The Passing of a Great Syrian Writer: Ilfat Idilbi, 1912-2007

Simone Fattal

It was on a day, much like today (Saturday, June 30), the day of the Gay Pride Parade in Paris, that I met my friend, the writer Ilfat Idilbi, for lunch at Les Deux Magots a few years ago. I had not realized that the Gay Pride Parade would be taking place when I’d first proposed that date for our meeting – I dreaded crowds and noise, both things that did not bother Ilfat Idilbi in the least. As soon as we settled on the terrace, the parade floats began turning down Boulevard St. Germain. Ilfat, her interest piqued, stood and walked up the street to view the participants at close range – the extravagant costumes, the wild songs, the visible tattoos and flamboyant gestures. When she rejoined me, Idilbi said, “Back home, on feast days, people go to the cemetery to speak with the dead; look at how they have fun here!” This remark revealed the two most striking aspects of Ilfat Idilbi’s personality: a scathing sense of humor and a constant preoccupation with her country and its culture. Although she spent the last years of her life in Paris (her family insisted that she not be on her own any longer), Ilfat Idilbi never for a moment lost her deep ties to her country. Despite the difficulty of living far from home, she found enjoyment wherever she was, for she had a great curiosity and a knack for observation, especially regarding human relationships.Nothing escaped her sharp eyes. She could discern deep secrets under the most superficial remark.

To be in Ilfat Idilbi’s company was always a pleasure. Once, I spent three days at her apartment in the Mouhajerin quarter of Damascus and every moment was a joy. Her conversation was always informative. I once remarked to her daughter, “Every time I am with your mother, I learn something.” Her manner was that of a Damascene grande dame.

Born into an upper-class family in Damascus in 1912, Ilfat Omar Basha was educated, not at home, but at school, the Damascus equivalent of the ةcole Normale for teachers. Although she led a conventional life on the surface, she enjoyed a truly unconventional career as a novelist, supported and encouraged by her husband and family. In Damascus, she was revered as one of the cultural pillars of the city because she founded many important cultural clubs in which she later worked, organizing meetings and ensuring that young writers had the opportunity to be published.

Idilbi enjoyed recognition both at home and abroad. She spoke at countless conferences, and was a member of both the Women Writers Association and the Association of Syrian Arab Writers. In the latter capacity, Idilbi represented Syria at a conference in China. She was surprised to learn that her works had already been translated into multiple languages and were being taught in Russia and all over the Arab world.

About her personal life Idilbi once told me, “I had an arranged marriage. Sometimes they are successful, as mine was. I lived with my mother-in-law, which turned out to be a blessing. She took care of the management of the household, and I was left free with my time. I would stay up late at night writing. Nobody minded if I awoke late in the morning.” While in school, her Arabic professor Adib al-Taqi al-Baghdadi predicted that she would become a writer and strongly encouraged her to pursue that goal.

One day she submitted a story for a BBC contest in Cairo and took second place. This success gave her the impetus that she needed, and she began taking her writing quite seriously. Inspired, she sent more stories to an Egyptian newspaper; they were subsequently published. In the Arab world, newspapers enjoy the same prestige as literary magazines do elsewhere, and they publish short stories, poems and essays for aspiring authors and poets.

When Idilbi had completed a collection of short stories, she sent the manuscript to renowned critic and writer Mahmoud Taymour. She humbly requested that Taymour write the introduction to her work, should he feel it worthy; if not, would he be so kind as to inform her so that she could stop writing altogether. Mahmoud Taymour responded enthusiastically, penning her introduction.

Most frequently, Idilbi wrote about her beloved Damascus: its history, customs and laws. She knew the tales, the limericks and the local expressions. Her art was such that she could write about Damascus without sounding exotic or folkloric, without being encumbered by the weight of the details – yet her works are a repository of the traditions of the city. The architecture of Old Damascus served as an inherent part of her stories’ development, the sinuous streets of the city providing a pattern for her style. Her novels were always about history, her art about informing, yet she had no orientalist scholar perched upon her shoulder to please. When she wrote, she wrote for her society. Her goal was that their history be remembered. She wanted to tell it as she had lived it. She strove to denounce the ills of that world, that they might be cured, while still recounting its greatness.

Idilbi’s most well-known novel, translated and published in English under the title “Sabriya: Damascus Bitter Sweet,” is a narration of the history of the Damascene revolt against the French from 1924 to l926, during which thousands died. The revolt halted the French from further dismembering Syria. The Mandate had just carved Lebanon out of Syrian territory and given the Sandjak of Alexandretta to the Turks in the north, and the plan was to further divide the remaining territory into four additional provinces. In her novel, Idilbi weaves together the history of a young woman and the history of the country. Her goal was to demand freedom for women as much as for the land: “How can you ask for independence if it is not for all members of society?” she asked. She denounced the restrictions imposed upon women and became a role model and a symbol. She blamed these restrictions on people’s character and bad habits, not on the culture. She thought that the culture itself inherently possessed the elements necessary for its own cure and for change. She believed that this could be accomplished through personal courage and resolve.

“Sabriya: Damascus Bitter Sweet” gained wide-spread attention in her country, and was the basis of a television series in Syria. Next year, it will be turned into a feature film as part of a series of events honoring Damascus as the cultural capital of the Arab World. The story is entertaining, romantic and true to its source. Idilbi insightfully depicts her society much like Jane Austen and George Elliott wrote about theirs.

Idilbi wrote three collections of short stories before the publication of “Sabriya.” I had the good fortune of translating one of her stories titled “Seventy Years Later,” which was published in the collection “Opening the Gates.” “Seventy Years Later” was hailed by critic Ali Ibrahim as an extraordinary story.

Another notable book is her final one, “The Story of My Grandfather.” Idilbi’s maternal family was from Daghestan, and they were charged with leading the pilgrimage from Damascus to Mecca. Until not too long ago, the sanctity of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina was considered such that it was forbidden for non-believers to come closer to them than Damascus! The person in charge of this grave mission had to not only be a reliable and honest dignitary, but also able to defend his companions against robbers, inclement weather and assorted unpredictable challenges along the way. As in her other stories, Ilfat weaves the personal with the historical, allowing her readers to see the unfolding of a way of life and a way of thinking forever gone.

Not all change is for the better, and Idilbi lamented the loss of the graciousness that had been the hallmark and privilege of the societies about which she wrote. She once shared the following delightful and telling anecdote with me. One day, some workers were performing repairs at Idilbi’s home. As was customary, the family invited them to have lunch. The maid laid out the table in the way she thought most appropriate for serving manual laborers. When Idilbi entered the dining room, she exclaimed, “Don’t you know that we always use the silver for our guests?” The stainless steel forks and knives were promptly replaced with the silver ones.

Idilbi was one of the last grand ladies to be called Khanom, a title and relic of the Ottoman Empire into which she was born. A fierce nationalist, she remained in Syria despite the many social upheavals and nationalizations and repeated sequestrations of property that her family had to endure. She believed in Arab unity, and never reconciled herself to the current state of her homeland.

In Paris, on the first day of spring, March 21, 2007, Ilfat Idilbi passed away. Her body was subsequently taken to Damascus for burial, and the local newspapers hailed the return of the “Jasmine Flower,” the quintessential symbol of Damascus, welcoming her back to her native land. The reception accorded Ilfat Idilbi testifies to her importance as a writer whose preoccupations were shared by the people of her country. One cannot study contemporary Syrian society without exploring her writings. More than any other writer, Ilfat Idilbi represents Damascus – its history, social habits and customs. 

This essay appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 12, Nos. 56/57 (Fall 2006)
Copyright (c) 2006 by Al Jadid