I’m not a natural writer. English never came easily when I was a school as it required far too much sitting around staring at a blank page. Well it did in my case anyway. But I didn’t let that small detail stop me from writing my first book Road to Damascus, which as many of you will know, tells the true story of me and my sister, Suzan, and how after 25 years of separation we eventually found each other.
Book complete, published and available for purchase, regular readers to this Blog will also know that from time to time I make reference to various parts of the book but as yet have said little of how it came into being. Something one reader made pains to point out to me a couple of weeks ago.
Well it all started way back in 2000 when I was making one of my rare visits to see Suzan in Damascus, Syria. She was poorly and told me almost as soon as I got off the plane that she didn’t have long to live. Not true of course, but how could I know, I hardly knew her.
In the fifteen years that we had been known to each other I had visited Damascus just six times. In fact Suzan was only going to hospital to have her gall bladder removed and I guess wanted to prepared me for the worst. Having a gall bladder removed may not be a big deal by western experiences, but as I alluded in my five week series Tales from a Syrian Hospital earlier this year, undergoing surgery in a cash-strapped, Middle East country was an entirely different story.
Having survived the operation and discharged home, Suzan could do nothing but to lie on her bed and gab, something she was good at, but usually it only amounted to family gossip. However, when she said, “I want to tell you my story”, my ears pricked up. A strange response perhaps for sisters who should know everything about each other’s lives. But the truth was we didn’t know each other at all.
Until the day that Suzan started to talk into my tape recorder I had no idea the hardship she endured as she was growing up in Syria after our father died, and Suzan had no idea what it was like for me growing up in children’s home in England. Our lives were so very different it was hard to see how we could possibly connect.
Although our father’s passing changed little for me – I would most likely have gone into residential care of some sort because that is all there was in sixties Britain if you were disabled – for Suzan the culture shock was huge and something I had not fully engaged with in the fleeting times we spent together.
Arriving home and thanking God for another safe ruturn I put the tapes in a battered brown case and forgot all about them.
Ten years later, as the Arab Spring approached, Suzan asked me, “Have you finished our book?” I replied, “What book?” and then I remembered the tapes. A few months after that civil unrest began in Damascus. Living in leafy Oxfordshire it was hard to imagine what it must have been like for Suzan. As unrest turned into civil war, communication became impossible and again Suzan and I were separated with no contact for a year. I had no idea if Suzan had survived the shelling in Damascus but I wanted to keep my promise so started writing in ernest.
Syria is still suffering in the wake of the Arab Spring and Suzan is finally living in the US with her children… and we have our book.