Never Can I Write of Damascus: When Syria Became Our Home

By Theresa Kubasak and Gabe Huck. Just World Books, 2016. 272 pages. $24.99/paperback.

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The title of this excellent memoir comes from a poet much loved in Syria, Nizar Qabbani, who lived from 1923 to 1998:

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.

—translated by students in the Iraqi Student Project

In this well-rendered narrative, we are taken on a journey into the Middle East in the years before the Iraq War, and before Iraqi refugees fled to Syria. Gabe Huck and Theresa Kubasak followed the refugees to Syria and created a workshop for them. There the students could learn English, get into an American college, and escape from the land that the United States had helped to disable.

Our attentive narrators draw from many sources to create a collage of vivid images, complicated history, and contemporary voices. They quote from daily observations, journals, letters home, research, poets of Iraq and Syria, and their own students’ writing. They create an intimate testimony of daily life in Syria just before and after the 2011 eruption of unrest that then became destruction. Photos and hand-drawn maps help to vivify the story.

Along the way, we become familiar with the sights and smells of everyday life in Syria: open markets, ancient architecture, jasmine, banana-on-flat-bread garnished with tahini and chocolate sauce. We are invited into the various religious and cultural traditions of a country that is now disappearing: public mourning tents, tea service, backgammon in the park, donkeys, and wandering cats.

As a couple, Gabe and Theresa have spent a life together as activists and teachers. Gabe was a Benedictine monk, and then starting in 1965, he became a publisher devoted to peace and justice issues. A conscientious objector and Civil Rights advocate, he counseled other COs and in 1968 walked as a mourner behind Dr. King’s coffin. Theresa taught for 40 years in public schools and workshops focusing on social justice, including talk-songs she learned through her work with the Woody Guthrie Archive.

The couple traveled as witnesses to Iraq in 1999, defying the U.S./UN sanctions. In 2005, two years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, they moved to Damascus, finding the Syrians to be “well practiced in kindness to refugees.” There they founded the Iraqi Student Project, teaching writing and world literature to Iraqi refugee students, and tutoring Syrian refugees in Istanbul. Over five years, they successfully prepared 60 young Iraqi refugees for admission into U.S. colleges.

Theresa and Gabe describe in 3-D cinematic scenes the neighborhoods in Damascus where they lived, and the people they came to love: Syrians as well as Iraqi and Palestinian refugees. Through their witness, they observe the fraught politics of the Arab and Muslim world and the human suffering of refugees.

Because they are writers and teachers, their book is clear, engaging, and instructive—an excellent text for courses on the contemporary Middle East but also for any reader who wants to learn about Syria in a personal way. They bring alive the individual stories behind the news. In doing so, they offer an archive to honor a country and culture that continues to be torn apart by war.

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