Family stories are the texture of the human fabric. From every land, from every time, they bring the past to life for young ears.
In the beginning of the twentieth century, when there were no borders in the Middle East (it was then called la grande Syrie), Elia Zughaib grew up first in Damascus, then in the mountains of Lebanon. In a rural culture, animals and humans work in tandem. Children play in the surrounding fields and streams. Traditional celebrations mark the seasons of the year. When history intervened and Lebanon became a battleground between England and France, his family left their home and applied for asylum in America. The migration began.
The achievement of Helen Zughaib is to bring these memories to life through art. The book’s 25 paintings appear facing Elia’s stories. He serves as the hakawati, the traditional storyteller. The stories in Stories My Father Told Me: Memories of a Childhood in Syria and Lebanon (Cune Press, 2020) are simply told, but they are not simple. Their power is enormous. Helen’s voice is as powerful as his: geometrical shapes, stunning patterns, fierce colors, and people, people, people, young and old. They are delivering milk, planting olive trees, building bonfires for Eid Al Salib, going to a wedding, drying figs, watching the show box, and learning lessons: about charity and compassion and about blind charity. The good, the glad, the sad, and the wise all inhabit these pages.
Helen Zughaib’s gouaches are in public and private collections: the White House, the Library of Congress, World Bank, American Embassy in Baghad. She has been a cultural envoy for the U.S. State Department, conducting art workshops in Saudi Arabia and Palestine. Her work has been exhibited internationally and has been presented to heads of state by President Obama and the former Secretary of State Hillary Cinton.