Amira Ajmiye doesn’t remember her birthdate. She was born in the city of Talkalakh in rural Homs province, at the time when it was under a feudal system and the landowning Aghas had total control over the lives of the townspeople who worked their lands.
Amira recalls how her father died, which demonstrates the extent of the power held by the feudal lords at the time. “During the wedding of Mohamad Bek’s daughter,” she says, “my father, Hussain, got on his powerful horse and challenged those around him to see if they could beat him in a race to the village where they were taking the bride. When he arrived first and won, some of the men knocked him off his horse for daring to beat the horses of the Aghas and noblemen. He was then sent off to Tripoli in Lebanon, and the next day they brought his cold corpse back to us. My mother cried a lot, wailing over and over: “oh my daughters, what poor fortune, your father has left nothing behind but daughters.”
Amira’s father had worked as a shoubassi for the Agha, a sort of foreman and watchman, guarding all the Agha’s holdings, including crops, livestock and other things. He was famed for his horsemanship and respected by everyone in the area. After he died, Amira’s uncle took over everything they owned by forging some paperwork, and her mother was forced to work as a laundrywoman for the Aghas to be able to secure a living for her children. One of their relatives, however, came forward and offered them a house to live in, and one of her mother’s great uncles helped by sending them some preserves and dry goods from time to time.
Social customs were rigid at the time, says Amira. “When my father died, my mother was pregnant with my brother Hussain. And so my maternal uncle, who was very cruel, forced her to stand before the entire group of mourners gathered for my father’s funeral and announce that she was three months pregnant, so that there wouldn’t be any gossip or rumors about the child’s father when she gave birth.”
Amira’s mother wanted to send Amira and her two sisters to school, but her maternal uncle forbid them from going, insisting that it wasn’t appropriate for girls to go to school unaccompanied by a man. “That day,” says Amira, “my uncle told us: I won’t let you go to school so that you won’t learn to write and then go off and write letters to your lovers.” And so Amira remained illiterate, never learning how to read or write.
Amira recalls how most of the women of the village worked to serve the Agha’s wife and fulfill her requests. In exchange, she would offer them some money or foodstuffs, like grains or wheat.
It was very difficult for Amira’s family, who barely had enough to make ends meet, and it got worse when her little brother Hussain fell ill.
“We were just young children,” says Amira, “and my mother would order us to take off all our clothes and look up at the sky and pray for money and for a cure for our brother Hussain. We would cry and beg for God to help us, but Hussain never got better, and he died before his second birthday.”
Amira was forced to marry before she had even hit puberty, after the men of her father’s side of the family decided that she would make a good bride for one of the townspeople. Amira cried and cried on the day of her wedding, refusing the idea of marriage outright, but her mother beat her and forced her to say yes. For a few days after the wedding, she was unable to even look into the face of her husband, who didn’t deserve her, as far as she saw it. She was a beautiful girl, the daughter of the famous and reputable shoubassi Hussain Ajmiye.
Amira soon moved with her husband to Lebanon, and after he died, she had a number of suitors seeking her hand in marriage. She refused them all, however, so she could devote her time to raising her children and making sure they had a good future ahead of them. “After my father died,” says Amira, “my mother refused to marry again and instead devoted her time to caring for us and raising us. I’ve also made the same sacrifices as her for the good of my children.”