You are currently browsing the monthly archive for June 2012.

‘Mister, mister!’, the vendors at the souk in Homs shouted at my mother, beckoning her to their stalls as we wandered, almost breathless, around this new, colourful and scented universe. Barely a few days away from an altogether different reality, we were lost and heady.

The memory of how it all began resembles an old photograph: a dimly lit airport lounge in a nondescript European city, a shadowy outline of a group of people. We’re seeing my father off. He’s leaving for the Middle East, Syria, unexpectedly, on a business contract as an urban planner. My grandmother is standing to one side, very still, her eyes never leaving my father, who’s desperately trying to conceal his uneasiness as we bid him good-bye. Before he begins walking away, she rushes to him and hugs her eldest son in a desperate embrace. Her words echo in my memory: ‘I’ll never see you again…’ My mother and I stand back, as the two exchange a furtive farewell. And then, he’s gone.

I try to recall what we were wearing, but all I remember is my grandmother’s hat. Everything is in black and white. Even the emotions. Love and pain, the tearing apart of a family, of two families, hers and ours.

She never did see her son again. My mother and I, on the other hand, caught up with him several months later, in Athens, where he came to pick us up before our ocean voyage to the Syrian port city of Lattakia.

It was my first trip by plane and all that’s left of that memory is a faint sense of fear, and the strange sensation of being lifted off the ground and into the clouds, which took a long time parting. Like flying with one’s eyes closed.

I was leaving behind a dark childhood in a country devastated by war, a brave city still in ruins, frequent power failures that rendered it even more grim and forbidding, and endless queues.

I remember sitting on a cool windowsill, watching candles flickering in the windows of the buildings across the street, and shadows dancing on the walls of our small apartment.

Arriving in Athens, we disembark into blinding sunlight, the heat tangible like a moist curtain, inescapable and foreign against our brittle skin and heavy clothing. Suddenly, my memory is infused with colour and a rush of sensations. My eyes search for my father’s figure among the people gathered on the tarmac, and then, there he is.

He’s smiling; a smile of relief as much as of love, and I can’t wait to hug him. The trip to the hotel is a blur, but the gift that awaits my mother and me in the modest room is as tangible now as it was then.

There, on the table, sat bunches of bananas, my mother’s favourite fruit, and enormous navel oranges, all of them mine. Not one sliver, not two, but dozens of whole, juicy fruit that exposed itself to me in all its sensuous and delicious beauty, the taste filling my whole being, my hands sticky and scented from the ripped, fleshy skin, as I tore them open, one by one.

(Excerpt from My Syrian Childhood)



I can still taste him.

After all these years, my memory of my first love is the way he tasted, as we kissed endlessly on the rooftop of the  swimming pool in Damascus. His lips were full and smooth, quite moist, and I could feel his teeth underneath their soft flesh.

We were playing ‘spin the bottle’, and a hot rush would flush my whole body when it pointed to him, as we all sat in a circle on the warm, stone floor of the pool tower. It was our secret place. One to which only the children had access, while the adults basked by the poolside beneath us, the scent of roasting shish kebabs rising in the air.

Pierre was Dutch, his father part of the UN contingent in the Middle East.

I was part of a group of diplomats’ and other foreign workers’ children, with many nationalities making up the mosaic of my Syrian childhood. We were all of different ages, somewhere between 9 and 14, French, American, Swedish, German; English was our common language, and most of us attended the Damascus Community School for Foreigners, which boasted more than 30 nationalities.

We weren’t many, a dozen or less per class, from kindergarten to the eighth grade. My best friend was Swedish, Susan, and she taught me how to wear wooden clogs, in which she could run as fast as I did in my bare feet. We shared everything, and once she took me into her parents’ bedroom and opening a drawer, revealed a pack of condoms. Sex was never discussed in my home, and she had to explain to me what they were.

Pierre was the oldest in our school, cocky and self-assured. Looking young for my age, flat chested and insecure, I could only dream of getting close to him. Which did happen, occasionally.

At one party, having drunk a little, he deigned to dance with me, and I remember the thrill of actually holding him in my arms, his body pressed against mine, struggling to keep upright. As my face touched his chest, I inhaled his scent, strong and heady, the smell of a young male, new and intoxicating.

A few days later, still reeling from this, my first sensuous experience, I was sewing a button on my father’s shirt and was surprised by the same scent, the smell of male sweat, and the memory of it was like the key to my sexual awakening.

While I dreamt of Pierre, another boy had his sights set on me.  Octavio was the son of the Brazilian consul, dark and a little pudgy; he pursued me relentlessly and steadfastly, much to my disgust. At one of the parties he cornered me against the wall and declared that I would be his one day. I pushed him away in anger.

He would bring me presents, gold jewellery, a broach encrusted with precious stones, which, I later found out, he pocketed from his mother’s drawers. I often wondered what happened to this intense, Latin boy, with huge eyes like black coals.

But I was in love with Pierre. Far from handsome, this pouting, blond teenager had a terrible hold over me, and, as children would, toyed cruelly with my infatuation.

Once, he persuaded Yanek, a sweet, gentle Indian boy to trick me into thinking he was interested in me, and the experience left us both with a bitter aftertaste.

Coming to class one day, I found an invitation from Yanek to a party, a personal note, which implied I was to be his date.

When I arrived, all the other children were already there, waiting, giggling.

There was no date. And Yanek was standing against the wall, suddenly as aghast at the deception, as I was.

Laughter broke out and reverberated across the room, and I cringed, desperately trying to hold back my tears, horrified and humiliated.

And, at the same time, I could see Yanek’s face, almost as ashen as mine, for, in some way, he too, was made fun of, a puppet in the hands of the other children, a citizen of a second class country, a lower caste. Like me.

He must have apologised to me later, I’m quite sure, although, strangely, I never held it against him. Nor against Pierre, the instigator.

My revenge came later, and with no premeditation, as if fate had decided to grant me a reprieve.

The so-called six-day war in the Middle East, in 1967, changed me imperceptibly, ripping into my colourful, idyllic childhood and, aided by my imagination, bringing into it an apocalyptic vision of a world war.

It started innocently, albeit abruptly, as I enjoyed a mid-class recess, playing tetherball in the green compound of the school. Suddenly, limousines from the U.S. embassy appeared at the gates, and all the American children were whisked away.

Soon cars with British diplomatic plates arrived to collect my English playmates, and a sense of unease gripped the rest of us. We filed into our principal’s office, and found Madame Bitar listening intently to a small transistor radio.

She said something about a dangerous political development, and urged us to collect our things and go home.

We had been preparing for the possibility of a middle-eastern war for some time, hiding under our desks when the warning alarm sirens would go off, getting used to the darkened city with street and car lights painted blue, as Damascus readied itself for Israeli air raids.

But I was not prepared for what awaited me outside the school gates. A very different world than the one I left that morning, with streets emptied of regular citizens usually milling about in the bright Syrian sun, replaced instead by groups of frenzied young men with guns, shooting into the air and crying ‘war, war’. Fear gripped my throat and I began to run home. Halfway there, I came upon my father, driving, panicked, to pick me up from school.

After a brief family conference at home, it was decided we would go to check on the wife of my parents’ architect friend, who was alone with a small child, and pregnant with another, her husband away on a business trip.

As we sat in her garden, tense and uncertain as to what awaited us, with my father predicting the worst as usual, the worst happened. A sudden, thundering bang shook the ground, as Israeli fighter planes appeared overhead. There was no warning, no sirens, as bombs rained on Damascus airport on the outskirts of the city.

We hurried into the middle, windowless room of the house and waited, as the bombing continued. Incongruously, the sun kept shining, the heat filtering into the darkened room, nature oblivious to the sudden invasion, while thoughts of the end of the world paralysed my body and mind.

Suddenly, it was all over. After a brief silence, the sirens went off, wailing across the city in a belated alarm. When they stopped, we ventured outside to find the streets quiet and deserted under the blazing afternoon sun. As we made our way home, we came upon a long, winding convoy of white UN cars ready for departure.

I imagined I could see Pierre in one of them, his face glued to the window.

For the next six days we stayed at home, obeying the curfew that paralyzed the city, as the Israeli army stood at its doorstep. The tension was tangible, and I would hide in the kitchen, kneeling on the cold, marble floor tiles, my elbows against the rough wicker seat of a small stool, praying and praying: ‘Please god, make sure it’s not the third world war, please god, please.’

Outside, in the apartment, Arabic children cried, and our cats hid fearfully under the bed. Several families, following a government edict, in view of continued bombardments, moved from upper floors to stay in our street-level flat, and it was hard to find peace among the chatter and disorder of all these people crowded together.

Despite the frequent bombing, young boys, oblivious to the danger, ventured into the streets, looking up at the piquing planes and picking up fragments of shells, their recklessness a constant amazement to my ever-weary father.

When it all ended, I returned to school with my Swedish friend Susan, to find it strangely empty. Madame Bitar was still the principal, and the classes continued, now under the aegis of the Italian embassy. The American and English children never returned, their nationals no longer welcome under the new political order.

But the Dutch were back, and so was Pierre. He had not changed much. I did, however, maturing into a self-conscious 13-year-old. No longer the ugly duckling, I now wore a bikini to the pool, although I still had to stuff tissues into my bra.

I remember the precise moment Pierre ‘saw’ me for the first time since the war. I was swinging on the high swing in the play area, soaring above the sand, higher and higher. I pretended not to see him, as he approached and stopped to look at me from the sideline. Still painfully aware of my immature body, I kept my gaze firmly on the blue sky, watching him from the corner of my eye.

When I finally descended, he approached me and said ‘hello’, something he’d never done before, usually waiting for me to make the first move.

Soon our little group was back on the rooftop, spinning an empty Coke bottle, pairing off to kiss in the corners, sand gritting between our teeth as our lips locked in deep and exhilarating yet innocent embraces. But I didn’t care anymore if the nozzle slowed down before him, although we continued our furtive affair for some time before breaking it off.

He still tasted the same.

(Excerpt from My Syrian Childhood)



J. could not sleep. Not since the wall went up and the gates closed with a protracted metallic groan. Not since the night filled with the sighs and moaning of dozens of people suddenly filling the apartment. Not since his mother’s eyes stopped resting on him, hiding forever behind red-rimmed lids that shut, silently, that fell like heavy curtains soaked with tears cutting him off from the obsidian translucence of her gaze. J. tried in vain to lift them with gentle antics, tugging at her skirt, peering into her face only a breath away from his, as she stood huddled in the middle of that endless sadness that descended on their world. She responded with a tilt of her head, but her eyes remained hidden from him.

J. couldn’t sleep, as he listened to the sound that lingered behind the stifling, suffocating tightening of bodies and the space wrapped itself mercilessly and invisibly around him. All these faces, that once belonged to people he knew, now sat frozen in a grotesque grimace of despair upon skeletal bodies of strangers. He could hear them in the night, as they shuffled and whispered, their murmurs a prelude to the shrieking that he knew would finally erupt and the wave of pain it heralded will swallow him. When sleep would not come and J. could no longer stand the memory of its sweetness, calling and calling, when his body twitched with millions of invisible insects that made their home under his skin, he sought solace in the night air. Creeping, meandering among sleeping bodies that littered the house, still whispering and moaning in the grip of some monstrous nocturnal beast, J. escaped into the courtyard and lifting his head to the darkened sky, a sliver of faraway calm visible from the well of crumbling walls, he dreamed of sleep. And when his eyes became too sore and the ebony firmament pulsating above him turned a murky grey, he slipped back into his corner upstairs, among the dank bodies that breathed in sobs. In the morning, alone, except for the memory of his mother’s delicate touch upon his cheek with which she checked his presence each day, J. went outside, leaving behind the aching clutter and desperate goings on of the strangers that lived in his house, these people that seemed to know him but whom he could not recognise, and who clung with such inexplicable persistence to a life that did not want to dwell in their emaciated bodies. Standing motionless in the doorway that arched above him like a stone angel’s wing, J. watched the street, and in particular, he liked to watch the rooks.

Everything had changed, but the black birds remained the same, perhaps, he thought, because they still flew over the wall, and visited the old life that, J. was certain, existed behind it but which, for some unknown reason, he was forbidden to see. The rooks emitted long raspy calls as they swooped across the sky, alighting on the cobblestones, balancing with their enormous wings that shone in the meagre sunlight. They turned this way and that, their heavy rapier-sharp beaks weighing their heads down as they sought crumbs long ago picked by the children. Frustrated, they then flew into the naked branches of the trees and carried on noisily. J. was fascinated by the way they walked, swaying from side to side, glistening midnight blue feathers dragging in the dirt, smart black eyes darting here and there. After their brief walkabout, the birds rose into the sky and were gone, and J. was alone again, alone among the strangers.

He was sorry he could no longer visit Mr Y. who always gave him candied toffee, soft on the outside, with an unexpected and resistant hard inner kernel of impossible sweetness. Not since the wall cut him off from Mr Y.’s shop, that only yesterday was but a hop away, across the cobble-stoned street and the wide pavement with cracks that he skipped over, adding up points for each he managed to avoid. Mr Y. was dead. His mother said so, and J. tried to imagine what Mr Y. looked like dead. Perhaps he resembled the people he saw lying motionless against the walls, oblivious to the passers-by, never moving away even as the feet of those hurrying over their bodies raised small clouds of dust that settled on their clothes and the yellow stars sewn into them. J. watched and watched, sometimes until evening fell, but they never, ever moved. The next day they were gone, but if he ventured a little further, leaving the security of the stone archway, he soon found others. And so it was, day after day, and J. could not sleep for wondering about all these things.

(In memory of Warsaw Ghetto)


…I flew through treetops last night. The night before, I soared high above an ice-covered river, vast like the ocean, with enormous chunks of ice jostling for position as they moved lazily with the current.

I flew above treetops last night. I saw a tiny bird’s nest and almost tore a delicate spider web high up in the branches. It was magical…


Photo by Daniel Heïkalo


When the tendrils of my thoughts

Obstruct my senses

I call your name

I call on you

Whom I have known

but never met

Glimpsed in sideway shadows

When I search without looking

I call your name

When the night won’t let

me breathe

The answer comes

like a gasp

and I awake alone

from a sleepless dream.




Art by Piotr Lichwierowicz

This time, Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich was to help me pass the time in the waiting room. It’s a fascinating book, a ‘long short story’ in the words of Ronald Blythe, whose extensive Foreword is almost as long as the novella itself. A synthesis of Tolstoy’s incapacitating awareness, and fear of death, it is gripping reading. One of the people waiting with me looked like a friend of my father’s, so much so, I could not help but keep glancing at him between turning the pages. He was elderly but sprite, with closely cropped grey hair. He had an aquiline nose and chiselled features. The newspaper he was reading was upside down to me, but I could decipher Cyrillic writing. Greek or Russian, I thought. His mobile rang, and he answered it in a quiet voice, yet loud enough for me to catch the language. Russian. The timbre of his voice was also eerily similar to that of my father’s friend.

I was lucky to catch the bus almost instantly on the way home, and swiping my card did not look at the driver. Once seated however, I was drawn to what sounded like a conversation coming from his direction, and I assumed he was talking to another rider. Not so. He was listening to some kind of recording, a radio perhaps. As I strained to listen, the melody of the language revealed itself, and again, I thought I heard Russian. Before disembarking I stopped beside the driver, a serious young man, and asked him – in English – if it was, indeed, Russian I was hearing. He nodded, with only a sidelong glance at me. I volunteered he must be tired – it was just past noon, the heat had been rising steadily, the shimmering asphalt in front of the bus was blinding. “No, it’s Nirvana,” was his (ironic) answer. I made a comment about the routine of his work. “I am not working. I am reading,” he said without taking his eyes off the road. I wonder what book he was ‘reading’/listening to? Maybe Tolstoy?

The Death of Ivan Ilych


Somewhere in the world, there are these birds, tiny little birds with curled claws, that can only nest on vertical surfaces; on the ground the just topple over… on these funny feet of theirs.

In the desert, forced to land by fatigue, they die, unable to attach to anything. A nearby community of people tries to save them by erecting poles, sticks, piling up furniture, anything, for the birds to hang on to. Hang on to life.





I pull at my strings

Hear them twang

No song.

Not yet.

But I have

Already heard it

Felt it

The sound of a heart


For want of sense.


Today, Venus makes its last-in-your-lifetime journey‎ – 3 hours ago
‪Today, Venus makes its last-in-your-lifetime journey The transit of Venus, which occurs when the planet Venus passes between the Earth …‬

I am overwhelmed and humbled.

I am but a speck.

My mind is bigger than me.


The Sun.

The Earth.



Art: Piotr Lichwierowicz

Did you SEE it?

Who are you?

How do you feel?

Does it all matter?

I saw a woman with snake’s eyes today. They were pale, and quiet, with the black point of the iris… She was calm, with a dreamy expression; the eyes spoke for her, spoke of peace and strength, of another world to which she belonged without knowing it. Her eyes led her and shaped her, they lay quietly under her half-closed lids, patient, certain of their power, over her, over everything… I saw a woman with snake’s eyes today.