Glasgow

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…
Open.
The ones with jobs
Stride high-heeled
Back to them
Open.
The ones without
Hold cardboard signs
Saying “help”
And a woman in a pink hijab
Tilts her phone
To show the pigeons to a mum
Who will never come
To Glasgow
And everyone
Is passing everyone
Everything
Is passing everything
Seeing
And not seeing
Smiling
And not smiling
Saying
And not saying
That your language blossoms
In my mouth too
Your language blossoms
In my mouth too
Arabic
On the streets of Glasgow

 

 

Palestinian Humour

WeatherIt’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.

Adam

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Photo: Getty

What do you want?

“The antidote, and for this to stop” says the man on the radio.

“If we had enough antidote we wouldn’t have to send patients to Turkey for treatment.

“It is a long way and they might die before they get there,” says the doctor, who probably imagined setting bones and a stable paycheck when he did his medical training, not telling gasping victims of Sarin they’d run out of medicine, and worrying that his family might be next.

My baby girl flicks her tongue in and out of her mouth and laughs in her high chair, milk dribbling down her chin. She opens her mouth like a starling for each spoonful; chomps messily and vigorously with the joyful unselfconscious-ness of being one.

Yesterday another mother made breakfast for another child, a beautiful boy with coral cheeks and thick black hair. She urged him to finish his plate, then go and wash his hands and play with his brother, and now he is gulping for air and my little girl is dancing to the sound of the sirens that are coming for him.

On my iPad on the kitchen worktop, men desperately hosing down stiffening bodies, people trying to rip off infected clothes but it’s too late, limbs have stopped responding to brain. Seventy two dead so far, twenty children, Assad says they bombed an opposition chemical weapons depot, everyone else say it’s the regime’s Sarin, deliberately applied.

I nearly cried when Mariam had her vaccinations yesterday. Clamping down her limbs as metal sliced into soft legs, I watched her scream in pain and disbelief, tears pooling beneath her grey-brown eyes. Then the calm as her sobs subsided in my arms, the rush of relief as she started singing again on our sunlit way home. Who would have known every inch of her would be so precious? Every second, every sound, every wisp of hair. Every child to every mother.

I wonder what the boy did yesterday, the one who is dying on my iPad and doesn’t have a name?

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.