The Damascene Horse Dealer's Daughter 

...or How I Came to America

Kids, the story begins a hundred years ago, with the birth of three daughters to my great-grandmother Khadijeh Shaybani and my great-grandfather Saeed Quzayz. In a home tucked into one of those narrow cobbled lanes in Okaiba, an old Damascus neighborhood just northwest of the citadel, the first daughter, Bahia, is born in the late 1890s. My grandmother Edibeh comes in 1904; the youngest sister, Nazmia, arrives in 1907. Saeed loves Khadijeh and those three girls.

Saeed is a Chevy dealer. What I mean is, he is a merchant in Arabian mares, the way to ride in style in turn-of-the-century Damascus. He has what would turn out later to be a Fifth Avenue business address; that is, he owns paddocks just behind Baghdad Street, which by mid-century becomes a prime downtown avenue. He may not have chartbusting sales, but Saeed's thoroughbreds provide a decent life for Khadijeh and the girls when the story opens. His eldest, Bahia, marries a young merchant named Nazeef Kahf, who moves in with the Quzayzes.

The whole family debacle I'm about to describe is the Ottomans' fault. They draft my great-grandfather Saeed to fight on the Egyptian front in what Arab folks in Ottoman lands called the War of Safar Barlek. It is 1917.

Saeed sells his horses to a fellow merchant, and arranges for another merchant to pay rent to Khadijeh for the stables and paddocks behind Baghdad Street. Confident he's done all he could to provide for his family in his absence, he sets off to report for deployment. On the bustling Damascene boulevard, he overhears two strangers.

"It's a shame, So-and-so dying in the war," says the first guy.

"And did you hear?" says second guy. "His brothers wolfed down a hunk of the inheritance. His widow and daughters got portions, but the property is all chopped up now. What a drop for them, much poorer than they should've been."

"A shame," First Guy shakes his head. "I wouldn't want to leave my wife and daughters in that pickle."

Saeed hurries back home and transfers the titles of his real estate to his three daughters. If he dies, at least the girls would be secure, he figures. Neither his brother nor Khadijeh's kin would wrest it from his daughters, and the girls could support Khadijeh. Now he can report for duty.

"Gone's dead, Back is born again," Damascus folk used to say before they had access to telephones, and Saeed's gone. Gone stretches into two long years of war and bad news, this enlisted man from the neighborhood crippled, that one dead, and Khadijeh more anxious week by week. The three Quzayz girls are now twelve, sixteen, and twentysomething. Bahia and Nazeef have begun to have children, eventually three Kahf girls — children come in threes, in this story.

Edibeh, the middle sister, has her father's business smarts, and a talent for tailoring. She can barely read or write, but she can eye a couture dress in a magazine and make one like it, sort of like being able to play music by ear. Sewing, in Syria unlike in Egypt, is not considered demeaning work for women of the middle classes. Edibeh opens a dressmaking shop on one of Saeed's lots that are now in her name. It's an excellent business location, Baghdad Street's north side, and she does excellent business, enough to be able to hire a dozen girls to sew for her, including her younger sister Nazmia. Even Bahia works at the shop and, despite her rank as eldest sister, acknowledges Edibeh as boss-lady.

Great-grandmother Khadijeh, whose husband Saeed is still Gone to War, gets the cholera that spreads around the globe that year. Sicker and sicker, she prays, "God, keep me alive long enough to see my husband home, even by one day." Sure enough, she hangs on until he makes it home in 1919, then she dies within the week. Saeed is too distraught to mess with transferring those properties back to his name. Griefstricken beside Khadijeh's deathbed, Saeed promises her that he will never marry again.


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