Sunday, 17 May 2015

Random Date, Special Day

Exactly fourteen years ago, I sat my very last exam of Year 7.

The excitement of having finished the year drowned out all the distress that had been simmering within me for the duration of the exam. I didn’t know most of the answers, so I resorted to making sure what little I could write about world geography was written in a neat and orderly manner. As I had done in previous examinations, and with no real expectation to curry favour with the marker, I drew a small birthday cake on the top of the paper and adorned it with several candles and a “good luck” scribbled across the biro-bordered doodle.

I had arranged with Homeidan and Fouad to celebrate our last day of school by going ‘out out’, as Mickey Flanagan so eloquently put it. Homeidan and Fouad, with whom I shared a three-man wooden desk near the back of the classroom, had been desperate to do something out of the ordinary - this most unlikely group of friends ought to end the year on a high, we thought.

The night before, I asked my sister for some money to fund my x-rated excursion, though I didn’t disclose the precise itinerary of our jaunt: we had planned to go to a seedy cinema in an infamous part of Damascus, and follow it up by visiting an apartment block rumoured to house a few love-sellers. It’s of utmost importance to note that we didn’t entertain the idea of purchasing any affection; we merely wanted to see what a wanton woman looked like, especially one whose vocation it was to give pleasure, even if only to the chaste eyes of a party of pubescent man-maidens.

Naturally, I had to exercise a little truth-bending in order to be allowed to do something other than come home right after school.

“There’s a Quran competition in the afterschool club, so we’ll grab a bite and then go to take part in it.”

Despite my not being entirely truthful, I’m consoled by the fact that I used the considerable remainder of what she had given me to buy her a birthday present and gave the rest to my elder brother whose escapades were far more risqué than mine.

We waited till the three of us had handed in our papers, and walked out of school feeling buoyant with elation. Within minutes, a street-vendor decided to find out why we were out of school so early, as it had barely been past midday. His eyes widened, and he looked at his wrist. He couldn't quite believe that we were out to celebrate the beginning of our summer holidays.

“Really? It’s only May 17th!" he said as he pointed towards his time/date silver Cassio watch.

"Ok. Don’t get up to anything bad.”

Although we hadn't planned on doing anything bad, we were taken by surprise at this stranger’s impromptu cautioning.

We casually walked around the area whose old alleyways smelled of roasted and baked nuts and seeds that nearby shops specialised in. Everyday, shortly after lunchtime, the classrooms were filled with an aroma that opened my nostrils and made me feel like Jerry when the waft of Swiss cheese surreptitiously crept up on him, eliciting his inner-spirit to float to the source of the delicious smell.

During our walk, we fancied a little detour, and wandered into an empty building with a long, dimly-lit lobby. On either side were closed doors and placards that seemed to belong to offices and shops which had once filled this corridor with the bustle of life. We soon realised that a potential trespassing conviction loomed large, so we ran towards the other side of the building and laughed and screamed with nervous joy. Years later, I stumbled across a cinematic re-enactment that alluded to another movie moment in which a trio of trailblazers ran wildly in a place where contemplative quietude reigned. Bande à Part, The Dreamers, The School Leavers, I thought to myself.

Fouad suggested we stop at his father’s juice shop on our way to Byblos Cinema. We happily took him up on his offer knowing that we had some time to waste before the first ‘mature’ film started.

Fouad’s father didn’t seem overly excited to meet his son’s schoolmates. He gave us three plastic cups of lemon slush and went back behind his till as we slurped outside the marble-flood shop. I was suddenly taken by a juvenile urge to flaunt the meagre wad of cash in my pocket.

“Fouad, could you ask your father how much these will cost? It’s on me. I insist!”

With an air of empty boasting, I extracted three crumpled 100 Syrian Liras and laughed at my silly gesture. Of course, we didn’t have to pay, and Fouad was slightly offended at my wanting to steal the limelight. It was his father’s shop, it was his treat to us.

After an hour or so of aimlessly meandering the streets between our school and al-Marja, where Cinema Byblos and various other adult-oriented institutions were located, we found ourselves in front of a nondescript building with yellowing bricks and a large, fading-gold letters at the front. BYBLOS. We were standing outside a brave, almost-bronzing new world. The entrance was flanked by two posters: one was unmistakably for a Bollywood blockbuster, and another that I can't remember anything about except its having a voluptuous lady with a twinkle in her eye and the eye-watering tilt of her exposed waist.

The three of us paid 25 Liras each and were told we could stay for as long as we wanted to. The cinema wasn’t completely quiet, and it was no-where near full. The handful of audience members was all grown men who were scattered across the large, darkened hall, and whose faces were partly illuminated by the cinema projector’s flickering reflections.

After we settled down and evaded eye-contact lest we’re found out, I turned to Homedian and said:

“This guy is called Amitabh Bachchan.”

The Indian film was badly subtitled, and the audio-yellow text were out of sync even to the jaundiced eye of a hormonal cinemagoer who cared no more about technical precision than he did for the plot of a movie in a language he didn’t understand.

Audience members grew restless and a few disgruntled voices sporadically broke the reverential silence with which I observed the unfolding Bollywoodian spectacle. No sooner had the Indian flick finished before another film started. This, time, it was an old Syrian production, dating back to the sixties or seventies judging by the grainy quality and the surprisingly youthful features of actors who I’d known to play grandfathers in the children's programmes I grew up watching.

The second film’s raunchiest scene included a disco-lit house party, and an actor -a distant relative of Homeidan- salaciously placing his palm on a naked thigh, barely visible underneath a long, baggy skirt. In another eye-popping moment, the actor is shown to be a peeping Tom who watches his young neighbour hanging up some laundry.

“The perving bastard! I’m going to tell on him next time I see him at a family gathering,” railed Homeidan under his breath.

I was fairly incredulous towards his hushed threat.

“How will you explain where you saw him doing this?”

We watched with amazement and excitement, but we were aware of the pendulum of time quietly swinging over our heads.  Five or six in the evening was late in the world of a twelve year-old - and we still hadn't been round to the den of debauchery Homeidan had told us about.

"I was in the area a few days ago, and a stranger -I bet he's a pimp- walked up to me and told me that if I paid him 100 Liras he'd get me laid, and he took me to the top floor of this building where I actually saw a topless woman!"

My heart raced as we walked up the stairs, until we reached the third floor. The stairs to the fourth floor and beyond were locked off. A white metal door with frosted-glass panes blocked our access, and we were secretly relieved not to be able to go any further.

"Wallahi I'm not lying!"

Homeidan's attempt at reassuring us of the truth of his tall tale seemed sacrilegious given where we were and what was being promised in the name of God Himself.

"It's OK. At least we tried," I told him, in vain hope of retaining some dignity. Afterall, we were merely chasing the figure of lust, knowing full well that we weren't going to do anything beyond that.

We hailed a taxi that took us to the mikro depot where we boarded minibuses heading towards our respective home destinations.

On my way home, I rehearsed my alibi and embossed it with feigned disappointment at having missed out on first place in the Quran competition. My sister showed little doubt in my story, and consoled me by saying that my sincere intentions were more important than standing on an imaginary podium. That may have made me feel a little guilty, but I quickly brushed it under my mental carpet and revelled in my secret, low-key adventure.

The fourteen years that followed were far more adrenaline-fuelled and life-changing than that afternoon nearly a decade and a half ago, so I’m not sure why that day and that date stuck in my mind. Perhaps it was the street vendor’s startled expression and unbelieving tone that earmarked the day as one of significance to me; it could have been the fact that it was my first foray into the world of near-teenage wilderness. Whatever the reason, every May, I count down the days till the seventeenth so I could recount that afternoon to myself or to whoever is interested in listening to the the story of my first out-outing.

Saturday, 9 May 2015

Longing for belonging

I drank water, flowing fresh down my throat
And it was like I tasted nothing but sewage;
Suffering beyond comparison,
Like that of a boat amongst raging ocean waves.

Elia Abu Madhi, the revered Lebanese poet, perfectly described what it feels like to be away from where you belong. Where you ‘belong’ is by no means exclusive to where you were born or the country from which your parent(s) hail; rather, it’s the place where you feel alive. Once you emigrate, the sense of loss becomes too great to comprehend, too irrational to justify. Your life away may be safer, more financially rewarding, but you’re starved of tranquility and spiritual fervour.

Having lived in India, Syria and England, and being of Iraqi origin, I've always been reluctant to put my finger on a map and wholeheartedly say “Here’s where I’m from,” as I've never felt as though I truly belonged anywhere I’ve lived in thus far. For that reason, as well as their artistic depth, Abu Madhi's words strike several, tangled chords within me.

My intergenerational and consecutive migrations have amplified the fogginess with which my unyielding heart tries –and fails- to adjust to its surroundings. It is filled with longing for company I hadn’t enjoyed, relishing a reunion of hearts with lovers I hadn’t encountered, objects of adoration whose hazy countenances were weaved together by my starry-eyed mind. And yet I dream of being there, and yearn to be with them. The precise geographical location of the place, and the identifying features of the people - aren't necessarily a relevant detail, for the heart needs no bearings once it's in a place it warms to, and in company it finds soothing and sensual in equal measure.

Not only am I burdened with a wild and wayward emotional constitution, I confess to feeling disarmed of my creative faculties, like a pelican in a pigsty, bedraggled and bereft of life. The light of my mind flickers and flashes sporadically and painstakingly, having previously assured my child-self that it would illuminate my yet-to-be-lived days.

I often wish I were able to visit Iraq as freely and frequently as my contemporaries and fellow second-generation exiles do. More than Iraq, though, I dream of setting foot in Syria once again. The dusty, overcrowded streets of Sayyeda Zaineb, the epicentre of my childhood on the outskirts of Damascus – are where I made sense of the world: in the ear-piercing cacophony of tirteras, cattle and shopkeepers. A celestial soundtrack of an otherwise mundane life.

London may have cleaner streets and a wider selection of international cuisines, but it has yet to convince me that it could stir me the way Damascene alleyways did.

Whimsical romance aside, I’ve realised that cannot afford to spend my days envisaging a parallel existence. My converse-clad feet are firmly rooted in a lively part of London, and I must work towards rekindling the flame of life within my shrinking frame. Otherwise, what’s left of my dwindling spirit will vanish into thin air, leaving in its wake a mediocre nothingness, much like the indistinguishable sound of a tirtera – forgettable in its absence as it is salient in its presence.