‘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)

©aother

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