Arab American museum's Ameri recalls childhood in book

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer
Anan Ameri’s book shows a more tolerant, cosmopolitan culture, long before the rise of today’s poisonous sectarianism.

The destruction across the Middle East in recent decades — whether in Lebanon, Iraq or Syria — has been so extensive, outsiders can perhaps be forgiven if all they can picture is chaos and collapse.

Anan Ameri, the founding director of Dearborn’s Arab American National Museum, paints a very different landscape in her affecting new memoir, “The Scent of Jasmine: Coming of Age in Jerusalem and Damascus” (Olive Branch Press).

The author will read and sign copies of her book at the museum Thursday evening.

In Ameri’s vignettes we get a glimpse of a more tolerant, cosmopolitan culture, one where Christian and Muslim neighbors celebrated one another’s holidays, long before the rise of today’s poisonous sectarianism.

“The Arab world I grew up in,” Ameri said simply, “was a very different place.”

In particular, Ameri introduces us to the beguiling Damascus of her mother’s extended family and the 28-room house that became the little girl’s refuge after the 1948 creation of the state of Israel.

“To me, my grandfather’s house in Damascus was a magical place,” Ameri said, describing a 200-year-old home filled with aunts and uncles and cousins.

“You’d wake up from siesta and smell gardenia, jasmine, and blossom of lemon tree,” she said. “Pigeons would be cooing, and there was a big fountain in the middle of the courtyard where we little kids used to swim.”

Ameri’s own family abandoned their Jerusalem home in 1951 when she was 6 years old.

“We became refugees and moved to Jordan,” she said, where she spent most of her childhood, when not visiting her grandfather.

All the same, she noted, “It wasn’t a sad life,” never mind the region’s political upheavals and their impact on her family.

“It was exciting,” she said. “I had a wonderful childhood, especially when I was in Damascus. And I had very liberal parents who told me the sky was the limit.” (All three of their daughters would end up getting doctorates.)

Ameri’s mother, despite her wealthy upbringing in Damascus, always worked, running her own print shop in downtown Amman.

Her father, an intellectual sympathetic to socialism, served as Jordan’s foreign minister, as well as the country’s ambassador to Egypt.

“Politically,” Ameri said, “things were much more open then” — and more open in religious terms, perhaps, than westerners today might expect.

“We never practiced religion,” Ameri said, despite the fact that her maternal grandfather in Damascus was a devout Muslim. Still, her grandfather, who went to the mosque four times a day, loved his agnostic son-in-law.

“I never ever remember hearing a negative comment,” she said.

Ameri, who earned her master’s degree at Cairo University and her Ph.D. in sociology at Wayne State University, clearly takes after her politically oriented father. She was about 12 when she attended her first demonstration — an anti-British protest during the 1956 Suez Crisis.

Ameri followed some older girls from school to the demonstration in downtown Amman.

“All of a sudden,” she recalled, “the army starts shooting on a peaceful demonstration. You’re 11 or 12, and start running as fast as you can. When I ask, ‘What shapes us?’ That definitely shaped me.”

Indeed, it launched the youngster on a lifetime of activism that got her kicked out of college twice and led to stints working with the Palestine Research Center in Beirut, and later the Palestinian Aid Society of America.

“This country had its ’60s,” Ameri said, “but we had ours, too. We rallied against colonialism, against male-dominated society and for democracy.”

They were years of ferment and hope, all the more distressing to consider, given the political wreckage of much of the region today.

“When I tell my niece, now in her late 30s, that I grew up with so much hope for our people and our region — and how all our hopes were crushed — she tells me, ‘At least you had hope.’ ”

Ameri shook her head. “I mean, how heartbreaking is that?”

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Twitter: @mhodgesartguy

Reading and book signing

‘The Scent of Jasmine: Coming of Age

in Jerusalem and Damascus’ by Anan Ameri

6:30 p.m. Thursday

Arab American National Museum

13624 Michigan, Dearborn

Free; RSVP on museum website

(313) 582-2266