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.

click to enlarge EDIBEH AND NAZEEF: On a hillside overlooking Damascus.
  • EDIBEH AND NAZEEF: On a hillside overlooking Damascus.

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.

Kids, that lasts all of three years. He marries a woman named Azizeh Tiftaf. He divides the Okaiba house into two living quarters, with separate entrances but a friendly interior door between them. The family, expanded with stepmother and the knee-high daughters of Bahia and Nazeef, still has Friday supper around one table. Saeed and the new wife, Azizeh, begin to have children. A son is born, and another, then a new daughter.

Azizeh begins to fret about that Baghdad Street real estate, which she views as Saeed's by right, and therefore something her children stand to inherit. "Your daughters by your first wife are rich, but my three children will be poor. Their elder sisters have eaten their inheritance," she protests, echoing the Quranic phrase condemning "devourers of inheritance" (89:19).

Great-gramps is not doing as well as he was before the First World War. The automobile has hit Damascus, and guess what that does to the horse market, kids? Saeed listens to Azizeh, and he steps over that friendly inner threshold to the half of the house where his three grown-up daughters live and says, "Daughters, I'd like my property back now."

"What do you mean, your property?" Bahia, Edibeh, and Nazmia answer. "It's ours now. No take-backs, Dad." Bahia's husband, Nazeef Kahf, firmly supports the bid of his wife and her two sisters to keep the properties. It is 1925, as far as I can figure. Edibeh, at twenty-one and unmarried, is a spinster. Yes, she ends up my grandmother, kids, but hold your horses. For the longest time, there is a queer pride that attaches to Edibeh's (and Nazmia's) unmarried status, a certain cul-de-sac self-sufficiency shared by crusty old Damascenes that says, "Why should our daughters marry when they are beloved and honored at home? And who out there is good enough for them, anyway?"

Saeed is flabbergasted at his daughters' refusal to sign the property back to him. Transferring all his urban acreage to the girls' ownership had been a contingency plan against his death in the War, that's all. He'd never meant to give it all away, he protests. They'd inherit some of his net worth anyway, eventually. And despite what people think about shariah, what Muslim women inherit is not chicken feed. In 24 out of about 30 kinds of relationships outlined in the law, women's share is equal to what men inherit. Whenever Saeed died, his three daughters stood to come into a nice chunk. As things stood in 1925, they instead already owned the bulk of their father's property.

"You're a man, still earning robustly," the three Quzayz sisters point out. "There'll be plenty more for Azizeh's kids by the time you get around to meeting your Hereafter angels. We wish you a long and healthy life, Dad!"

With that, kids, it is on: the Quzayz family rumble begins! In one corner, three canny daughters, Bahia, Edibeh, and Nazmia (and don't forget the brother-in-law Nazeef). In the other corner, their father Saeed and the stepmom, Azizeh, her three little children lined up behind her. Let the soap opera cameras roll!

That interior door? It slams shut. Women on both sides of the Okaiba house want it locked, and it stays closed for years. Friday night family suppers stopped. I like to imagine that Saeed still looked in on his daughters, and that they still paid a decent number of neighborly family visits to their stepmother. I hope they occasionally helped Azizeh with the children, their own half brothers and sisters. But knowing how stubborn my folks can be, I doubt it.

Azizeh: "You swallowed my children's inheritance."

Bahia, Edibeh and Nazmia: "He's our father too, and he gave it to us, fair and legal. A gift's a gift."

One day while the three sisters were out, their father unlocked that interior door, crept into his daughters' side, and rifled through his old writing desk for the deeds to the disputed properties. Sly great-granddad found some of the deeds.

He could take the papers downtown and transfer title to himself. But how, when the consent of the three sisters, current owners, would be required?

Urban women in Syria still face-veiled then. Saeed finagled three women from Azizeh's family to play his three daughters. Do you think maybe Azizeh herself played one of them? Covered in their natty black city veils, they flank Saeed down to the courthouse. Now, kids, face-veiling women certainly were required to identify themselves to the court clerk. What, do you think the entire pre-modern court systems of the Muslim world were stupid? No way—women had to prove they are who they claimed to be. I don't know what they do, but somehow scheming Saeed and the three wily women wangle a way around the proof.

My great-gramps turns out a forger! He fakes the consent of Bahia, Edibeh, and Nazmia to the transfer of deeds.

Outraged, the three daughters sue their father. Yes, they take Pops to court. That house door stays locked between them, all through the 1930s.

Like her mother before her, Bahia Quzayz dies in her prime, around 1933, leaving three daughters of her own. The two elder among Bahia's girls, Mzayan Kahf and Hayat Kahf, have by then become brides and moved out to set up homes with their grooms. Their husbands eye what is now first-rate real estate coming to their wives through the line of inheritance of the deceased Bahia. Even though in Islamic law a wife's property does not become the husband's property, do you think those men figure that what their wives owned could make their new family life more comfortable? Oh, they spur on that lawsuit against their grandfather-in-law Saeed.

I can only imagine the drama in that divided house down the narrow lane in Okaiba during the years when the lawsuit shambled on. It is all witnessed by departed Bahia's youngest daughter, Ihsan Kahf. Vivacious young Ihsan still lives at home with her father Nazeef and her spinster aunt Edibeh.

That's also when Edibeh becomes Ihsan's stepmother.

click to enlarge THE OLD DAYS: A street scene in old Damascus.
  • THE OLD DAYS: A street scene in old Damascus.

At about 32 years old, after long-embracing her unmarried state, Edibeh is cajoled into marrying Bahia's poor sad widower, Nazeef Kahf. Not only has the mild-mannered Nazeef been mourning his wife for three years, but he is struggling in his trade. Would he have to move out of his home, too? With Bahia dead, he has no claim to living there, nor is it seemly, staying on with his in-laws. Edibeh seems to have looked upon him as a good-natured slacker. He takes snuff, and plays chess, cards, and backgammon with his pals in the neighborhood cafe. Tobacco, he and his wife have in common; my grandmother Edibeh is a smoker, puffing Bafra brand, often rolling her own cigarettes.

To Edibeh and Nazeef, three Kahf boys are born. The middle one is my father. Ihsan helps diaper and bathe the three little boys. They are more than her half-brothers; their mother is her aunt, so you might say they are her three-quarter brothers. As far as the heart goes, they are her full brothers. Ihsan's fondness for them pours out to the end of her life, across emigrations and oceans, making her dear even to their children, come the years later.

Edibeh is now the eldest of the clan, on the side scuffling against her dad Saeed and his wife Azizeh. It is all up to her. What will she do? She wants the Baghdad Street property that she believes rightfully hers and Nazmia's to stay theirs, and for the late Bahia's portion to pass to Bahia's daughters. How long will this feud drag on, seeping poison into relations between family members?

Edibeh compromises with her aging father. She and Saeed decide that he'll leave in peace the property he'd given them back when he was drafted. Next door, Azizeh is not happy with this. In return, Edibeh and her sisters' side agree not to claim further inheritance from Saeed's property when he dies. Which he does shortly, during World War II.

Bahia's two married daughters, Mzayan and Hayat, along with their husbands, bridle at this concession by Edibeh. Relations ice between the two married daughters and Edibeh. Thus commences the second generation of the family feud. Ihsan Kahf, the youngest of Bahia's girls, breaks ranks with her sisters and sides with her aunt-and-stepmother Edibeh Quzayz.

The Quzayz-Kahf feud ends finally in 1955 or 1957, in one of those once-pretty hillside towns around Damascus overlooking the Barada River Valley. There in the woods, Damascene folk would often summer, propping the watermelon in the river to cool before picnics. Younger and older generations reconcile over a plate of tiseyeh, a savory bread casserole with hummos and parsley. Tiseyeh in Damascus is traditionally cooked by the men, and the husbands of Mzayan and Hayat make tiseyeh for Edibeh that midsummer morning as a peace offering. If you ever taste Damascene tiseyeh, you'll understand how it has the power to end a two-generation feud. They top it with the fizzling bicarbonate that goes "tish!" when you splash it over the dish. They put it before matriarch Edibeh, their surrogate mother-in-law, kiss her hand, and everyone makes up.

There are things you can't get back once they are Gone. Icy years of face-time lost while another generation has come up cannot be hand-kissed back. We're not close to their children's children, and most of us don't know why. Some of them memorized the phrase "devourers of inheritance" and hold it on us, but they don't remember the details.

The story doesn't end there. Remember Edibeh's boys, gamboling around at the reconciliation picnic? The three Kahf boys never live in the plum times of the family. Their mother's disputed Baghdad Street properties add no comfort to their lives. The Kahf boys grow up working till nightfall after school and in summertime pitting apricots with farm crews to help put olives and bread on the little round table. Meat is a very occasional luxury. Their father Nazeef says, "Let's pull the boys out of school—they're old enough to work like men now, earn a living!"

"No!" Edibeh insists, with vision. Maybe it stings that her name, "adiba," means "a well-versed, literate woman." Despite having been a successful dressmaker, she can barely read or write. She is determined that her children would be "ejmickated." Meanwhile, she teaches them to sew like pros, lessons at least the middle son learned by heart. He will one day make a fairy-tale dress out of a picture-book for his firstborn daughter, Mohja.

If a merry time is Nazeef's thing, self-sufficiency is Edibeh's theme: the boys lay tile, hammer shelves, hollow squash gourds. See that photo where father and mother and sons are puttering about the kitchen filling the pots with stuffed vegetables? No idleness, no dependency, for the sons of Edibeh. They soak up her ethic, each of the three brothers becoming a high-achieving professional: the eldest, an engineer; the youngest, a doctor. The middle boy is first in his class in high school and valedictorian at Damascus University.

Edibeh sells most of the Baghdad Street real estate during one of Nazeef's bust-times. With the proceeds, Edibeh has Nazeef construct a five-story apartment building on the last lot, and puts the units on the market, keeping one for themselves. The three sons of Edibeh and Nazeef leave to Azizeh the old Okaiba home, and move into the downtown flat with their father and mother. There they tend Edibeh through her diabetic final days. Sixty-year-old Edibeh dies of pancreatic cancer in the airy Baghdad Street apartment in 1964. Her heartbroken sons, unable to sleep in the home where she died, crash makeshift cots at sister Ihsan's house for a time. For all the property in this family, the boys are adrift.

I never knew Edibeh. She died before my mother even met my father. The only images I have of her are these photos where she's already wizened, her sleeve rolled up for her insulin shot. Think how fierce she must've been, sharp and savvy running the shop, her lungs full with shouting during the lawsuit days. Nazeef is easygoing, his red fez at a merry angle. There I sit as a toddler in his elderly lap on the balcony, but it is Edibeh's drive and daring that her sons take with them.

The Kahf boys sell off the last apartment in the Baghdad Street building where Edibeh died, and buy a barebones flat in Abu Rommaneh neighborhood. They have no funds left to lay its floors, install windows, or pour concrete into stairs. Until it is liveable, they raise chickens in it. My father will finish it, painstakingly, with shavings off his income as an auditor after college. This dark-horse investment comes up a winner. When my parents marry, my mother moves in to the cleaned-up, glowing Abu Rommaneh flat. After my birth at Damascus Hospital, my first home in the world is that Abu Rommaneh place, as it is for my brother born eleven months after me.

In 1970, the Abu Rommaneh apartment is liquidated as the Kahf brothers prepare to seek their fortunes in the wide world. Twice-widowed Nazeef and his motherless sons downgrade, for their last hurrah as one household, into a cramped and perhaps less-than-legal rooftop makeshift, back on Baghdad Street. There, my parents' third child is born. The Baghdad Street rooftop place is the last lot of the Edibeh legacy. It is a temporary abode (aren't they all?). Within months, one by one, the brothers will set off in different directions.

Syria starts to change then. With the coming of the authoritarian Baath Party in 1963, the sense of safety erodes for the common person. Martial law begins (and continues to this day). Syrians watch, terrified, as the government puts political dissenters on public trial, then executes them. The police state's power mushrooms. A lingering dread grows, as the government's human rights abuses mount. That's what my father says made him want to leave. And it is what will turn him into a dissident abroad, banned from return, a condition I have inherited and, in a small way, supplemented.

First, though, he needed the means to go. How do you divvy up the cash value of an apartment when some owners want to liquidate and others don't? Chary of jockeying over property, having lived childhoods blinkered by such a quarrel, the three grown Kahf boys agree to appoint the youngest of them executor of everything. He sells the last dwelling place of Edibeh Quzayz, and the brothers go thirds with the proceeds. It's a three-way split because their sister Ihsan coaxes aging father Nazeef to yield his share to his sons, knowing they are chomping at the bit to leave.

That, kids, is how my father is able to pay his way to America in 1971. He uses his share of Edibeh's legacy to buy airline tickets for himself, his wife, and their three young children, to pony up a deposit on a tiny basement rental in Salt Lake City, and to pay up his university bill for one term, not sure where the rest of tuition or living expenses would come from. He is down to his last fifteen dollars when the department chair offers him a teaching assistantship. He gets a job after the Ph.D. And here in America we still are, in 2010.

click to enlarge THIS ROAD LEADS TO AMERICA: For Mohja Kahf, anyway.
  • THIS ROAD LEADS TO AMERICA: For Mohja Kahf, anyway.

My Grandmother Edibeh died before I was born, but it is her property that enables my father to leave Damascus and cut out for distant climes. I do not say that with pride or pleasure. Maybe I would just as soon have stayed there, and had a life like the lives of any number of my 28 first cousins and 73 second cousins who stayed home in Syria. Yes, there is dread and dictatorship, but multitudes have lived many-faceted lives through it, after all. Maybe there were bold deeds to be done there, worth risking a difficult life to do. My cousin Hanan Lahham (Hayat's daughter) has authored twenty-some books; she belongs to the Islamic nonviolence movement founded by Jawdat Saeed in Damascus. On the other end of the spectrum is my second cousin Shadia, who married an Arab Communist in the 1970s and, like a fair number of the second cousins, doesn't cover her hair or cotton to the religious branches of the family. They all maintain a life in Damascus, a niche of belonging, where neighbors have known them since before they were born.

Toward such a niche I often look with the useless and self-pitying longing of an exile. I did not choose to immigrate as a child. Nor am I, an Arab woman, able to express myself solely because I had the "good fortune" to have been raised in America over the Muslim country of my birth. See, that kind of condescending nonsense is what I get for leaving my country.

Kids, I don't know if it was good fortune that brought me to America, but it was some kind of fortune. There's great-grandpa Saeed's horse fortune, and the three sisters' real estate fortune. And the good fortune of valuing education that Edibeh drove into my father's head certainly went into making me an "adiba." Although the people of my house learned loving compromise in the end, it was not before they fought for lifetimes over their fortunes. So maybe we Kahfs do belong in America after all, at least in the America of hardnosed work and go-your-own-way and upward mobility and family ties be damned.


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