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
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,

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.


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