It's truly fascinating how we retain the memories of places and carry them with us, wherever life takes us. The poet Mohamad Nassereddine tells me that for him, all of Palestine resides in the peacock feathers that Ghassan Kanafani described in "Return to Haifa". There's no Palestine before them, or after them. When Sa'id returns to Haifa in the novel, he lovingly describes the city's entrance, the doorway to his home, the texture of the walls, the staircase, and even the scent of his house. But upon reaching their vase, he finds only three feathers and is baffled, remembering that years ago their count was six.
Amidst all the memories of Haifa, and his son's enlistment in the Israeli army, the man only cares for the memory of the vase or the tiny decorative cup that his wife had carefully placed in the corner of their living room. Ghassan is the one who carried the memory of Palestine – the spirit of the land – to us. The peacock feathers are Palestine.
The place where I spent my childhood in the south is divided into two parts: the luxurious, opulent side with towering buildings inhabited by the native locals, and the other part, an area inhabited by refugees in remote Syrian villages. The scene appears like something akin to a huge gap in time, reminiscent of the gap between the Chiyah intersection and Ain el-Remmaneh. It's a single intersection divided by the ever-bustling old Sidon road, always crowded with its cars.
I look at Chiyah and the towering buildings standing like titans, constructed in the forefront to rival the structures of Ain el-Remmaneh in appearance. I, who lived behind these houses in Chiyah, remember it clearly. In a rooftop apartment crumbling upon itself, being eaten away by flies and the rubbish of the place. I know they only built the Chiyah front for competition. Everything behind the glossy façade was silent, a profound silence that tells the story of the massacre of war and its aftermath, refusing to relinquish its memory. Chiyah, facing Ain el-Remmaneh, with its buildings facing each other for supremacy, while in the shadows below, the always forgotten ones reside.
I vividly recall the sound of Ali El Deek's song last spring emanating from a phone in the building next to my grandfather's house in the south. A young woman emerged, in a white wedding gown adorned with dainty rose patterns. The style of the dress might have been deemed old-fashioned or even completely outdated, but she was happy with it. With utmost care, she'd lift the hem off the ground to shield it from the dust kicked up by feet dancing around her, silently applauding her and her groom. It was nine o'clock, and they were Syrians celebrating their wedding in silence, so their Lebanese neighbors and others wouldn't hear the sound of their joyous occasion.
A young woman was lifting her white gown off the ground to shield it from the dust kicked up by feet silently dancing around her and her groom. It was 9pm, and they were Syrians celebrating their wedding in silence, so their Lebanese neighbors wouldn't hear
They didn't even play Ali Al-Deek's song on a small speaker; someone played it from their phone, keeping the volume low, so the neighbors wouldn't complain about their celebration and label them as careless to the war unfolding in the very place they refuse to return to for some reason. For a person to celebrate in silence, to applaud without pressing their fingers together to muffle the sound, to have their young girls parade out of their homes to the tune of an old phone – aren't the best choices for them. Yet, this is what's available, a life lived on a minimal scale, a life that's half, but it's life nonetheless, and that counts for something.
In front of my grandfather's house stands a building occupied by numerous Syrian families. We were never allowed to cross that distance and approach those buildings, as they were no longer ours, and their occupants were nothing like us. facing the building is a small play area; we used to spend our childhood days there, playing and laughing. As time passed and we outgrew those games, the play area became abandoned. On Eid, I saw them gathered in that same space. The mothers perched on the stairs, exchanging hushed conversations. Meanwhile, children dashed around the confined area, glancing in our direction as we prepared to get in our cars for our Eid visits. I observe them and think: How do these people celebrate? Why don't they play as we do? Why don't they celebrate Eid more joyously?
I've long believed that our most significant predicament lies in our detachment from nature in cities and urban environments, leading to a severed connection with the land and soil. In Syria, there are gardens, parks, rest areas, and vast expanses for picnics and leisurely strolls. A Syrian cannot help but venture outdoors at least twice a week to bask in nature's embrace. They say that in "Yabroud," an old park the war washed away, taking with it the benches, the trees, and the memories of the locals, yet, the place remains alive; people still gather where the foundations have crumbled, a place that no longer fits the term "place."
These individuals haven't relinquished their daily rituals in their new, adopted home. I often witnessed them congregating around the small roundabout created by the parties of the region. A modest roundabout adorned with dry grass, centered around a fountain that lights up at night. The local authorities had placed a solitary bench there, more as a decorative addition than a functional seat, to enhance the "decor" of the place. They would sit there, breaking the sanctity we had granted it.
I moved around a lot in Beirut. Like a wanderer, I lived in many homes across various neighborhoods. I would leave one home only to find myself settling into another,in places diverse in identity, religion, and people. Yet, the memories from my childhood in the south continue to haunt me relentlessly. I remain tethered to my roots, carrying them with me wherever I go.
I remember my first headscarf, and the Du'a (supplication) of Abu Hamza al-Thumali on Laylat al-Qadr. I remember a young lady in Nabatiyeh wearing tight fishnet stockings on her thighs, and Umm Kulthum's voice serenading us after every iftar during Ramadan. I remember the voice of Sheikh Yusuf as he recited the majlis (mourning ceremony) on Ashura, and the timeless phrases someone sent me while I sat on our brown living room couch in our southern home.
I live on the memory, because I once said I would return one day to visit that house or perhaps even buy it, so I could preserve a fragment of my childhood that my father could not keep for us. We spent our lives renting, our memories passed from one tenant to another. What keeps me alive is the knowledge that someday, someone will rent my memory back to me, and that old places are still there. There is still hope to return to them.
They didn't even play the song on a speaker; instead playing it from a phone to keep the volume low, so the neighbors wouldn't complain about their wedding celebration and remind them of the war unfolding in the place they refuse to return to for some reason
My grandmother left the home that she had lived in since the year she got married in 1988. She left it after marrying off her children, and rented it out to a small family. We visited it for the first time after a whole year had passed, only to find the walls cracked, bearing the marks of old age. The house seemed vacant despite the presence of the new inhabitants, and their spirits wandering back and forth between the walls. But it cracked, as if it were abandoned and haunted by an odd anxiety. The walls crack when they long for the presence of its occupants, places break and crumble, and earthquakes may occur – ones that aren't caused by divine intervention but by nostalgia.
What do Syrians have for nostalgia? I asked my friend Ghaith from Homs, and he said that it's memory. Sea, mountains, desert, darkness, batteries, bustling gas station scenes, bread bakeries, and military uniforms from all directions; that's all he could remember.
They try to translate their memories of Syria here, with the least amount of noise, so that the essence of the place stays with them. They grasp these memories tightly and cling to them to give themselves reasons worth continuing for. This bittersweet nostalgia dispels the hope of returning someday, even though they know for sure that Syria is no longer theirs, and that they can't build new memories there even if they were to return. They must always return to what's lost, to the possibility of making it present, rooted, and intimate once again.
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