Living with intent, social engagement, learning, growing, giving
Colin Thubron won my admiration and loyalty with his excellent travel book, The Lost Heart of Asia. Which is a fascinating account of an incredible journey from Turkmenistan, through Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, part of Kazakstan and Kirghizstan during the first spring and summer of Central Asia’s independence from Moscow. My dear husband sought other books by him and found Mirror to Damascus for me for Mother’s Day last year.
Mirror to Damascus is not a travel book nor a history book, nor a memoir but a mixture of the three. Thubron lived in Damascus for several months in the 1960s with a Christian Arab family, Elias, his wife Umm-Toni (mother of Toni) and several of their children. Thubron describes life with the family with affection and good humour. Elias is impetuous and loving. Umm-Toni brings Thubron tiny cups of hot sweet coffee every hour and inevitably spills some on his writing. She also discarded one section of his diary for unknown reasons:
Elias burst in and threw himself down on my bed.
Elias – I’ve sold the house! … we’ll be moving in the new year! Everyone will have a room of his own!
Thubron – “Where are you moving to?” I asked and at once regretted a question to which I had already guessed the answer.
Elias – I don’t know. There isn’t anywhere… We’ll find a place. .. Umm-Toni doesn’t know yet. She may not not like it.
Thubron – You must tell Umm-Toni
Thubron doesn’t reveal to the reader why he is there but he keeps a meticulous diary and spends a lot of time writing the book while he is there. We know this because one of the chapters of the book gives selected diary entries, in one of which he says that if the book contains errors it’s the fault of one of the children and gives her full name and address!
Damascus has been conquered, occupied and fought over repeatedly and its sack by the Tarmelane is particularly difficult to read. Syria has been ruled repeatedly by foreigners including Egyptians, Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Arabs, the Mongols, the Turks, and recently the French. When Thubron wrote the book it was independent. I don’t know what is the case now?!
This book is short but took me a long time to read it. I think that’s because it was disjointed. By far the most enthralling passages for me were the travel accounts, like his visit to a convent, watching a Syrian film with a friend, and befriending a family of villagers. I also really enjoyed his brief synopsis of the notable travel writers that have ever written about Damascus. Some of these I have read myself and I was intrigued by the emphases that he chose to place on them, e.g. the factoid that he chose to share about Ibn Battuta. I laughed out loud when I read about Sigoli a Tuscan pilgrim in 1384 who said of the merchandise available in Damascus:
Such rich and noble and delicate works of every kind that if you had money in the bone of your leg, without fail you would break it to buy of these things
I wasn’t fortunate enough to travel to Damascus before Syria was plunged into a dire situation by IS. I’ve met a few lovely Syrians over the years, and read with dewy eyes about the incredible skills of the artists and craftsmen of Damascus. Thubron visited at a time when Damascus was poised on the cusp of irretrievable change from still charming city with bustling suqs but already besmirched by tourism, population pressures, poor urban planning, and heavy industry. I suspect that the Damascus of today is utterly different to the Damascus that Thubron wrote his love-letter to but I still want to visit it!