November 25, 2022

My Road to Damascus – Quill and Quire

Jamal Saeed’s Memoirs My road to Damascus does not begin in Damascus, but in a small village in northern Syria named Kfarieh (often spelled Kafriyah) several hours drive from the capital.

Saeed spent the first 17 years of his life surrounded by his parents and grandparents, nestled in the lush landscape of the region, and especially along the river that runs through Kfarieh. It is here that Saeed learns to walk, run (follow a bird, for example, in a forest until it gets lost), and explore not only his village, but also geopolitical events and theories. policies that shaped his country. Saeed’s youthful exploration eventually leads him to join movements protesting the dictatorship of Hafez al-Assad. In turn, this involvement brought scrutiny from intelligence agents bent on rooting out dissidents from the regime, forcing Saeed to relocate to Damascus in 1977. Despite being resettled, he was unable to outrun the agents and was eventually imprisoned, first from 1980 to 1991, then briefly during the winter of 1992.

In My way to Damascus, Saeed recounts (with the occasional accompaniment of photographs and sketches) the harrowing, horrifying and harrowing time he spent as a political prisoner in al Qala’a and Tadmour prisons. He writes about how the regime and its treatment of him and his loved ones continue to haunt him after his release – even after he found asylum in Canada in 2016. Saeed often revisits his hometown over the course of the book – just as he did so in his mind during imprisonment – to heighten his beauty in contrast to the brutality of prison and the unfathomable impact that violence had on him.

Oscillating between various points and places in Said’s life, My way to Damascus is a non-linear tale of loss in all its shapes, sizes and levels of severity. There is the loss of Saïd’s humanity and dignity as he is denigrated by prison guards as they inflict physical violence upon him during his arrest and incarceration; the loss of people who died or continued their lives in his absence; and the loss of many people who were arrested and never heard from again – both before his arrest and after his release. There is also the loss of peace and well-being: the trauma of prison and the aforementioned losses continue to resurface in Said’s life.

But the book is also a love story. Saeed recounts the love that binds him to his parents, his grandparents and his village. There’s the love he finds with his colleague and eventual wife, Rufaida. There is the love for family that Saeed builds with Rufaida that gives him the strength to leave behind everything he has known in order to protect them. And there’s the love shown by genuine strangers who gladly embrace him and his family in their new home.

Written in poetic prose in which the reader can trace the cadence of Saïd’s native Arabic – and which illustrates why the Syrian philosopher Antun Maqdisi once compared Saïd to Maupassant – My road to Damascus explains that love and loss are intertwined and shows how the former can help us resist the latter.