Monday, November 03, 2014

By Air Mail "Par Avion"

I can't remember the last time my family sat down at the dinner table all together. Even before the revolution it was as if some invisible force was conspiring to send us on divergent paths. The long days when nothing seemed to happen, when we kept seeing each other every day and took each other for granted, when we had the luxury of arguing with each other over things that don't even matter anymore. Those days appear to have vanished in a puff of smoke. Can you honestly even remember what the arguments were for? What it was that had annoyed us all so much that we would walk off muttering under our breath?

When I remember Damascus I remember the hot sun beating down on us, glinting from the chrome of a dozen parked cars we would walk by. The outside world was somewhere that swallowed people whole. I'd hear stories of relatives who travelled abroad and never came back, who had settled and forgotten. Others returned, and when they did they had lovely things with them, and they spoke of a wondrous world with clean streets and markets where you could buy anything you want. And my friends and I would sigh and think of that big wide world, with its marvels, and wonder when we would ever be able to go out there and make our mark. In Syria nothing ever happened. The days merged, one after the other. We would lie down on our pillows at the end of the day, stripped to undershorts because it is so hot, and listen to the curtains as they slid and rustled in a stray night breeze. The sound of a distant television from the neighbours or the music of a car as it drove past our building, crystal clear for a moment before the night swallowed it again. The days moved on, jokes were made, arguments had, groceries bought, television watched, and visits made. But nothing changed.

I wonder sometimes if any of it was ever real. What would I tell younger Syrians who have never lived there, who had never experienced that timeless state of existence? Perhaps I can tell them it was a waste of time, that we were living a lie because we lived under a tyranny. But that would be a lie. The dictatorship had nothing to do with that magical world we inhabited, where we carried on our small lives and the news was something we watched on television, not lived. That magic came from somewhere else, from family and friends and neighbours, from sharing both the good and bad times, of standing with each other when somebody passed, and asking about one another and about how we were doing. I would tell younger Syrians that our home had a morning and evening rota of guests who would pop in for a quick coffee.

N would come visit us on her afternoon break from work in a nearby office, she was a lovely soft-spoken woman with short cropped hair and the gentlest gaze that I can remember to this day. She would sit and talk to my grandmother and aunt about life and diets and things they had seen on the television. After that we would have M, who would hobble up the steps and then set her massive body down in the middle of our large sofa, taking it over. You could hear her voice from the other end of the street. The other N would also visit us, usually in the evening. She had a laugh like a cackle and whenever she was over we would all laugh a lot. Then there was L, she lived with her brother on the same street, in the building next to us. Her thing was reading the coffee cup. After drinking the bitter black coffee the cups would be overturned on the saucers and left to dry for a few minutes. Then each person would bring her their coffee cup and she would start reading it for them. I was always fascinated by what she claimed to see in them, and whenever I looked I saw a strange patchwork of shapes and patterns left by the dried coffee deposit at the bottom of the cups. At the end she would ask the owner of the cup to stick their thumb in the bottom and suck the coffee off it. That was like "sealing the deal" for this bizarre ritual.

And that was how news of the world reached us, from people who always visited. The door was always open, the coffee was always on the stove, and conversation welcomed. Even the arrival of satellite television didn't change this social aspect. We were always in contact with each other, always talking to each other and exchanging stories and news. That was real, it happened. Those people existed even if we are now scattered to the four corners of the earth. But as I said earlier there was always this invisible force that was sending us on different paths. It started with relations and distant relatives, then uncles, aunts, cousins, and soon ourselves. That last sleepless night before the ride to the airport that we all get. All of a sudden the bravado and excitement of seeing the world isn't as appealing as it was in the daylight. You realise that you are leaving - all this...and it was valuable, it had meaning to us. These dilapidated houses and crowded streets, you realised that you are going to miss them. Then the final goodbye at the airport. Everybody is standing there, you kiss them all, hug them, say you will call. They ask that Allah protect you and guide you. Then it's time to go. You turn around and head for that big door, that invisible line beyond which you can't return from. But you turn back and look, and wave. You keep doing this, walking a bit, looking back. You want to see if they are still there, waiting for you to disappear. They are smiling, and you'd do anything to be standing with them there.

And that's how you remember them, that last glance. Even if nowadays it's a lot easier to speak on Skype and email and Viber. In the old days you had to buy a phone card and call using special phone  numbers, earlier still you had to go to phone centres and buy minutes to call abroad. Or you wrote letters and sent them in those light blue "Par Avion" envelopes with the dark blue and red outlines. And slowly you get used to that life abroad. You make new friends, settle. You visit, but it's not the same. The people waiting at the airport aren't exactly the same as the ones who said goodbye to you. People have moved on without you, and with each visit one less person is there, sometimes replaced by a new person, sometimes not. You get bad news on the phone, one other person you never imagined life without has now vanished. And eventually you realise that nobody you know is left. If you go back now it is a city of strangers. Different people now walk the streets of your memories, and it is you who is the stranger.


Unknown said...

I have no hesitation in reading your updates when they appear in my inbox. Both the content and your writing style are a sheer pleasure to read - if your vocation isn't in writing then it really should be.

The volunteer story is a beauty too; being able to share those experiences that you now understand so much more. I hope those kids manage to find and open the portal they belong to.

Unknown said...

A delightful read from start to finish, and looking forward to much more.