that were even greater than the political, demographic and geographic changes; it totally reshaped our attitude toward the almighty Europeans who, until then, had been privileged and nearly untouchable. One schoolmate of my father's, for instance, had been the son of an honorary first secretary at the British consulate. The boy came to school on his horse and, on arriving, would whip out a Union Jack from his pocket, fasten it to the saddle of the horse, tie its halter around its neck and send it home riderless. No one dared touch the horse on its way home because it carried the Union Jack.

Another time, I remember, two friends, my older brother and I went to a nearby park - the Saffaniyah - to play. As the city was tense, a curfew had been imposed and the park had to be cleared an hour before sunset. But we were having such fun that when the police came near us, we switched to English -whatever English we were able to speak then - and the police stopped. "They are Englise." they said, and waited until we decided to leave the park. As "Englise" we were above the law.

Now, however, as the Europeans fought each other we came to see them as more ordinary men - much as the Asians would see the British after the fall of Singapore. This erosion of wonder at all things European was a wholesome thing. It encouraged the growing nationalist feeling of the Arabs. It re-focused our view of ourselves. It reminded us that we Arabs had immeasurable treasures in our own culture upon which to build.

This aspect of nationalism was stimulated during the war when the Ottomans moved many suspected nationalists to Damascus, where they could be kept under surveillance. Some of these people used to meet at our home, but as politics was forbidden they discussed literary, theological or philosophical subjects. We children were always welcome, of course, or taken along when my parents went to visit others. How much we understood of these discussions, I have no way to tell. All that I remember is that I was fascinated, possibly because there is something enchanting about the Arabic language itself. One can be hypnotized by the rhythm.

Years later, when I reflected on Arab nationalism, I realized how close it had come to replacing the harsh Ottoman rule with a society that might have transcended race and territory. In Damascus, for example, in September, 1918, Ottoman authority had disappeared, bringing to an end 500 years of foreign rule. But instead of the anarchy which so often arises in such a vacuum, civil groups sprang up spontaneously and maintained order.

These groups, which established organizations in each neighborhood, were basically Muslim, but to the Christians of Damascus this was no disadvantage. As I said, we were all Arabs and we had always lived in relative harmony and had been, like Jews, seen as "people of the book," and thus entitled to protection - until the western powers began to arouse the Ottomans by insisting on "protecting" us. Besides, the spirit of Arab nationalism had already made deep inroads, and had helped to knit us together, Muslim and Christian. One night, for instance, I remember a Muslim patrol passing through our neighborhood and the leader saying "Ya shabab, walk quietly lest you disturb the sleep of our brothers."

For the next two years this spirit persisted. Indeed, for Syrians, it was a beautiful time. I remember, for example, the October day in 1918 when the leaders of the Arab Revolt reached Damascus. They had come through the East Gate and were proceeding west through the Souk Al Tawileh - the "Street called Straight" - toward the center of the city.

There they raised the green, white, red and black Arab flag (See Aramco World, March- April 1978), their swords flashing in the sun and their songs of victory sending a thrill through the welcoming city.

Nine months later, on July 2, 1919, the city was thrilled again: the Syrian Congress declared Syria a free and sovereign state. I remember this in particular because my father was a member of the congress and when he came home to tell us he was hardly able to speak for joy. And in August he came home bubbling with hope again; the congress had just met with the King-Crane Commission, sent by President Woodrow Wilson to find out what the people of Syria wanted for themselves.

This was very exciting news. Early in the summer of 1918 we had watched from the rooftops as Allied planes dropped leaflets over Damascus with Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points printed in Arabic. For us, Wilson's 12th point was the most important; it promised the peoples living in the provinces of the Turkish Empire the right to self-determination; and now, with the King-Crane Commission actually in Damascus, we had proof that the United States meant to keep its word. So the Syrians on that same day reaffirmed their overwhelming preference for independence and said that if any Western guidance was needed, the Syrians would prefer it from the United States. Thus the stage was set. The will of the people was made plain by the Syrian Congress to President Wilson and on March 11, 1920, Sharif Faisal, who had played a prominent role in the Arab Revolt against the Ottomans, was declared King of Syria.

I, as it happened, had met the Sharif earlier. In the summer of 1919, with three companions, I had been picnicking by a spring in the Bludan mountains and met Faisal on his way back from a morning of hunting. He stopped to talk to us, inspected a shotgun belonging to one of my friends and then turned to the rest of us, handed the weapon back, and said, 'As for you, it is not the gun but the pen, the plow, and" - shyly looking at the only girl in the group, - "the cradle." How beautiful the word sounded when he said it: "sareer!" Then he sent us away in peace: "Ma' as-salamah!"

I met him one more time too - after he was declared King of Syria. He was visiting schools in the various neighborhoods of Damascus and I was selected to present him with a bouquet of flowers. To my great surprise he recognized me as one of the children he had met on the mountainside in Bludan.
So I promptly forgot the words I had rehearsed as a greeting! Such are the treasures we cherish for the rest of our lives.

Our beautiful two years, of course, proved to be an illusion. France and Britain had made other plans and an independent Syria was not included. On April 18, 1920, by the Treaty of San Remo, the Council of Allied Prime Ministers granted France a mandate over Syria and in July the French sent troops from Beirut to enforce their claim. The Syrians, naturally, objected, and on July 25, as the French forces climbed the mountains that divide Lebanon and Syria, masses of Syrians swarmed out of Damascus prepared to resist this invasion. It was a popular uprising and I, all 11 years of me, took a wooden toy gun and set out for Maysalun, some 12 miles out of the city.

It was a short-lived adventure; my mother saw me sneaking out of the house and stopped me. But so was the Syrian resistance. French forces brushed the Syrians aside and took possession of Damascus.

The French, like the Ottomans before them, were often inept rulers. They attempted to divide Syria into small, semi-autonomous states drawn more or less along religious lines. And like all occupying powers they aroused fierce feelings among the subject peoples, unnecessarily.

One incident demonstrates this. A few friends and I were taking a short evening stroll when a French armored convoy approached us. When the convoy reached us, I raised my hand in a halt sign and shouted, "Taxi?" The French commander stopped the whole convoy came down from the lead car with his pistol in his hand and gave us a tongue-lashing that could easily have won the Battle of the Marne had it been directed at the enemy instead of an 11-year-old boy. I am sure I was at fault: one does not make fun of the military. But the commander's overreaction certainly did not make friends either.

Despite the French presence, however, life in Damascus went on. With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the Irish Mission Academy was permitted to reopen and I resumed my education - this time in the company of Damascus Muslims and Jews.

In those days we could be, and were, close friends. Despite differences we were, after all, ahlal-kitab, "peopleofthe book" and Syrians. So, in the early 1920's, we studied together, played together and, on special occasions, marched together. One of these occasions was the annual observance of Martyrs' Day, when we mourned the deaths of 21 executed nationalists. Another - celebrated on July 25 each year - was the day the Syrians had swarmed out to Maysalun when the French were coming to occupy Damascus.

French mandatory officials, of course, opposed this celebration. On the anniversary day most of the people of Damascus streamed out along the banks of the Barada towards Maysalun.

There were pageants and sword dancing and fiery speeches. The more the French tried to suppress these occasions the more popular they became, and my friends and I were always there. It brought us closer and we all still remember it when we meet.

Meanwhile, I was also getting an education. The curriculum was not complex; it dealt only with fundamentals and was centered around the acquisition of academic skills. But in other ways we were allowed to unfold according to our individual capabilities. For me this meant I was free to read. There were many books at home, but one I particularly remember was an expurgated edition of The Arabian Nights in which, every time the story reached a questionable moment, a line of poetry was inserted saying, 'And what happened, happened; think well and ask no questions." Having read the unexpurgated edition since then, I think the other version did no harm to my education! Adolescence is turbulent enough without external excitement to feed its fires.

We also did a lot of visiting with friends. They were not many, but they were for keeps, and we spent a great deal of time together. The dry was big and the surrounding countryside was open, beautiful and varied. Above all, we felt secure and safe. There were hills to climb, brooks to ford, watermills to watch, and street life in which we involved ourselves. One of the things to which I always looked forward was the lighting of the street lamps. By then, there was electricity in the city but the side streets were still lit by kerosene lamps. Each day at sunset, a man appeared carrying a pitcher, a ladder and a rag. He would lean the ladder against the wall, open the lantern, clean the chimney, fill the lamp with oil, strike a match, fit the chimney back over the flame and come down, leaving behind him a pool of light. How I loved to watch people's faces as they came closer to the lanterns and then receded into the darkness between one light and the other. There was also the night watchman who, in the winter, carried a little charcoal burner while he made his rounds. You could hear him pass as he banged his heavy cane on the cobblestones. When any one passed him he greeted them to make sure of their identity; if they were residents in the neighborhood, he let them go; if strangers, he'd give a loud blast on his whistle to alert the watchman at the next post.

The school year 1922-1923 was to be my last at the Irish Mission Academy in Damascus; thanks to an interest-free loan from the academy I was then to go to the preparatory school of the American University of Beirut. But in the fall of 1922 I fell ill with pleurisy and when I recovered, it was decided that I should not go to school for the rest of the year. I should eat well, sleep much and have a great deal of fresh air and sunshine. I do not remember what my reaction to that sabbatical year was then, but subsequently I realized that it was a blessing; as the Muslims say "Wa yakhlukul Allah ma la ta' lamun". ("But God creates for you that of which you have no knowledge.")

About 200 yards from my home there was a library that belonged to the Society of St. John of Damascus. It turned out to be a treasure-house of Arabic literature, and for the next year I spent most of my time there, reading voraciously in Arabic. The Arabic language is a most powerful instrument of expression and the Arabic classics, written roughly between the 8th and the 15th centuries, represent the language at its apogee. It was an absolute joy to immerse myself in it; I felt as though I was within something divine. I am sure I read much that I did not understand and still more that had no relevance to me, but it made no difference; each night I could not wait for the day to come again, so I could go to the library and read. There was poetry philosophy geography, travel, folklore, theology and, above all, the Koran. The spell of the language fell upon me; I was crushed and burned and purified by it; it filled me with light and excitement. Until then, I had stood at the periphery of things Arabic, but during that fateful year I moved to the heart and soul of those things. One cannot understand the experience from the outside. One has to undergo it. Unless one knows the language, the Arab remains an enigma; when one does know it, the Arab does not cease to be a mystery - but he becomes an awesome mystery.

During that year I discovered also - as Arab nationalists had before me - that the central fact about the Arab community is not geography or religion, nor a body of commonly held ideas and ideals, nor a shared tradition and history. All these are derivatives. The central thing is that we know and speak Arabic, a language which, whenever it encounters any other language, tends to displace it, and not by any act of aggression but just by the love it evokes in those who behold it. The glory of it is that Arabic is capable of shaping the character in the same way that beauty, goodness, truth and love do. It falls into the category of first things which say, "Let there be," and character becomes flesh; it makes one free.

So, though much happened during that happy year, the most important was that I found the core of my own being. I knew I was ready to be launched upon another sea: the sea of history, the sea of learning, the sea of reason. I was ready for the world which, then, was the preparatory school at A.U.B. to which, at last, I set out. When my father had loaded my footlocker on a donkey to travel the five miles from Bludan to the railway station and as we stood waiting for the train, I dug my hand into my pocket where there were three majidis that I had won in a wager and handed them to my father. At the time I did not understand the meaning of the gesture myself, and many years later he told me that it puzzled him too. But eventually I did understand; it was a symbol that I was entering a world of other categories, other assumptions, other values. What I had not yet internalized would no longer be of any help to me in this new venture.

The train arrived. He helped me get into it and stood on the platform with tears in his eyes, in the knowledge that a dream he had had a quarter of a century before was being fulfilled in his son. I was on my way.

Mounir R. Sa'adah, after growing up in Damascus, went on to earn his B.A. and M.A. degrees – in political science — at the American University of Beirut. In 1945 he emigrated to the United States and now lives in Vermont, where he serves as Unitarian Universalist Minister. He has been Director of Arabic and Middle East Studies at Choate School, a consultant to Yale University and Chairman of the Vermont Arab Refugees Committee.

This article appeared on pages 18-27 of the March/April 1979 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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