In 1996 I was posted to Damascus for a 3 month stint as Deputy Director of British Council in Syria.
My tour of the English Language Teaching Centre was interrupted by an old lady who seemed to know everyone. ‘This’ said Peter Clark, the British Council Director, introducing us, ‘is Fatie Darwish’. She was a tiny, sparrow-like woman. About 80 years old. I reached out to shake her hand. Instead she held mine warmly between her two hands, looking up at me with big, curious eyes. ‘Where are you from? What are you doing here? How long are you here? Have you met so-and-so from the Embassy? And so-and-so from the Netherlands?’ I barely got to answer one question before the next one came. And I still hadn’t retrieved my hand.
Fatie was, I realised, assessing me as the new bachelor in town. There were single expat females in Damascus and a limited pool of suitable males. She was an incorrigible matchmaker.
After 10 minutes of chat Peter politely moved us along. I eased my hand from Fatie’s grip. She continued to ask questions. As we moved away Peter whispered ‘I must tell you the funniest story’.
‘Fatie Darwish’ he explained ‘is a longstanding member of The British Women of Damascus’. A charitable group made up of smartly dressed diplomats’ wives and other expats. Recently, there’d been a lively discussion at the Annual General Meeting about prize options for an upcoming raffle. To lighten the mood, Fatie chipped in with a saucy suggestion, which almost saw her expelled from the group. 1st Prize should be to have Fatie for the night. The po-faced women of the committee were unamused. Not for the first time, Fatie had overstepped the mark.
Fascinating, enigmatic, funny. Fatie lived an extraordinary life. Time with her was a highlight of my sojourn in Damascus. I sensed her story, how she came to be in Syria, was a private matter. So I respected that. It felt intrusive and a little crass to ask too many questions. She was more interested in the here and now. Enjoying meeting new people from different parts of the world, showing them her beloved Damascus. Still curious about life.
Long after I’d left Damascus, I learned Fatie was, years earlier, awarded an MBE from the Queen.
She was from Manchester, my home at the time. In 1948 she left to drive to Syria, where she married a doctor and stayed. Life in Damascus was basic but she was happy. The roads were busy with camels and black hooded carriages drawn by horses. There were no fridges or washing machines. Cafes were for men only, drinking Arabic coffee and smoking the Hubble Bubble. In a time when there were barely any other foreigners in Syria, Fatie wore mini skirts and blouses with bare arms.
I travelled with Fatie to drop off blankets at an orphanage in the mountains outside Damascus. Our driver expertly navigated the twisting, narrow bends and potholes of the unsealed road. The light was fading but I could see the vegetation becoming ever more sparse as we ascended. The orphanage was on a plateau surrounded by rocks and gravel. Once inside we were offered tea. Fatie chatted to the nuns in Arabic. The room was a dimly lit and spartan, but the nuns and children were cheerful. Their gratitude for the blankets was heartfelt. We began our precarious descent in the dark. Thankfully our driver had made this trip many times before so I felt quite safe.
Peter and his wife Theresa regularly hosted drinks and dinners in their home. Usually catered, with wait staff to refresh glasses and offer canapes. I enjoyed these events. Peter and Theresa were expert hosts. Ready to roll the conversation in a new direction if topics, or people, became stale.
At a Sunday lunch, I was seated next to the wife of the British Defence Attache. As she sat down she turned to face me with a look of horror. ‘Have you heard the news?!’ she asked, urgently. I had no idea what she was talking about. To my knowledge, there’d been no significant news events. ‘They’ve broken up!?’ she exclaimed. Slightly frustrated at my ignorance. I shrugged. ‘Take That! They’ve broken up! I can’t believe it. Can you?!’
When my 3 month posting came to an end Peter and Theresa offered to host a leaving party at their house. I’d create the guest list, choose the food. Just one prerequisite. They liked to create a sense of occasion so the party would be on my final night in Damascus. I should arrive at their house with my suitcases. Ready to go. At the appointed time, everyone moved outside for the send-off. Pleasantly inebriated, I waved from the car as we left for the airport. In his fluent Arabic Peter had instructed the driver to stick with me until I was safely in the departure lounge.
Fatie and I exchanged a few postcards over the next few years. I sent her pictures of familiar landmarks in Manchester. I received word Fatie was visiting her daughter Mimie in London. She would be staying for a while. Sadly, while in London she’d developed a heart problem that required surgery. She was convalescing at Mimie’s.
I made arrangements to visit my friend Caroline in Putney. Together we went over the river to Mimie’s apartment in Fulham. Fatie’s exuberance was undiminished by major heart surgery. The surgeon, she said, had made polite chit chat. What brought her to London, he asked. ‘I’m here to see the Queen!’ she said. The surgeon looked from Fatie to Mimie, then back to Fatie. Doubtful. They knew what he was thinking: batty old lady. But it was the truth. As a past MBE recipient, Fatie had been invited to a garden party at Buckingham Palace.
The extraordinary Fatie Darwish passed away in February 2014. In Damascus, as she would have wanted.