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Fragments of Memory: A Story of a Syrian Family

Hanna Mina
Hanna Mi1Ul, one of Syria'sforemost novelists was bam in 1924. His family's poverty forced him to
leave school after his primary education. FRAGMENTS OF MEMORY, his autobiographical lwvel
from which this excerpt is taken, tells of hisfamily's desperate plight in his youth when the silk worm
industry lost out to modem foreign technology. He published his first story in 1924 and helped found
the Syrian Writer's Association. For many years he worked in the Ministry of Culture in Damascus.
Tn 1990 he won the Arab world's prestigious Uwais Award/or his complete body of work.
The hot July days followed one another with us in the open, under the blazing sun in the
daytime and the dew at nighL It being difficult for mother to move like us into the shade, we tried
shielding her from the sun by hanging extra sheets from the branches of the fig tree that had become
our shelter.
She would gaze at us silently with an expression of wary resignation frozen in the depths of
her eyes. The sky was no longer, as in the days of her youth, a hand of blue in an enchanted world. It
now was a band of dusty somber clouds settling and pressing against her chest. The dusty scorching
earth rose from the ground narrowing the empty space around her, enclosing her within two layers like
a green leaf pressed between the leaves of a thick book, drying up and slowly dying of suffocation.
Mother withered. became emaciated and sallow, her cheek bones stood out, and her neck grew
thin. She lay there a complete human skeleton just like a dry branch thrown to the edge of the field.
She no longer spoke. She saw but said nothing. She was silent. Her silence was a protest, an
anguish, a sorrow that we could not fathom. The look in her eyes remained veiled.. distressed and
distracted., for a moment anxiety over us flaring up in them, then becoming diffused with tears that
made us cry when we noticed them. In childish fear, we tried to do something by bringing her water.
That was all we had at hand. We helped her to drink. My sister would raise her head while I brought
the water jar near her lips.
It wasn't very long before Father struck out, leaving us to the mercy of heaven. After
borrowing a few piasters for the journey, he entrusted us to the care of some of our fellahin neighbors
who became like our family. They did not lead us along the path of their hardship but taught us how
to live in harmony with life in the center of this wretchedness. They taught us how to do as they <frl
to obtain our bread so we wouldn't die of hunger. They let us share the joys and sorrows of their
miserable area in a village owned by a IlUUl whom they never saw but they feared nevertheless.
The gifts they brought us did not take on the form of charity, but we received them as such.
Mother told us to take the things and thank them. It became customary when the flocks were passing
through the square near us for one of the shepherds to call to us. We would hurry out with a vessel
into which he would milk some goat's or sheep's milk for us. A tel/aha would come bearing an
earthenware pot with curdled milk in it and some loaves baked in a pit oven. Or a f!llah
would come with a small basket of vegetables or figs. Their children would come in the mornings or
evenings to play with us while the fathers and mothers visited with Mother in the late evenings
comforting and encouraging her by prescribing certain herbs and amulets their sheikh wrote. 11ley
would charge my sister and me to do this thing or that for her. We would ... do as
they said. This gave us a sense of confidence and of belonging just as if we had been born in the
village or were not strangers in it.
In Father's absence, the prophecy oftbe driver that we would perish in this rural world he tm
brought us to in his cart was fulfilled. Here there was no Mother's uncle nor relatives of any kind, no
owner of a field like the mukhtar. whom we knew, despite his cruelty, was responsible for us as long
as we lived in his field. Mother could go to ask him or entreat him with tears to sell to her on credit
against the coming harvest.
Here, there was neither harvest nor field, not even a house whose door we could close to
protect us from fear or to give us privacy. Behind it, we had awaited release from suffering in the
summer, and amused ourselves by listening to Mother's stories, warmed by the mutual affection of the
family that had not yet broken up. Two sisters were now servants for two different families and we
were incapable of managing to obtain a house to shelter us, Father had left us under this cursed fig tree
on the roadside. Fear had expanded and become so linked with humiliation that as soon as the sun set
Strangers take before those of the estate. I'll tell them that you are sick and they will give them more
because you ace sick. Listen to me."
They discussed it, Mother and thefeLlaha. Our state of poverty forced Mother to agree. She
wanted us to eat meat so we could get some proper nourishment. But she also realized what it would
mean for us to go with this woman to the shrine asking for the hareesa. But she consented to it so
we could eat meat after such a long deprivation, hoping we would regain our lost vitality and enjoy
ourselves like the children of the estate on such an occasion.
It was difficult for us to do that. I realize now that it was difficult. It was beggary. And for
her to send us, she who had suffered so long that this might not come to beggary, the price was tears
that she shed in our absence. She cried the whole time we were away. She may have wanted us to be
absent SO she could cry alone. She confessed as much to us, saying that she had refused to let us go to
al-khaJ"'i}'a many times. Then discovering that it would be better that we do so, she convinced herself
'that it was not begging: it took place in the city too, and the things were consecrated and distributed.
She herself had taken vows and distributed what she had pledged, and advised us to do as she had done.
Outside the estate in a small wooded area, there was a large white tomb. Our neighbor told us
it was the shrine of the saint. She enumerated his miracles. We didn't question her even if we didn't
understand her. Had she left us alone, we would have preferred to stay with Mother. It was truly
embarrassing to carry two dishes and walk barefoot at the heels of the woman to that shrine where the
khayriya was held. Contrary to how we accepted people's charity under our fig tree, here our feelings
were hurt. We were strangers, barefoot, each holding a dish in the hand. It was a long way, the sun
was hot and my sister walked in front I intended her to be in front with me behind so I could hide
behind her to avoid the eyes that stared at us and the questions that were rained down upon the woman
because of us.
There was a large crowd, men and some women. The fire was lit under a black cauldron huge
enough to hold a camel. The woman told us they had slaughtered an ox, cut it up and put it in this
pot. They were now waiting for it to be well-cooked so they could distribute the meal. The hareesa
that we would eat would be stewed on what was left of it, and we would take some to our sick mother.
We stood side by side in the shadow of a tree, each holding a dish, with our eyes fIxed on the
cauldron and the fire under it. We tried keeping our heads bowed to avoid the eyes directed at us in
curiosity and sought to distract ourselves by looking in other directions. We withdrew within
ourselves, clinging to each other. I don't know why but we refused to talk to or play with the children.
We were embarrassed by this unaccustomed humiliating situation that we would learn to become
accustomed to with the passing days. We began furtively watching what was taking place around us,
wishing we would be given something, anything, so we could take it and go to Mother.
The woman who had accompanied us left us for the crows. We could see her from where we
were, talking about us in a whisper. She was answering questions about us, telling our story to those
present. She may have been doing that voluntarily, prompted by a desire that we be among the first to
be fed; that we should get our share of the meat that was on the fire and be gi yen a portion for our sick
mother under the fig tree. Thereupon, she came back to us, urging us to go play with the children.
She told us that the food would be delayed until noon, so there wouldn't be any objection to us putting
our dishes on the wall of the shrine where there were dozens of earthenware dishes in which the
hareesa was to be distributed. They were caned ghadarat and, as we learned afterward, the single form
was the word .hadara.
But we chose to stay where we were, We stuck tenaciously to our place close to the wall,
hanging on to our dishes. Had there been a way of escape I'd have done so. I loathed the thought of
eating the Itareesa and I no longer had any appetite for the meat despite my hunger and deprivation.
To return to Mother, to seek refuge in her bosom became more desirable than all the gustatory delights.
I suppose that the distance and the fear of bandits when alone restrained my movements, so I put
myself under my sister's protection. We squatted at the base of the wall, and it wasn't long before I
fell asleep. Sleep was a merciful relief from the grimness of the situation that had filled my eyes with
tears many times.
My sister woke me up around the middle of the afternoon. The crowd had thickened now.
Some {huyukh had arrived and those present had formed a circle around the caldron, preventing us from
seeing what was going on. However, the woman asked us to get up and step forward. She requested
that those in front of us make way for us a little but no one listened to her. .. Therefore, she pushed
us before her and I caught the sight of a large copper cooking pot with flies flying above the boiled
meat in it. A man had commenced dishing meat into the open hands greedily held out, one over the
other, accompanied by prayer's and pleas for God's mercy. Whenever a piece of meat landed in a hand,
Fragments of Memory: A Story of a Syrian Family
by Hanna Mina
1. Questions for Discussion:
a. What are the effects of poverty upon the children, the mother and the father in this story?
b. Compare the charity given by thefellahin and that provided by the people at the Saint's
Tomb. Which would you be more comfortable with?
c. What do you think might be the cause of the mother's sickness? What evidence do you
have for your idea? Why does the mother seem to recover?
d. Why do you think the women whom the neighbor talks to at the Shrine are called "crows"?
e. What do you think should be the role of a community in caring for the homeless among
them? Should authorities be responsible or should help come from volunteers?
f. What is the cost of begging for the children. How has begging affected the other beggars
at the Shrine?
g. How is the definition of family expanded hy this story?
2. Student activities:
a. Charity or zakat is an important precept of Islam. Research what one is expected to give,
according to the Quran, and how this is managed in modern Arabic countries.
b. Based on your reading of the story, what Islamic codes seem to guide community
members and, at the same time, provide support for the mother's faith? How do these
codes and beliefs compare with those of other faiths? Research Christian, Jewish,
Hindu or Buddhist religious texts, and write a report on the similarities/differences
between Islamic beliefs on charity and those of one other religion. Discuss in your report
how cultural traditions may influence codes of charity.
c. Investigate the veneration of Islamic 'saints' in the Middle East How does a person become
a saint or holy person in Islam? How is this different or similar from the way saints are
selected in Catholicism? Write a report including examples from the lives of a Muslim
holy person and a Roman Catholic saint.
d. Illustrate a meaningful scene from the story such as the family living under the fig tree.
e. Choosing one character from the story, write a soliloquy interpreting how your character
feels about hislher situation. Try to have a soliloquy for each of the characters in the
story. Perform these in the classroom and ask: your classmates if they agree with the
interpretations, and if not, why not?
f. Design a community or school service project or find an existing one in which you
assist someone with a definite need. (It might be a one time project or an ongoing one).
For example. work in a "soup kitchen," help an elderly or disabled person with a
physical task, join the literacy project through your local public library or school and
help others to learn to read and learn English as a second language, participate in a
local Habitat for Humanity project. and so forth. Keep a journal describing your feelings
about the project and what you learned about yourself and what you learned about
those you helped.