Long car rides have always made my sister and I sick. My mother used to always prepare black plastic bags in case we wanted to throw up. My grandma used to blame it on the AC. She always said that in summer days, the cold air slaps you like it truly hates you. Although car sickness is very annoying and you feel that your stomach is fighting with its surroundings, we refused to believe that the AC was the reason. We couldn’t turn the AC on the hottest days of summer in a 6-hour car ride. The roads were long and the sun was sharp, but a smile would be drawn on our faces whenever we reached the “Masnaa” where we knew we stepped into the doors of the other country. After crossing this point, we would enter a whole new world.
The roads were empty, and there was nothing except giant rocks on the right and left side of us. I remember having to walk a few more kilometers until we saw small booths on the street and we knew we had to stop. My parents would get out of the car and rush to see the figs. The seller would immediately say “just like honey!” Here, he would hand each one of us a fig. Sometimes, my parents wouldn’t like them and would continue driving until they reached another booth. They were a lot. They didn’t only sell figs. The wide roofs were full of glass bottles mostly containing transparent liquid. I couldn’t recognize any, but I knew one of them was rose water because I would sense the rich rosy smell. Beside them would be other jars containing green and black olives as well as all kinds of homemade jam. On these jars and bottles would be a white sticker with the name of the village that produced it in bold. When we finally arrived, I would rush to the wooden door and hold the golden metal knocker of the house and “tik tik tik”. They open, and on their faces, I could see their widely stretched smiles.
My grandparents were very kind and loving and maintained a very strong bond with all of their grandchildren. They lived in Damascus, and specifically in the old neighborhood of Damascus. We would spend every vacation there. The whole family would come to gather in the house. It was a traditional Syrian house, somehow like the ones we see in Bab Al-Hara. The house consisted of two floors where the living and chilling rooms would be down and the bedrooms would be up. I loved the concept of this house. You have no reason not to be at the first floor. You only go up to sleep. Maybe this is why this house meant family to me, because we often stayed all together at the same place. There was a fountain in the middle where we would sit and have breakfast surrounded by the bitter orange trees. These trees would entrench us with their intense citrusy smells as we sipped our tea.
One man I remember the most is Abu Umran, an Afgani who lived in Damascus. He would always come in the morning holding around 20 loafs of freshly baked bread with a wide tray of hummus. I would hold the hot bread and dip it in the hummus with a bit of olive oil and add a hint of the paprika sprinkled at the center of the plate. Then there was the blue swing on the second floor of the house. We all knew it could only fit 5 people at once, but we were young, and we always found a way to fit all together without having our backs split in half.
It’s been 8 years since I visited Damascus and smelled the spicy salihiya. I have heard rumors that Abu Umran died. I have also heard that the country does not look the same. I know that Abdallah, the owner of the little “dekkene” near my grandparent’s house left the neighborhood. But I don’t know anything about the bitter orange trees or the swing upstairs. I wonder whether the house still smells like oranges and jasmine, or if it’s now reeking of blood and gunpowder. I also wonder if there grew any rust on the white edges of the swing. Would it still withstand the weight of all nine of us? Did we get old? Or did the harsh of war eat its edges away?
Sometimes I wonder how the locals feel about their country being ripped by sharp metal teeth. Maybe because I have been a victim of war once, I could relate to how difficult it can be. But then I remember that the chaos this country has been living has been years now. I also wonder how much blood our orange tree has drunk. Did it sip Abu Umran’s? Are the oranges no longer bitter after they drank his sweet blood?
I miss our old trips to Syria, but I don’t want to visit if Abu Umran isn’t there waiting with a smile warmer than the bread he bakes. I’m afraid that if I visit again, my memories of the place would be just that: memories.
- Khadija Chour