Memories from Syria

Arab-American Father-Daughter Duo Bring Past Traditions to Vivid Life
Cover of "Stories My Father Told Me" By Elia Zughaib and Helen Zughaib

The recent Syrian immigration to the West after the start of the civil war was not the first, although it has been massive in scale, and involved utmost cruelty. The first wave was during the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, and part of it was due to oppression by the Ottoman Empire. Today, most of the Arab-Americans have their roots in Bilad Al-Sham, or Greater Syria, as was known then. The Immigration Act of 1965 that abolished the quotas opened the way for another wave of Syrians and other Arabs.

Elia Zughaib, the co-author of this book, immigrated about 20 years earlier, obtained a PhD in political science, joined the State Department, worked in many countries until his retirement. The co-author was his daughter, Helen Zughaib, an artist who decorated the book with colorful full-page drawings, almost a third of the book pages.

In the book’s introduction, Helen wrote: “One evening about 10 years ago, after a family dinner filled with my father’s stories of his childhood and youth in Damascus and Lebanon, my mother and I were in the kitchen when she said, “Someday, we ought to record your father telling his stories.”

Elia Zughaib remembered the old days in Syria when the only water supply for the village was the communal water fountain. “Al-Sabaya” (young women) walked to the fountain at sunset, balancing large colorful water jugs on their heads. This walk to get water had become, over time, a much anticipated social event known as “Mishwar Al-Ayn” (Walk to the Water Fountain).

At the fountain, “Al-Sabaya” showed off their fine dresses, chat and gossip. “Al-Shabab” (young men) also went to the fountain at the same time “to watch and innocently flirt with the young women. Occasionally a young man or woman would muster enough courage to say a word or two to a special person.”

Zughaib remembered his father, a Greek Orthodox, who grew-up during the last years of the Russian Empire that was toppled by the Communist Revolution during World War I. The father was fond of the toppled family of Nicolas II, the last emperor. Nicolas, his wife and their five children were, first, exiled to Siberia, then, a year later, were shot to death.

Zughaib’s father, strongly believing that the Revolution would fail, and Nicolas would return as an emperor, decided to make money by buying all the Russian rubles he could get his hands on. His plan was that, since the ruble’s value went deep down after the Revolution, investors would not be interested in keeping it, and that, when the emperor returned, the ruble’s value would go up.

“He (the father) sold some of the family possessions, cattle, land, jewelry and other family belongings and bought Russian rubles, which, by then, had become almost worthless. All the rubles were stacked in wooden boxes and stored in big closet in Jiddo’s (grandfather) house.”

When all the Russian royal family was killed by the Communists, “the rubles lost all their mystique. Even my father would occasionally laugh at his folly …”

 Zughaib remembered summer-time when he and his sister "loved to visit Jiddo and Teta’s (grandmother) house in the mountains. We were free to play in the garden, make new friends and ride on Jiddo’s donkey … To harvest the figs, Jiddo and I would climb the fig tree, fill our basket with ripe figs and then lower it to Teta and my sister.”

But, making raisins, however, was more complicated. “Teta took bunches of grapes and laid them neatly on white sheets covered with straw … Every day we returned to the vineyards to check on the drying figs and raisins and to moisten the grapes. When it was time to return home, we always left with dried figs, raisins and new stories to share with our friends in the city.”

Long before cinemas or television entertained Lebanese children, Zughaib remembered “Sanduk Al-Firji” (The Show Box), which was carried on the back of an entertainer. “First he unstrapped the ‘sanduk’ which had six glassed holes. On two sides of the box, there were two small poles attached to a scroll. There were pictures on the scroll as the entertainer moved them, and showed Arab stories, like ‘Antar wa Abla’ and ‘Abu Zayd al-Hilali’.  The village children took turns handing him money, then peeked into the box and watched the stories through the holes.”

When Zughaib was growing-up in Lebanon, children were born at home with a midwife assisting. The female members of the family helped the midwife by encouraging the new mother to “bite on a handkerchief,” to stop her screaming … They also made coffee, tea, zhurat and yansoon drinks for the visitors.

As soon as the child was born, the midwife informed the father and menfolk of the successful birth and the sex of the child. This was an occasion to pay and tip the midwife. The size of the gratuity depended on the sex of the child and whether the family had desired a boy or a girl.”

Zugaib’s last two memories were about coming to America: “After a very long wait, permission to travel to America had been granted. Reservations on a ship from Beirut to New York City were made.” His mother “had to be certain that the suitcases packed with gifts for her relatives in America were safe. A large Oriental rug, purchased in Damascus as a gift for her sister, had been wrapped separately and was always kept in her sight.”

Finally, after 16 days since leaving Beirut for New York, “an exuberant group of us, from Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, stayed up all night to greet with the dawn the Statue of Liberty.”

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