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.