How do I Remember You?

Mama in her garden

My Mother Samiha Hasan Bayouq (1933-2020)

4 November 2020
The universe conspired. Looming lockdowns, Covid-19 restrictions, PCR tests up to 72 hours before flight, availability of flights meant that I missed my mother’s funeral in Amman today. She was amazing: loving, intelligent, generous, inclusive, optimistic and had a great sense of humour. She was also a keen gardener growing miracles despite the heat and regulated water supply.She loved all creatures and began her day by talking to and feeding the tortoises in the flowerbed, filling the basin with water for the neighbourhood cats, feeding the sparrows and the Palestine sunbird then the pigeons. We used to sit in our garden under the jasmine sipping tea and exchanging stories to ‘cleanse our hearts’. When this becomes unattainable, a memory, you realise that it was the best part of your life. A grownup now, locked up in your grief, you look back wistfully at the self you just had lost.

I shall miss ست الحبايب terribly. وإن القلب ليحزن

mama with flowers

23 November 2020
Whenever I encountered a problem I used to sit with my mother in our garden in Amman under the jasmine tree to solve it. We would sit in a cloud of perfume, surrounded by white jasmine flowers, sipping tea and talking. My mother would wipe away my tears then offer me baklava with tea and mint, fresh from her garden. That exchange of stories, ‘cleansing of our hearts’, was our way of dealing with whatever life threw at us: heartbreak, high blood pressure, back problems, wars civil and otherwise. The scent of jasmine, aroma of mint tea, and the sweet milky smell of my mother were home. That physical, psychological space was my haven, my hiding place and no demon however strong could harm me there . . . There are real and imaginary homelands, then there are homes constructed in retrospect, then there are desired homes, then there are psychological homes, then there are final destinations, where the tiled floor will always be covered with white jasmine flowers and where the eternal hands of my mother continue to wipe away the young girl’s tears.
Clouds of perfume, mint tea, and my mother’s receptive heart rose up and are now part of every sky.

Rest in peace mama habibti, يا أحلى وأغلى وردة في البستان

with mama smilling

30 December 2020

2020 is a calamitous year at all levels. A ten on the Richter scale of the heart. I lost my mother and two friends while enduring COVID-19 lockdowns and challenges.
Grief is a journey that starts at a specific point, but chooses its own route and length. It prises you open then tenderises you. A breeze could hurt you as if the whole of you has become a burn. The sight of a sparrow, a falling leaf, a cat, or a small act of kindness unravels you.
Farid Al Attrash was my mother’s favourite crooner and she often sang along with his songs. His songs and most music is a no go area now lest I slip into a grief so deep it would be hard to come back. Last year she sent me the following song:
“I wish I were a bird
So I could fly around you.”
And so many times during 2020 I wished I was a migrating bird that could cross continents and seas without any fear of contracting the contagion and passing it on to my parents. I wished I could stand on the lemon tree in her garden and bid her farewell.
Now we are not only separated by borders, lockdowns and travel restrictions, but by death itself. The finiteness of it all hits you as if you were run over by a lorry. The fact that you can no longer create new memories together fills you with anger and sadness. Grief constantly tests your mettle and you fail, succeed, fail, succeed . . .
Her grave is in her hometown of Na’ur at the top of a hill overlooking greenery and trees and the fresh air her lungs craved while alive is in abundance there. When the borders are open and flights are resumed, I will head there, sit by her grave, and weep. Like a bird I will hover above it remembering all the wonderful things we had done together. Big things like travelling to different countries or small but significant things like repeatedly inspecting old black-and-white photographs of our family.
Grief is another country and you cannot leave it permanently. You earn some reprieves through expressing rather than repressing your emotions. The angrier and more devastated you are the longer are your jail breaks. In the country of sadness good behaviour prolongs your sentence. Grief is a seismic activity that creates rifts and and new territories. You remap your heart, your position in the world, and restructure all your relationships. It is an acid test and some fail and others succeed. It strengthened my ties with my father, son, husband and some members of my family and friends, weakened my relation with others, and rekindled old friendships.

Having endured multiple losses, I am weaker and stronger now. I mourn and gleam.

3 July 2021

At my mother’s grave in Um Al Quttayn Cemetery near her home town Na’ur, paying my respect. The olive tree will be planted in her memory. رحمة الله عليك يا ست الحبايب


13 July 2021

When you realise you are mortal, most thing lose their meaning. You have never been eternal of course but losing someone close places your mortality at the centre of your world and focuses your mind on the finiteness of it all.

You move into a parallel universe, where darkness reigns. The lemons on the tree, my late mother planted a few years ago, lose their morning sheen; and the sky although blue, seems grey. No serotonin or dopamine to carry you through the day. You are unable to fabricate romance or project it on a sunrise or a sunset, for example. You lose your ability to reminisce or go down memory lane without a painful investigation of the past. Nostalgia becomes a disease like cancer. From now on no rose-tinted glasses for you. The multi-coloured picture turns black and yellow, a fading memory. You panic when you are unable to hold the past in a medium that preserves and beautifies.

A vital wood block had been removed from the centre of you, and the whole tower had collapsed. So how do you reconstruct yourself? Where does this or that block go? You try and fail to replicate what was. The structure you build is not the same and will always be misshapen. ‘You have to adjust to the new reality’. A realignment begins. Night vision needs to turn into day vision where infrared or thermal images become normal ones, seen in technicolour when light is reflected on them. But they remain bland, one-dimensional, and skewed.

You begin to have conversation with the selves you had lost, the ones that seem now naïve, unaware of their mortality, or self-delusional – you should have kept a skull on your desk as a memento mori. You look back in sadness for you had lost them all. How to forge a new self? Or how to regain some of the innocence you had lost?

Reminders of your former selves are all around you. Your love of history motivated you to document the many stages of your life. Things have significance and that’s why they are hung on your wall or stand on your shelves in Durham and Amman. But in this day of social media and virtual reality history is irrelevant to many. Stripped of their sentimental value your objects have little meaning to someone other than yourself. They might end up in a charity shop. Your legacy is mostly a pile of books, manuscripts, ink on paper, that someone after your death might find burdensome. S/he might donate them or even destroy them. Therefore, you cannot rely on the trail you blazed to remain visible. You shall disappear for you are transient.

Also the death of a loved one dims your heart so how do you continue this arduous journey? How do you get rid of that lingering feeling of despondency, fabricate a goal, and strive to achieve it? How do you reignite yourself when the battery has gone flat? There are no jump leads for the human spirit.

In the fullness of time, you might wake up one day your old self again. Perhaps the missing parts would be restored, and the blocks assume their old shape. An essence of the old you might be still there. Impermanence is the order of the day and there is a glimmer of hope in that. And then you ask yourself, ‘Do you want your old self back?’ You are a wounded soldier, and you cannot unwound yourself. Also, nostalgia is a psychological cancer, remember.

Bereavement rather than counteracting Covid-19 caused the loss of your sense of smell and taste. The five senses were hit: food tastes like cardboard, the jasmines have no scent, and your eyesight has deteriorated. The cliché ‘has become a shadow of her former self’ applies to you. Perhaps a semblance of normality would resume one day. In the meantime, you sit in this space between disillusionment and its suspension waiting for meaning to emerge, for the picture to acquire some colour, for the blossoms of the lemon tree to become fragrant. One day their scent might rise and fill your late mother’s garden again.

Written in Amman

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