Thursday, April 04, 2013

The Smell of Clementines

The building we used to live in was built in 1936, at least I think it was. I remember that because once when we went up to the top of the building to install a satellite dish I may have seen a plaque somewhere which said that. I also remember that, at the time, I used to feel embarrassed to have lived in that building because it wasn't "new" like those that my friends lived in. Now that I think of it, I know that it was a beautiful building, even if it had seen better days. The ground floor and basement of the building were owned by a baker who later thought it would be a good idea to open a fast food shop by cutting open the front of the building. At the entrance the old stone floor that you walked in on as you pushed open the black painted wrought iron gate had a permanent stream of water winding its way across, coming from a hidden leak that nobody ever bothered to repair. In spite of that outwardly grim appearance, I have fond memories of waking up each morning to the whirr of the furnaces as they would start up, followed quickly by the smell of freshly baked pastries and manakeesh. In spite of the all the messiness and noise we were still fond of our neighbours. I guess nothing is entirely bad or entirely good and in a way that is what life is all about.

Once you traversed the little entrance with the permanent trickle of water, you went up a few steps and then from there up the main staircase to the first floor, which is where we lived. The apartment we lived in had two doors, one which led straight into a corridor towards the kitchen and another that opened straight into a large hall. I suppose whoever built the house thought it would be useful to have the side door that would lead to the kitchen for servants and what not, whilst the owners (I like to think) would entertain guests in lavish parties below the marvellous chandeliers.

As one came in to the main salon there was always a sense of space and elation, as if one was walking into a hidden palace. To this day I can't stand rooms with low ceilings and that is because I'm so used to my grandmother's house. We also had the most beautiful wallpaper, and we used to change it every few years. This was before the hard times, and times were good financially for the family. From the ceilings we would have dangling chandeliers that I would strain my neck to look at. To a young boy the whole house was laid out in a most mysterious way. It was as if somebody wanted to get the feel of an old Damascene house into a 'modern' building. The central hall was the heart, and from it there were doors that led to living rooms either side. We used the central one as a dining room, but sometimes we would swap the dining room with the salon for greeting guests. The one on the side of the street opened up to a small balcony from which we spent hours looking at the world go by, and we'd watch mesmerised as the grocers passed below with their daintily plumed horses or donkeys, honking handheld horns so people would buy their vegetables or fruit. I can still taste the metallic taste of the black railings because I rested my lips on them as I stare down in awe.

The other doors in the house led to a kitchen section, which was itself a microcosm, and to the bedrooms. Like the old Damascus houses, the rooms here were also linked by doors. If they wanted to, somebody could circumnavigate the central hall going from room to room to kitchen or to the bathroom without ever being seen by visitors. There were a million and one places a boy could explore, hide, and play his games in. I loved it. Some parts of the house frightened me, however, like the darkened corridor between the two bedrooms which also had a door into the bathroom. If I was to cross that little corridor into the bathroom, especially at night, I was terrified that something was lurking in the dark behind the door. Of course nothing ever pounced out of the darkness, and all we had was a cupboard that was filled with old shoes and slippers from aeons past. In my mind, however, it was the hiding place for all manner of horrid things, and I would always quicken my stride as I crossed it, quickly turning on the bathroom lights and waiting for what seemed an eternity before the neon lights flickered to life.

The other thing I remember distinctly about the house was that all the doors, even for the bathroom oddly enough, had thick, stained windows behind which you could vaguely make out shapes or movements. We would play games with that too, pressing our faces to the glass when we were tall enough they would look squashed and funny. I also remember that the doors had been heavily painted over the years, the detail and finishing on the wood seemingly drowned out by the grey and then caramel paint that was applied sloppily over the years. The door handles were ornate, fine, but sadly falling apart and we quickly remembered which doors closed and which didn't, not that there was ever any reason to close doors back then. Rather than dividing the house, which is no doubt what they were intended to, the doors to many rooms, especially the living rooms, had long ago been removed, leaving only useless hinges from which we might dangle a blue Eye to ward off envy and bad people.

In the winter the beautiful red, blue and white patterned tiles were covered by a variety of rugs that had their own intricate patterns, and as children we would use these as roads and boundaries for our plastic armies to fight and conquer. In one corner we had a stuffed eagle, an object of utter fascination to us boys. Sadly, years later we had to throw away (much to the delight of my grandmother) because it was falling apart and attracting insects. At the centre of the house we had the massive "sobia" - a diesel heater with a long metallic pipe held by wires that scaled the heights to the ceiling, and from there was attached to to the building's shared chimney. There was a fire that we could see through the small glass porthole at its front and we sat mesmerized as we watched its dancing and mysterious flickering. Sometimes the grownups would put chestnuts on top of the sobia as well as clementine peelings, and the house would fill with their smell as they crackled and popped from the heat. I didn't like the clementine smells when I was younger for some reason, though today the smell would not be an unpleasant one and I might enjoy it. On a table somewhere we would have our mother of pearl backgammon box, piles of magazines, strewn toys or books and a coffee table with the ever present tray of small Arabic coffee cups, some turned upside down so that our old neighbour can read fortunes when she visits later in the afternoon or evening. It was these tiny rituals that make such memories so endearing.

In the summer the house took on a different life. The balconies on both sides were always open, and a gentle draft would flow, particularly welcome in the balmy evenings. When I grew older I developed a fondness for the rear living room, with its massive balcony that formed one side for the interior of a triangle of buildings. From there you could hear the life of the world around you without ever being noticed. There was the laundry dangling, the sounds of shouting or people talking and television sets. That part of the house opened as if to another world, and it was something like those Brooklyn neighbourhoods you'd see in the films. Many years later, when I watched "A Street Car Named Desire" for the first time, I felt as if I had been transported straight back to that old living room and into that heaving urban proximity with other human beings. It's funny how little things like that can trigger your memory for the strangest things. On lazy afternoons, I used to sit in that room and lose myself in countless books and stories. It was the furthest I could get from the noise of the television, and the brightest room in the house for the longest part of the day; at night we didn't like to turn the lights on because that attracted mosquitoes.

In spite of my fondness for reading, the most fascinating part of the house were the kitchen and pantry. The kitchen was tiny, and above it we could climb a rickety ladder to get to a store room, though the only person brave enough to attempt it was my late grandmother. It was dominated by an American fridge that had once seemed cavernous to me. The pantry was a mysterious hidden place that I would go to play in sometimes. It had nooks and crannies, cupboards with jars filled with all sorts of mysterious things, especially the jams my grandmother was so good at, and - most importantly, it was still bright enough not to be scary. For a six or seven year old, it was the perfect secret lair.

My least favourite part of the house was the small toilet situated by the side door to the apartment, the one that led to the kitchen. For one thing it was the darkest place in the house, and secondly it had the beastliest of all human inventions, the Asian style toilet - basically a hole in the floor. I was mortified with the idea of trying to use it, as well as having a perfectly justified concern of falling into it. I never did, thankfully, but I have an aversion to these toilets to this day because of it.

In a strange way this horrid little toilet was the final twist that summed up all the beauty of Damascus, a city that seemed like a mirage between East and West - and a home that had features from both. Years later the nostalgia for this old building would hit me hard as I saw its sisters in Paris, old, stoney and just as noble though better taken care of.

Sadly the neighbourhood got noisier, dirtier and increasingly crowded. The building itself fell into a state of disrepair and the house was in need of work that we just couldn't afford to carry out. Then the owners wanted to raise the rent so we had to move out. I went back there one last time in Ramadan and I remember feeling annoyed that we hadn't moved yet so I could be in the new, quieter, apartment. My mother told me that the move was delayed just long enough so that we can all spend one last time together in that place we called home, and I'm thankful to her now that we did because so much has changed since then, for all of our family. That Ramadan the house was emptier as most of our belongings had slowly been moved out. I felt melancholy at seeing the rooms so lifeless and empty for the first time. But by then even the neighbourhood had changed, and people we had shared decades of life with had all moved out as prices went up or life became too messy. I knew it was time our time to go now.

The house remained empty for many years, and sometimes we would pass by the old street and see the balcony doors hanging open but with only darkness inside. The sight of it broke my heart but the owners had wanted to sell it after almost forty years. Though we tried to convince them to sell it at a lower price, or to keep leasing it to us, it was all to no use. As it turned out a buyer never came, and I heard recently that a family escaping the fighting in other parts of the country has now moved in. The thought that this magical home is now solace for another family, that it is no longer empty, makes me feel glad. I guess sometimes homes need families too and not just the other way around.

Strangely enough when I dream of Damascus - which is often - I am always in or near this house in particular. I arrive to the old hara - which is just the way it was in the old days - and slowly open the door. Inside, the house is bright and furnished as if we had never left, and my late grandmother is watching her soap operas on the television from the balcony. When I wake up from those dreams I feel as if I was actually there, and my heart feels heavy with loss. It is as if somewhere, deep inside me, I carry that home wherever I go. At this very moment I can remember every detail as though it were in front of me, as if the house has soaked itself into my being. I know now that, however far I am, and however dark the days might be or cold the nights, I need only look inwards and I'll find myself in our warm old living room, watching the flames in our sobia and with the sweet smell of burnt clementine peels in the air, all as it once was, and all as if I had never left...


Rime said...

Beautiful writing! You made another Damascene very emotional.

Anonymous said...

once i was in my grandparents house, and i noticed nails in the marble floors. it did not make an sense for me i could not think of what would be the story behind this. when i asked my grandmother explained to that when the English came here, they took this house and through us in the basement, and these nails are from the bar they build in the living room where i am standing.
I felt like i belong to something real. history is not words in books. we live it everyday

Rabi Tawil (AKA Abu Kareem) said...

Nicely done. I can smell the castana roasting on the sobia!

Rabi Tawil

um albanat said...

Very nice it reminded me of my childhood

um albanat said...

It reminded me of my childhood , sobia , high ceiling rooms , colored tiles, carpets ....