And the family devoured its men

And the family devoured its men

Publication Date: 2020

Publisher: Dar al adab

Country of Publication: Lebanon, Beirut

Pages: 183

Al ‘a’ila al lati ibtala’at rijaluha

A daughter and her mother in an apartment in London. Every evening, they meet, with an occasional glass of whisky, going over the times, not so long ago, where they were a large family, all women, living in Damascus.   Her mother chronicles every detail of what has been forever lost to them; the morning light in Damascus, the taste of her sister’s cooking, the sound of her closet’s doors, the smell of the wood.  The memories are so vivid, and so demanding, that the daughter, the narrator, seeks refuge behind a camera, pretending to document her mother’s life. It protects her from emotions she finds so overwhelming she could break.  And yet she knows too well that the place her mother longs for no longer exists.  She is consumed by guilt for uprooting her mother a first time from Damascus to take her to safety in Beirut, and then from Beirut to London. How could she have known all that they would lose?

They had always been a tight knit family of women, generation after generation widowed young, or divorced, or abandoned by their men.  Until the war began its process of separation.

In flashbacks she tells of their time in Beirut, when she lived with her mother in a spacious apartment on Rue Clemenceau  and they could breath in the reassuring city’s bustling activity. Her cousin, Shaghaf, would visit from Damascus always preceded by the clicking sounds of the bracelets, necklaces and anklets she loved to wear – the nosier the better.  Petite with full breasts and long legs, Shaghaf would borrow very short shorts from her younger cousin, to pay Beirut’s bars a visit.  So different to the Shaghaf that came out of the taxi, a couple of years later, struggling with a terminal illness.

Taking her mother away from Damascus and Beirut also meant taking her away from her sister Marianne (Shaghaf and Ninar’s mother), a woman who lit up the Damascene bourgeoisie. Marianne’s house was a place where all the family would meet, and would also always be wide open for visitors, especially those seeking comfort, medical advice or even medicine. She would generously attend to everyone’s needs, always dressed up in her fancy suits and matching heels and earrings. “We are the classy ones, you and I”, Marianne would tell her.  But still it was Ninar who was the light of Marianne’s life.

Ninar fled from Damascus to Paris. But not long after Shaghaf melted away from her illness, the young Ninar unexpectedly passed away, alone, in her tiny apartment in the suburbs of Paris. Unable to survive it, Marianne took her last breath in Damascus.

From this noisy and chatty family of exceptional women, only the narrator and her mother now remain, raking over the embers of all that was lost over whisky in that cold and temporary London apartment.  Scattered by the Syrian civil war, an entire family, and a whole way of life, decimated.  As if, after swallowing its men for generations, the family started going after the women next.

And the family devoured its men is a powerful book about loss, its different meanings, dimensions and implications. In her typical concise and luminous language, Dima Wannous paints extremely vivid portraits, and one can only but feel awe for these women, and bewilderment at the turns life can take. This is a family portrait of great tenderness and pain.  A precise and glittering look at what it means to lose, once you lose home.

Translated by Elisabeth Jaquette

Nana Helena also grew up with only a first name. We don’t exactly know her surname. My mother’s gaze wanders towards me, drifting aimlessly. I look away from her eyes and instead at the camera, in a useless attempt to draw her gaze towards it. ‘Ghouzi… maybe her surname was Ghouzi…’ my mother says evenly, with a shade of doubt. I envy her in that moment. Even without knowing her mother’s surname, she’d had two loving parents and a milk-scented childhood! Like her sister Marianne, my mother grew up unburdened by fatal affiliations, nicknames, and identities. Nana had been in her twenties, maybe. Certainty has no place in this story. Every detail happened, maybe; nothing happened for certain. But it did happen, even if just maybe. I don’t know how to explain it. Her uncle was Theodosius the Third, Patriarch of Antioch and the rest of the East. She went to him after giving birth to her first daughter, Marianne, and entrusted the child to her mother. He helped her reach northern Syria, where there were many centers for survivors, and where she searched desperately for her husband, whose name we don’t know either. I’m not certain she was desperate. But she headed to northern Syria, of that we are certain, searching for her husband or a thread that would lead her to him. I can imagine her describing him in great detail, hoping to jog the tired survivors’ memories. And I can imagine her standing silently in the face of their questions. Did she know her husband’s name, or had she obliterated it the moment she lost him? Helena had tasted the bitterness of loss from a young age, when she lost her father. In her mind, this abandonment was cruel. Even though she knew he was ill with a terminal disease, in a sense he had abandoned her. The anguish of loss descended on her soul and settled there. It became part of her genetics, so much that she passed loss on to us. We all lived without a father, except for my mother, who didn’t lose hers until relatively late in life. But when she lost him, she forged ahead with losing others. Or perhaps my grandmother’s father, whose last name we aren’t sure of, took the family’s share of men with him. My father teased my mother one time, saying: ‘You’re a family that devours its men.’

Editora Tabla, Brazil, Portuguese, 2023

And the family devoured its men