From Damascus to Birmingham, a Selected Glossary

14 May, 2021

“Refugee Camp” by Syr­i­an artist Besh­er Kousha­ji, 2012, acrylic on can­vas (all art­work cour­tesy of the artist).

Frances Zaid

 

موعد (Maw‘id) — Date

The first text mes­sage I ever received in Ara­bic was you ask­ing me out on a date. We’d met the night before at one of Mazen’s week­ly par­ties in Yarmouk Pales­tin­ian refugee camp, the bustling square mile of tall cement build­ings you called home. You came to sit on the emp­ty chair next to me and said noth­ing, and I was struck by your strong but gen­tle pres­ence, all sharp cheek­bones and messy black curls, and I would­n’t leave you alone. 

I was watch­ing a Syr­i­an soap opera with friends from my Lon­don uni­ver­si­ty when my phone beeped the next day. It was 2009 and we were Ara­bic stu­dents on our study year abroad — attempt­ing to under­stand the high dra­ma and heart­breaks of the Syr­i­an musal­sal was part of our home­work. In my mem­o­ry, we pause the TV and togeth­er pore over my phone to work out what you are proposing. 

Your invi­ta­tion was to Sidori, the bar where you had once had a job in the pic­turesque, ram­shackle old city of Dam­as­cus. The mythol­o­gy of our rela­tion­ship has it that we talked for sev­en hours, me draw­ing the words I did­n’t know in Ara­bic for you in my note­book. The bar emp­tied and the bar­man, your friend, fell asleep, and you put Pink Floyd on the stereo and went behind the bar your­self when­ev­er our glass­es need­ed more beer.

الحنين (Al-Haneen) — Nostalgia

I wish I could write about Syr­ia with­out nos­tal­gia. Our days were as dulled with bore­dom and mun­dane dis­trac­tions as the day in which you are read­ing this.

Nos­tal­gia makes it seem like the war was always going to happen.

طيارة (Tay­yara) — Aeroplane

The plane that took you from Dam­as­cus to Lon­don was the first you’d ever been on. It was Novem­ber 2010, and, a year after our rau­cous wed­ding in Yarmouk, you final­ly had your British visa. 

You drank a glass of wine at ten in the morn­ing and took pho­tos of the clouds with our sil­ver, pre-smart­phone dig­i­tal camera. 

It’s good to be in the sky after 25 years just look­ing at it, you said.

“The Wall” by Besh­er Kousha­ji, 2014, acrylic on canvas.

كنباي (Can­abay) — Sofa 

Your fam­i­ly liv­ing room in Yarmouk had two sofas and three chairs, all in match­ing blue flo­ral uphol­stery with wood­en scrolls curled at the front of the arm­rests. The seats host­ed aun­ties, uncles and neigh­bors on a dai­ly basis, on whom your mum would press indi­vid­ual plates of fruit and small glass cups of sweet, steam­ing tea. 

In 2009 and 2010 I spent many hours on those sofas, try­ing to fol­low con­ver­sa­tions between assem­bled rel­a­tives about pol­i­tics or home decor, or grin­ning shy­ly at gath­er­ings of your mum’s friends.

Mem­o­ries from that flat: Your dad play­ing Soli­taire on the big white PC in the liv­ing room. Your youngest sis­ter Hanan per­form­ing her rap com­po­si­tions, note­book in hand. 13-year-old Shams writ­ing the names of her sib­lings on their bed­room wall, how pleased I was that she’d includ­ed mine. 

Your fam­i­ly fled Yarmouk in 2012 fol­low­ing an airstrike, after which the camp was occu­pied by oppo­si­tion fight­ers, and put under gov­ern­ment siege. In Novem­ber 2018, six years since they had last seen their home, your dad post­ed a video to the fam­i­ly What­saApp group. He’d been back to the flat.

Fol­low­ing a block­ade that had killed around 200 peo­ple, many from star­va­tion, the Syr­i­an author­i­ties were let­ting some peo­ple return to Yarmouk to see their homes. The streets were unrec­og­niz­able to the point where your dad, who had lived there all his life, could bare­ly find your build­ing. What had once been home now looked like a stock image of mod­ern war, shells hav­ing ripped the fronts off hous­es, reduced oth­ers to rubble.

Your flat had got off rel­a­tive­ly light­ly — “just” a cou­ple of holes through a kitchen and bed­room wall. But most of the fur­ni­ture had been tak­en, and every­thing else was strewn wild­ly across the floor (except for your mum and dad’s clothes, which still hung, implau­si­bly, in their bed­room wardrobe). Even the toi­lets and elec­tric­i­ty cables had been ripped out and removed, a final face-kick to any­one who might think of return. 

Chil­dren of the Nak­ba gen­er­a­tion that was forced to leave Pales­tine in 1948, your par­ents had built their home in Syr­ia from noth­ing, a place that was theirs in a coun­try that was­n’t. Every brick had been an effort, and rep­re­sent­ed a small vic­to­ry over era­sure. These walls were what they had.



“Unti­tled”, Besh­er Kousha­ji, 2013, acrylic on canvas.

 “Ma fi shi,” it’s noth­ing, your dad incant­ed over and over as he moved through the ran­sacked flat, nam­ing the rooms: liv­ing room, bed­room, kitchen. 

Lat­er, men from the army came to take the wash­ing machine and fridge, and a neigh­bor sent a pho­to that made me cry: your fam­i­ly sofa on the back of a sol­dier’s motor­bike.
 

حمّام (Ham­mam) — Bathroom

  1. I always loved, in the camp, how your mum would turn the hot water on and we’d all have a show­er one after the oth­er, and each sweet-smelling, tow­el-wrapped fig­ure to emerge from the bath­room would be greet­ed with a col­lec­tive “na’ee­man,” which you always trans­late as “heav­en­ly” and is what you say in Ara­bic when some­one has under­tak­en the renew­ing rit­u­al of becom­ing clean.

  2. 6 June, 2012, Whitechapel, Lon­don: You sprang out of the bath when you heard a noise —you’ve been fol­low­ing Syr­i­a’s bombs and bul­lets so close­ly you’ve for­got­ten you aren’t actu­al­ly there. The bang turned out to be my hair­brush falling from the side of the bath onto the floor.
     

عيلة (‘Aileh) — Family

Once, when I was home­sick dur­ing my year in Dam­as­cus, you went out and bought me my favourite foul medammas beans with hot gar­licky yoghurt, a banana milk­shake and some hair­bands with big plas­tic straw­ber­ries on them, and promised to do impres­sions of the fam­i­ly mem­bers I missed when­ev­er I felt sad. 

Today, in the midst of all your oth­er loss­es, I some­times for­get you haven’t seen your mum or dad for near­ly nine years.
 

عيد الميلاد (Eid al-Milad) — Christmas

My fam­i­ly has a tra­di­tion that each fes­tive sea­son, we dress up as some­thing begin­ning with a giv­en let­ter from the word ‘Christ­mas’, spelling it out as the years go by. It start­ed the win­ter we found out Has­san had been killed, and we did­n’t feel like dress­ing up, so we just wore red jumpers and stood side by side with our arms out, say­ing we were C for the Cen­tral Line.
 

درس (Dars) — Les­son
 
Accord­ing to an old note­book from my year in Syr­ia, on 9 May 2009 I decid­ed it was impor­tant to teach you the following: 

1. Almaza [Lebanese beer] makes me piss a lot
I’m going for a piss

2. I am pissed off (with…)
He pissed me off

3 Are you tak­ing the piss (out of me)? 

4. I got real­ly pissed last night 

5. Piss off!



“Unti­tled”, Besh­er Kousha­ji, 2013, acrylic on canvas.

(In brack­ets are uses I pre­sum­ably con­sid­ered less vital for sur­vival in the UK: long thin streak of piss, piss-poor, piss-easy/­piece of piss)

مطرقة (Matra’a) — Ham­mer 

A Jamaican man, a Pales­tin­ian man and a British-Pak­istani man were work­ing on a roof in North London. 

Some­times, when the Pales­tin­ian man was down on the street and did­n’t know the Eng­lish name of the tool being request­ed from the roof, the Jamaican man and the British-Pak­istani man would get out a big piece of card and draw it for him.

You have seen sides of Eng­land I will nev­er see, like how you say “yes bro” to the 15-year-old dri­ving a flashy car down Beth­nal Green Road, and I say “who was that?!

شهيد (Sha­heed) — Mar­tyr
 
I was at the office of the migrant sup­port cen­ter where I worked when I found out Has­san was dead. I had logged onto Face­book to post some­thing to the cen­ter’s page, and the pho­to of him star­ing back from my feed could only mean one thing. 

It was Decem­ber 2013, and your old friend had been miss­ing for months after being tak­en at a check­point while try­ing to escape besieged Yarmouk. We learned he had been tak­en to a regime prison and killed under torture. 

Has­san was an actor and film­mak­er who was doc­u­ment­ing with his cam­era the hor­rors unfold­ing around him, as well as send­ing them up in a series of fear­less com­e­dy sketches.

Soon, pho­tos of him would be over­laid with the word sha­heed, mar­tyr; even the fun­ny ones, like the one where he’s lean­ing on a tall stick in mock seri­ous­ness, one eye­brow raised to the cam­era, dur­ing a trip to the coun­try­side with you and the lads.

I regret that this sto­ry is the only time I ever say Has­san’s name.

When I first met him, while walk­ing with you through the noisy streets of Yarmouk, he intro­duced him­self, laugh­ing, as “the Al Paci­no of the camp.”

أخبار  (Akhbar) — News
 
You sit on the sofa with your left foot rest­ing on your right knee, the reflec­tion of our net cur­tains slid­ing across the screen of your phone as you scroll through the news. 

If I ask you what’s hap­pen­ing in the world, you will say only “nafs al khara,” same old shit. 

You have tried to keep me sep­a­rate from the dark­ness beneath the sur­face, and I have let you, prob­a­bly too much.

سترة نجاة (Sutrat Najaat) — Life Jack­et
 
A blue dot nudged its slow way across three cen­time­ters of tough­ened glass. It was Novem­ber 2015 and we were up late in our East Lon­don flat, wit­ness­ing an event we had been antic­i­pat­ing for months: your broth­er and two youngest sis­ters cross­ing the Aegean Sea in a rub­ber dinghy. They hoped to make it from the Turk­ish coastal town of Didim to the tiny, unin­hab­it­ed Greek island of Far­makon­isi, from where they would trav­el to main­land Greece and then north­wards through Europe to start new lives in Swe­den, two thou­sand miles from the par­ents they had left behind in Damascus. 

Tucked under the cov­ers, we stared at the map on your phone, hold­ing our breath as the spot your sib­lings occu­pied on the earth­’s sur­face inched fur­ther and fur­ther away from dry land. Their new friend Bilal had made a What­sApp group for the wor­ried fam­i­lies of his fel­low pas­sen­gers, and sent us reas­sur­ing com­mu­niques as the boat sliced through the water: “The sea is calm, the dri­ver’s as good as they come!”

Your sib­lings were not calm. This was the moment — more than when they ran across the Syr­i­an-Turk­ish bor­der, phone num­bers and bank notes stuffed inside their shoes; even more, per­haps, than when shells had lev­eled near­by build­ings or explod­ed the ground they’d just been stand­ing on — when dying was a clear and unde­ni­able pos­si­bil­i­ty. We were right there in death’s open mouth, your broth­er Wa’el would lat­er say of being in the sea. The lives of friends and neigh­bors had end­ed here, in ter­ror, water on every horizon. 

The girls, Shams and Hanan, had slept the night before they left, but Wa’el had not. He was won­der­ing what con­fig­u­ra­tion of his arms and legs might keep both his sis­ters’ bod­ies above water, should the dinghy tear and sink. He was think­ing about the words of the man who had sold them their life jack­ets: “These ones are great, they can keep you afloat in the sea for twelve hours!”

Yet at the same time, the first touch of the cold, salty water brought a strange kind of peace. With its object up close, the fear lost its sharp edges: what­ev­er hap­pened, when they stepped onto that boat, this chap­ter would be over. The smug­gler ordered them to sit still, so they did­n’t move, and Shams began to pray and pray and pray.

Miles away in Eng­land, my granny and her broth­er, my great uncle, also prayed. They had nev­er met Wa’el, Shams or Hanan, but reg­u­lar­ly asked for updates on their jour­ney out of Syr­ia, which they shared with friends who were also pray­ing for the group’s safe arrival. 

It was only after meet­ing you that I real­ized that, hav­ing grown up in 1930s Britain, my grand­par­ents and their gen­er­a­tion are also sur­vivors of war. They know what it means to be sep­a­rat­ed from fam­i­ly, how it feels to hide under the stairs as planes emp­ty their met­al bel­lies over­head. I was grate­ful they were with us as your sib­lings braved the face­less sea, and glad some of us still believed in God.

When the blue dot touched Far­makon­isi’s east­ern edge, we dared to breath out. White flames flick­ered on the shore, bon­fires lit by those who had already made the cross­ing — men and women who cheered and shout­ed “WELCOME! WELCOME!” as the dinghy approached, run­ning out in their dozens to help. For your broth­er and sis­ters and every­one on that boat, this arrival would mark the dawn of as yet unfore­seen bat­tles, the birth of new loss­es. But at that moment, on a tiny Greek island and in our bed­room in Beth­nal Green, it felt like the end of something.

ضايج (Dayej) — Angry 

An incom­plete list of things we have hurled or punched in a rage over the past ten years:

·      Lap­top – you

·      Met­al ped­al bin — you

·      High­chair (emp­ty) — you

·      Sky blue cere­al bowl — me. I remem­ber look­ing at it in the split sec­ond before­hand to judge whether or not our land­la­dy would miss it, and decid­ing it was replace­able before smash­ing it onto the din­ing table.

بِنتنا (Bint­na) — Daughter

Some­where between the urge to speak and hav­ing some­thing to say lives our daugh­ter Maha. She is three, the age when words do a final dance before resign­ing them­selves to con­ven­tion; when the end of the sen­tence some­times for­gets what the start is doing: 

My nose is hurt­ing because you’re talk­ing so much!

BYE! I’ve just got a few more min­utes on here and then I’ve got money.

This is a big house called of bricks.

Where’s no? Is no in the cup­board? No.

BYE! I’ve got so much plas­ters today.

I like doing a douche when I’m small­er, out the world.

She is a bell, con­stant­ly pulling us back to the present.

الله (Allah) — God 

28 April, 2018, Tulse Hill, London

maybe sec­ond time in my life
I see you cry
sit­ting at the win­dow with
your blue­tooth speak­er
on the kitchen table
deliv­er­ing to our qui­et
Sun­day evening liv­ing room
the voice of a guy
you know in Yarmouk
a young man
still there,
as the bombs shake the earth
and his friend has record­ed the call
and you can hear the world
explod­ing as he speaks
in that Ara­bic way
where your words are
the oppo­site
of what your voice is
say­ing
thank God, we’re fine
thank God
thank God
God is great
God is great
God is great
until the words can’t
hold him up any longer
and he’s sob­bing
God is great
God is great
God is great 

 نوم (Nowm) — Sleep

I can sleep and you can’t. Some­times I think this is the fun­da­men­tal dif­fer­ence between us. 



“Unti­tled”, Besh­er Kousha­ji, 2020, acrylic on canvas.

صور (Suwwar) — Pho­tos 

25 July, 2017, Camp­en, Holland

On a silent bal­cony at mid­night we sit with an old friend, and dive through a lap­top screen into the past:

Two broth­ers and a sis­ter under rare Dam­as­cus snow. Back­flips into a sun-bleached swim­ming pool in the camp. Sweat-drenched wed­dings and arak-drenched evenings. Look how young we were, look how young we were…

All of the guys in this pic­ture are dead. Young men, briefly paus­ing their lives for a pho­to they will soon for­get. Hold­ing each oth­er’s shoul­ders in that unself­con­scious way Arab men do, nev­er expect­ing to be more than a touch away.
 

ولادة (Wila­da) — Birth

 
I let it wash over my back, hips and bel­ly like a wave,
breathed  

I can smell the flow­ers
I can see the sky 

I hugged the wall
in pain
put my cheek
to the cool, white paint 

Snow over every­thing
Sun on the hori­zon

Then the relief of warm water
and the irre­sistible, unbear­able urge
to turn myself inside out 

*
The lights came back on

and in my arms
our son

(After­wards, on the sofa, you forked egg and spinach into my mouth as I fed Sa’eed, and I was a husk, awash with relief, and there was plea­sure in every lit­tle thing).

ضحك (Dohk) — Laugh­ter
 

6 July, 2012, Kil­burn, Lon­don: Spent the evening drink­ing wine and smok­ing and dis­cussing the fate of the poor ston­ers in Syr­ia who can’t get any weed now no-one’s buy­ing it in from Lebanon. We decid­ed to form an inter­na­tion­al human­i­tar­i­an orga­ni­za­tion, like Médecins Sans Fron­tières, to get hash into the trou­bled areas, by air drop if necessary. 

20 August, 2018, Upp­sala, Swe­den: Wa’el described the humil­i­a­tion of wait­ing in line for blan­kets in Dam­as­cus while one of the dis­trib­u­tors filmed them on his phone. But there were fun­ny moments too, like cousin Ahmed ask­ing him what col­or blan­ket he’d like, then fold­ing it up with painstak­ing pre­ci­sion while the wait­ing crowd shout­ed at their backs.
 

السويد (Al Sweyd) —Swe­den

Swe­den is the near­est we get to going back. Your three sis­ters, broth­er, nieces and nephew live there among a large com­mu­ni­ty of peo­ple from Yarmouk, and it’s the place where we eat bit­ter Mid­dle East­ern olives and rose­wa­ter-scent­ed kanafeh, speak Ara­bic and feel clos­est to “there.”  

Every time we vis­it Hels­ing­borg or Upp­sala, the real­i­ty of the war knocks the breath out of me. It’s a top­ic of every­day con­ver­sa­tion, talk of tor­ture and drown­ing and bul­let wounds all mixed in with the olive oil and cig­a­rette smoke and dis­cus­sions of what we’re hav­ing for din­ner. An old neigh­bor is men­tioned and some­one says “he’s dead, right?” and you don’t even have to look up from your phone.

I remem­ber once see­ing a clip of a woman who’d just learned her friend, Amer­i­can activist Rachel Cor­rie, had been crushed to death by an Israeli tank. The wom­an’s scream was so ear-split­ting­ly, unbear­ably raw that you felt a bit of her flesh had just been stripped away. 

I guess once you’ve lived through long years of war, the wound has been re-opened so many times that the pain no longer shocks, but lies puls­ing and deep, buried behind stoned or sleep-deprived eyes.
 

بيت (Bayt) — House, or home

 
I don’t know if it’s enter­ing my thir­ties, or hav­ing kids, but I’ve final­ly real­ized that the world is beau­ti­ful. Sun­light at dusk, branch­es in slow motion, the plas­tic slap­ping sound of a foun­tain. It is as if a lay­er has been stripped away, and there are trees where once there had been only houses.

I used to think it was indul­gent to enjoy nice things, in a world of so much pain. You could call it mid­dle class guilt. You have helped me learn to enjoy the present. To cher­ish what we have, even if we don’t deserve it any more than those who are without. 

We recent­ly moved back to Birm­ing­ham, my home­town, and we have a gar­den for the first time. It’s already alive with new things you have plant­ed: young shoots of pars­ley and spinach push­ing through the earth, hang­ing bas­kets explod­ing with indi­go and ochre. 

Unlike me you have always had green fin­gers, nur­tur­ing a grow­ing col­lec­tion of house­plants as we moved through end­less flats in Lon­don, and now you’re in your ele­ment, your leafy friends com­ing sec­ond only to your chil­dren. You often arrive home bear­ing new pot­ted plants or pack­ets of seeds, and the progress of your ros­es is the top­ic of dai­ly discussion. 

You’re in the gar­den right now, steady­ing a water­ing can with Maha, invit­ing her to touch the clus­ters of small, shiny leaves. The water runs out and she shouts in Ara­bic “kaman wal­lah!” — more please! — and you ask if she wants more water in the can, and she jumps up and down and cries in Eng­lish “YES! YES! I DO!” and you both come inside to fill up.