(c) The Mirror
It was Nimr’s sister, who escaped Syria a year and a half ago, that told us about the London Bridge attack. She had just read about it on BBC Arabic and called us in the middle of the night from her new home in Sweden, to check we were OK.
Reading us the facts down the phone – a white van driving onto the pavement, mowing down passers by – Alaa cursed the attackers, her voice darkening with rage as Nimr told her he’d been with friends near the area an hour or so before it had happened.
“We’re used to calling friends in the area when we hear news like this,” she said, remembering the years in Syria when word of another bomb falling would have them reaching for their mobile phones.
“And now we’re scattered across the world, we read the news and call London!”
Out of everyone I know, it is friends from Syria who know how those shattered by what happened on London Bridge last night must be feeling right now.
Praying that refugees like them don’t become further victims of this madness.
Everything becomes normal. One day we had sex and now I’m sitting next to the window and can hear the familiar sound of my keys being thrown to the floor behind the sofa. Somehow a creature grew in me that can speak and dance and finds it funny to see my things smack the floorboards. Yet we don’t wake up surprised.
We wake up normal. Where we live now is quiet and still, with old sash windows overlooking every shade of green. We have lived in nine homes in the eight years we’ve been together, and sometimes it feels like this stillness is all there has ever been, and sometimes we remember the old places, innocently, playing ‘what’s your favourite’ on a rare dinner date, and the past rises up and crashes over us like a wave, and I fall silent, and realise we have become Adults, because Adults have things they Don’t Talk About because the hurt of remembering inhibits everyday living. I realise that these places are hidden in your body: behind a rib, your abandoned childhood home; nestled in your stomach, the flat where we fell in love, where you’d stay up late sharing stories and smokes with the guys at Khaled’s flat on the top floor. And now Khaled is gone and shells have blown through the real walls of these places and you have to keep them hidden small in your body because if you turned to face them they would balloon to their actual size and block out your breath.
So we wake up normal. You speak English now, and we go for picnics with my family, and we have a baby daughter who spends Sunday mornings emptying the contents of my bag onto the living room floor.
I used to have a colleague from Bosnia who had not been back since he left in the 1990s, and seemed to have cut the country out of his inner map, answering questions about contemporary Bosnian life with a simple “I don’t know”. I hope this is not what Syria becomes for us, but I don’t judge him for doing this like I did before.
You wake up laughing
And pointing at things
At the photo that smiles
The kettle that sings
You chat to the window
And people below
Enjoying the taste
Of each sound that you know
The morning’s for moving
Your body’s for bouncing
And spread-fingered reaching
And full-body pouncing
And as I fill like an inbox
With things I must do
You say, nothing’s boring mum
Sometimes, sneaking a smoke out the front as the world quiets and darkens, I imagine bad things, like the passing car slowing down and men with guns jumping out. Or the Ryanair passenger plane overhead opening its belly and spilling out tons of about-to-burst metal. Or waking up behind a locked door, your body belonging to someone else now, or sitting tiny before a man in camaflauge, begging for your child back.
Then I think ‘thank God that’s not real’, finish my cigarette and go back into the light.
Arabic on the streets of Glasgow
I want to close your eyes
With my fingertips and take you
Back to pop beats on buses
Back to thick coffee laced
With cigarette smoke…
The ones with jobs
Back to them
The ones without
Hold cardboard signs
And a woman in a pink hijab
Tilts her phone
To show the pigeons to a mum
Who will never come
Is passing everyone
Is passing everything
And not seeing
And not smiling
And not saying
That your language blossoms
In my mouth too
Your language blossoms
In my mouth too
On the streets of Glasgow
It’s 11pm and we’re talking to Uncle Abu Samer on Whatsapp. He and his wife are at Nimr’s parents flat, as they often are – so much of the family has left Syria, including both couple’s children, that they mostly have the choice of each other’s sofas now for conversation and sweet evening tea.
As always, we talk about the weather. The sun still shines and the rain still falls. There have been warm showers in Damascus. And it’s hot in Sweden, says Nimr, I saw the picture of Hoda’s husband having a barbecue. No, says Abu Samer, he was on a trip to Germany. It’s always hot in Germany. The Saudi Arabia of Europe! We talk about these places like they’re local to everyone in the conversation, just a bus ride from Damascus. No bribes or breathless races across borders or rubber dinghies in the night.
I remember Alaa, while she was still in Syria , describing the daily exchanges in the queue outside the bread oven: “Hey, I heard your son reached Denmark! Congrats!” “How’s your daughter in Germany? Any news on the family reunification visa?” New names now at home in the collective mouth: Malmö, Uppsala, Helsingborg. But you can know the weather in Stockholm and still be unable to get to your mum’s house a few miles away when the shells are falling.
Somehow the conversation gets round to a relative, Abdul Karim, who has received a court summons for building without planning permission onto a house that has since been destroyed, in an area that has been flattened by bombing. The man is now living in Jaramana with plastic sheeting for windows. Is anyone in Syria really still worrying about planning permission? Nimr’s uncle insists the story is true. The two of them are in fits of laughter.
“Every day I wake up in the morning, get out a map of the Arab nations and piss on it,” roars Abu Samer, advising his nephew to do the same.
My head is getting drowsy on Nimr’s shoulder. It is so warm and quiet here, so easy to drift off on the waves of their laughter, a world away from the dark side of the joke.