Never can I write of Damascus
without my fingers becoming
a trellis for her jasmine.
Nor can my mouth speak that name
without savoring the juices of her apricot,
pomegranate, mulberry and quince.
Poem by Nizar Qabbani.
Translated by students in the Iraqi Student Project
Never Can I Write of Damascus: When Syria Became our Home, by Theresa Kubasak and Gabe Huck is a memoir of the couple’s years with the Iraqi Student Project, preparing Iraqi refugees in Syria in to attend college in the U.S. Huck and Kubasak chose the work of creating educational opportunities for Iraqi young adults as their way of compensating in some small way for the damage done to Iraq by the U.S. invasion. They chose Syria because it had welcomed such large numbers of Iraqi refugees. Little did they know that in seven years they would be leaving Syria themselves, and that this country they came to love would be flooding the world with its own desperate refugees.
If I were not about to retire from education, I might use this book in a first-year seminar, teaching college students how to explore intellectually, do critical thinking, engage in civil discourse, and appreciate learning, language and culture for their own sake. The model of highly motivated learning in the ISP groups is fascinating, as they discovered world literature and poetry in discussion groups and worked together in writing workshops, to a large extent self-directed with guidance from Kubasak.
Through this book, I’ve learned more about Syria than I have ever learned from the news. I got a clear feeling for what it must be like to leave your home and your possessions because your life is in danger and your country at war within itself, and also for how Syria made room for refugees, first from Iraq and then from its own disrupted society. Though they make occasional references to politics, most of all Huck and Kubasak have written a love letter to Damascus: its language, its architecture, its food, its artisans, its spirituality, and its people. Damascus as it was. The city in this memoir is full of music, dancing, fresh fruit juices, family, prayers, creativity, and most of all friendliness and generosity.
The authors use excerpts from student writings, interviews with local residents, and quotations from books and poetry to illustrate the themes of each chapter. One moving story is from an Iraqi refugee. She tells about stopping in Mosul on a cold night as one of many escaping to Syria, taking shelter in a mosque. The travelers didn’t know each other, but little by little they drew closer to each other for conversation and for warmth, and thus they spent the night, comforted by each other’s human presence and warmth. They were Shia, Sunni and Christian in that group, and it no longer mattered at all.
My final meeting with my Virginia book club was special. It’s the only time we’ve had the author of the book we read join us. Two of us in the club know Theresa Kubasak as our yoga student, and we invited her to talk with us and share the in-depth stories behind her memoir.
As our guest, she did something quintessentially Syrian. Eager to share Syrian culture with us, she brought food: fresh hummus seasoned with garlic and sumac, freekah (cracked wheat with slivered almonds), figs and dates stuffed with walnuts, and the wonderful soft flatbread that she describes in her book as something people often carry home on their heads. The generosity and sociability of the Syrian people is the life force that animates the book. She embodied that spirit. In addition to cooking for us, she brought two of the books of the poems and essays written by the Iraqi refugee students she and her husband worked with, and a long white curtain inscribed by a number of the students with the best lines from their essays about spiritual life. For a while, it hung over a door in my apartment, words written by young people in Damascus. There was something moving about its presence, a scene from their lives carried into ours, bearing their words in their handwriting. One of the writers, Mustafa, had signed his name over a sketched bank of fluffy clouds. A book club member who volunteers helping Syrians resettle here was so entranced by the small volume of the student writings that she read some of the poems over and over and then had to share them aloud with us.
Another member of the club asked Kubasak what was difficult or different in returning to the U.S. after seven years in Damascus. She described a day during their readjustment to New York, where they had been living before they took on the Iraqi Student Project, including this anecdote as part of her answer: After going to various institutions and businesses on errands, she looked at her husband and remarked, “We’ve been to five places today, and no one has offered us tea.”
Not all book clubs will be so fortunate as to be able to invite the author, but if you’re in a club and need something important, moving and different to read, I recommend this. Have some Syrian food as you discuss it, and apricot or pomegranate juice and tea.