formerly in Wild River Review
by Kimberly Nagy
Writing is the only thing that keeps my mind away from the sad things happening around me. —Muna Imady
Syrians reduced to numbers
Announced on TV broadcasts
Transformed to names,
Printed on death announcements
Engraved on headstones
Cherished by beloved ones alone
—Muna Imady, from A Damascene Wedding (Wild River Review)
Editor’s Note: The war in Syria has gone on for over five years and claimed the lives of more than a quarter of a million people. —BBC, March 2016 (The New York Times estimated the number of dead at 400,000 on September 18, 2016.)
Muna Imady might have lived 5,700 miles away in Damascus, Syria, but she often felt as close as my cell phone. My 13-year-old daughter would report Muna’s Facebook message—a frequent notification bleep from my purse, “Mommy, it’s Muna! She sent you her latest piece. Did you get it?”
And if my daughter knew that Muna was a devoted writer who contributed to Wild River Review, what she especially loved was that Muna signed off with enormous phone-dominating hearts.
“Was her power out? Ask her when she got it back,” I’d say from the driver’s seat.
“I hope we all meet some day when the war is over,” I told my daughter at home later, and pointed to Syria on a map we had spread across the table. I tried to explain the conflict that raged there for five years—that the most recent figures suggest that over 4 million refugees have been displaced in a global humanitarian crisis. Mostly women and children at overcrowded refuge camps.
Where were the shells fired from?
Where did they land?
What building did they destroy?
How many people were killed?
No answer… No comment
There is nothing to be said
Shells continue to fly over your head
Words are dead!
—Muna Imady, Where Were the Shells Fired From?
And, as power outages and explosions swirled around Muna in her native city of Damascus, one of the oldest cities in the world, she still generously asked me during the January Nor’easter last year, “Are you okay?”, the trope of a US East Coast snowstorm taking over my Facebook feeds, which Muna regularly followed just as I followed hers.
“I sent you the article about the Damascene baby shower—check your email…” a Facebook bubble would say, imbued with multiple hearts and her normal sign off—rainstorms of emoji hearts and lots and lots of love.
It wasn’t too long, after our long email exchanges of private thoughts, Facebook comments, and encouraging text messages to one another, that we began calling each other “sisterfriend.”
Of course, our (helpful) mirage of emails and texts, Facebook likes, hearts, and comments never enabled me to embrace Muna or even hear her voice or sit down for hours over tea.
That would have required an all-but-impossible thirteen-plus-hour flight from New York City to the old city of Damascus, the once-enchanted jasmine-scented city where Muna—a writer, teacher, poet, and mother—died after open-heart surgery in April 2016. Although the valve replacement operation she had was declared a success, Muna only survived twelve days after the operation.
Muna Imady was born in 1962—the year after Syria broke away from the United Arab Republic and was reconstituted as the Syrian Arab Republic—and the year before the Arab Socialist Resurrection Party—or the Ba’athist party—took over Syria and remained in power to this day.
Muna’s father, Damascus-born Mohammed Imady, was the longstanding Minister of Economy who also founded Syria’s first stock exchange. Her mother, Elaine Imady, an American activist from Palisades, New York, met Mohammed Imady while a student at New York University, where they fell deeply in love. Elaine wrote about the profound and immediate bond that prompted her to move to Damascus in an article called “Damascus Life: How a Multicultural Family Can Thrive,” featuring her book, Road to Damascus.
Traveling to Syria meant leaving behind my mother and my two sisters and uprooting myself from my small Hudson River town where my mother’s family had lived since 1765 …. [But the night I met Mohammed] I told my mother … that I had met the man I would marry and she laughed. Seven months later we were married. We felt our meeting and marriage was maktoub—that it was written, ordained.
Once Elaine and Mohammed, with their first child Sawsan, were settled in Damascus, they had two more children, Muna and Omar, and raised their family in a busy and loving home on a tree-lined street in the thriving Mohajareen area of Damascus. Mohammed worked first in the Ministry of Planning and then became Minister of Economy in 1972. Elaine worked as a teacher at the American School, served as assistant administrator of the Unicef desk in Damascus, and finally taught English for many years at the American Language Center. Meanwhile, the three children and their cousins played, studied, prayed, and grew.
At the age of seventy-five, before the 2011 conflict broke out, Muna’s mother wrote about the happy and surprising turns her life had taken by moving from America to Syria: “Unlike most of my friends whose grown children are studying or living abroad, all our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren live in and around Damascus, and every Friday they visit us and our home and garden reverberates with their laughter, their tears, and their uproar. English, Arabic, and “Englibic”—what my children call the mishmash of Arabic and English that some of the younger ones speak—all compete to be heard.”
It was into this pre-war Syrian household that Nell Whiting, a regular Wild River Review Contributor, entered for tea in May of 2009. She had traveled to Syria on a tour led by her friend, biographer Mary Lovell. Whiting remembers seeing the Old City as “a dream of latticed windows projecting over ancient streets, cobblestones, and geraniums.”
Crowds crowds and more crowds. Dust dust and more dust but jasmine and wonderful scents of food and spices … Christian, Jew, Muslim irrelevant outside their respective houses of worship. Street vendors selling licorice water and candy, one cup that everyone uses.
Utterly modern women with no scarves to full burkas. Girls with scarves and jeans so tight they cut off circulation. The great souk with storefronts displaying wildly sexy lingerie to be worn under the heavy overcoats that modest women wear.
After her visit to the Imadys, Whiting stayed in contact with the family over the summer. Mohammed invited Whiting back to Syria to visit the newly opened Syrian Stock exchange. (Whiting wrote about this trip in an essay for Wild River Review which was published in late 2009: The Birth and Growth of the Damascus Stock Exchange – A Labor of Love.) She was one of the first Westerners to be invited.
It was during this second trip, in October, that Nell first encountered Elaine and Mohammed’s daughter, Muna, during a huge family dinner, and she “immediately felt like [she] had known Muna for years.” Whiting continues, “Love and intellect blended in [Muna] and a sense of comfort came into the room whenever she entered. She was insatiably curious and tenacious in tracking down everything there was to know about the old stories, the oldest and the best of Syrian ways. I remember her quizzing everyone she knew, and everyone she didn’t, to learn the truth about the Syrian bear!”
Muna had a BA in English Literature and a diploma in English-Arabic Translation from Damascus University as well as a Maitrise from the Sorbonne. She designed a beginner’s English reading course for children and several textbooks, and also wrote and translated many short Arabic stories for children, which were published in several Arabic magazines.
Muna’s love of the story world can be traced back to her early years—enchanted as a child with her Tete’s (grandmother’s) tales, listening as her grandmother would project animals and characters into shadows on the bedroom walls. In her introduction to Syrian Folktales (MSI Press, 2012), Muna wrote of her memories, “I [would] reach my hands towards them, but they slip away. Tete laughs and takes out a bag of pistachios from under her pillow and fills my little hands with them.”
“Everything was a source of inspiration for Muna,” remembers Whiting. “She sang the mundane and in so doing she revealed it as transcendent.”
When Whiting returned from Syria, she not only wrote several pieces about the Imadys and her experiences in Damascus for Wild River Review, she also continued to follow Muna’s writing and life there, where the writer and wife not only collected folktales but also taught English as a second language and lived with her husband, Dr. Nizar Zarka, and their three children, Nour, Sammy, and Kareem.
“As any good reporter and writer would do, Nell brought Muna’s writings to us,” says Founder of Wild River Review, Joy E. Stocke.
Not long thereafter, Muna began to write for Wild River Review, developing an “Airmail” column we at first named “Letter from Damascus.” It was Stocke who first worked closely with Muna, helping to craft Muna’s pieces during our typical editorial process, going back and forth on edits and copyedits on any given article’s theme or structure, corresponding on what kind of images might best suit a piece. As someone with many friends of all faiths in the region, Stocke was particularly touched by Elaine’s and Muna’s entwined stories and by Muna’s dedication to collecting the rich folk and culinary tales of the region and bringing them to fruition in her book, Syrian Folktales.
Muna often worried aloud in emails, and in her formal introduction to Syrian Folktales, that the younger Syrian generation had missed out on the rich Syrian folk culture now that they no longer sat at their grandmothers’ knees but watched television or stayed on their computers. With the onset of the Syrian conflict and the displacement of so many people, she felt an even greater urgency to collect and preserve those stories.
“Muna’s voice was always full of deep emotion, but as the war escalated her voice grew more raw and powerful,” recalls Stocke. “Through the process, we became close and called each other spiritual sisters. She was unfailingly generous in asking about my family members and checking in if someone was ill, but she was equally generous in good times, too. She was a devoutly faithful Muslim and we exchanged good wishes to one another through holidays such as Christmas, Easter, Ramadan, and Eid.
“As Muna and I discussed through email and on Facebook when email was not working, a good bazaar or souk brings all forms of humanity together and a good haggle for a spice or piece of cloth, accompanied by a coffee or tea, makes the world a better place,” continues Stocke.
When the war broke out, Muna began writing more frequently, sending painfully raw poems and narratives describing what it felt like to live through a bombing, or how her upscale neighborhood suffered from blackouts like every other neighborhood. How people were still having their celebrations, but now with a level of sadness and helplessness and fear.
Whiting reflected on the destruction of infrastructure in the city she visited in 2009.
“It’s all gone for the most part … .entire city sections ‘reduced to rubble’ where people seek out shelter. The Old City itself and the more affluent areas are still ok but bombs and rockets can take out a water tower on top of an apartment building or a car can explode anywhere. Kids are sent to school and may not come home—rocket attacks hit schools as well as residences.”
During this restrictive period, Facebook became a way for Muna—who, like many of her compatriots, was forced to stop teaching and as a result spent so much time at home—to always be in communication, to have a connection to a larger world, to see and be seen, to comment on a picture of my daughter and me or when Wild River posted a piece or when one of Wild River’s authors posted.
On April 12, the day after her heart surgery, Muna’s son, Kareem, let me know that Muna was recovering. Two days later, I was relieved, and a little surprised, when I heard from Muna herself. None of us at Wild River Review expected Whiting’s mournful call informing us that Muna had died of unexpected complications on April 22, just days after Muna had texted me that she was “listening to the news, reading, and listening to my son sing.”
During that exchange, I told her we wanted to publish her latest piece, and after she made sure I had it, she added, characteristically, that she was working on an entirely new piece. “How long do I have to get it to you? When would it be published?”
While I miss Muna’s Facebook messages and our friendship, I still feel her force endure in every communication and piece of writing she left behind. I hear her writer’s voice—raw and rich—in her columns and in her book, Syrian Folktales. Her avatar still smiles up from the texts I’ve saved, and on Facebook. I see so many reflections of her in other friendships she made along the way. Of course, it is in Muna’s three children that I see and hear her spirit the most—and I sometimes browse their Facebook posts and photos and hear whispers of their deeply loving and literary mother.
Muna used language and stories to connect, to spread warmth and soothe others with the combination of kindheartedness and deep intellect—seeds she planted every day, budding and sprouting up in enormous flowers, in the East and the West—in the important conversations she always enriched. Seeds that will continue to bloom.
“Muna needed to be published, needed to know her voice was being heard through all the noise war reporting brings. She needed the world to know that light and poetry and women in community matter,” says Stocke of Wild River Review’s mission to publish stories that matter. “That mothers and fathers and children going off to college and aging parents, everywhere, matter. That holding a culture’s stories will provide a beacon for a new generation. And we needed to publish her.”