The Dress

Wadad makes dresses for conservative Damascene women who want fancy but modest attire to wear at mixed events. The mother of three has survived war, loss, displacement and cancer. She treasures every living moment with her children and works to give them a brighter future.

13 November 2018

© SyriaUntold
Alice Al-Shami

Alice Al-Shami (pseudonym) is a Syrian writer.

Translated by: Pascale Menassa

Wadad takes a deep breath after having finished ironing the evening dress. She made the gown in record time so that a client could wear it to a fancy wedding in Beirut.

The rich client had visited Wadad at home, bringing with her meters of satin and lace that she had bought while visiting relatives in Dubai.  She asked Wadad to make an unrevealing but elegant dress.

The wedding in Beirut was mixed, and she was a veiled woman. Wadad took the measurements and wrote them down on a piece of paper.

- Please Wadad, the dress should be ready in a week.

- But, Ma’am, I really have a lot to do, and my kids have exams. There are many power cuts. I can’t work in the dark.

- Start with my dress and I will pay you well. You can do it right?

- Mmm, hopefully.

There was no way Wadad could have turned down the request. After a break of many years, she had resumed tailoring and was only now starting to connect with clients and catch up on fashion trends.

She is making a double effort to expand her client base among Damascene women—the socialites of a conservative and posh society who have the money but do not find in international brand markets anything to their liking or compliant with their traditions. They seek modest but fancy attire to wear at social events in luxurious hotels, where the crowd is mixed.They resort to female tailors who get paid huge lump sums to make a dress. But, Wadad was not like other tailors. She had been away from the profession for a long time and did not feel it was unjust to charge a low rate that might improve with time once she proved she was still a good tailor.

The dress was completed and ready to be delivered. Wadad stretched herself out on the floor to allow her neck and back to touch the hard surface, in the hope of appeasing her muscle and spine pain. 

There was nobody home. Her three children were at school, and her husband was at work. Her sister-in-law and husband with whom she shared a rented house had gone out on a family visit.

Wadad looked at the dress, which was very beautiful, elegant and special. She felt proud and really wanted to wear it. Her thin form would disappear inside that dress which suited the well-kept body of its 60-year-old owner.

She looked at her watch and found there was still time before anybody returned home. She stood before the long mirror, took off her clothes and placed the dress on her body. She put pads made of fabric instead of her surgically removed breasts. She looked at herself. She was pale, her body frame and her cheeks hollow.

A woman in her forties, wrinkles had already showed up on her face. She let down her gray hair and blew some air into her cheeks. She then held the tip of the long skirt and danced around the house, alone, without music. She whirled and twirled, as though she were in a Sufi ceremony. With each whirl, she would remember a figment of the past.

Wadad is the eldest of six siblings. She comes from a poor and religiously conservative family. Her father forced her to drop out of school after sixth grade, and she started wearing the niqab [full face veil] when she was 12. The same fate befell her two sisters. The girls in the family were outstanding students, but that did not help their case with their father. The sheikh of the mosque whose religious sermons he attended each week said that leaving school satisfied God and protected them from vice.

Wadad joined sewing sessions at Al-Taliani Monastery in Damascus, and her father made sure to accompany her. Wadad resented her father’s double standards, as he allowed her to deal with “polytheists,” as he said, while still forcing her to wear the niqab. In fact, he was only thinking about how Wadad could help him cover heavy expenses on the home front as soon as she mastered sewing.

Wadad finished her training and worked at a workshop that was owned by an unmarried woman. She worked there 15 years. The owner became like a mother to Wadad. She taught her how to handle customers, let her in on the technical secrets of the profession and offered her a sewing machine to work at home independently.

When the woman had a heart attack and died, Wadad was swept by grief for months, although her mother and father tried to convince her that mourning the dead for more than three days was against the teachings of Islam. 

After that, Wadad worked independently and taught her sisters what she had learned. She had clients in every neighborhood in Damascus. She was 30, unmarried still, like her sisters. They were all thin and had inherited their father’s crooked nose and protruding teeth.They were also blonde with light- colored eyes, pious and committed to religion. They excelled at housework and handcrafts. Although Wadad met many Damascene families searching for wives for their sons in conventional ways, she and her sisters still ended up as spinsters.

However, Wadad’s luck changed when she got engaged to a nice Damascene man from a well-off family. Although the engagement was traditional, they both warmed up to each other quickly and felt comfortable together. Despite her parents’ reservations, she accepted a modest dowry. She got married without a wedding ceremony in 2000 during the month of Ramadan, after she fought with her father for the first time in her life. The idea of setting a wedding during the fasting season angered him.

The groom was in his forties and worked as an accountant at a private company. He had a luxurious house in Darayya where he and Wadad spent the best days of their lives. They furnished it corner by corner and benefitted from Darayya furniture market in Al-Thawra Street in the city, as it was known for its diverse options and affordable prices.

Wadad applied her tailoring skills at home. She picked the furniture, duvets, blinds and carpets carefully and reserved a place for her sewing machine and equipment. Her husband had agreed that she receive clients at home. They had two boys and a girl together.

That happy chapter was cut short after protests broke out in Darayya in 2011. In August 2012, a massacre left 250 civilians dead in Darayya massacre. Frightened by the horrific details on how sectarian militias and the 4th Armoured Division forces indiscriminately executed men, Wadad and her family fled, along with thousands of other citizens from the area.

She took nothing. She did not take her clothes or modest jewelry. She left behind her sewing tools and machine, her dear furniture and duvets, the kids’ clothes that had arrived in yearly parcels sent by their aunt living abroad. She thought the situation would be temporary, no matter how bad it got, and that she would return home when the clashes subsided. Little did she know that it would be the last time she locked the door of that house.

Wadad first lived with her parents, but as soon she felt their disgruntlement, she moved to her in-laws’ place. Although the house was big, they also began complaining and asked their son to search for a place to rent. Things were not looking up for Darayya, after all.

On top of the psychological and financial pressure on the couple, the company where Wadad’s husband worked decided to lay off half of its employees, and he was among them. The husband’s mother decided to let her son and his family stay in a house she owned and rented out occasionally. But, shortly after, the family of her other son was displaced from Qaboun. The two families had to share their mother’s house, which was not big enough. As a result, the two families clashed, and Wadad could not welcome clients and support her family. She did not have an extra sewing machine, and there was no suitable space to welcome clients in any case.

It was in Wadad’s nature to cry a lot. She cried her eyes out during these tough times and grew thinner. Her eldest son was 14. Like all teenagers, he had a temper and was unruly, but he was a good student. His younger brother (10), however, had learning difficulties, and the little daughter (3) was her mother’s favorite. Wadad promised her darling daughter that she would do everything to help her continue her education and not to allow anyone to interfere in her life and in determine her fate.

One day, Wadad felt a lump in her breasts, but she did not give this any importance. However, she panicked when she discovered other underarm lumps, and rightfully so. Tests showed she had breast cancer. It was a new blow for the devastated family. Wadad could not fake strength in front of her family. She cried before the eyes of her children and husband.

Wadad: I will die and leave my little kids alone. How will they manage? I don’t want to die. I want my kids.

Her father: Seek God’s mercy. You are a believer, don’t talk like this.

Her father would repeat these words to calm her. But, she would only cry harder. She realized she was not really a believer, and such talk far from appeased her. Her husband would remain silent and prepare her an orange juice. While the religious credos recited by her father did little to boost her morale, her husband and children gave her strength.

Love for her children and husband pushed her to control herself and pursue treatment despite her deep shock and depression. She underwent a mastectomy and chemotherapy for a prolonged period. She also took medication, and her two sisters took care of her. They were still alone, as one of them was still single and the other had divorced.

The family joined forces financially to cover the expenses of the treatment. Despite the severe pain and nausea, Wadad clung to life more than ever. She religiously followed the treatment and the doctor’s instructions. When the tests results came out clean, she hugged her kids and cried, in gratitude, because she would spend more time with them.

Wadad’s life slightly improved after that. Her husband got another job with a modest income, and the sister of the woman where she got her training gave her a used sewing machine. She resumed work gradually and moved with her family to a bigger house that her husband and his brother rented from their mother.

Wadad had regular clients again, and she did not argue about the price. Just working was good enough for her to provide for her kids’ education at least. Her dreams grew bigger while she helped them study. But, her limited education would not allow her. One evening, she told her eldest son, “Qusay, I am thinking of buying the books for the baccalaureate in humanities and applying.”

Qusay retorted, “I think you should remove such thoughts from your head.”

Wadad’s relationship with Qusay was not a typical mother-son one. He behaved like her guardian in a way that was strange even to her husband. Although his harsh words hurt her, she loved her son dearly and liked his sharp expressions. She loved that she was still alive to deal with a rude adolescent. She appreciated each moment with her family, even if unpleasant.

After four long years of waiting, in August 2016, Darayya militants reached an agreement with the regime to hand over the city to the regime army. In exchange, civilians would be allowed to leave to regime-held areas in Sahnaya in Rif Dimashq, and fighters and their families would retreat to Idlib after handing over their medium and heavy weapons, under the supervision and reassurance of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The family had high hopes of returning home. Wadad’s husband made long calls to find out the necessary procedure to visit his house. But, Darayya remained under security lockdown for another two years. Only then were citizens allowed to return and inspect their properties. Wadad’s husband asked one of the neighbors to take a picture of the house, and he was bent on going two days later. Upon seeing the photos, he changed his mind.

The house was empty. Only debris and garbage remained. Wadad could not see the sewing machine or her children’s clothes. She only spotted broken tiles, shattered windows and damaged doors. The dream to return home had long vanished, but seeking the pictures and being faced with reality for the first time had a different impact. Wadad cried her eyes out again, but she adapted to losing the last remaining hope of stability.

She returned to work and the daily routine of  caring for her family. She thanked God for each additional moment spent with them and for that moment of peace that allowed her to dance home alone in that expensive dress that she would never dream of wearing on any occasion.

Wadad looked gratefully at the mirror for the last time, still wearing the dress that she would deliver to its owner in a few hours, after giving it a final ironing, hanging it up and waiting for her sons to return home.

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