In Aleppo, there is a bakery that makes the most delicious French pastry. In Damascus, there is a store on the biblical street called Straight, where I bought a 19th Century rug. In Bosra, there is a Roman amphitheatre where, for my own pleasure, I recited: "Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears." All have been rent asunder by Syria's bloody revolution.
But it's the dress I bought in the Old City of Damascus that tears me apart. Hand-made of fine cream-colored linen, styled like a 70s shift Givenchy would have designed for Audrey Hepburn, it's devoid of any adornment but for three rows of colored squares just above the hemline, ranging in color from orange to rust to gold to chocolate and edged in gold thread.
I found my dress at ANAT, an artisan boutique. Founded in 1988, ANAT's mission is to preserve and incorporate traditional Syrian textile and embroidery into modern design. Most importantly, ANAT provides employment and training to Palestinian as well as Syrian woman who otherwise would be unemployed.
When I tried on the dress I knew instantly it was 'me.' Whoever made it had an extraordinary grasp on timeless style. Then when I examined the pictures on the walls of women who design for ANAT, I could not help but smile at seeing them all wearing traditional Arabic dress and hijib.
Back in 2008 (see Did I Leave Syria With Blood On My Hands?) I thought it charming to envision a Syrian woman or perhaps a Palestinian woman designing this dress and executing it as elegantly as a couturier.
I still do. But recently, after examining my dress when it came back from the cleaners, I started feeling something else. On the edge of the hem, on a side seam, I spied a small piece of embroidery that looked like a name. Next to it was a small flower.
On first glance it sort of looked like Ellen, but that couldn't be, because it didn't have all the letters, and besides, Ellen is English. Only then did I realize the word was written in Arabic. Yet the flower was a flower. And the tiny knot-button at the nape of the neck was embroidered in the same silk thread as the name.
My lovely dress is no longer just a dress. It is a symbol of freedom for women through the artistry of design. Yet right at this moment, with blood running through the streets of Damascus and Aleppo, what tourist will drink pomegranate juice in the shadow of a Roman triumphant arch, fresh-squeezed by an elderly man with arms as gnarled as an olive branch? Who will gorge on chocolate donuts hot from an oven carved in a hole-in-a-wall in an alley? And who will visit ANAT?
I look at my dress and I envision the woman who made it. Was she young? I'd say not. Its timeless elegance indicates someone older. Its Western style perhaps inspired by TV. Would she take pleasure in knowing her dress resides in Manhattan and receives many compliments? Would she smile at knowing it's my favorite? I hope so.
Yet, chances are, she might be dead. Chances are she did not live in Old City Damascus, but up the country in cities that were bombed and turned into rubble like Homs, Lattakia or Aleppo, perhaps down that side street with the bakery. And if she's not dead, surely some members of her family are, and her dress making days may be over.
I don't want to dwell on this. I'd rather imagine this woman walking down some desert road with a bag of fabric -- that's all -- heading for the safety of Jordan. Jordan, where by her skill and chutzpah alone, she sets up shop in the market and starts making dresses on an old hand-cranked sewing machine.
Little by little word spreads about her lovely dresses and one day Queen Rania comes to her stall and buys one. I imagine this and I smile. It's a Fairy Tale, of course. But Fairy Tales happen. And this might.
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