December 5, 2013

Before the bombs and the fights
Before us entertaining the children
with popcorn and fried bread
to keep them away from the failures of humankind.
Before the broken glasses and the
replacement of windows.
Before us mourning the friends we lost
and the ones who became so after reading their stories on the papers
Before the world going
even madder.
Before it’s too late
can´t we,
simply,
live in peace?
Before it’s too late
can we,
for a change,
divert our efforts to
helping
the famined,
the raped,
the ill,
the sad,
the neighbours,
the displaced,
the wounded?
Before it’s too late
can we,
for once,
do differently?

When the war happened, we had no more money for popcorn to entertain the children.
Or oil to fry the bread.

 

photo via Te Conozco Bacalo

 

 

Elena

My dead people usually never talk to me. They never appear, guide me. They never even smile to me, in my dreams.
Once my people leave, they leave for something like forever. The rest of my lifetime without them is the eternity  I face.
Last time we met was in the 90s, just before Christmas. We never managed to fix a cracked relationship, though.
Relatives got in our way I believe, or other people I do not even know.
You were not an easy Grandmother, I was not a delightful member of the family.
You were a conservative, I found out later in life; at the time, to me, you were just different from my friends´ grandmothers.
You were the one who tried to explain to me that no, squatters are not entitled to homes just because they have no job and those bedsheets hanging out of windows stating ´Homes for all´ mean nothing if you do not pay the rent. And your tone meant ´Period, no further discussion´.
Two decades later you bought the apartment upstairs just to get rid of noisy tenants who used to party till late. An empty apartment to give room to silence.
When you asked about the newspaper I was writing on, I rushed with words. I was so proud to tell you it was financed by the provincial Communist party: it gave officiality to the project.
Your mouth moved and I made things worse adding ´´The place where we meet is very basic. Just chairs and a table. There is a poster of Ho Chi Minh..´´. I told you you were different: you knew who he was.
To you I was an activist just because for Christmas my cards were bought from Greenpeace. But you were proud I remembered Christmas and sent my cards at the beginning of December so to make sure the receivers felt thought. Etiquette .
Thanks to you and Grandpa, I managed to go to good schools, travel around the world. I did things unthinkable to my friends.
If I can walk well now I owe it to you: you always took care of my orthopedic shoes. I hated them. I wanted to have shoes like yours: normal, light.
My passion for books comes also from you but I did not share your passion for hiking and skiing.
I remember your perfume, in this moment. And your skin. Our holidays together, your stories from what seems to be another world.
You passed away and no one had any reason to inform me. I found out after long.
We had not spoken in more than a decade.
My dead people usually never talk to me.
But you did appear in my dream. In a night when the planes seemed just over my head, when I felt I was forgotten by everyone, when I was thinking that if it had to end that same night, I would not be able to understand the meaning of life.
A night I was hugging the dogs and falling asleep every now and then to wake up to the sound of the missiles.
You appeared sitting in my room, on the corner of a bed I had placed close to the window to feel, stupidly, more protected while I was sleeping on the floor.
You were wearing a red jersey dress, Grandma. You looked just the same: skinny and classy.
While holding a piece of paper with some telephone numbers, you looked at me and said: ´´I will protect you´´.
Now I know you have never abandoned me and you know what I do in life. You know I have fallen in love with a far away land, its history and people. You know I am looking for kindness and compassion in the world, that I am still an idealist, support all the lost causes, never keep quiet, have never compromised. You know how tough it has been, at times.
I am aware I am not whom you wanted me to be, Grandma. But do not worry: I am not a squatter.
I have always paid my rent.

picture: Atlantic Monthly. CA Illustration Annual, 2007, Chris Lyons

Picture

It is unlikely we meet again any time soon.
You will not call me on a Friday morning to arrive at my house with baskets of food and sauce to cook spaghetti together. You trusted only my skills of boiling water. All the proper food came from you. Already cooked.
We would speak our broken mother tongue, universally known as the language of lovers and romanticism, though we both forgot it too soon. We were constantly checking verbs and accents; we rarely got them right.
You will neither take me out for lunch to places only you know.
Once, during the 2011 revolution, we went to the outskirts of Sanaá to a restaurant which looked unbelievably dirty; the people were, instead, unbelievably nice and caring.
All those check-points just for food, I still do not understand it.
But you were always hungry and now I see how my memories of us are often related to food.
At the table, you used to tell me to wear glasses in order ‘to see food better’. I used to reply: ´´I don´t need to see more food on my plate, what I have is more than enough for the fill the entire neighbourhood.´´
Two revolutions, a coup and a war got in our way.
We had to stop our long conversations upstairs, in the mafraj – the sitting room on the last floor -, waiting for sunset, with the dogs paying attention to every word we said.
You knew everyone and I, the introvert, knew few. You were busy socialising, I was busy introverting.
Sometimes I hear your voice and remember the stories of when you arrived to Yemen in 1974. ´´When I landed at the airport, I did not see the building. It was made of an entrance door and an exit one. It was something like just a room. And from the airport to Sanaà, my mother and I, cried. There was nothing.´´
I presume we will not be going to visit your Eritrean friends any time soon, now.
No more smoked coffee, so-and-so music and story telling from other lands.
No more birthday parties dancing flamenco on Ethiopian music, afternoons with our Russian friend or over-analysing political quagmire.
Tonight I miss you. I miss you telling me ´put curtains on your windows before some majinoon (crazy) shoots you´ and majinoon was accompanied by the gesture of someone having a long beard. And me looking at you, crossing my eyes as if you were the majinoon.
Tonight I miss your telephone calls during the airstrikes. You were the only one to call so often, even when you were mourning your brother.
I want you to take this picture. It´s the view from one of the windows of my kitchen. I want you to remember that one day we had lunch together just there and this is what we saw.

Those who help

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’
To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.” – Fred Rogers

June 12 2015 was the closest a missile reached us, a row of houses in front of ours.
We lost 7 neighbors. Three houses, hundreds of years old, collapsed disfiguring a landmark of the Old City of Sana’a. Forever gone, nebulized.
The world, soon after, expressed outrage because the airstrike had hit a UNESCO protected site.
But they don’t know.

Every one has a particular memory of that night: rushing down the stair, holding the knees, rocking the babies, praying, being splashed cold water on the face. Everyone remembers something different, same way everyone was asking forgiveness for everything done in life. In some cases, for future sins. Just in case.
Some were swearing and cursing the aggressor.
The missile did not explode. It had simply thrashed pulverizing the houses, dissolving them.
Jets were still flying and the men simply rushed to the site. They helped. For hours at a time, in the dust and rubbles, they dag bare-handed with the shemag, the scarf, tight around the mouth. With flip-flops or slippers. Or bare-feet. They never stopped. Never, for days.
Friends living 20 kms away, were trying to find gasoline, a carpool, to come and help.
The whole city turnt to our neighbourhood. Everyone offered help.
My phone rang with voices apologizing I had to be trapped in a war no one wanted, I had to witness rock bottom of humanity.
Indeed, there are always helpers. There is always someone paying attention, rushing, digging in the debris.
There is always someone shooting a series of gunshots with Kalashnikov saluting the corpses, once found; someone preparing a cup of tea for you and asking ‘Are you hungry?’, someone praying for the dead and their soul, someone lending the car to rush to hospital with a survivor who, at the end, did not survive long.
There is always someone telling you the story of the Japanese expatriate who used to live in one of the demolished houses and ‘heaven, he must be ever so sad to find out his house is no longer here’.

There will always be nightmares relating to the war, but they will always be balanced by the memories of those who did everything they could to help.
There will, I know.

(In the picture: what was left of  one of the homes of my neighbours. Memories)

You are there, in my war frame

They sent me this picture of you, Tnseem. I filed it in ‘My World’ folder.
You are smiling. At last I see you smile.
I am sure before the war started, our paths had crossed ways.
We must have met on the stairs or during Eid. Or on a Friday, weekend day, when you used to come and visit your family. Extended family. When it comes to families, in Yemen, I always lose count and thread.
I am sure I must have complimented you for your beautiful dress.
We must have kissed, as well. Many times, I am sure.
You must have made fun of my Arabic. I am equally sure.
But I do not recall ever meeting you before. Before the war, that is.
My memories of you belong to the war; they are relegated there.
You appear within my war frame.
I remember your perfume, your combed hair and pink clothes. I remember your voice, strident with happiness. Cannot expect anything different from an 8 year old who was eager to meet a young sister coming to life: your mum was expecting and I was praying she was not going to lose the baby because of the airstrikes. Because of fear, uncertainty. Because when you are pregnant and they are bombing, you might fall trying to find a safe place.
I remember you, indeed, but in the days of the bombings, never before.

I feel uncomfortable now, looking at your picture. Not because you seem serene, but because of the load of my memories with you. The contingency of the moment.
I remember one night, during an air raid close to us, in Al Qyadah st, when you rushed to me and said: “Can I call my Dad?” and there were no words to tell you, no hugs enough, no way of hiding my sorrow. I passed you my phone praying your father was going to answer immediately. Praying you would, eventually, forget this same night. And even me.
I remember you hugging a teddy bear, another night (always at night) when we had to take shelter downstairs at the palace entrance while the house was shaking.
I was sure we were not going to make it. We did. The night ended, our lives continued.
During the day, when the airstrikes were fewer, you used to make fun of me, not understanding why I could not cook or make bread. Perhaps you will never find anyone as bad in cooking as me.

I see you smile, at last, my little Tnseam
You are holding your litter sister Lougean in front of the world.
Do tell her we are doing our best to change everything.
Starting from this horrible war because, since she was born, she has witnessed only war.

One day someone dressed beautifully

Maybe it’s not in the city.
Maybe it’s in the villages, down the valleys, behind the rocks. close to the sea, behind a water-fall where freedom happens.
Freedom to use what you have, combine the colours, the fabrics, plaid the wool as if it were your hair-dome, weave a basket hat, match a yellow scarf with blue and violet and embroidery and rough wool on your skin. All together.
With silver beads hanging from your head.
One day, in a village maybe close to a water-fall or behind the rocks, someone made art. She dressed beautifully.

In a village, one day

One day, passing by, someone took out the camera and the village girls started laughing.
The picture is blurred, it’s shaky.
The girls are in their country clothes.
Time of the picture is unknown, as well as the author
But the strength, the energy of the moment is still there.
And it’s all in the smiles.
Memorable moments come through smiles, at times
And an unknown photographer with a shaky hand

Memoirs of a refugee still looking out of the same window

There is still a Country
outlined by the routes of the ancient caravans
of the merchants of pepper, coffee and frankincense,
a Country equal to itself,
a jewel shining of its own light
century after century.
A Country which has remained isolated being at the nib of the Arabic Peninsula,
hence,
preserving itself from the greed of the worldwide traffickers
and the endless pointlessness of the modern world.
A country which gave birth to algebra and has perfumed the palates of the world
with the best coffee and the sweetest honeys;
a Country where the news are still being spread on the radio
and on the occasion of the weekly markets,
whilst the electricity struggles to reach everywhere.
A country whose people dress with the same fashion,
century after century,
and the mosaic windows received their name after the moon,
khamarya.
A country born as Arabia Felix,
as it was kissed by the monsoons
and from whose soil
the caravans filled with frankincense, myrrh
departed to reach and scent the temples of Imperial Rome.
A country anciently famous
as it was the site of the Reign of Sheba,
flourished 1000 years before Christ.
A Country which,
not even during its golden tourist days,
has allowed foreign fashions to change it.
A Country which celebrates weddings in the streets,
for the joy of everyone.
A Country of huge families
where the respect for the elderly is still being taught.
An eclectic Country which built the first mud and sand skyscrapers.
And damns famous throughout history.
Pier Paolo Pasolini simply described Yemen as
“the most beautiful country in the world’.
It’s Yemen, yes,
the most beautiful Country in the World.

Waiting to return home on an equally rainy night
with equally vivid feelings.