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Heather Burles

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Smouldering Incense, Hammered Brass
by Heather Burles   

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Publisher:  Turnstone Press ISBN-10:  0888012373 Type: 


Copyright:  1999 ISBN-13:  9780888012373

McNally Robinson
Smouldering Incense, Hammered Brass

A Syrian Interlude. At the age of thirty-seven Heather Burles leaves her job as a computer programmer and buys a one-way ticket to Damascus. With an eye for small detail, Burles brings to life an often-demonized part of the Middle East rarely seen by western media.

"The flavour of daily life in Damascus comes through on every page--the kindly neighbours, the eccentrics, the underlying political tensions, the old beauty, the new ugliness."
-- Dervla Murphy, author of Full Tilt: Ireland to Inda with a bicycle

In Damascus machine guns outnumber purses, and insecticide fogs roll through the streets, stinging eyes and throats and slaughtering columns of mosquitoes. Yet beauty breaks through: every fountain is a celebration and every park a garden; doves whisper, and swallows pierce and embroider the sky.

At the age of thirty-seven Heather Burles left her job as a computer programmer and bought a one-way ticket to Syria. In Smouldering Incense, Hammered Brass Burles describes her experiences travelling the countryside, renting a small house in Damascus, learning to speak Arabic, meeting people and avoiding trouble. As a woman travelling alone, she has access to women's lives and is often invited into their homes. In describing these encounters, she does not romanticize the people she meets, but reflects unflinchingly on their lives and on her own.

Burles becomes an honoured guest at a Bedouin feast, the victim of a deliberate "accident" orchestrated by a police officer and she spends an afternoon with a mukhabarat agent (the dreaded secret police). Struggling with the Arabic language and other adventures, Burles experiences countless moments of joyous wonder at the generosity and hospitality of the Syrian people, and of delight at the beauty of Damascus, the oldest continually inhabited city in the world.

Smouldering Incense, Hammered Brass is written with clarity and grace. With an eye for small detail, Burles brings to life an often-demonized part of the Middle East rarely seen by the western media.

“Arabic is a formidable language.”

I found it disconcerting that an Arabic teacher would say that. Huda loved her language and she was usually so encouraging to the poor sods who sought to learn it. Yet I had to agree. Arabic is formidable.

My first encounter with Arabic was in Cairo, some years earlier, when I deciphered the red and white billboards advertising Coca-Cola, thereby learning the Arabic letters for K, O, L and A. I graduated to Nivea and Canada Dry. Back home, and moving beyond soft drinks and skin cream, I learned the rest of the alphabet from a Teach Yourself Arabic book.

I discovered that the O and A in Coca-Cola were long vowels. Short vowels — there are a lot of them in other Arabic words — are not normally written, because Arabic uses a ‘defective’ script. With the exception of the Holy Koran and children’s books, where short vowels appear as scratches and squiggles above and below their more important brethren, only consonants and long vowels, liberally sprinkled with confetti-like dots, grace the page.

The placement of the confetti is of the utmost importance. It allows the reader to distinguish letters: a horseshoe with a dot over it is an n; the same shoe with two dots is a t; if the shoe is on top of the dots, it’s a y; but if the horseshoe is sitting on only one little dot, it’s a b. It’s no different really than distinguishing a t from an l by the placement of a bow tie.

Capital letters don’t exist in Arabic, yet each member of the alphabet comes in a few different forms because Arabic letters like to hold hands as they float across the page. Six renegades refuse to join hands with anything on their left, but otherwise the letters are a friendly lot. In order to be part of the parade, each one has four disguises: the isolated form when travelling alone, the initial form when leading the show, the medial form when caught in the crowd, and the final form where it unfurls its banners to bring up the rear with a flourish.

I learned all that from a book, and in Damascus, Huda marvelled at my handwriting: I had unwittingly learned to write like a typewriter. While reviewing the twenty-eight letters and their possible shapes, she taught me how to write like a person rather than a machine.

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