You lost your mother when you were a toddler. I cannot imagine what it felt like to grow up without a mother and survive without her love and support.
Father, your elegance had no bounds. After my mother’s death you stood there, well-groomed, and formally dress, pretending that your heart was not breaking.
There is an old shop in Durham that sells neckties. I often search its window for new colours and patterns.
You were amazing. You created a filing system for your nine children and wrote their names on the files then neatly clipped their homework, birth, school, and university certificates etc.
I knew your determination to educate us was a personal vendetta because although you had an offer from a university in the USA in 1955 your family did not send you could not go. This remained with you to the end of your life.
Whenever you stood up for me you bolstered my backbone.
I am grateful for having a room of my own in a house you and my mother had had built brick by brick. You saved for years to pay for the land and the house. That space helped me study, reflect, write and grow.
Thank you for teaching me how to read between the lines. A great gift.
The gold and turquoise pendant you gave me when I achieved first rank at school means so much. I wear it when I feel low to lift myself up.
Whenever I said to you ‘ya asmar ya hilu: dark-skinned and beautiful,’ you would laugh. I adored that boyish laugh.
You are open-minded and enlightened. You spoke too many languages not to be that: Arabic, Circassian, English, German.
Your handwriting is so beautiful.
You were a great father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. With your kind and thoughtful gestures you planted yourself in our hearts and minds.
Your love and respect for my mother made me believe that great relationships were possible.
Your compassion for near and far was exemplary. You had a telephone book that had hundreds of numbers, and you contacted each one on ‘her mother’s death anniversary’ ‘first day of the Eid festival’ etc.
You never held a grudge or treated people the way they treated you. An eye for an eye was not how you saw the world. You forgave and rang, visited, gave gifts. What an amazing example to follow!
You considered me a writer early on and took me to the Jordanian Writer’s League to meet fellow authors.
You arranged for us to join a language school in Oxford so we can improve our English, right before I started my university degree in English literature. I said to the teacher then that I shall be a writer and she raised her eyebrows.
The sight of a carrel at Oxford university overlooking a meadow and a lake inspired me. Students had such a magical place to read, write, reflect. I vowed to go back to the UK to continue my higher education. Due to your generosity that dream was born.
Thank you for supporting me during the student representatives’ elections at the University of Jordan. You were ecstatic when I won.
We have the same smile.
I hear your voice in any recital of the Quran especially that of Al-Afasi. It was mellifluous even when it got weaker, hoarser towards the end of your life.
You were a special man, democratic to the very core. Despite our fundamental difference you tolerated my views, my choices.
From a potential foe (teenager’s exaggerated fear) you become a dear friend. I looked forward to our conversations, which covered a wide range of subjects from flowers to food to foreign affairs.
How delighted I was when you enjoyed eating the baked chicken and potatoes, I had made for you. You really liked my recipe.
I looked forward to having breakfast with you and I learnt how you preferred the napkins, spoons, teapot, sugar canister to be arranged.
How much I enjoyed sending you Father Day cards and how delighted I was when I heard that you asked your granddaughters to read them aloud again and again.
Dad, a homing pigeon began visiting me every day after my mother’s death and stood on the fence by the fatsia she had planted.
Speaking to my sister a few days before you died you asked, ‘when is she coming?’ Your trembling voice, which I could barely hear on the videocall, and your longing to say goodbye to me face to face will be with me for the rest of my life.
Your death shook me to the core. I experienced the loss as a sharp backpain probably caused by the heavy weight of all the unexpressed love I have for you and my mother .
I am sorry I did not say goodbye to you face to face. It was meant that I remember you healthy, strong, independent.
Your funeral was legendary. I wish you were able to see the amount of love that flooded the streets of Amman. You left a formidable balance in people’s hearts.
When I arrived in Amman I slept in your bed and woke up with an unfamiliar Farid al-Atrash song, ‘Ya shams albi w thiluh: you are the sun and shade of my heart; my whole life’s story’, repeating in my head. I never heard it before that morning. Perhaps my mother sang it to me when I was a child. It summed up your and my mother’s great love story, which lasted for more than seventy years.
I keep checking your Facebook Messenger account, hoping to see a green dot and ‘active now’ next to your name, longing for another videocall.
After your death white butterflies filled my garden.
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
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
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 things 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 taste and smell. 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
عندما تدرك أنك فانٍ، فإن معظم الأشياء تفقد معناها، أنت لم تكن يومًا مخلداً، ولكن فقدان شخص عزيز عليك يجعل الفناء محور عالمك، ويركز عقلك على محدودية كل شيء
في لحظةٍ من الزمان، تنتقل إلى عالم موازٍ، حيث يسود الظلام، تقع عينك على شجرة الليمون، تلك الشجرة التي زرعتها أمك الراحلة قبل بضع سنوات، فإذا بها تفقد لمعانها الصباحي؛ وعلى الرغم من أن السماء زرقاء، لكنها تبدو رمادية
لا يوجد في دماغك أي سيروتونين أو دوبامين يحملك على المُضيّ قدماً في يومك، وتجدُ نفسك غير قادر على اختلاق الرومانسية أو إسقاطها على شروق الشمس أو غروبها، ويكون من الصعب التذكر أو التّجوال في حارة الأمس دون أن تجري تحقيقاً مؤلماً في أحداث الماضي، ويتحول الحنين منذ تلك اللحظات إلى مرض كالسرطان، وكأنك من الآن فصاعدًا لن تملك نظارات وردية اللون لتلجأ إليها، والصورة متعددة الألوان تتحول إلى الأسود والأصفر، وتبدو الذاكرة مزاجًا من الصور الباهتة، فتصاب بالذعر عندما تكتشف أنك لن تتمكن من الاحتفاظ بالماضي في خابيةٍ تصونه
الأمرُ أشبه بإزالة كتلة خشبية حيوية من وسطك، انهار بسببها البرج بأكمله، فكيف لك أن تعيد بناء نفسك؟ أين تضع هذه القطعة أو تلك؟ لعلّك تحاول وتفشل في تكرار ما كان، لكن عبثًا لا تحاول، فذلك الهيكل الذي تقوم ببنائه لن يعود نفسه وسيظل دائما مشوهًا
“عليك أن تتكيف مع الواقع الجديد”
تبدأ إعادة صف القطع، يجب أن تتحول رؤيتك الليلية إلى رؤية نهارية؛ حيث تصبح صور الأشعة تحت الحمراء أو الصور الحرارية طبيعية، وتُرى بتقنية الألوان عندما ينعكس الضوء عليها، لكنها تظل مسطحة وذات بعد واحد ومنحرف
تبدأ في إجراء محادثة مع ذواتك التي فقدتها، تلك التي تبدو الآن ساذجة، غير مدركة لفنائها، فقد خدعت نفسها مراراً، ربما كان يجب عليك أن تضع جمجمة على مكتبك تذكارًا يصرخ في وجهك ليلًا نهارًا أن الحياة زائلة وستنتهي حتما بالموت، تشيحُ بوجهك إلى الوراء في حزن وتنظر باستغراقٍ لكل ذات من ذواتك؛ كيف تصوغ ذاتاً جديدة؟ أو كيفتستعيد بعض البراءة التي فقدتها؟
الأشياء التي تذكرك بأنفسك السابقة تتبعثر في كل مكان حولك، فحبك للتاريخ دفعك إلى توثيق العديد من مراحل حياتك، وكل مرحلة تحتل في نفسك مكانًا خاصًا إذ علّقتها على الجدران الخاصة بك ووضعتها على رفوفك في عمان ودَرَم، هذا ما كان في السابق، لكن اليوم حيث انتشرت وسائل التواصل الاجتماعي واستبدل الكثيرون حياتهم الواقعية بالعالم الافتراضي، لا يهتم جل الناس بالتاريخ. وأغراضك القيّمة وأشياؤكالأثيرةُ لا تعني الكثير لأحد سواك، فقد جُرّدت من قيمتها العاطفية، وقد ينتهي بها المطافُ في متجر خيري
إن إرثك هو في الغالب لا يعدو كونه كومة من الكتب والمخطوطات والحبرعلى الورق، والتي قد يجدها البعض بعد وفاتك مجرد عبء يثقلهم، وربما تبرعوا بها أو تخلصوا منها وحولوها رمادًا، ولا يمكنك الاعتماد على أن المسار الذي حفرته وأضاءته أن يبقى مرئيا، فاستسلم: كتب عليك أن تختفي لأنك عابر
أمام هذه اللوحة من الخيبات، يأتي موت أحد الأحباء ليطفئ القلب، فكيف إذن ستستمر في هذه الرحلة الشاقة؟ كيف تتخلص من الشعور باليأس المستمر وتختلق هدفًا، وتسعى إلى تحقيقه؟ كيف تعيد إشعال نفسك عندما تصبح البطارية فارغة؟ ترى، هل هناك شاحن للروح البشرية حتى تستطيع الوثب نحو الفرح مجددًا؟
قد يمر الزمن ويتغيركل شيء، وقد تستيقظ نفسك القديمة ذات يوم مرة أخرى، وربما ستتم استعادة الأجزاء التي فقدتها، وتتخذ الكتل شكلها القديم. لعلّ بعض جوهرك لم يفنى، وحتى الثوابت هي في حالة تحول دائمة، وهذا يضيء بصيصًا من الأمل، ثم تسأل نفسك، “هل تريد أن تعود ذاتك القديمة؟” أنت جندي جريح، ولا يمكن لجرحك أن يضمّ شفاههُ بنفس الطريقة التي جُرح بها، وتذكّر دائمًا:الحنين هو سرطان نفسي
بالنسبة لك، فإن الفجيعة لا الإصابة بفيروس الكورونا هي التي تسببت في فقدانك لحاستيّ الشم والذوق، بل تأثرت حواسك كلها: المأكولات تتجفّف في فمك مثل الكرتون، ولا تجدُ رائحة للياسمين، وتقع عينك على الأشياء فلا تُبصرها، أو بمعنى أدق، ينطبق عليك الكليشيه: “أصبحت ظلًا فقط لذاتك القديمة”، ربما ستستأنف الحياة الطبيعية أو ما يشبهها يومًا ما، وبينما يحدث ذلك، تجلس في تلك المساحة التي تقع بين خيبة الأمل والإيقاف المؤقت لها، في انتظار ظهور المغزى من كل ما حدث، أو حتى تكتسب الصورة بعض اللون على الأقل، وحتى يعود عبير أزهار شجرة الليمون الدافئ. يوماً ما، قد يرتفع عبقها ويملأ حديقة والدتك الراحلة مرة أخرى
To my mother on the first anniversary of her death.
The sight of any lemon tree. The smell of orange peel, which you used to put on the stove. The sound of Farid al-Atrash, your favourite crooner, blasting from a café in a side street in Amman. ‘I wish I was a bird.’ The taste of baklava on my tongue, which we used to have every midday. The feel of wool jackets, which you needed so much. A jasmine tree. The smell of wet grass. Kathem al Saher singing lyrics about amazing women. Tea with fresh mint. The satin ribbons you kept in the sewing box. A cat drinking from the well you had made. Your signature risotto with carrots and chickpeas. Circassian accordion music from your faraway homeland. The taste of apricot jam, which you used to make for the whole family and the neighbourhood. Velvet like one of your kaftans. The silk scarves you gave me. The scent of honeysuckle. Boisterous Bedouin music. The taste of rice pudding with gum mastic. The smoothness of the beads on your embroidered headcover. The flowers I showed you on Facebook messenger before you died. The Oudh fragrance you used to wear. The yoghurt labanieh with chicken you cooked for me to settle my travel tummy whenever I flew back. The cooing of pigeons on our cherry tree, on any tree. Your rough, gardeners hands on my face.
It does not take much for the tissue I fabricate every day to protect myself to be pricked. When open and stripped of patience, I yearn for your smile. One glimpse. Your scent. One word. Deep missing seeps in threatening the me I had constructed since you died. My heart unstitched; I weep until the keyboard is wet.
But the centre must hold, mother. I stand up, dust myself, and walk on following your example and honouring your wishes.
27 December 2021
The glossy leaf paper plant my late mother had planted in my garden in Durham, has flowered for the very first time this year. The audacity of nature and hope.
During my daily walks I pass by fields, which are part of Durham’s Green Belt, and farms. I stand by the dry stone wall of Elvet Moor Farm watching nature at peace with itself unlike us. The large open spaces and meadows highlight how constrained we are under the coronavirus lockdown. All you can hear is the rustling of leaves and the singing of birds, punctuated by ambulance sirens. The tranquillity of the countryside is in sharp contrast with a boisterous and unruly virus, racing in the air, looking for a angiotensin converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) receptor to colonise and destroy.
Spring has sprung unnoticed. In one of the fields the sheep and blackbirds share the feed and eat together in harmony; seagulls land on the freshly ploughed fields, white upon brown, then fly off; and the sunset turns the tops of beach, birch and oak trees into gold. Families cycle together. People wearing masks wave and thank each other for observing social distancing. We inhale the fresh air, which thankfully we still can do, and resisting our primal need for closeness we step away from each other.
When I got home, I sat in the garden sipping tea with fresh mint. I know I am in trouble when I start listening to the Egyptian diva Um-Kulthum and reminiscing about a youth misspent in Amman’s cafes and restaurants. A friend said, ‘You get intoxicated and become amorous and stupid listening to her songs. You could fall in love with the leg of this table.’ We laughed and filled our nostrils with the smell of Turkish coffee with cardamom, jasmine and freshly watered oleanders. We were young and life and oyster were close to each other.
During the 1970’s gender roles were defined and strict, and women should know their place, but we didn’t. We connived to be able to go out for a walk, or a cup of coffee somewhere. In exchange for the coveted permission to leave The House of Bernarda Alba, we did all the chores. These outings were such a treat and a break from our daily routine: dusting, mopping floors, scrubbing bathrooms, preparing breakfast and dinner, cooking lunch sometimes, ironing, and then studying. All had to be done to perfection and elders appeased so we could reach our destination, Jabal Amman, and live it up.
From our kitchen’s window above the sink, I could see the Hejaz Railway winding its way on hillsides, and watch aeroplanes take off and land at Marka Airport. Washing the suds off plates, I wondered where did trains go and aeroplanes fly? What lay beyond the hills? Birds migrated, but to where? Were there other worlds beyond the horizon?
I was a nomad like my aunt and my feet were always itchy. She has style and liked to try new restaurants, so when in 1975 the Chinese expatriate Peter Kwai (Abu-Khalil) opened the first Chinese restaurant, just off Rainbow Street, overlooking the Ahliyyah School for Girls. we were there in a shot. Then I was young and troubled, but sitting in the old stone house, with red lanterns dangling above my head, enveloped by foreign aromas: the smell of chicken cooked in soy sauce, ginger, fried rice, provided a much needed respite. It was a mental escape from the harsh reality. Surrounded mainly by diplomatic core and businessmen we tried chopsticks, sweet and sour chicken, and shredded beef for the first time. Abu Khalil knew that we liked chicken with cashew nuts, and he always served complementary extra portion. It was as close as we could get to a holiday outside the country.
It is now post-coronavirus and the other day I played the gang’s favourite song, Amal Hayati: the hope of my life. I found the lyrics sentimental, even sickly. ‘Take my whole life but let me live through today! Let me stay in the embrace of your heart!’ Seriously?
We lived on a staple of romantic fiction, false premises and promises, and a culture that objectified women. You were a burden and life was a hunting ground. Your raison de d’être was to catch an eligible bachelor. Wearing glasses, having bad posture, and reading all the time, which I did, was frowned upon. ‘You are destroying your looks and you will not get married.’ I ignored the warning and continued to consume my uncle’s library like a woodworm. Fashion had to be followed religiously and time must be spent perfecting your hair, make up, clothes. As for your mind you must leave it be because the more ignorant you are the better. Men do not like clever women. We were high on the ‘happiness ever after myth’ while most of our rights were either non-existent, being eroded or inactivated. We were second-class citizens and big brother was watching us all the time. We got used to being policed and created strategies to get out of the male family members’ curfews.
Having no other option but to survive, we did. Women supported each other in real time and terms, and ‘sisterhood’ then was not incubated in an ivory tower, but the grass-root grew it organically. In our neighbourhood the women’s subculture was that of solidarity. We rallied round the weakest and most vulnerable among us: those who were ill, were beaten by their husbands, or in financial need. We shopped for them, sent them food, took care of their children until they got back from health clinics.
The equivalent of a ‘stiff upper lip’ and ‘put the kettle on’ were endless cups of Turkish coffee. You put some ground coffee with cardamom in a dallah, bring it to the boil, skim the surface, boil it again then pour it in demitasses. But before that, like red Indian smoke signals, you spill some on the cooker hob, so the aroma fills the air, travels in the breeze to the women’s noses, inviting them to your courtyard. Then the daily group therapy begins, chats about the price of lemons, exchange of recipes, recommendations of Indian films that really make you weep, description of the dreams you had the night before. ‘All will be alright at the end,’ we say and drink a glass of water, indicating that we are ready to leave. There was cooking, cleaning, laundry, teaching of children, and gardening to do.
Cliché alert! We cannot walk by, above, or below the coronavirus. The only way is through it. There will be loss, pain, and questions to be asked. Will the shift in our priorities remain unchanged? Will our identities metamorphose? How will we evolve as a human race? Will we respect nature and harmonise with it? All will be clearer in the fullness of time to those who remain alive. However, if you are born a woman in a male-dominated society, and you survive that and even prosper, your life skills are robust, and a pandemic is passable.
Some days are bad. According to the Department of Heath and Social Care and Public Health England 9875 people have died of coronavirus in the UK. The figure does not cover those who died at home or in care homes so some argue that it should be doubled. I try to get my head round it, let it sink in. 9875 grandmothers, grandfathers, mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, grandsons, grandchildren, sisters, brothers, nieces, nephews, aunts and uncles have died and most probably buried unceremoniously. There is stillness at the beginning as the neurotransmitters in my brain start sending excitatory messages, a drawing of breath, with fortunately I can still do, followed by anger.
Having witnessed and survived so many wars civil and otherwise, pandemics and epidemics, I despair about being a member of such an idiotic and short-sighted human race. This feeling makes death seem like a reprieve. As my late friend Elizabeth Anderson once said, ‘If death is oblivion, bring it on.’
We obviously learnt very little since 1346, when the black death swept many parts of the world. And despite all the pandemics and epidemics inflicted on us: cholera, the plague, Spanish flue, HIV/Aids, Ebola, Sars, we still prioritise amassing arms and protecting ourselves against mostly illusive enemies over our health and that of other species.
Arms manufacturers and dealers have thrived on wars in so many parts of the world from Korea and Vietnam all the way to Iraq. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) the arms industry sales of the top 100 manufacturers reached $420 billion, a rise of 109% between 2002-2018.
That shows that we invested heavily not in science that cures, but in science that kills: the atomic bomb, stealth and precision guided weapons, drones. With billions of dollars at their dispense, arms manufacturers created weapons that can find you, follow you down an alleyway, dance the waltz over your head, and then explode, killing you and those around you.
I read somewhere that the Muslims in medieval Spain (722-1492) were defeated because they made a conscious decision to stop destructive scientific experimentation in its tracks. Whether that is true on or not the war machine, devouring people and capital, must be stopped and funds diverted to a ‘peace dividend’ to be spent on education, improving the infrastructure, providing health for all, and foreign aid. The UK alone spent $50 billion on arms in 2018. How many universities, hospitals, care homes, social housing, playgrounds could have been built with that amount? How many respirators, oxygen cylinders, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for NHS staff could have been resourced? How many lives could have been saved?
Some days are worse. Fear, distilled and pure, for myself and others, races through my veins, sapping my energy. I feel depleted and struggle to go down to have breakfast. I try to keep it together, but the slightest challenge unravels me like failing to open a milk carton. I keep forgetting my rituals, routines and rhythms and start again. Do I normally go for a walk before or after breakfast? Perhaps after lunch? Then lunch comes and goes with me still lying on the sofa watching television and trying to make sense of the random images. They seemed alien as if beamed from Jupiter. On days like this a phone call could drain me, tip me over. I take the phone off the hook, keep my mobile on silent, switch off my PC and iPad and block all contact with the outside world. Do not disturb!
It is a solitude in disquietude rather than tranquillity. Bad thoughts rush in tripping over each other. How would I cope if I lost a loved one in one of many the countries they are in: Jordan, USA, Bahrain, Germany? Would I be able to reach them, attend their funerals, grief with other members of my family? Will I be allowed to see them lowered into their graves, so I could in the fullness of time have a sense of closure. Would I forgive myself for the decisions I made such as making Britain my home, and not travelling to Amman when the airport was open. What about remorse and contrition? Have I loved enough?
Other days are bearable. I wake up fine and can go about my daily tasks. During such respites, death seems distant and, for some reason, I am immune to it, my blood stream is full of antibodies that can fight all diseases including Covid-19. Delusional, I convince myself that this crisis will be over soon, and normal life will resume, whatever that was. My family like going out occasionally to The South Causey Inn in Stanley – the name triggers an eruption of nostalgia – to have Sunday lunch, roast turkey, with all the trimmings, potatoes, sautéed carrots, cauliflower, and broccoli. We reminisce about such simple pleasures, which now belong to the pre-coronavirus era and console ourselves by saying, ‘maybe soon we will be able to go out for a meal again.’ We sit in the garden, thinking of our loved ones in Amman as we listen to the Lebanese singer Fairuz croon, ‘Ba’dak ‘ala bali: you are still on my mind, oh young and proud, oh fragrant basil scattered on rooftops!’
Oblivious to our hopes, fears and nostalgia, the circles of coronavirus on the pandemic meters’ maps are getting bigger, denser and angrier. Death is driving up the highway and will arrive at our neighbourhood soon. I apologise to the grim reaper because despite all his warnings, grey hair, dimming eyesight, and stiff joints, I am still unprepared. What about what I still intended to do? What about the heart’s unfulfilled desires? What about unfinished businesses? There are projects to carry out, books to write, places to visit, words to say, and love yet to be expressed.
My friend G tells me that she group-calls her sisters in London every Sunday. I suggest that we do the same. Few days ago, my sisters and I arranged a group video call with my parents in Amman. When my father saw his four daughters together on one screen, he was overwhelmed. We spoke about the lockdowns and curfews, about being careful, and how far saliva droplets teaming with Covid-19 viruses can travel. My mother said, ‘I stopped going out to the garden. Sometimes children play in the street outside.’
My mother’s ‘game’, as my father once said, is her garden. With the help of my sister E, an agricultural engineer, they created a beautiful oasis in east Amman: lemon and mulberry trees, bougainvillea where sparrows nested, and jasmine vines. Every morning she would feed the tortoises in the flowerbed, water the plants, and fill the small pool so stray cats don’t go thirsty.
‘How about if you wear a mask when you go out to the garden.’ My brother looked for masks in all Amman’s pharmacies but couldn’t find any. My sister W created a mask at home that had two layers of cotton, which could be stuffed with crunched paper towels. ‘You could dispose of the paper towels and wash it in high temperatures after use.’ Amman has many seamstresses and probably most are without income now. We decided to ask one of them to make masks for my parents. Perhaps we can get them certified and then fundraise to make many more and donate them to the old and vulnerable.
Whenever I meditate in the evening, I watch out for Sirius, the largest and brightest star in the galaxy. Last time I noticed it I was on holiday in Tenerife in January. The sky was clear, and the star twinkled like that diamond in the nursery rhyme. It was twenty degrees and the distant sounds were that of a typical summer night: cutlery on crockery, clinking of glasses, chatter, laughter and a singer in the bar on the other side of the garden and lit swimming pool attempting an aria. The manicured garden had palm trees, with leaves braided like hair, orchid trees, flame vines, bougainvillea trimmed and used as a hedge, cape honeysuckle, hibiscus, freesias and birds of paradise. That evening their scent rose to the balcony and filled the air. I breathed in and exhaled. Then the glasses were still rose-tinted: life was good. Death was a distant eventuality rather than an imminent reality. Romance, love, happiness, recognition, and even immortality were on the cards. As Shakespeare wrote, ‘Why then the world’s mine oyster, which I with sword will open.’
That was before the pandemic threw all the cards and oysters up in the air and then broke the table they were on. Our lives now are divided into two periods: pre and post Covid-19 pandemic.
Yesterday in Durham I spotted the brightest star in the sky again. What was it called? Sirius A and B? It looked nothing like the one I saw in Tenerife three months ago, which seems like decades ago. It was smaller, less bright and like a tear in the dark fabric of the sky. The virus scrubbed the rosiness and other growths off the lenses. The world lost its sheen, became clearer and less safe. Sirius matured to what it is: a mass of hot gas. It was burning hydrogen into helium in its core to shine and was not the largest start in the galaxy, but it appeared so because of its proximity to earth.
I sat in the darkness looking at the silhouettes of trees and plants. Will it run out of fuel and die? The pre-Covid-19-me would have said at least it was shining bright and when it dies the heavier elements it releases will form new stars. But the post-Covid-19-me rejects that optimism. No romance, clichés, assigning objects with sentimental value, or seeing individuals and relationship not as they are, but as I wish them to be. No more artificial insemination of relationships or friendships via social media. No more self-deception.
After the pandemic is under control there will be a realignment of relationships too for some will get stronger and others will weaken or fizzle out. Covid-19 is a litmus test of people around you. Those who are genuinely concerned are blue and alkaline, and those who are not are acidic and red. You will see it in blue and red and you will not be able to deceive yourself, misinterpret it, or explain it away. This tempest will separate the wheat from the chaff, and then blow away the husks. You will be standing alone, but your loved ones and genuine friends will be standing by you albeit at a safe distance.
I am back after spending weeks reading and digesting the news about the corona virus and coming to terms with a new reality. The novel I was working on seems irrelevant, and even self-indulgent now. Life has changed drastically and what was important before Covid-19 seems trivial now and visa versa. It is like installing a new GPS system that you know nothing about and then using it to navigate a new path. Every direction or decision has repercussions: when to tighten the mask, where to walk, when to turn and go back, how to act when face to face with other unwise homo sapiens, and what to do when someone directs a cough at you and the virus itself races towards you?
Before my morning and evening walks, I wear a hat, mask, jacket with hood, and gloves then venture out, stepping into a hostile environment – please bring back that of the Home Office – that could kill me instantly.
Skilled at self-deception we denigrated death to a distant eventuality, something that happens to others, but the virus turned it into an imminent reality. We have to get ready for departure, pack our suitcases, tidy up, clean the slat, and reconnect with loved ones. Every Skype conversation could be our last so which words to select that could be our last. Will they linger in their memories?
Then resentment builds up because there is so much you want to achieve, loose ends to tie up, projects to carry out, places to visit? How could this journey end prematurely? It is absurd. And all the things you accumulated: books, photographs, paintings, heirlooms, and objects that have sentimental value, which you didn’t have enough time to explain to your children or grandchildren to instil your personal history into their memory. Could you and your story vanish just like that? Puff.
Counting steps, I breath in the fresh air. With the numbers of death rising, it tastes of salt and is laden with grief. Although no one can see or touch the deceased we feel the pain of their families and loved ones. This is bereavement at a global scale that could wrench the heart and unsettle the mind if we are not careful.
The magnitude of the corona virus pandemic did not hit me until I saw a picture of my hometown Amman, ‘masqat ra’si: where my head landed when I was born’, empty. The boisterous city that rarely sleeps was deserted as if the country was at war. Shops, restaurants and cafes were shut, and there were no pedlars, pedestrians or cars in the streets.
When I go to Jordan in the spring and autumn of every year, I normally stay with my parents in Jabal Al Taj in East Amman if I were travelling without my husband. Having no access to a gym or a swimming pool, I walk everywhere to keep my fitness levels up. Durham is hilly, and I am used to walking to the city centre here too. Early in the morning, before it got hot, I would walk to Al Mahatta: which was named because of it position next to the Ottoman Hejaz Railway station, through the Roman Amphitheatre, by the Roman Nymphaeum, by the Vegetable Market, to the city centre. When I arrive at ar-Rida street, I would hear the call of the fresh juice seller ‘Ahlan doctora, welcome, you’re back.’ Then we exchange niceties that are hard to translate into English.
‘You lit up the country,’ he would say.
‘The country is already bright with your presence.’
He would prepare my usual, a cocktail of orange, mango and carrot juice.’
‘This one is on me.’
‘No. Please. I wouldn’t have it if you don’t accept my payment.’
So reluctantly he takes the money. We would talk about his Egyptian helper who went back to Cairo, about the weather and how well he is doing considering the challenges the country is facing.
Then I go to Abu Ali’s Book Kiosk to see which books are on display and to occasionally buy some. This is followed with either a visit to Jafra Cafe or having a Habiba Sweets’ kunafa, a stringy pastry layered with cheese and soaked in sugar syrup, which Ammanis have for breakfast sometimes. We eat it sitting on the pavements outside the shop.
Jordan’s measures to combat Covid-19 are strict and commendable. The lockdown began early, when the country had few cases. The virus turned Amman into a ghost town. When I saw the photograph of the empty streets, the magnitude of the tsunami we are facing hit me.
Will I be able to go back?
On 12 March I had to make a difficult decision: to travel or not to travel back to Amman. I had a few concerns among them the possibility of contracting the virus on the two taxi rides, two flights or in the three airports that I had to cross and then passing it to my elderly parents. If that happened, I would never be able to forgive myself. So, I decided to stay in Durham. Post Covid-19 every decision has repercussions, ramifications and might be the wrong one. Will I regret not going back to Amman when the airport was still open?
Mother’s Day in Jordan is on 21 March and on that morning my heart was tilting east so I wept into my porridge. I badly needed to see my mother, hug her, reassure her and make her laugh. Will I ever see her again? When will we be reunited? How long will we remain in a lockdown, under corona house arrests? Suddenly the world which seemed like a village in January split into separate continents. My parent, who seemed so near before Covid-19, are distant now, overseas, unreachable.
After composing myself, I rang my mother. We were emotional, but I didn’t want her to get distressed so I spoke of daffodils in the garden, which bloomed suddenly, of the jasmine my late fried Gwyneth had given me and how it survived another winter, of the Earley Ornamentals flowers’ catalogue, which I intend to send her in the post. ‘Hopefully we will meet again soon, mama.’ Our voices were strained, tears checked, and hearts heavy.
I washed my face with icy water and looked at the sky. The birds were still there and singing. Then I heard the click of the letterbox, after the postman had pushed a fat envelop through it. I opened it, got rid of the packing, washed my hands and inspected its contents: a card from my son and daughter-in-law, another from my grandson, and another from my granddaughter. ‘Happy Mother’s Day grandma.’ I caressed them, read their contents again and again and then displayed them on the side table, where I could see them.
The next day letterbox flowers arrived from my son and his family. I unpacked the roses, pink snapdragons, alstroemeria and foliage carefully, cut their ends, put them in a vase, filled it with water, stirred in the feed to help the flowers survive for as long as possible, then tied the ribbon around the vase. At least the flowers have arrived in perfect condition. Love will sustain us through this crisis, will carry us to the other shore and will heal us when the crisis is over.