The door opens and there stands ‘Amti Fatima, arms open, a grin on her face. “Ahlayn ya habeebti Nidal! Waynik ya amira? Ishtaqtilik kiteer! I’m za’lana with you, I haven’t seen you in so long! Come in. Tafaddali!” It had been just over a week since Nidal last visited her aunt, but as Fatima always said, “When you love someone, a week is an eternity.” “Ahlayn wa sahlayn. Come in! Come in! You should come more often! I miss you!” As much as Nidal expects this show of love and mock anger, it always brings a shy girlish smile to her lips. ‘Amti Fatima is like a mother to her, and the last link she has to her absent father. She loves her perhaps more than anyone in the world. ‘Amti Fatima is her world.
Nidal embraces her aunt and kisses her on the checks, and then they walk through the passageway to the courtyard. “It’s too cold to sit out here tonight, habeebti, so let’s go inside where it’s warm.” They walk up a couple of step into the small sitting room off the kitchen. Nidal kicks off her shoes and steps into a pair of pink fuzzy slippers that are always waiting for her at the threshold. She hands the bag of oranges to her aunt, then collapses onto the sofa while Fatima goes to the kitchen to rinse the fruit, place them in a bowl, and get her familiar paring knife. She returns, places the oranges on the small coffee stable, then glancing at the door, asks, “Are you still wearing those sports shoes? Why don’t you wear nice shoes? They can’t be warm enough in this weather.”
Nidal smiles. No one understands her running shoes. They have become in a way her trademark.
“I got them in Beirut, ‘Amti. They were very expensive, so I like to wear them to get my money’s worth!” Fatima laughs and shakes her head in disbelief. “Expensive? Why? there’s nothing to them – no leather, no buckles, no heels. Bafhamsh, habeebti. I don’t understand.”
She’d purchased the blue and red Nike Air Pegasus on her last trip to Beirut, about 3 weeks ago. Impulse Shoes had a sale – “only 90,000 Lebanese Lira,” as the chic young salesclerk had announced. $60 may have been a good price, but it was an extravagance for Nidal. 3,000 Syrian Lira was half her rent. But she bought them anyway. On an impulse. Plus they were much better than the shoes she could get in Damascus, even if they were three times as expensive. They were worth it.
Nidal likes to jog, even though there are few places in the city – or anywhere in Syria, for that matter – where a woman can jog and expect to be left alone. She used to go to al-Jahiz Park near the national library, where others often jog, though it was usually men she encountered there. In the last three years she’d only seen about half a dozen women jogging in the park (or, more usually, walking and talking) and while most times no one said anything, she had been hit on enough times by sweaty and overweight men huffing and puffing around the small lanes as they tried to get into shape that she decided to find a new place. Tishreen Park was much more expansive and would be an ideal place to jog – lots of paths, and interesting statues placed here and there – were it not for the guards and creeps hanging around by the trees, not to mention the Presidential Palace looming above. So that wasn’t an option. She didn’t feel safe.
One late afternoon a few years ago she had decided on a whim to jog through Abu Rummaneh then up ‘Afif to Riwaq, then back home – at the time she was living with her friend Mona in a small flat on a side street in al-Malki. It was only a short jog to the river, and since it was a pleasant stroll on the sidewalk alongside it, why not a little jog? The whole loop would take maybe 30 minutes, 45 max, and the route was a little hilly too. Not a bad workout.
Putting on her loose jogging pants – she didn’t dare jog in shorts, having learned that lesson already – and a cotton top, Nidal laced up her shoes and did a few perfunctory stretches. She was eager to get going – the heat of the summer day had abated, and one of those magical Damascene nights was beginning to unfold, the cloudless sky turning a slight lavender shade and the doves beginning their curious early evening peregrinations above the rooftops. Putting her long hair up with a scrunchie, she headed out the door. By the time she reached Sahat al-Malki she was beginning to break a sweat. Turning right she navigated the plaza then crossed to the river-side of the street and began making her way along the riverbank toward Rawda. After only about five minutes, however, she was stopped by a police officer, who ran across the street and blocked her way on the sidewalk. Nidal, not understanding what he was after, veered into the street, but the policeman lunged and grabbed her by the arm, yelling “Stop!”
“What are you doing here, Sister? What are you running from?” he said as she struggled to free herself from his firm grip. Only when she stopped squirming did he relent a little and let go.
“Nothing. I’m just jogging. Fi shi?”
“Show me your ID,” he asked brusquely. When she said that she’d left it at home, he offered to walk her there so she could retrieve it. Sensing that he was less interested in her ID and more in an adventure, she claimed that the apartment was far, past the Sheraton Hotel toward al-Mazzeh, which was easily 25 minutes away by foot.
“Then I’ll have to take you down to the precinct and give you a summons,” he claimed, “… unless you agree to meet me here tomorrow and we can go have a coffee together. Tomorrow at this time, here over by the bridge. Mashi? You’ll come, right?” Nidal was stunned. Not knowing what else to do, and not wanting to spend any time in a police precinct, she agreed, so he let her go. “Bas, stop running so much. Girls don’t run.” She walked away warily, then when she saw that he had continued on his way, slowly began to jog, and then when she had turned a corner ran home, sprinting the last few hundred meters. By the time she reached the door she was in tears.
“Shu sar?!? Shu baki?!?” asked Mona when she came through the front door. “Are you OK, Nidal?” All Nidal could do was go to her room and slam the door behind her.
And keep running.
Nidal always seemed to be on the run. When her mother died her aunt Fatima had watched over her. She was not quite two years old, with no mother to care for her and a father who worked two jobs. ‘Amti loved her like she were her own child, but there were other children to care for, Ahmed and Adeeb, then a few years later Hanan. So it wasn’t ever the same. The old house was large enough that there was room for everyone – “A narrow house will welcome a thousand friends,” as her father had often said. Her mother’s death had left a hole in her heart, but Nidal quickly took to her aunt, and her father, Rashid, did his best when he was home.
When he disappeared, Nidal was nine, a bright schoolgirl attending a local Syrian school – a privilege for a Palestinian refugee. As a result her life was thrown into turmoil. She stopped eating and for months afterward was a brooding and dark presence in the house, confining herself mostly to the small room she shared with her cousin Hanan when she was not at school. ‘Amti Fatima did her best to coax her back to life, preparing her favorite sweets – kanafeh nabulsiyya and muhalabiyya – but also feeding and encouraging her day-dreams with stories about a different life, an eventual return to their true home in Palestine. Nidal also dreamt of a reunion her father, who she, like so many in their community, felt was only lost or held captive in Lebanon. He’d come back one day. Nidal was certain of it.
The years passed and Rashid did not reappear, neither did they return to Palestine. Dreams die hard, and Nidal felt alone, abandoned and at times bitter. As an orphan and a Palestinian, she had little protection in the city – no wasta, no connections – so she had learned to survive on her own, developing a fierce independent streak as well as a reputation for being aloof. She found salvation in her books and her studies. Like her mother, she excelled in every subject, but chose literature as her specialty, with the aim of becoming a journalist and a writer to raise awareness of her people’s cause. After she left home Nidal remained close to ‘Amti Fatima, her cousins when they came to Damascus, a few friends from university, and several of the artists she had written about, such as Basma al-Hilu. Otherwise she was reserved, kept to herself, and tried to stay under the radar. Safe. Always ready to run if necessary.
Nidal slides over to make room for her aunt on the small sofa. Fatima plops down with an “Ouf!” then reaches for an orange and begins to peel it.
“You always remember to bring me oranges, habeebti! So thoughtful. They bring me home, even if it looks like I will never go back…”
‘Amti Fatima was only 5 when the family was forced to flee Safed, but she still remembers the old home, the neighborhood children, and the school she had just started to attend when they had abruptly left. She tries to retain ties to Safed, but it has gotten harder over the years as the few childhood friends she has kept in touch with – most had settled in Damascus, some in Hama, and even a few in Jordan – had died or moved to America. Food and music are her last and perhaps most vivid connections to the land she scarcely recalls. She often sits on the sofa listening to Radio al-Quds, or playing old cassettes of Mustafa al-Kurd, al-‘Ashiqeen, and Sabreen. In her closet she still has the embroidered robe she wore for her wedding day celebrations, the intricate patterns and colors – red, saffron, blue – identifying her region. And of course the food, not only the desserts that Nidal still loves, but traditional plates of musakhkhan, manaqeesh, and kibbeh nayeh – azka akel bi-dunya, the tastiest food in the world. The aromas and flavors took her home again, time after time after time.
Mahmoud doesn’t really understand her perpetual longing for a home she hasn’t seen in over fifty years. A few weeks ago, he’d caught her crying silently while listening to “Mawtini” on Radio al-Quds and fingering her masbaha.
“Khalas, Umm Ahmad. We aren’t going back. There’s nothing to go back to anyway – they took it all and destroyed the rest. This is our home now. Let’s make the best of it, ‘Azeezti.”
“Perhaps he’s right,” she thinks, “but it’s so hard to forget, to let go.”
The framed house deed and door key hang from a nail on the wall above the television. Photos of her parents and Rashid hang nearby in a simple black frame. It is hard to forget.
When Nidal visits her, ‘Amti is often sad and angry at the news from Palestine, but unlike many Palestinians she harbors little anger for Jews per se. She had even known a few as a child, before all the problems began. But she hates Israel and its continuing oppression of her people. “Mu tabee’i,” she’d say as she watched yet another news report on a bombing raid in Gaza, the occupation of a home in East Jerusalem, or the razing of an olive grove in Jenin. “Laysh hayk? It’s not natural that a people that was oppressed would come and oppress us! What did we ever to do deserve this? And they cut down the olive trees. And that poor American girl who was killed by the bulldozer. Why? Haram, wallah! Mu tabee’i abidan.”
Nidal had heard the family saga a thousand times from her father, from ‘Amti and ‘Amo Mahmoud, and of course from all her classmates at the UNRWA school, and later at the university when she got involved in the Palestinian Students Union. But she feels little attachment to the land other than through her aunt. She was born in Damascus and feels – and speaks – Syrian, not Palestinian. But Palestine, even if remains an unreachable paradise for some, is not something so easily run from, in her case because it is inscribed on her ID card. And because until recently she had been denied the right to a passport and had been unable to travel outside Syria. For this reason she resorted to borrowing her friend Mona’s ID when she traveled to Beirut – they were the same age and looked like they could be sisters – and even though the travel restrictions had been lifted, she still borrows Mona’s ID, partly out of habit, partly out of fear of getting hassled for being a Palestinian, and partly to keep some connection to Khalid.
“How about you, my love? Keefik? How is your health? And are you still working for that newspaper?”
Nidal tells her about her new apartment, her recent article on an exhibition of sculpture, and her own fiction writings – stories about Palestinian refugees in Syria.
“Well, we certainly have a lot of stories. You aren’t going to tell mine, are you? Don’t scandalize us!”
They laugh, knowing that there’s nary a scandal in the family, so careful have they all been to be decent people both in their public as in their private lives. You can’t be too careful, and some of the neighbors have “long tongues,” as Fatima liked to say.
“No, ‘Amti. Don’t worry! It’s mostly stories about the people in the camps here and in Lebanon. You know, the sad stuff, the problems. Not us!”
“You are just like your father, always trying to do something for our people. May God protect him.”
Nidal looks down, unable to tell her aunt that she writes for herself, not as a political mission, though perhaps there’s some of that too. But any mention of her father she finds troubling, even after all these years.
“So, al-muhim, when are you going to get married and start a family?” It is always the same. They’ll sit and reminisce about the house, her departed father and his generosity with everyone – opening the home to her and Mahmoud and the children, feeding the poor, teaching at the university – her fading memories of Palestine, all the while peeling oranges and maybe listening to the radio. Then ‘Amti will ask “the Question.”
“Whatever happened to that nice man who used to come around asking for you? Shu sar ma’uh?”
Nidal feels a sharp pain in her chest and has to catch her breath before answering.
What can she say about Khalid?
They’d met at the university. Mona’s older brother, Khalid was studying engineering and also involved in the Arab Students Union. His father hailed from the prominent al-‘Azm family – his grandfather was the cousin of the former Prime Minister, after whom he was named – and his mother was a Palestinian from Haifa, her parents having settled in Damascus in late 1948 and gradually built up a small textile empire. Thus Khalid was raised both comfortably and with the expectation that he’d make something of his life. He and Nidal had mutual acquaintances at the university and would meet from time to time at social gatherings, but Nidal was “terminally shy,” according to Mona, and never had any luck with men. But Khalid had noticed her and over the course of a few weeks had fallen in love, asking his sister about her nearly all the time, and even having her arrange a meeting at a cafe, though Nidal was hesitant and didn’t know how to proceed. Khalid was nice enough, polite and handsome, and no doubt he had a bright future before him, but she didn’t know what he saw in her and she scarcely knew how to proceed. She was afraid of her growing feelings for him, and this made her withdraw even more. Nonetheless they saw more and more of each other, especially after graduation when Nidal moved in with Mona in her flat in al-Malki, where Khalid would come visit his sister … more frequently than he had ever done in the past!
It seemed destined to work out: he was from a good family, had Palestinian roots, his family loved her like a daughter, and he had a promising future as the top graduate in engineering from Damascus University, having landed a position as an apprentice engineer with a foreign telecommunications firm that had opened an office in the capital. Then a year later Khalid had been accepted into a graduate program in electrical engineering at the University of Edinburgh. He stayed in Damascus through the summer, then left, leaving Nidal behind but with promises that he’d write and call often, and come visit when he could. At first all went according to plan: Khalid emailed almost daily, and when he came home for visits he called on Nidal, and they’d go for walks in Tishreen Park or stroll in the Old City. After awhile she felt a gulf open up between them. Nidal knew that she would never be able to travel with him, not only because she didn’t possess a passport, but because she was so close to ‘Amti Fatima that it was impossible for her to imagine living anywhere else. Who did she know in Scotland, anyway? What did they eat? Damascus was her home, and she intended to stay there, even if she liked her clandestine trips to Beirut and sometimes dreamt of visiting Paris, or Cairo. Edinburgh seemed far away. She had looked it up online.
Mona of course wanted her to wait for Khalid, telling her to be patient, that he’d come back for her soon. She passed along messages from abroad and relished the role of matchmaker between her brother and best friend. But after the second year away Khalid had gradually stopped writing and didn’t come by to visit on the few occasions when he did return home to see his family. Mona had more or less stopped talking about him too, and Nidal took this as a sign that something had changed, either for Khalid or for their family. As it turned out, Khalid had accepted a position with a multinational telecommunications company based in Los Angeles once he graduated, and a few months later had become engaged to then married a Syrian-American neurologist who operated a private clinic. His parents had set them up on a visit to London. And so khalas, end of story. Until it was all over Nidal hadn’t realized the extent to which she had been secretly wrapping her dreams in the fabric of a life shared with Khalid. She felt abandoned again and soon began looking for another place to live. That was going on five years ago, but the pain lingered. And lingers still.
She sighs, and her aunt puts her arm on her shoulder. “Tabkeesh, habeebti. Wa la himmik. You’ll meet someone. Someone good for you. Maybe a nice Palestinian boy.” Nidal laughs at the use of the word “boy” – she’s thirty and hardly thinks of the men who hassle her as “boys,” but she allows her aunt this innocence.
“Allahu ‘alam, Who knows? I’m too busy anyway, ‘Amti. Who has time for ‘boys’? I’m still trying to do my work, my writing, meet deadlines, take care of myself. And I just moved to another apartment over in al-Adweh. The “boy” can wait.”
“Don’t wait forever, ya hilweh! I’m not getting any younger. I want to be able to dance at your wedding and teach your children the dabkeh!” Fatima wiggles a little on the sofa and they both laugh at the image of ‘Amti in her Palestinian dress kicking and shuffling her feet. She gives her aunt a big hug, nestling into her side like she’d done as a young child, then after a few moments rises to her feet.
She looks down at her watch. It is now about 8:30 and Nidal has something else in mind – a quick taxi ride to Riwaq for a drink. It’s been one of those days.
“I have to go, ‘Amti.”
“You can’t go now,” protests Fatima. “It’s still early, and you didn’t eat anything. All you had was some orange slices. Bikafeesh. Let me fix something for you to eat. At least stay for some tea.”
“I’m tired and want to go home and rest. But I’ll come again soon and we can talk some more.”
Nidal laughs lightly.
“Allah yiwaffik, ya binti. Take care, my daughter.”
She hugs and kisses her aunt, then steps out the door into the dark street.