Syria Series: Shining Stars

It’s a little-known fact that babies make excellent traveling companions. At least in the Middle East. 

Syrians are among the most welcoming and hospitable people in the world. But when you are walking around with a baby on your hip, you are no less than royalty. It's possible that they might even like George Bush if he walked around with a baby. 

Once, when we were walking to the bakery, a guy stopped to tell us how cute our baby was and how afraid he was that the wind might blow sand into her eyes and make her feet cold (even though the temperature was in the high 90s) and maybe give her some terrible disease. He asked where we were from. “Ah, Amrika,” he said. “Welcome to our country! I am a member of Hezbollah.” We nodded and smiled.

Perhaps sensing he might have said something wrong, this Hezbollah guy added, “My family is eating pizza tonight. Please come to my house and eat with us.” 

We nodded and smiled again and somehow didn’t end up going to his house for pizza. I can’t remember why just now, but it might have had something to do with fear of terrorists. We did, on other occasions, take up a few invitations to dine in Syrian homes.

One such invitation was from a guard at a museum in the Old City. I had been wandering around the front of the museum, waiting for Joey to arrive, when the guard noticed I had a baby. He immediately set about making tea for us. A half hour later, the three of us were chatting about our families. The guard had a baby named Maysoon, which means “shining star.” He thought it was funny that in English, “Maysoon” sounds like “my son.” 

This man made it quite clear that Maysoon was the shining star of his life. He pressed us to agree to come to dinner at his house so we could meet Maysoon. And although to this point, Abu Halen had been a little squeamish about accepting such invitations, this time he committed.

The guard’s house was at the edge of the city, in a building that a construction crew had apparently forgotten. It was little more than a three-story box of unfinished cement. A staircase, void of banisters and ugly with rebar sticking out the sides, switched back and forth through the center of the building, ending in the starry sky above us. We ascended the stairs behind our pleased-as-pie guard as he led us to his tiny apartment on the top floor. 

Inside the apartment, the guard’s wife seemed as thrilled to welcome us as her husband was. Baby Maysoon too was delighted. I was suddenly a little embarrassed that we were only students—and not even rich or famous students. 

As his sweet-faced wife disappeared around the corner into a closet-sized kitchen, the guard started laying newspapers down on the floor. It seemed strange to me that he would arrange them as he did around the burning oil heater. Only later did it become apparent that these would be our table top. 

The guard made fun of the humble arrangement, pretending to read humorous articles from the newspaper has he laid it out. He leapt like an acrobat across the spread, setting down the paper as if they were exclamation points, seeming to genuinely enjoy himself as he entertained us. He pulled faces and chanted rhymes to make the babies laugh. We all laughed.

The wife returned minutes later, apologizing that she would be serving no meat dishes—she was vegetarian. I wouldn’t have minded being a vegetarian for the rest of my life if I had someone like her to cook for me. She had made dishes of fist-sized radishes, spinach, parsley, hummus, salads, soup, and bread. I was in heaven.

We talked far into the night, oblivious to the stars spinning onward in the cold night outside. The babies had fallen asleep as the guard told us about being a child in Hama, after the government had massacred so many Syrians there. His father had been killed, and he and his mother had been left alone. 

The guard gestured gratefully at the oil heater in the center of the room, saying how dearly he and his mother suffered for want of warmth, winter after winter. His mother would cup his hands inside her own and blow on them to take the chill from his fingers. 

I was a child in America when he was a child in Syria. 

I glanced over at Savannah and Maysoon, now sleeping on pillows at the corner of the room. I said a quick prayer of gratitude that my baby had never had to suffer from cold. That I had never had so little to offer as the warmth of my breath. I prayed for Maysoon too, this shining star orbited by adoring parents. And I prayed for his parents, who seemed no less heavenly on that cold, beautiful night.