Known for her journalism, Christine Estima has also published personal essays and travel writing, as well as fiction. The Syrian Ladies Benevolent Society, a collection of short stories, is her first book. Years in the making, it reveals a writer who is sure of her subject and craft. “Sometimes, when I wake up in the morning,” Estima once explained in the magazine Maisonneuve, “I think about all my ancestors whose existence allowed me to have mine.” It is not surprising, then, that her background as a Montrealer of Lebanese, Syrian, and Portuguese descent is reflected in these linked stories that follow several generations of an Arab Canadian family.
Part 1 opens in 1860 with the tale of Holwé Lutfeya, who escapes Lebanon during the deadly civil conflict between Druze and Christians. In “The Castle of Montreal,” Holwé flees her village with her infant daughter, Hana. She makes her way to the coast —“My sandals tore from my feet at dawn as I neared the gates of Beirut”— and agrees to smuggle an iron gun aboard a French ship bound first for Constantinople, then Genoa, and ultimately “the Province of Canada.” When the Druze penetrate the ship’s upper deck, Holwé deploys the weapon to shoot “a man in the foot, taking his toe clean off.” Thus she secures her passage to Montreal, where months later she disembarks and settles, becoming the first in a long line of family members who make the city their home.
The next story, dated 1934, skips a generation to focus on Hana’s son, Shafeek Sayfy. Publicly, Shafeek is a respectable husband and father who sells life insurance. When necessary, he also substitutes for the priest as secretary of the Syrian Ladies Benevolent Society, which was established in 1905 and had become “a pillar in the community of Arabs populating Montreal’s Little Italy.” Privately, however, Shafeek confronts moral struggles. He is sickened by the recent forced marriage of twelve-year-old Maryam Zakaib, who is nearly strangled to death and beaten with a belt by her husband and is now pregnant. He is worried about the upcoming marriage of his daughter, Salma, to Huda Ghiz, who was seen covertly exiting “a bath and bawdy house.” He also internalizes the shame of the outsider, both as an Arab who is not welcome in Quebec —“Go back where you came, maudit syrien!”— and as a man who secretly loves to dress in women’s clothing.
When Shafeek dies, Salma encourages her mother, Alzira, to write to a former lover she left behind in Beirut. In “Montreal Awaits You,” an epistolary story dated 1949, Alzira alludes to the deep loneliness she felt in her relationship with Shafeek, who “died as he lived . . . wearing my garter belt under his clothing.” She writes enticingly to Nasir, who had intended to follow her to Montreal, before the war intervened in his plans. “Should you come here — and you really should,” she tells him, “we can feel sixteen again.” But they are not to be reunited. Nasir now lives in Cairo, in a one-room flat next door to a brothel. He has experienced “far too much trouble” and feels suited to exile. “Montreal is a lifetime and three decades ago,” he writes back. “I lost it from my sights the moment your steamship disappeared from the Beirut horizon.”
The poignancy of separation and broken promises abides across generations. In “The Belly Dancer,” dated 1971, Salma’s daughter, Naseema Ghiz, is to be married to Gustave, “a white Québécois man with a jaw that could cut glass.” When he impregnates another woman and severs their engagement, Naseema is crushed and brought to a discomfiting realization: she chose Gustave to defy her mother’s expectations that she marry an Arab and so that her children would “look as effortlessly cool as he did.”
It is 1978 when Naseema meets Nasari Zakaib on an Italian train, in “The Last Cigarette.” She is twenty-seven; he is forty-five. A year after their brief affair, Naseema writes from Canada to say that she gave birth to his child and is getting married after a hasty courtship. Nasari provides financial support but is prevented from knowing his daughter, Azurée Ghiz. When eventually the girl contacts him in Sicily, where he has worked in construction for decades, Nasari is so overcome by the prospect of finally meeting her —“of just looking into her eyes, which might be his eyes”— that he suffers a heart attack.
By 1995, Azurée is seventeen. She has been uprooted from Montreal by her divorced mother and is living in Toronto. Like her father, born in Damascus and transplanted to Italy, Azurée feels unmoored. In “Fairview Mall,” she tries to fit in with her new peer group but discovers that she prefers independence. She also becomes a writer, penning articles for her school newspaper and winning first place in a contest, for a story entitled “I’m Not a Real Persian, but I Play One on TV.” Of all Estima’s characters, Azurée may be closest to her creator.
The stories in part 2 centre on Azurée and her younger sister, Arshia de Morais. They cover the more compressed time period of 1999 to 2020 and address urgent contemporary issues. Arshia, as an undergraduate at McGill, is subject to the salacious attention of a theatre professor. Azurée, as a student in Toronto, breaks down psychologically. Uncertain of her identity and aching to feel grounded, she tries to quell despair by cutting herself.
Azurée also looks to her ancestry. In 2014, she returns to her Lebanese grandparents’ apartment on Rue Berri and visits her great-grandfather’s grave in Mount Royal Cemetery. The following year, she persuades her Syrian grandmother to leave her refugee camp on the border with Lebanon and come to Montreal, where they live together under her sponsorship and form a deep connection. At last, Azurée can “look at my scars without hating myself.”
But, like her mother, Azurée has a series of failed relationships. During a visit to Beirut, she has a dalliance with a Lebanese Jew, while stringing along an older widower who emails her from Toronto. “Mabrouk,” the final story about her one sustained romance, comes to a sad close when Malik, a fellow Arab, cannot accept the scars she bears on her body.
“In many ways,” Estima wrote in Maisonneuve, “Arab Montrealers can be ethnically invisible.” In this collection, her precise and sensitive depiction of those striving to situate themselves in the city, as well as in Toronto, renders them visible. Readers will appreciate the inclusion of a family tree and the dating of each story, which help orient this deeply personal project.
Ruth Panofsky is a professor of English at Toronto Metropolitan University, where she specializes in Canadian literature and culture.