A new year, with new priorities


For friends around the world who are not sure exactly where Helen is at the moment, she’s in Syria. This journal entry, written just before she set off, describes some aspects of her visits to her fiancé and his family there over the last few months, as well as other personal news – including why she feels such a bond with her newest nephew. Helen had no time to link the journal directly to photos before she left, but there are several related photos in the Gallery: view under ‘Syria’ or ‘November 2002’ and ‘December 2002’ to access them most easily!

Heading back to the Hauran .... and a few other locations

On Tuesday coming, I set off for Syria to be with Ibrahim and his family for the third stretch since late November. I am very excited about this visit for many reasons. We are arriving just in time for the Feast of Sacrifice, Eid al-Adha, so Ibrahim will be at his family home for that. Then after a last few days at his training camp he will have almost a week’s holiday before starting the position that he will hold until the end of his military service in late 2004. We are hoping that this will be a ‘white collar’ job in Damascus, but it is not yet confirmed. This visit I will meet Ibrahim’s brother Khalid, who teaches English in Kuwait and is having a short holiday at home. Ibrahim’s youngest brother Yousseff described Khalid to me as being like a bodyguard (physically), and my parents, who met him in Kuwait last May, call him affable and smooth. Everyone says his English is the best of anyone in their family. There is a reasonable likelihood that our wedding day will be his wedding day too, so I am looking forward to getting to know him for myself! Ahmad, who also works in Kuwait, will then be the only member of Ibrahim’s family that I don’t know – but I am gradually making friends with his young wife Umayya, who lives with the rest of the family, and their bright and beautiful daughter Usam is beginning to trust me and have fun with me.

My parents and my sister Elizabeth are coming to Syria too, at least for the early part of my stay, to add to the joy this time! Elizabeth has been pondering which of her clothes she will feel most comfortable in next to Ibrahim’s sisters, nieces, and sisters-in law. This is no longer an issue for me: since November I have been happily wearing locally-made robes and scarves while in the Hariri home and their locality. My problem is learning not to rip them as I fold and unfold my legs, still unable to sit on the floor for long stretches without moving around! I’m looking forward to trying on my latest robe, which is being made by a female relative who is in the unfortunate position (from the view of country society in southern Syria) of being unmarried at 29! I understand this situation is not the result of a lack of offers for her hand. At New Year I met her and her younger sister, who live alone. I was struck by a combination of pity and admiration at her circumstances and at the way they handle their lot, and hope that as my Arabic improves we can become friends. Their mother is dead, their brother is working in the Gulf like so many men from their region, and their father is living with his latest (fourth, young) wife not far away. And in keeping with the norms of their society I think that they do not spend extended periods of time out of their home. The elder cousin measured me up and helped me pick a style for my new gelabiyya, the women’s standard daily robe. The fabric, in deep blue, had been provided for me by Ibrahim’s mother from her stock – so I will match her, and Umayya, once it is ready! As you can see from the photo of Ibrahim and me together in December, the Haurani gelabiyya is made of comfortable stretchy velour in rich colours (good for not ripping, but with a tendency then to wear thin on the seat), and is often embroidered.

As I prepare for my future, I’m beginning to think of ‘we’ rather than ‘me’. I’m also learning to create the internal and external balance between my world and Ibrahim’s world that will mean we can be deeply happy together. He is doing the same. The process is just beginning, and so at the moment I wrangle, with the enduring support of my parents, with limited attitudes projected by certain individuals within the Church. Our love grows and we are impatient at being unable to marry yet. But I know myself well enough to realise that being as doggedly (I might say pig-headedly) independent as I am, it is not simply a matter of getting the assent of the Church and hey presto I am fully prepared for married life. Rather more importantly, a change of habits, outlook and priorities on my part is required, something that would be necessary whomever I was marrying. For that reason, if not for the ‘you need to really get to know each other’ argument I continue to hear from almost everyone around me, I grudgingly acknowledge that the practical impediment to our marriage caused by Ibrahim’s duty to his country is not all bad. This formation does not just require me to make lifestyle changes and start thinking of the needs and desires of someone else as well as myself; I am still frustrated by my extremely limited ability to communicate in Arabic. Patience, time among native speakers and applied study are the only things that will remove that frustration – so as a first step I intend to enrol in full-time courses in Damascus a little later in the year. Until now I have been teaching myself from a text book in an ad hoc way, getting some assistance from Ibrahim and his brothers, while of course getting plenty of listening practice while in Syria!

Before I can continue on the path to my own marriage, though, I have several weddings to attend this Spring – regrettably on my own, as Ibrahim is Syria-bounded for the duration of his military service. As usual for me, they are geographically dispersed: Cambridge, Penang, London and Connecticut, the first three all being for friends from university. I’m hoping to extend the wedding in Penang, which is over the Easter weekend, into a trip that includes time in Bangkok with my friend and one-time room-mate from Beijing, Kliang. But I will have to return to the UK quickly as the next wedding is only the following weekend, on Easter Saturday! I then have a break for a month and a half, until the USA nuptials, which will be an extremely special occasion for me. It is my dear friend Kim, my driving instructor, flat-mate, passionate inspiration, heart of downy velvet, tidal wave of energy, and one of the sharpest thinkers I know, who is walking down the aisle. And, as a member of the bridal party, I will be walking down ahead of her, in keeping with the customs of the USA! Last week I girded my flesh with a tape measure in order to notify the dressmaker in New York how big to make my dress. The shop describes its colour as ‘Winter Melon’. Despite the fact that in northern China, winter melon (‘dong gua’) is an exceedingly bitter pale green gourd often served fried with tiny prawns, Kim tells me that the bridesmaids’ dresses for her wedding are pink! I think I am waiting till June to find out what shade.



Real Ramadan

Religious feasts are a popular time for weddings among Muslims in the Hauran too. The new front page photo for this Journal edition shows one of the ‘entertainers’ at a wedding I attended during Eid al-Fitr, the feast at the end of Ramadan. Two of Ibrahim’s cousins were marrying each other, so I was able to see at close quarters what happens in Haurani weddings, by accompanying his mother and sisters to the celebration on two of the three or four days that the party went on for. I was glad I did not go to the whole thing, as the bulk of time seemed to be devoted to dancing outside the groom’s home, where the party is hosted. The dancing is for the most part done by male guests, who link arms and move in an anti-clockwise skippety-skip motion, led by professionals who wave swords, while women watch on from plastic chairs at the edges. It was fascinating to watch – but quickly became monotonous to my inexpert eyes! And unlike undoubtedly some of the women in attendance, I was not on the lookout for a husband! The festivities were hampered by changeable winter skies and resulting mud – especially as children high on excitement and sweets charged muddy shoes through the house. Under Ibrahim’s mother’s protective wing I gained a place in a room inside the house on two days for a serving of rice and sheep’s meat (including head), which was far from being the most delicious food I have eaten in Syria... and to my horror, the bride scarcely featured in the whole event! But I did enjoy joining the procession that tramped through the streets to collect her on the final day. Perhaps it is a good thing that Ibrahim and I have plenty of time to fine-tune what kind of party we want to celebrate our marriage. Though I don’t think either of us wants to abandon Haurani traditions wholesale – Ibrahim’s father is far too good a dancer, for one thing!

It struck me only this morning that the closest experience I had previously had to suhur, the pre-dawn meal of Ramadan, was a Midnight Feast at boarding school. Partaking in suhur with Ibrahim’s family I felt the same sense of sleepy non-hungry confusion, combined with mild excitement, as I ate – but this time it was at 4.15 am, rather than midnight, and we were eating freshly fried chips (Ibrahim’s mother was up by 3.30 to prepare them), fresh tomatoes, honey, yoghurt and cream cheese with flat bread, rather than Murray Mints, Monster Munch and Toffee Crumble. While we ate the muezzin sang, gradually building up his pitch and volume until shortly after 4.30, when he broke into the call to prayer. With a final few swigs of water, that was the end of food and drink for us until sunset. As Ibrahim’s family washed and said their prayers I returned to my room and before long was asleep again, fitfully, often observing quiet but glorious sunrises through heavy lids between six and seven.

Ramadan days in Ibrahim’s family home are low key. Domestic life continues as ever, of course, but there is no mid-morning breakfast or afternoon lunch dividing the day, as in the rest of the year. I could never sleep late into the morning, it felt too strange to do so, yet my body clock was completely confused. Despite the calorific feeding before first light, my energy was low. A lot of time is spent sitting, talking, and waiting until sundown. The entire TV schedule (and the Damascus University lecture timetable) is re-arranged during Ramadan.

Then comes the feast. As the afternoon wears on, cooking begins – it is imperative that the trays of food are laid out and ready as sundown is announced from the local minaret and from every TV station. We all eat, often quickly, and drink water, until full, and then withdraw from the food to drink small glasses of sweet tea. As we remained sedentary and the sky darkened, languor would often overtake us and our metabolisms slowed down even further as snooze attacked. This could be broken, after a suitable interval of digestion, by strolling to visit a friend or family member elsewhere in the town in the crisp air of the winter evenings. How anyone can lose weight during Ramadan baffles me. You are not only up against pre-dawn deep-fried veg and an enforced slowing of the metabolism! We would not eat another meal before going back to bed, but would often eat fresh fruit, and some kind of biscuits or sweets, as a snack. One such was ‘qitaif’. These start life as harmless-looking Scotch pancakes, cooked and sold on street-side stalls throughout the day. At home they are stuffed with a combination of walnuts and coconut, sealed shut with oil, drenched in sugar syrup, and deep-fried. Just how many calories do one of these contain?

While I doubt that the pattern of eating in Ramadan can be good for anyone’s physical body, my weeks spent fasting and feasting in this way for the first time of what will presumably become an annual cycle for the rest of my life convinced me of the month’s benefits. The dramatic change in the structure of the day forces new patterns of thought and behaviour. Quietness wrought by dips in energy stimulates reflection and welcomes prayer. And while Ramadan in the mild Syrian winter climate requires no serious physical effort (which I say as someone with very weak willpower when it comes to food!), you do feel hunger, in sympathy with those who are continually without. And if everyone around you is aware that this is the month to make amends or to treat others particularly well, then you are encouraged to do the same.



Frankie and other family magnets

I returned to England in mid December – in good time to continue the feasting in full, according to Flynn traditions! As well as being at home with my family for Christmas week, in 2002 I was able to participate in the Bridge House run-up to the big day: the spicing of the beef, the making of the marzipan, and the icing of the cake. With Sarah’s husband Philip as the latest addition to our family, as well as Toby’s mother visiting from Bahrain, we were fourteen for Christmas lunch and Boxing Day – too many to fit in the dining room! So our festivities extended into the freezing Mill – what good fortune it was suddenly mild weather outside! The best-received gift was probably Richard’s to George, a toy that he had chosen with thought and care. ‘A marble run!’ George shouted with glee as he ripped off the paper. Richard instructed him to use it only in his bedroom at home, far from the mouths of little brothers, and so far he has done. In fact since the birth of his younger brother Francis John Stoodley on January 8th, he has been demonstrating a new sense of responsibility: at least when ‘Auntie Helen’ is watching, that is!

Frankie’s arrival, before dawn in early January, was a special moment for us all. But for me it had particular meaning – because as many of you have already heard, I was only a few feet away when he arrived! Having returned on Monday from a few days in Syria, on Tuesday I travelled to the Tyler household to help Lucy look after her boys as she endured a throbbing ear infection as well as being due to give birth any day. That night after a fine dinner we discussed what I should do in case Lucy and Toby had to travel to hospital before George and Samuel got up the next day. Then we went to bed, me down in their newly converted and decorated cellar.

Waking at 5.20 am, I found Lucy glorious in the bath, swigging the end of a mug of raspberry leaf tea. She welcomed me in with the words ‘can you smell the Jasmine oil?’ At this point contractions were still ten minutes apart, and (from an outsiders point of view) they didn’t seem too painful. Toby went off to prepare a slap-up breakfast while Lucy and I chatted and she got ready to go to hospital. The midwife, who lives in the same town, would come to their home once the pace quickened a little, to make sure they didn’t get to Wantage and have to turn round again after a wait and no event. The interval between Lucy’s contractions shrank in one step from ten minutes to five minutes as she telephoned the hospital again. The midwife would be round in a few minutes, she was told. I followed my nose to the kitchen.

We heard a loud moan. Toby left me to turn the heat off under the eggs as he ran to see Lucy – things were speeding up! There was no point their going to the hospital, though, as the midwife was on her way to them! And Lucy did not want to entertain the thought that her third child might be born in the car. Given that her first two children were both asleep in their parents’ bed, as they love to be, there was no choice but to go downstairs to the brand new cellar. ‘But what about the new carpet?’ Lucy wailed.

At 6.10 the midwife arrived. Despite my curiosity, I withdrew upstairs, where both George and Sammy were sitting up sleepily scratching their heads, puzzled by where their parents might be. ‘Guess what? Your mummy’s gone to have her new baby!’ I told them. ‘Oh!’ said George. ‘And guess what? She has only gone downstairs to do it!’ George wanted to go and look, but another loud moan convinced him easily that it might be more fun to get his radio and find some football commentary to listen to.

Henceforth the cellar at Madeira Place is to be known as the ‘Birthing Chamber’. At 6.25, with light snow falling, Frankie exited his mother’s body. He was 9 lb and healthy. Like him, I am the third-born. Like him, I was born in midwinter, in the early hours of a morning. And like him, I was born at home.

Photos of Christmas and especially of Frankie have to wait until my return from Syria, I’m afraid.




Thank you for reading this news and visiting my website – whether you are a first time visitor or an old hand; a friend or a stranger. Since January this year we have logged a huge increase in visits, from Estonia to Saudi Arabia, Canada to Croatia. Don’t hesitate to direct any kind of comments or requests either to Helen or to her Webmaster brother Richard. The firmware on Richard’s laptop failed just before Christmas last year just as new site design was underway, and he has been fully occupied ever since with sixth form studies. His days in term-time bulge with extra-curricular activities and interests that spill into school holidays. But we are still planning to make a significant update to the interface and organization of material that we hope will improve the quality of any visit, so do keep coming back to check!

Lots of love



The tiles on this page come from the ceiling of one of the temples at the palace of the Boghd Khan in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia |Click here to view the original photo|