This segment is based on my recent trip to Leb in summer 2013. It explores my feelings towards one of my home countries. I hope you enjoy it. Leave a comment, show your support and love. All criticism welcomed. Peace.
I stand outside my front door; I can still hear the sounds of the children playing on the third floor up the staircase while their mother mopped the grimy floors. I can still smell the testosterone and sweat dripping off the gelled youth in the gym on the ground floor. And I can still smell the metallic stench of the stone that covered our streets, burnt by the unforgiving sun. Our front door is built of two layers, first a heavy steel door with a thick coppery lock which opens to reveal a large, rich dark mahogany door that reminds me of a giant Galaxy bar. It looks much better than our neighbours’ who had a single steel door with rust the colour of defecation beginning to creeping off the edges. Their door was more often open than closed. Right now it was unlocked and I could faintly hear Ya Tayr by Fairuz play in between the clatter of pots and pans.
To the right of our door on the wall was a block of carefully smoothed and varnished wood with my father’s Brazilian name awkwardly engraved in curly Arabic calligraphy. I open the door and hear the terrifying clunk it echoes through the hallway. The cool air of the air conditioner hits me first, as well as the pleasant smell of lavender scented detergent I could tell my mother had used to clean the floor. Then the strong scent of garlic hit me, as well as mint and olive oil which smelt to me like breakfast. The living-room is extra tidy, even the remote which always seems to find its way out of eye-sight is sitting splendidly on top of the TV. Aljazeera blares and I quickly switch onto Rotana and increase the volume once I see Najwa Karam on the screen. I slide off my converses while mouthing the lyrics of the song rather badly. The marble floor feels cold underneath my bare feet which startles me and I hurriedly search for my slippers; the flip flops with a worn out Brazilian flag printed on them were an old gift from my father when he went to Brazil in 2008, without us – of course.
My eye catches sight of the painting on the wall to my right; there is a thick stream across the middle sandwiched between unrepressed grasslands, fervent trees and animals; dears, rabbits, and even a little fisherman sitting on the riverbank with his taupe bucket hat resting across his face. A passionate artist clearly lived in this apartment many years ago. He/she wanted to make such an imprint that they painted the art-piece onto the actual wall before framing it. My father hated it, but knew he could to nothing to get rid of it. The oil paints were layered and thick, with ridges across the thick grass stretching on meadows. Even the subtle waves of the river and the fisherman’s hat gleamed with ridged dimension. Painting over it would leave the wall looking uneven and scarred.
I start towards the kitchen, walk through the dimly lit corridor that echoes the slaps of my viva la Brasil flip-flops. My mother has her back towards me, tomatoes and spring onions spill from the counter, she is slicing haloumi cheese on a chopping board, juices splatter onto her nightgown. Cinnamon tea bubbles on the hub and I could smell the dampness of chickpeas boiling. She looks back at me and gives me a sarcastic smile; her dimples pierce her cheeks deeply, as if scored with a knife.
“Won’t you give your mother a hand?” she continues to slice through slabs of haloumi. The smell of it sickens me; sweaty and salty, my nose scrunches distastefully.
“I need to get out of these clothes and shower first,” I take a tomato in my hand and toss it into the pile of washed parsley sitting near the sink.
My mother has set my bed, a pile of neatly folded clothes sit on the corner waiting for me to tuck them away in my suitcase. I throw them onto my vanity beside the opened bottles of foundation and mascara. I take off my dress and sit on the corner of my double bed, my bedroom window is open and I lean forward with my chin resting on the windowsill. It led to one of our balconies which gave me a full view of the roundabout our building was situated in. It’s a very popular roundabout in Abou Samra (an area in Tripoli), called Dinnawi. The roundabout itself is covered in a neatly trimmed layer of grass with a few olive trees decorating the sides, also neatly trimmed. Right in the middle was a miniature green and white mosque, with tiny crescent moons balancing on the narrow minarets. There was a great buzz of activity going on; drivers beeping at one another, not always angrily but as a pleasant greeting to one another. A mother is strolling with her three children who fought to hold her hands. I could smell the delicious oozing juices of barbecuing chicken, marinated in butter, garlic and herbs roasting in the restaurant below. Men pushing small carts of fresh orange juice yell to the people to come and buy, while holding cigars in their mouths. I can smell the Maasal (honey apple) flavoured argilé (sheesha) that some guys have set up on the edge of the road, while they sit up on folding chairs playing chess and bubbling away in their stained vests and flip flops. There is something so encapsulating of watching the buzz of action from above, there is so much life running about; from the cockroach scuttling across a pile of sour green plums being sold, to the couple who I can see are getting it on through the not so discrete netted curtain on the fifth floor of the opposite building.
Tomorrow I am leaving. I will miss this place. But nothing seems more appealing to me than bipolar British weather, cuddling near a heater; no mosquito bites, no cockroaches, no gunshots, no explosions.
Last week my sassy second youngest aunt came over early in the morning, baring bags of 'فول' (pronounced ‘fool’; made of mashed beans mixed with garlic, fresh parsley, lemon juice, olive oil and tahini) and pickles. Her three young children trailed behind her; Amina in a tight pink top that accentuated her bulging stomach and a too-short pixi skirt that the entire family tutted about, Adam holding onto his Nintendo for dear life and Ahmed was banging his toy car onto the wall repeatedly while cursing. My aunt was wearing black palazzo pants, a tight-fitted tartan blouse showing off her slim and curvy figure, and had a satin scarf wrapped in a turban on her head. Her brows were plucked too high and too thin for my taste, but her large almond shaped eyes and wide, full lipped smiling mouth made up for it.
'Heyyyyyyy Haboub’ she sang, in a French nasal tone, passing me the plastic bags as she yelled at Ahmed to stop making so much noise. Lipstick was smeared on her front teeth.
I stood in my pyjamas with my hair an explosive disarray on my head; these late nights and early mornings were not treating me well. I was lucky to be such a light sleeper too, as I was the only one of seven to hear the doorbell ring. Sarcasm.
‘Morning Aunty, what got you up so early?’ I exclaimed while attempting to smooth my hair in a decent looking twist. It failed. She was the last person I would expect to come knocking at 8am. I thought it was the building cleaner, the neighbours or even one of my eldest aunts who worked early. But not Aunty Manar.
'Fadi woke me up. He was sitting up in bed since 4 o'clock tapping away on his laptop. I couldn't sleep for more than a minute,' she rolled her eyes as she fixed her collar in the corridor mirror. ‘And the kids got woken up by stupid Fatima while she was cleaning their room this morning, can’t do anything quietly, that silly woman. Can’t wait till I get a new maid, her contract is finishing in less than a month.’
‘Have you spoken to the agency yet?’
‘Of course. Next time it won’t be a Bangladeshi, I’m getting an Ethiopian, at least then Adam will stop singing these ridiculous Indian songs.’
‘Yes mama?’ piped Adam.
I took the breakfast to the kitchen table and began opening up the boxes and sharing the food into plates.
'Didn't you and Sumaya want to go to Max?' Aunt Manar asked while putting the tea pot on the hob. Max is a popular clothes store in central Tripoli which we had planned on going to soon.
'Didn’t we decide on tomorrow?'
'I thought I'd take you girls today, I'll leave the boys with your brothers, take Hayat and steal your mother away for it too. I feel like going out. And on our way back we can stop at Al Hallab and get some desserts,' she winked at me.
We left by 1pm after everyone was ready and breakfast was shared with a side of spicy mint tea. The spiteful afternoon sun prickled at my skin instantly and sitting in Aunty Manar's car didn't make the situation any better, it stank of metallic heat and musky air freshener and the seats burnt at the touch.
The shopping experience was decent and I managed to find a few pieces of clothing I really loved. And as promised, we visited the best deserter in Tripoli on our way back, cooling and indulging in thick creamy ice cream, the kind that strings off instead of cutting off.
In the early afternoon of the next day I was getting ready to leave to see a friend. My youngest Aunt Aisha was lounging on my bed as I yanked off yet another hijab.
‘Habiba, it looked fine.’ She insisted.
‘No, the material isn’t sitting right, I need a 100% cotton scarf. But I don’t have one in this tan brown shade.’ I puffed, sitting down on the bed beside her.
In that little space of quietness a loud kaboom echoed from the opened window, it sounded like it was coming from a distance. The whole building grew silent, even the non-stop beeping from the streets below ceased. Although we had grown accustomed to the odd gunshot here and there, there was something terrifyingly different about this. The sound itself made every hair follicle on my body erect without hesitation and my heart felt heavy.
'Oh Lord,' my aunt whispered.
‘W-what was that?’ I mumbled, although I knew very well.
‘It’s probably just a landfill being dumped into.’ She brushed both our thoughts away.
‘Did you hear that?’ My mother came in with a distressed expression on her face. We nodded.
My mother's phone began to explode with messages from my uncles and elder male cousins warning us not to leave our building. My friend messaged me cancelling the meeting as she was too afraid to leave her house. Gunshots began to take over the streets, and the local Lebanese news channel blared with images of what had indeed just occurred. It was an explosion. On a mosque in central Tripoli which was also situated right next to Max; the shopping centre we intended on going to today at this exact time.
The whole family sat in silence surrounding the tv, only the news reporter's shrill voice echoed through the corridors and empty bedrooms. The amount of damage caused was terrifying. It was too close to home and for a moment I thought I'd never be alive to return to England. Heartbreaking images of charred disfigured, blackened bodies including infants being cut out of cars, dragged out of buildings and strapped onto ambulance beds made me weep for the lost souls. I completely forget that I could have potentially been one of them.
Outside in Dinnawi square the gunshots grew louder and frequent. This violence was seen as a grieving for the lost souls who died while on their knees at Friday prayer. Although I knew I was causing a risk, I left the living room where my family sat glued onto the TV and entered my room. I slid open my window and rested my chin on the windowsill. The roads looked like orange peel, the kind that’s left for a while until it has browned. They were empty. Not a soul walked on the streets. The early evening sun had slipped off the horizon. The green and white miniature mosque looked dull, dark and I couldn’t make out the crescents balanced on the minarets. The grass wasn’t vibrant and the olive trees looked awry. Smell of pungent sewage rose against our building. The lights of all the other flats were either dim or off. Life had been sucked out of the square. I wanted to peel it off my line of vision with the tips of my fingers and draw on the image of Dinnawi young Habiba had embedded in her mind, the happiness it brought, the feeling of homliness. But now nothing but unfamiliarity and alienation filled my heart and watered my eyes.