Sunday, July 13, 2014

I Remember...

My mind wanders back to the old days sometimes. I don't want it to but it happens. Faces, names, places, things that happened. The images rush into my mind without any specific order. The way the light shines off a surface, a sound in a tunnel, the musty smell of old stone. All turn my mind back to an older time, a simpler time. At one point I caught myself seeing the places in the news as just that, abstract places. I almost forgot, just for an instant, that I lived there. That the streets were alive with our laughter and sighs. The forgotten rendezvous points on a corner in Shaalan street, or old man Shehadeh's grocery store. Before the revolution his picture was already fading in the sunlight as it hung above his son sitting at the cashier's desk but I remember how he would sit on his chair outside the shop, dosing in the sunlight with his hands clasped together just under his belly. I also remember Station 1 and Station 2, and that pizza festooned with olives and peppers. People don't remember that there was a Station 2, but there was. I remember the high counter that I couldn't see beyond. I remember my half-uncle standing there, leaning his elbow on the top of that counter waiting for our order. He was a handsome young man and he used to show off his muscles to us. I was named after him.

I remember the old Moka store with its rows of beautiful cakes and ice creams and tarts in their amazing colours. There was a clothes store opposite it called Hindam, it was one of the finest clothes stores in Damascus at one point. Then there is the landmark supermarket, Nora. It used to be one of my favourite places, I would go there to buy a new Tintin comic, or to buy a Lego or Playmobil play-set. For a supermarket they had everything. I would hide behind my aunt as the old owner, a kindly old man with a snowy white moustache, rest his soul, would ask me about my mother and grandmother and ask me to say hello.

Opposite from our building today there is a marble coated monstrosity of a building that took over ten years to complete. Before it there had been a one story old bungalow. It was for a family we knew, their son was a friend of my father and he died when he accidentally touched a live electric wire that had fallen into a puddle on their roof. I never met him but I heard the story and it fascinated me. That there was a young man who used to live in that house a long time before I did and that he was no more.

Opposite that house, before it moved to the next street, was a stationary store whose owner would always call me Dada. As in, "how are you Dada? That'll be five liras Dada". A gentle man with gentle eyes. He managed to save up enough money and buy a bigger store but he remembered us. We used to buy all our things for school from him and then his son took over and started to help with the store.

And what can I say of Johnny Salem, one of the best video rental stores in Shaalan. The old crooner used to be a wedding singer and he would sometimes break out in song, Italian or French, whilst I browsed for yet another movie to watch. I was about fourteen when his brother died and I paid him my respects when I heard. His eyes were red-rimmed as he sat behind the counter wearing a brown shirt. He had a big nose. He thanked me and smiled. I must have seen every film in his library. In 2011 I saw a video on Youtube where unarmed protesters were beaten up by Assad's thugs. A girl was being dragged off screaming. The shuttered front of his shop appeared briefly near the end of the video and I felt a lump rise in my throat.

I also remember when the shopkeepers in our street first got together to hang brightly coloured lights in the shapes of flowers across the street. It must have been around 1991 or '92, after the big snow. Before then the streets outside the Shaalan used to be very residential. You used to be able to walk on the pavements and there were windows open for people who lived in the basements. You could look inside and see an old guy in his vest watching TV. The streets weren't that filthy yet and the odd car would still park on the street where cars are supposed to.

In the middle of our street somebody had parked a tan and yellow VW camper van for what seemed since the dawn of time. It had never moved and to my knowledge I've never seen it driven. It disappeared one day, when nobody was looking, and nobody thought anything more of it.

Then there was the old widower who had a parrot on his first floor balcony. The green parrot would always whistle and sing early each morning, and he'd bring it in when the noon sun started to get too hot. Once, I think, I recall being allowed to go visit him and see the parrot. It was so long ago that I can't be sure it even happened, but I remember vaguely seeing that tiny balcony with the green wooden shutters from the inside, and seeing our own balcony from it. I saw the parrot and waved back at my grandmother from there.

Other memories flash past. My other grandparents lived at the other end of the street. They had a long flight of steps that was exhausting to climb up. When we got to the top the light from the sky-light would shine down and we would see different plants in tin pots on the steps. People used those more than clay pots because they were cheaper. We would go into my grandparent's house and then look back at our other grandmother's balcony, tiny in the distance. We would wave at them and marvel at how high up this balcony was, and how small everybody on the street seemed. In the kitchen there was a wooden clown hanging on the wall, you pulled a string and his arms and legs jiggled up and down in a bizarre dance. I've never liked clowns much and he looked a bit creepy. But my absolute favourite was the grandfather clock. It would tick-tock and I enjoyed hearing it chime away each hour. Coming to that house and ordering pizza from Station 2 - the small one that's now closed - was always a treat.

Finally there was the exquisite Zenbarakji - in my opinion the finest sweet shop in all of Damascus if not Syria. I remember what it used to be like before the brothers expanded the store. One of them had strange red marks all over his face and he frightened me, but I knew he was the nicest. The other brother was bookish, with a tidy moustache and gold rimmed glasses. I remember the mirrors, mirros facing mirrors and mirrors on the ceiling. They fascinated me. They had tubs and tubs of different sweets wrapped in shiny paper, turkish delight in dozens of varieties, boxes of chocolates, gold or silver plated trinkets with little bags of sugar coated almonds, boxes of pistachio mabroumeh, baklawah and a hundred different types of tasty desserts, ready to be boxed up and stringed so that we can take them home or give as a gift to somebody we were visiting. They also sold freshly ground coffee and that smell, mixed with the flavour of cardamom, are what remind me of Syria the most wherever I am.

I'm sitting alone now in an empty house thousands of miles and a lifetime away from all of that. Many of the people I've just written about are now dead and a lot of the shops have closed. They were the small people, little, with little worries. People who just wanted to get by and see their children grow up and become doctors and lawyers and successful and happy. They had feuds and quarrels, but deep down they still loved one another. Somebody told me that's all dead. That those sights and sounds and smells are no more. But if that were true why do they still rush at at me when I least expect it? Why won't my heart believe what they say?

The next time you see Syria on the news be gentle and think a little of these places and these people who are long dead. That's not just any place, it was my home.

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