Old Photos

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Up late alone, I find myself looking through old photos on Facebook, the mouse unwinding the years as I scroll down the page.

How young I looked at 21! All eyeliner and plaited pigtails and cheap plastic earrings; baggy dungarees and a glass of wine, that ridiculous floor-length floral dress and the children’s guitar I bought in Souq Hamadiyeh. How deliciously naive I was, throwing myself into this new life, asking so many questions and not asking questions at all.

Syria was an adventure for us study year abroad students, shining with an excitement so bright that it blanked out other things: the lack of choices our new friends had, the steel fist of dictatorship under the kitch ‘I heart Bashar’ mugs and presidential bumper stickers that we stuck ironically onto our laptops. The torture chambers that never crossed our paths or minds.

I plunged head first into new friendships, a new language, and eventually marriage, for a visa and out of love, unwittingly forging the shape of the rest of my life. Nothing was determined and no door would close behind us; we could always go back, back, back…

And I remember the drive to the airport, when you finally got your UK visa,  watching school children out of the car window as you prepared to take a plane for the first time. You would later say you had a feeling that you would never see those streets again, that the familiar shops and signs and faces were rolling past for the last time. But who can say what we really felt that day, before you were an immigrant, before Syria became a byword for war.

If I could go back I would ask everyone everything, and cling like a child to their every word. I would look so carefully, listen so hard.

But if that’s how I feel, looking at these old photos at 1am, then that’s what I should do now, here, in this life. Because these days are precious too, and every moment that passes is one we can’t return to.

 

Remembering, or not

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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.

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.

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.