Through the Veil by Lisa Ohlen Harris

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by Zozan Abrams

‘In dreams I walk the winding labyrinth of the Old City. I push through crowds in the bazaar. Daylight filters through cracks and holes in the covered ceiling, like stars piercing the dome of the night sky. …. I walk deep into the Old City, …’ – Lisa Ohlen Harris (Through the Veil)

It was a delight to discover the poet in American writer, Lisa Ohlen Harris from Oregon, as she traced a palette of personal adventures through Damascus and Jordan in the Nineties, when life was still held as somewhat romantic and beautiful in Syria. Her storytelling compositions featuring both fascinating women friendships and the harsher attitude of conservative Islamic men towards the average Westerner, are all laced with cautious optimism and frank observation.

The fountains, winding cobbled pavements in the Old City of Damascus and its erratic, colourful bus-stops with quaint, exotic shops are some of these that make for a charming travel narrative.

Yet, there may be the odd taste of a bitter bite through the unlikely women friendships that did not always seem credible but yet lent themselves to love and goodness, for Harris’s presence and welcome. I found some of the women’s hospitality heartwarming and at times, breathtaking.

Yet, I received the impression, that Damascene women and their families, were often sober and subdued and Jordanian women distrustful. Among the latter, I really enjoyed the episode of an unfriendly mother-in-law who would hide her infant grandson as she thought Harris to broach the evil eye.  Harris often had to figure out each woman’s real thoughts and intentions as their rehearsed greetings never betrayed what they truly felt of Harris in the innermost recesses of their mind.

In Damascus, there was Huda who excelled in embroidery, yet preferred to never leave her home. There was Maisa who invited Harris to her village, to experience Ramadan and the strange culture shock that came with it. There was Miriam, a Shia, who was curt and distant as she thought Harris to be a spy.

I have to remember also in my role as reader, that I am Malaysian and so, was treated to the Muslim Call of Prayer from when I was a toddler. Whereas Harris heard it at dawn for the fist time when she arrived in the Middle-East. It was amusing to read of Harris’s astonishment… something that I confess, I had always taken for granted.

Still, they never failed with that pleasurable greeting, Welcome in Syria. Not even the astute shop-lady who served Harris, Bedouin coffee at its best.

I thought it was important to note the year of publication by Canon Press, US. It was a time when no tragic revolutions of any kind, had yet sprung up in President Bashar al-Assad’s Syria.  Through the Veil was published in 2010, a year before the tragic revolution that would change Syria’s sophisticated fortunes forever and reduce the ancient, historical nation to a horrifying dilapidation.

Thus, I found it rather refreshing to devour a series of original narratives compared to the current, more common mainstream stories of refugee drownings, war escapes and tear-jerking exile tales; that are being hurriedly published by established novelists and which have become all the rage in Syrian fiction today.

At the time, Harris already had two babies and lived with her husband in Jordan. Harris did manage to capture, the infant trails of the Iraq war, where Saddam Hussein was about to be deposed.  She was living in Jordan at the time and planning for an American family reunion. All of a sudden, there were uncertainties about flights at the airport and the magnitude of tensions to be had with social activity in the streets. This too, proved an eye-opener for me.  The tremors and abhorrence of a neighbouring war were easily felt.

I also enjoyed reading in a meditative manner, about the old-fashioned landlord who complained time and time again about Harris and her family’s electricity bill and the many women acquaintances Harris had met in Amman, Jordan with the colourful dramatics that each woman and her family, including surly in-laws, brought to Harris’s life for better or worse.

Harris’s book is a work of non-fiction that traces the years of her life in the Middle-East. Today, it would serve as essential reference and study, for anyone interested in the history, current affairs and day-to-day living on ordinary life in Syria. The country that once was before it was plagued by both civil war and illegal proxy ones, with no thanks from outsiders.

Through the Veil shells the chapters of her life that encased university study tours to the Middle-East, a region that she has always been fascinated by. It was in Damascus that she met a future husband, seminary student, Todd. Later, they would marry and go to live in Jordan. I could also easily identity with the flavours and geographical cityscape of Jordan as I been both to Amman and the Dead Sea. Naturally, these scenes were easy to picture in the mind.

What I found difficult to identify with in the book,  was Harris’s American life.  Now, this is more of a subjective personal taste  as Harris had married the different layers of her life very well into neat book chapters, in her role with authorship. I found that the two cultures offered me a slight disorientation and disconnection and also the later chapters on America might have reduced the powerful intensity, I had gathered earlier as a reader, soaking as much as I could of the Middle-Eastern experiences, where my senses had been held enraptured.

In this vein, I was somewhat gladdened that Harris had used her last chapters to compare the role of women in society by observing and remembering personalities and common everyday events; both in the West and the Middle-East. Until the very last page, Harris continued to recall and remember the women she had met in both Syria and Jordan with love and longing. This industrious technique worked beautifully for me as I was able to hang on to the magic and enchantment, that I had grasped in earlier parts of the book.

I hope that Lisa Ohlen Harris will continue to write and consider publishing a book of poetry or even travel-writing as her multi-faceted talents with words, are too good to lie low.

Through the Veil was penned in a vibrant tone and layered with skilled compassion, empathy and superb understanding. I got the impression that Harris looked for the best in every human soul. My mind and the condition of my human-spirit received far more enrichment in having read Through the Veil and for which, I stay grateful. – Zozan Abrams