The Wonders of a Village Childhood

Lynne Rogers
From left to right, “Charity and Compassion” and “When a Child is Born in a Syrian/Lebanese Village” by Helen Zughaib.
Stories My Father Told Me: Memories of a Childhood in Syria and Lebanon
By Elia Zughaib and Helen Zughaib
Cune Press, 2020
“Stories My Father Told Me: Memories of a Childhood in Syria and Lebanon” is a delightful collection of short one-page stories told to Elia Zughaib by his father, accompanied by paintings by his daughter, Helen Zughaib. While the stories celebrate the traditions and values of a Syria before the Arab Spring, the stunning calligraphy that repeats the titles in Arabic reinforces the beauty of the bygone-eras of the 30s and 40s. These stories — set in what are now the Lebanese villages of Marjayoun, Zahle, and Kfeir — are illustrated by Helen in her unique naïve style, lending the stories an innocent child’s perspective that brings the story’s magic to life. 
Born in Damascus in 1927 under the French mandate and moving to Beirut in 1933, Elia Zughaib spent much of his childhood between Syria and Lebanon. In 1946, he and his parents moved to the United States. “Stories My Father Told Me” shares cherished stories transcending time, passed down from generation to generation from father to child. Having grown up surrounded by her father’s stories, Helen was inspired to preserve them in writing, tied together with a series of her artworks.

An established Washington artist, Helen confides to the reader in her introduction that initially her father was reluctant to write down his stories. She initially wanted to do an exhibition of paintings on his immigration to the United States. Thankfully her father, who worked with the United States Foreign Service until his retirement in 1978, agreed to his daughter’s request, thus preserving these tidbits of tradition and wisdom for generations to come. Beginning in 2003, Helen would return to her parents’ home in Virginia over the course of several years to find new stories penned by her father, until he announced his 24th story would be the last of the series. Even this memory is accompanied by a self-portrait of father and daughter sitting with their pets and his narghile (hookah), setting a tone of familial intimacy carried out through the collection. 

Helen’s gouache paintings delightfully convey a fond nostalgia for the urban and rural locations of each story, all the while transporting readers into whimsical, almost folkloric, worlds carrying childlike wonder. “Stories My Father Told Me” touches on her father’s memories, from his earliest recollections to his arrival to the United States, articulated in Helen’s painting “Crossing the Litani,” a story of displacement.

Several of the stories remind the reader of the needs and rewards of charity and compassion. In “Blind Charity,” “the most sincere kind of charity,” the jasmine lady is rescued and then rewarded for her generosity. A magical painting of the village on the river recreates the scene with a credulous playfulness. The stories are not without humor at the foibles of man. In “The Transaction,” the Greek Orthodox father remembers Jiddu’s wooden box that held the dearly paid for Russian rubles, which rather than bring the anticipated fortune, become a child curiosity without monetary value. Helen’s painting of the story, a village scene of two men talking in the pasture surrounded by the animals reinforces the longevity of family life in the village and temporality of larger and removed power struggles. Other stories reminisce the summers in the Kroum planting olive trees “so our descendants can eat,” preparing for the Sunday lunches and drying grapes and figs to share with others.  In one particularly nostalgic tale, “The Hallab,” the narrator laments the loss of “the Hallab, his wonderful goats, and the pleasure of petting the gentle and loving animals. After powdered milk appeared on the grocery shelves, milk never tasted the same again.” 

In addition to the pleasures of domestic life, the Zughaibs also recount their numerous life events and traditions. Religious holidays like “Eid Mar Elias” and “Palm Sunday Procession and “Feast of the Cross,” are explored. Stories also detail pivotal life moments like matrimony, the youthful courtship at the water fountain and critiquing the bride, the bride’s procession to the groom’s house, and the ululations and celebration at birth of a child. The quiet comforts of the morning coffee gathering for the village widows and the reading of the coffee cups reflect the communal spirit of the village. 

The two stories of traveling entertainers are particularly charming. In a time before television, cinema, and the internet, a man would arrive at the village with “The Show Box,” a box on two poles “attached to a scroll with glossy prints” of Arab fables. The children would hand over their small change and take turns watching through the holes as the man sang. Like Helen’s paintings and her father’s stories of old themselves, the Shadow Box amused the children while instilling the beauty of their culture and community. Another striking highlight of childhood of another era is “The Performing Bear, the Dancing Monkey and the Dancing Gypsies,” the “one occasion no child wanted to miss.” The last picture “Coming to America” in its simplicity encapsulates the earnest hopes of our new arrivals. These stories will bring a smile and or a nostalgic sigh to the adult reader who will also marvel at the sheer wonder of these paintings which can be shared with a child validating their innate curiosity, benevolence, and irreprehensible appreciation of beauty. This teta cannot imagine a nicer and more rewarding book to read to one’s grandchildren.

Copyright © 2022 by Al Jadid