Maya Kabbani loved to walk the ancient history-laden streets of Damascus. New to Toronto, she buys shorty sky-blue shoes and sets out to walk everywhere in the city. She finds a city that is a contradiction of everything once familiar to her. How will she reconcile the old with the new, her past with her new present?
In the spring of 2019, I adopted a more environmental lifestyle. I stopped using the TTC and started walking instead. At first, when I walked, I complained a lot. I had pain in my legs. My friends advised me to change my shoes. I went to Winners and bought these sporty, sky blue shoes and wore them every single day.
Walking became easier, but I missed the joy I had when I walked in my city Damascus. Damascus is surrounded by mysterious stories. Imagine this: walking in a maze of streets, passing seven city gates dating back to the Roman period, gazing at the Qasioun Mountain while sharing fresh pita with a friend.
Walking around Damascus tells you that it is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. Every wall, building and corner has a story, many stories. For example, Rawda is a coffee shop in Damascus that has been there for over 81 years. It was a meeting place for politicians, intellectuals and music lovers. I remember my father and uncles would meet there to talk about politics and listen to music and news on the radio. Whenever I went to Rawda with my family or friends, we’d sit at my grandfather’s favourite table.
When I first moved here to Toronto, I felt a very quiet city. I looked for Damascus in Toronto or something shared between both cities. But I did not find anything. Here there were streets I could not pronounce. I didn’t know the history of these streets. The faces were unfamiliar. I felt I did not belong to Toronto. Discouraged, I quit walking!
But little by little, things began to change for me. I made new friends. I learned how to make Canadian small talk. Once again, every day after work, I put on my blue shoes and started walking. I began to enjoy the journey.
Now I love walking on Queen Street from east to west. The whole street is charming. Every time I go walking, I find a unique restaurant, an art gallery, a vintage store. Often I drink coffee and read a book in Balzac’s. It’s in my own neighbourhood of St. Lawrence Market. Now I let myself get lost and find a new restaurant. I taste new dishes and talk to the owners and hosts. I get excited when I try a new dish, but I get more excited when I learn the stories of these restaurants.
I walk between my past, my present and my unknown future. Immigration changes you in different ways: perception, identity, mentality, habits and finance. Many of these changes are good experiences like learning the language and culture and imagining a new future. But there are times when we suffer because of the contradictions between our two worlds.
I came from the Middle East, the region systemized by “collective thinking” in all ways—religious, political, and national. There you have no chance to create a new identity. Your identity was prepared before you were born. The culture keeps repeating itself and passing to the next generation.
When I move between my past and my present, I walk between a collectivist system and an individualist system. Between an identity I was born into and a new identity that is being born now. I live in ambivalence. Toronto keeps changing so fast, and Damascus keeps holding onto the past and refuses to change. There is no meeting between the two, apparently.
But no, I realize now! Amongst all these contradictions, there is something shared between the two cities. The stories! I listen for them on my walks and in conversations. I have heard a real variety of stories. All of them share “the dream of home.” Home can be near or far, but there’s always a story to tell about it.
The city of Damascus is surrounded by ancient stories and walls. Toronto is more like a “global village” where everywhere I walk, taking steps in my comfortable, sky-blue shoes, I hear new stories that help me imagine a world without walls.
MAYA KABBANI comes from Syria. She moved to Canada in 2017. For her, moving to Canada was a turning point in her life.