Return to Love Letter, Visuals

In my previous post, I kept my sentences short and dry, because my main point was writing my immediate reaction to everything I’ve experienced during the trip to my hometown.

My grandparents’ house is made up of a three-story orange building, and it is more or less a landmark, albeit a hidden one. You have to walk a narrow path between a public park on one side, and olive trees outgrowing the walls confining them on the other. We used to live there when we were little, in the third story, but then we moved out.

When leaving our hometown to Damascus, we left a lot of things behind. Books, photo albums, clothes, portraits; and among those things I found an old box belonging to me. The box was full of love letters. Love letters I got, love letters I wrote and never sent, even love letters that didn’t belong to me, but to my sister.

Instead of sitting down on the dusty floor to read and wallow, I took pictures with my crappy phone camera.

Entering the room,
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… and to see that old picture of my mom
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and a sack full of my drawing pads,
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The Sacred Cooking Book (it reads “Sweets for all Occasions”)
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That reminder that I used to smoke in secret. (who the fuck decided to keep that trash anyway?)
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Triptych
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Old cultural magazines belonging to my mom.
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Stacks upon stacks of children’s magazines that were my other parents
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Old cassettes eaten by dust
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The Kitchen
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The Bathroom
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A Room of no Importance
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My Grandmother’s Key Handle, and my greatest source of mystery as a child
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And finally, the Love Letter box
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Return to Love Letter, a.k.a My Grandmother’s Funeral

I

At 2:30 exactly, my mother told me grandma had passed away minutes ago. We immediately arranged for a return to our hometown, where mom’s family still reside.

I dressed in black, tied my dyed hair, removed my nail polish and cut my fingernails.

We are going to the funeral.

II

There are many new buildings. I can barely recognize my hometown. Getting into the taxi, hearing my mom give directions- I forgot the name of our neighborhood.

III

Arriving, a wailing woman takes me into her arms. I don’t recognize her at first, but then she whispers “I missed you”, and I remember the voice of an old friend’s mother.

IV

At ‘al madhafa’, a guestroom, weeping women surround my grandmother’s still body; singing, uttering blessings, and remembering her good deeds and celebrated qualities. I can’t see her face, but they said she looked peaceful.

V

I’m kissing a lot of women I don’t know. I feel young and out of place.

VI

Mom sends me upstairs with our stuff to my uncle’s apartment so I can stay with my cousin. My cousin is 16 years old. She speaks and acts like an old woman. Her world feels so alien to me.

VII

I go downstairs, sit on my grandma’s bed, and then notice the sharp glance Em Fadi throws my way; she does not like it. I get up, sit next to my mom, stand up whenever someone enters the room, kiss more people, say the right words, express the right emotions.

I’m suffocating.

VIII

I go to the kitchen every five minutes to walk a little and drink some water. I never liked how the water tasted here. Mom gives me a ‘mlabaseh’ –a type of candy- it’s too sweet and sticks to my teeth.

I want to go back home.

IX

Mom and I are invited to sleep at my other uncle’s house. I see my little cousins again, they’ve grown so much. I feel cut off and disconnected, but I enjoy their genuine love.

The middle child, Khawla, asks where grandma is. Mom says she’s now reunited with her husband in heaven, finally back together, drinking matteh and taking long walks like they used to, away from this futile reality.

Khawla sounds convinced, and asks no more.

X

We’re having dinner. The meat and the potatoes are cold. The tea stale.

Grandma’s dead.

I kinda miss the sandwiches she used to make whenever we visited her.

XI

I haven’t smoked in 8 hours.

XII

I finally take off my bra.

Grandma is one lucky bitch for leaving this hazard behind.

That was an ugly day.

XIII

Funerals are exhausting.

I miss the internet.

She Who Must Not Be Named

“It was just an experience.”

She says after I’ve asked what she thinks about that time we kissed. That time in the dark hallway of her building, when I tangled my fingers in her long hair, when she placed her hands gently on my arms. That time when I did not want to let go. Ever.

“I mean,” she continues, her eyes darting anywhere but my face. “There were no feelings, so I thought nothing about it.”

I can almost see my heart pack its stuff, and take off with the last breaths I managed before blurting it out.

“Only on your part.” I say, and my hands shake inside my pockets. My legs tremble. I’m scared.

But what was I scared of? What terrified me about her nonchalant response? Was it my before-hand knowledge of her rejection? Or was it because of the small trickle of hope that said there could be something to that kiss? Or perhaps, and this is the most likely reason, that she was a girl, and I was a girl, and the world was a pot of tears that chewed and swallowed us?

I’m scared.

She’s silent. I can hear her faint breathing beside me, on the mattress.

“Say something, please…”

Chuckling nervously, she removes a forelock of hair away from her face. “I… I don’t know what to say, I mean-wow…”

My heart is hovering in the corner, with its heavy load, waiting for the train to come take it away. It glances towards me, waves, and hops on the rails seconds before the train comes crashing in on my world.

I sigh, I will have to pay for it to be treated now. But I knew. I knew that boats cannot be fixed by stitching. I couldn’t even recognize the presence of anything to stitch back.

It was, ultimately, a losing game that I have chosen to play anyway.
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It is in that gentle manner of hers that I find myself stranded. Stunned. Not because she smiles and we both know it’s fake, it’s because I believe that smile anyway. I cradle it. I want to nurture it and feed it and make it grow bigger.

Perhaps I convinced myself that, even if it was now fake, I could change it. I lied to myself to feel better, to feel that I was in control as my heart crashed on itself.

Thinking that, maybe if I wore just the right face, and said just the right words, she’ll come over, hold me like she did back in that dark hallway, and put her lips gently against mine.

But it was all fake. I felt that she could create a space for me in her heart, without knowing that it was already so full, so bitter. In that little corner, in a breezy summer night, when she rested her head on my thigh, and my hands cried for her; for her skin and her eyes and her hair.

I followed the script so blindly, and failed to give the perfect act. Somehow it all seemed so convenient, like nothing could break the glass, and nothing could hurt us. Except us, I guess.

And in the space of a breath, I knew that I was just fooling myself. That all the things I imagined were wish-fulfillment that perhaps I could fill some void that I fooled myself existed. I wanted to carve a corner for me in her life, when she had already packed my room there and sent my stuff away in a wrecked car and turned it into a gymnasium.

My Relationship with Men’s Underwear

My entire life, I had grown up with two other females in the house; my mom and my sister. We were less of a family and more of a three friends, really, and that formula of existence shaped my stance on roommates and coexisting in the same space with other people.

And while I can imagine the kind of life I would like to lead in an apartment with someone else, I always fail at convincing myself that living with a male would be the same.

My father, since we were young, has spent his years away in the Gulf countries, from Emirates to Qatar, and thus we, in Syria, only got to see him for a month each year, so the experience of living with a male since childhood is lost on me.

I recall when my mom would ask me to hang the clothes to dry, and whenever I encountered a piece of conspicuous underwear that I knew belonged to my dad, I would hold it with my fingers like you would a greasy, dripping trash sack, and hang it on the robe with the wish to end all this soon.

Despite recognizing that the underwear was clean, I had an allergy to it, especially ones belonging to family members, as I would keep imagining the whole time that this black speedo, hours ago, contained male genitilia that I absolutely did not want to be close to.

As a little girl my father’s presence enthralled me. I was yet to enter the phase of female adolescence where men were not allowed and routinely shut out; where we locked ourselves in the bathroom for hours, shaving, plucking, feeling our bodies, our newly budding boobs, sensualizing the touch of skin on skin, and sometimes masturbating. Because of this, I would wonder why my sister, having preceded me into that world, lost touch with our dad.

When you are living with other women and girls, practicing the same rituals, walking in your panties when it’s hot, talking openly about matters that are not to be heard by menfolk, the presence of a male becomes unbearable, and thus the constant open view of his belongings, whether cologne or ties or nicely polished shoes or underwear, also becomes overwhelming. You do not know how to handle his things, how to act during his noon naps, what kind of jokes he deems appropriate and what behavior bothers him. You learn to tiptoe around his presence because -despite your happiness he’s here- you do not understand him; you do not understand how to inhabit the same space as him, you have not learned the immaculate vocabulary of male authority, or the complex guidelines of fatherhood. You are small and you are hanging your dad’s underwear outside to dry and you wonder if he feels the same way upon encountering your things. Does seeing your girly belongings make him nervous? Would he not mind hanging your bra and pink panties outside to dry? Why are you thinking about his private parts and then hating yourself for thinking about it and trying to forget the image ever crossed your mind?

The male becomes the curiosity, and this curiosity manifests itself in discreet instances; when he’s sleeping, you slip into the room, hold his personal comb, and run the tips of your fingers over the plastic teeth, greased by the oiliness from his hair. You hold his precious perfume bottle and spray a little at your wrest –because you saw your mother test the scent this way- and smell it, despite knowing what it smells like. In the bathroom, after a generous lunch, you dry your hands and mouth with his personal towel.

All this, the personal comb, the personal perfume, the personal towel, it makes him distant. You grew up sharing everything with girls, from hair brushes to clothes to accessories, and the individuality of the male figure bothers you.

You wonder why he’s so finicky about his things, and how he did not like it when you wrapped his tie around your head and played yourself as a tribe member on an adventure over sofas and tables. He sees you, and before he says anything, you unwrap the tie and hand it over.

“It’s wrinkled,” he comments, and the male figure becomes more detached.

You love him. You really, really do. He is an idol, but he is so because for you, he is far and unapproachable, unknown, and mysterious. You do not know him. You love him, but you do not know him, and this itself makes you wonder why you feel so strongly about him. Why you defend him when your mother cries in anger and frustration. Why you await his return, every year, eagerly, loving when he asks you what you want him to bring, and being embarrassed of asking for any gifts.

It’s not that you feel undeserving, but because the language of communication between the two of you is muddy, smudged and incomplete. Butchered, somewhere close to your heart. And because, deep down, you hope that he will bring you gifts without asking you if you want any. You hope time and again that he will know what to bring, because he knows what you love, but he doesn’t.

After years of the same scenario, you come to acknowledge that perhaps he does not know what you love. Has he not observed you as closely as you observed him? Because you certainly know what he loves. He loves expensive cologne and shiny shoes; that odorous, musty smell of cigars and old-fashioned wool vests; that tattered leather jacket and that particular James Brown album that he never tiers of listening to. He loves neatly arranged documents and arcade games, especially billiard, as well as drinking beer and telling the same joke every year.

Why has he not noticed the things you love? Are they not as important as his personal cologne, his personal comb, and his personal towel? Was he not fascinated by the little trinkets and antiques you collected and left scattered all over your room? Was he not curious about you as you were him?

But you are loyal to the distant patriarch, and that’s why you hang his underwear to dry, despite not very much liking the ordeal. You accept his gifts even when you don’t like them. You laugh at the joke even when it’s no longer funny, because you know he loves telling that joke, and you want to affirm your engagement in his happiness and pleasure. You remain loyal to him even when he’s no longer the center of your curiosity, as that curiosity, now, had moved to other males.

Entering the romantic sphere, the male has not ceased to be of interest to you, but now you can explore him in more intimate ways; first with your words, then hands, then mouth. You find yourself attracted to distant, detached boys that have their personal cologne, and their personal comb, and their personal towel. But just like with your father, you do not want any kind of interaction with their underwear, dirty or clean, because fuck, male underwear makes you embarrassed and alienated, it is foreign and dangerous, aloof yet obtrusive. Despite this, you do not hate it, but you would like to stay far away from it, in fear of being reminded of the small things. You don’t like the small things. Or perhaps you do.

I am beginning to think this is God’s punishment for women in Hell; he makes them wash and then dry the underwear of men who made them feel uncomfortable more times than not.

It’s grand, because God has daddy issues, too.

On Terrorists and the Need to Hear their Stories

A month ago, I’ve read an article on Al Ahram, written by an Egyptian journalist who, among covering the situation in Syria, had also conducted interviews with men who were previously members of terrorist groups.

What struck me the most is that many of those terrorists were young men; even boys.

Another account from a former resident of Mosul reveals that many of those young men come from underprivileged, poor, less well-off backgrounds than the people they’re terrorizing.

And this made me rethink my position on the religious aspect of those crimes. Religion is easy. It’s easy to become religious, unlike the mental, emotional, and spiritual exhaustion it takes to leave it. It’s easy to say a group of Islamists are killing civilians, but it’s hard to say that a group of young men, who are poor, less educated, marginalized, discriminated against, are fighting a mindless war to live with a sense of dignity that was denied to them by their governments.

What they’re doing makes them feel like they’re humans; like they exist and are of importance.

Many of us are born and die, and in-between, we exist as sub-human, and sometimes even less. Our governments play a direct role in alienating entire communities, especially the youth, who feel forgotten and betrayed by their countries. These countries suffer from the centralization of development which is mostly restricted to capitals and big cities, leaving villages as well as small towns with low quality services, poor engagement in various aspects of life, and less job opportunities.

It’s easy to redirect the anger resulting from that to the wrong target. It’s easy to brainwash young men into believing that other citizens are the reason for the bad conditions they had to endure.

Take away the weapons and whatever religious motive those men have, and you are left with boys. Boys, many of them adolescents. Boys who, in many occasions, break down in tears during interviews and interrogations. Boys who lived their entire lives in the exact environment that breeds that kind of mindless violence. And it’s dangerous to not hear their narrative. It’s dangerous to not hear their stories and their reasons to join extremist groups.

Call me a terrorist apologist, but I whole-heartedly believe in these young men’s right to redemption. Their right to a second chance. I sympathize with them. It’s of utmost importance to rehabilitate them, to offer them a proper education, to connect them to people who are qualified to help them reassess their situation and rethink their lives, people who are ready to form deep, meaningful connections with them. People ready to love them and forgive them.

Saudi Arabia had created several ‘luxury’ institutions meant to rehabilitate terrorists, but it is not working, because a swimming pool and television programs do not suddenly change people’s minds about their ways; contrary, it cements their previous knowledge of the economical, educational, and societal gap between them and others.

It is not working because no one is actually helping those men feel like normal human beings. It is not working because the feeling of being rejected and despised persists inside them. It is not working because those men remain unloved.

I am against the death penalty. No one deserves to die, especially ones who are not currently engaging in battles, and who were captured by authorities. So it’s crucial to offer these young men a chance to speak, in comfort, and with people who possess the tremendous capacity of ridding themselves of previous judgments and presumptions. It’s crucial to hear their stories, understand their personal as well as collective struggles, and allow them a reconnection with loved ones.

They must not be physically isolated, because it only complements their emotional and mental isolation. We are social creatures, and being surrounded by others helps people cope and feel safe.

Khaled al-Dakheel, a social scientist, commented on Saudi Arabia’s program, saying: “To treat the problem at its root, one should challenge jihadist thought with an enlightened philosophy, not just with other Salafist ideas that are only slightly less extreme,”

And he is absolutely right. No help will come by subjecting them to a religious ideology, no matter its form; they were already submerged in one, and the solution is to remove them from religious discourse and into activities that encourage free thought and engagement with others. They must not be treated as inferiors lacking proper human decency, but as subjects worthy of living and capable of starting anew.

To look beyond their despicable actions, we need to focus on the cycle of oppression that creates them, a cycle that our governments are responsible for and must be held accountable for perpetuating. A blogger on Facebook, after the video of ISIS members killing 21 Christian Egyptians, writes how our governments indirectly bring extremist groups into existence, and even sponsors them and creates the perfect environment that breeds them, noting that: “For every terrorist the military kills in Sinaa’, twenty terrorists emerge in Cairo and other cities, not because a terrorist was killed, but because someone who was not a terrorist was wrongly killed.”

This cycle starts with an unjust murder of a peaceful religious opposition, creating a hateful response seeking revenge, which in turn propels the government into more prosecution, leading to brutal aftermaths, ones that could have been avoided.

Our governments are oppressive, following a tactic of brutal elimination of any opposing factions, especially ones with a religious basis, offering no chance of even an agreement to fair and honorable competition, and this leads a largely religious population to believe that the government seeks to destroy religion, one of the few things people hold into as a form of whatever identity they had left after years of colonization and western domination.

To fix the problem, we must go to the root. Contrary to those who say this root is religion, it’s not; it’s the young men carrying terrorist actions. Religion is merely a cover for the hundreds of ways those men were betrayed by their governments. They need to be heard, their stories need to be told, and their narrative needs to be known, because they are the key to solving the phenomena of Islamic extremism.

So, are you ready to let go of hate and resentment to reach out to a former terrorist? For me, I know I can. You should, too.