Cinnamon

In the old world, new babies were followed by the smell of cinnamon, brewed with rice and caraway in big vats by grandmothers who served it topped with crushed nuts and coconut to everyone who came to visit the newborn. The smell of the sweet, spicy steam was, it was said, a way to let the neighbours know a new child had arrived.

In the old world, Grandma’s hands moved swiftly from chopping almonds to adding lemon and parsley to rice soup, which she dished up for her daughter in the weeks after the birth, to help her recover. The new mother was to rest for 40 days, while her mother, mother in law and other female relatives cooked and took care of the house, and a steady stream of visitors sang to the baby, passing it from arm to big arm, inhaling the warm scent of its downy hair.

And as the years and generations passed, 40 days may have shrunk to ten, and news of a baby’s arrival may have reached neighbours by phone before the smell crept beneath their front doors. But the visitors still came, the mother still rested, and cinnamon and caraway still bubbled on the stove.

In the new world, a phone buzzes on a coffee table in South London, where a couple are watching a bad detective series on Netflix.

“Maybe my sister’s had her baby”, says the man, and the woman presses pause.

There on the screen of his Samsung is a face they’ve never seen before, puffy-eyed and dazed as a mole suddenly above ground, its tiny hand grasping the edge of the blanket that envelops its tired, smiling mother.

Beneath the photos is a flurry of congratulatory messages from the man’s sisters in other parts of Sweden, to which the man and woman add theirs (“Me too,” says the woman, “Say I said congratulations too”).

In the new world, the man calls his mother and father in Syria, the baby’s grandparents, who have been poring over the same three photos in their empty flat in North Damascus.

There is not much to say, but it is good to talk. She looks like your sister… she’ll call us once she’s rested for a bit longer… see how quickly the family is growing?!

The phone is handed to the man’s father, and in the background the couple can hear his mother on the phone to relatives who have just seen the news on WhatsApp, and are calling to congratulate her on the fourth grandchild she has never held.

Jacket Potatoes

d8b5d8add986_d981d988d984We had jacket potatoes for dinner tonight, and I was reminded of a French restaurant in Damascus where I had savoured the only fluffy, crispy-skinned spud of my year in Syria.

I had been invited by Jamal, my only openly pro-Assad friend (this was 2009, when praising the well-spoken dictator was less shocking than it would be today, at least to my naive British ears).

I was about to wonder out loud what had happened to Jamal and whether the past six years of brutality had made him rethink his political allegiances, but I stopped myself. Nimr was tired after work and I didn’t want to put him in a bad mood by turning his attention to the dark place in his mind.

I remembered Paris three years ago, where we had been reunited with our best friends from Syria for the first time. Unimaginable horrors lay between then and the last time we had all been together, the most searing leaving an empty chair where one of our gang should have been.

Pouring olive oil onto a bowl of garlicky foul one lunchtime, Abu Ali remembered an uncle who had lashings of it with everything he ate, and then remembered that he had died under torture in prison, “Allah yarhamo” (God have mercy on him). Abed had an uncle whose name he was never sure whether to follow with “Allah yarhamo” or not, because he was missing but not yet confirmed dead.

We drank and smoked and danced outside metro stations and sang our hearts out in the streets, and a black sea yawned beneath the surface of everything. A misremembered Milan Kundera quote came to me: “Happiness was the form and sadness was the content”.

So I didn’t ask Nimr whether he thought Jamal still supported Assad, and we talked about Rihanna over our cheese and beans.

Switch

Standing on the stairs to our flat when we got back last night, Mariam watched me flick the light on, then reached out and gingerly fingered the smooth white plastic.

“Go on, press it” I said.

I flicked the switch again, and everything disappeared. Again, and we were surrounded by light.

Mariam looked at me even more nervously, and I realised that to her almost one-year-old mind, it must have seemed like we’d found the switch to the whole world.

Refusal Letter

Four weeks ago, a civil servant at the Swedish Embassy in Jordan came back from their lunch break and wrote ‘refused’ onto the visa application of a middle aged Palestinian couple in Damascus.

A chain that had started on the sofa of their apprehensive son and daughter-in-law in London concluded with a letter through the door of one of their daughters in Sweden, emails and Swedish postmen belonging to the class of things that can move quickly in this world; my in-laws remaining firmly in the category that can barely move at all.

Nappy Time

Mariam has a new game that she plays during nappy changes. Lying on her padded circus-themed mat, she lifts a leg across her body as if she’s about to flip over and escape, eyeing me expectantly all the while and waiting for me to say “EEEEEEEEERM!” in a pretend stern voice, like my dad used to do when our playfighting threatened to get out of hand. Then she swivels back to nappy-changing position and waits for me to cry “BRAVOOOOO!” (the Arabic ‘bravo’ with a rolled ‘r’). It’s quite amusing until I actually need to put her nappy on, at which point all the twisting back and forwards becomes a bit of an issue.

Tonight, after the hilarity was over and we’d moved on to battling with the approximately 176 poppers of Mariam’s babygrow, Nimr came into the bathroom, holding his phone.

“Speak to taita (granny),” he said to Mariam.

All of Nimr’s siblings are now in Europe, most of them having escaped Syria by boat, and Mariam is one of three grandchildren his parents have never met. Riding out the power cuts and loneliness in Damascus, their relationship with her is without flesh; no skin touching the warm skin of family, no cuddles to granny’s bosom, jiggles on grandad’s knee.

Instead, there is a song Fatima sings whenever Mariam’s face appears on her phone screen, and ever since she was a few months old Mariam has responded by rocking back and forth in a happy dance.

She perches upright now amongst the monkeys and pelicans, forgetting whatever it was she had been whining about a few moments before.

“Mariam oh Mariam, pretty Mariam, clever Mariam” sings a grandmother 2,687 miles away.

Her voice is frozen into data that breaks into pieces and shoots along cables under the ocean before being reunited nanoseconds later in a bathroom in South London… where a baby starts to dance.

A Wild Thought

Something strange occurred to me while texting a friend the other evening: One day your number will be stored under ‘M’ in my phone.

Isn’t that a wild thought, when you used to live inside my body?

I will press ‘call’ and be met, after a few rings, with a vaguely annoyed “hi mum”. You’ll have stuff to do and other people to talk to, and have no memory of the days when you used to sleep tucked into the curve of my body, or grin in the mirror as I brushed your eight tiny teeth, or crawl speedily behind me as I moved from room to room in our flat, calming down instantly whenever I scooped you into my arms.

Will I?

Saturday

You open your eyes, and for a few seconds the possibilities swirl around you: the cool white ceiling of a student bedroom; strains of late-night reggae wafting up a childhood staircase; the smell of tar and rubbish baking in the Damascus sun.

Then a baby cries and you are brought back to the patch of yellow fabric coming into focus a few inches from your face.

You are on a sofa in South London on Saturday morning, and it is your child crying.

This is now.