Sunday, 30 March 2014

Smiling Still

“Iraq? How cool! So what do Iraqis do to celebrate Mothers’ Day?”

“I think we don’t do anything too different to you Syrians. But we’ll be reading her some Quran, since she’s not with us.”

My sister was answering a group of smiling teenagers who seemed intrigued by our customs as well as our large number.

The whole set of siblings, all ten of us, were treating ourselves to Pizza Roma, one of Damascus’s tastiest and lesser-known pizzerias. I don’t recall it being a planned outing. The weather was dismal. Electricity had gone out, and I was filled with an unmistakable, unshakable sense of dread. It felt like I had a whole month’s worth of undone homework hanging over my ten year-old head. Perhaps we all felt the same. Our heart sank as soon as the lights went out. You squelched your way to the small shop at the foot of our muddy, bumpy alleyway to buy some candles. It’s quite a difficult feeling to describe. You‘re suddenly downcast with no logical reason as to why your spirits plummet as soon as the room is filled with darkness and silly, searching questions.

“Is that you?”

“Yes. Stop poking my arm.”

We hired a minibus –more affectionately known as a mikro– to help us escape the damp, dimly lit area we lived in for a few hours, and bask instead in the lush Sha’laan neighbourhood.

The restaurant was always bustling with punters of all ages and of different backgrounds. I don’t know why we drew attention but it meant that we roused the interest of the group of scarf-wearing teens to approach my sister, as we were getting ready to leave, and ask her where we’re from.

“Iraq? How cool! So what do Iraqis do to celebrate Mothers’ Day?”

“I think we don’t do anything too different to you Syrians. But we’ll be reading her some Quran, since she’s not with us.”

The girls looked thoughtful and said they would read some Quran for my mother, too. Until my sister recounted to us her brief conversation, we hadn’t really made much of Mothers’ Day. It wasn’t an occasion we really celebrated. Other than this non-event at Pizza Roma, my only memory of Eid-ul-Um was around the time I was six or seven years old.

My Year One teacher, Mr Saleem, handed out a bunch of uninspiring and unimaginative greeting cards with a big red rose and “Happy Mothers’ Day” printed on the front. I was told I had to give it to my mother when I got home, as it was her special day. I didn’t have a clue why it was her special day. Maybe the occasion was explained to the class, only I couldn’t speak much Arabic at the time. I sat at my desk and daydreamed of a life where people understood my language and didn’t hit me with a wooden, sellotaped stick.

When I got home, I rushed to Mama and gave her an empty card. She smiled and thanked me profusely and showered me with kisses, hugs and loving whispers.

I don’t remember celebrating Mothers’ Day with Mama except with that blank, impersonal crimson card. Almost seventeen years after her passing, the occasion evokes in me a sense of longing to see Mama and to do what little I can to bring her some peace and recognition. I wonder today, as I always do, what life would have been like had she been alive to see her children and grandchildren. My total inability to conjure the image in my head keeps me grounded and focused on making the most of what is around me, what is very much alive and deserving of all the appreciation and recognition my mother was denied – my family. I do my best to honour my mother’s name and memory by embodying her noble, selfless nature in my everyday interactions. Whilst this has not been the most effective antidote to humans’ insufferableness, it’s kept Mama’s memory and spirit very much alive in my household and everywhere I go.

In tribute, I’m reposting an old entry I’d written on Mothers’ Day in 2007, the height of my juvenile idealism, before I had so much as an inkling as to what motherhood really meant.

As the world celebrates Mothers' Day, sons and daughters pay tribute to their mothers, foster-mothers, grandmothers and, in some cases, step-mothers. Our mothers symbolise the essence of what is humane and honest. Whether we know it or not, our mothers are saints. My mother is the cornerstone of who I am today. She taught me to live and let live, she taught me to pardon and forgive, she taught me to be human.

I speak to my mother as if she were in front of me. I type the words and see her in my mind's eye. She is smiling still.

Never have I forgotten how I loved making you tea. You cherished your tea so much that I said I'll have them put a kettle on your grave. On your bed, you would sit on your knees, rocking back and forth, a Rothmans cigarette tightly held between your full fingers - you regularly look up, smiling at us, keeping us attached, no matter how upset they had made you.

Admired by most, oppressed by many, you remained invincible in your children. Everyone of them is testament of your manners. They all ask "How did they manage?" They thought they could get away with hurting you. They thought you weren't "as good." They don't see what you are made of. Every minute with you is a seed for the soul.. it grows as the heart grows.

Decades will pass by, we will pass away, but your legacy will survive. Your name is timeless. In every generation there will be You, and there will be Them.

All our goodness is from you. All our happiness is for you. All our sadness is a grain of sand in the desert that was your suffering. We venerate you.

We miss you dearly.

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