Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Chapter 2: The photo album

This evening the electricity went out again. Both water and electricity are a problem in this flat! The electricity goes out every day for an hour or two, but not always at the same time. The water only comes on in the mornings and if we're not careful, our water tank is empty by night. But if we do our washing and fill a few buckets in the bathroom to flush the toilet then we're just fine.

Since the electricity was out at 11:00, we couldn't watch Noor, our favourite soap opera that comes on every evening. I was sad because I admit I really do like the show. The main character is beautiful. And we always watch it together. I'm not always home from work in time to watch Noor with the family, but they put it on the big screen at the restaurant where I work, so I can follow the story as I bus tables. And of course catch glimpses of that girl, the really pretty one.

Tonight, though, was an early evening. I had worked the afternoon shift and since it wasn't too busy I was allowed to leave at 10:00. Just in time to get home to be with my family. It's been a few weeks since I've been able to watch Noor with them. The nights I'm not working late I have been visiting Hanan and her family, or doing church activities. I was really looking forward to spending this evening with my mother and Teta and my two sisters. Rashad would already be in bed since he has school tomorrow, though.

When I got to our harra, I saw that the lights were out. So I stopped at the dukkan, the minimarket downstairs, and bought us some candles, as well as some other things I'd remembered being low: sugar, rice, yogurt. I walked slowly up the stairs, thinking about all that wasted daydreaming I'd done for the last few hours, about how I'd rushed home for nothing.

They were all sitting out on the balcony, enjoying the cool air and the faint light drifting our way from the street. Mama greeted me with three kisses as she always does. I handed her the shopping bag and greeted Teta, then I took Mama's seat while she rushed in to the kitchen. We didn't say much as we sat on the balcony staring at the mountain that towers over Damascus. Teta and I perched in plastic chairs, while Marwa and Nour shared a folded up blanket in the corner.

After a few minutes, Mama brought out my supper on a few plates and arranged them along the ledge directly in front of me. Rice and lentils, cooked just the way only my mother can, and some salad and a dollop of yogurt in a bowl. I smiled my thanks and moved my chair out of the way for her to go sit by my sisters, but instead she scurried back into the house. I shouted after her, "What, Mama? Come sit down."

When she returned, she had the lighter from the kitchen, the candles I'd brought and a big book. In the dim light I couldn't make out what the book was, but she was obviously excited as she proceeded to light the candles and drip some of their wax to get them to stay in place on an old piece of metal she'd found lying around. Then she took her seat on the blanket and waved her arms for Teta and me to come closer if we could. I kept eating but strained my eyes to see what she was looking at.

She opened the first page and I saw three photographs aligned from top to bottom. It was the photo album! As soon as Nour had found out we were leaving, she had refused to sleep, instead worker her way through our old albums and boxes of photos, choosing the very most important memories to put in the one book that would take up half of her luggage space. It had seemed a very frivolous choice to me, as I had packed my small bag with cologne, my CD walkman, my very nicest clothes and a few other trinkets that I thought might be worth some money. But Nour had ignored my scorn and everyone else's rolled eyes as she had rearranged photos so that our family's memories could all fit into one book. Then she had gone around the house, taking her favourite photos out of frames, and tucked them into the album.

"What made you think of this today, Mama?" asked Nour, obviously pleased that her efforts were finally being recognised, a year and a half later.

"Oh, I was thinking about home today. The weather this afternoon reminded me of the breeze we would get on summer afternoons in Mosul. Then I got to thinking about how that breeze turns into harsh winters, which made me think of that day that we all went up on the mountain together after the fall of the regime. Do you remember that day?"

Hanan let out a laugh. "Oh, wow, I had forgotten! That was the day we stuffed fifty snowballs into Baba's jacket!"

"Baba..." Nour said.

"My poor son..." said Teta.

I kept eating and returned to staring at the mountain.

"And so," continued Mama, "I remembered the album and I was pretty sure that Nour had included some photos from that day in the album, right Nour?"

Nour nodded.

"So, since we are all out here together tonight, I felt like God made it happen. That I'd remember the album, that my dear son would be home tonight, that we'd have no TV... It's time for us to look at our pictures, don't you think?"

Mama giggled, and I couldn't help but wonder if that wasn't her way of fighting back the tears. As for myself, my curiosity was finally roused, and I scarfed down the rest of my food as quickly as possible then dragged my chair over so I was looking right over Mama's shoulder. Teta looked down for a moment, but then said that she was tired and was going to sleep. Now it was just the four of us, and we spent the next several hours, long after the electricity came back, poring over photos.

There were the photos of our last Christmas in Mosul. It was just us then, that was only two months before Baba died. By then most of our relatives had left. It was a quiet Christmas at home, but Mama had tried extra hard to make it special in a hundred different ways.

There were the photos of Rashad's baptism. That was before the war, when things were hard but in a very very different way. I never noticed the troubles back when I was ten. I just remember the party, that they dressed my baby brother up in a bright white dress and that all my aunts and uncles and cousins came over for a huge party.

There was my parents' wedding photograph that Nour had carefully taken out of the frame in which it had sat for twenty years on the wall by the stairs. She had placed a blank sheet of white paper on either side of it to protect it, and today we passed it around gently, taking in details we'd never noticed before. I had never before noticed just how happy Baba had looked on that day. Hanan made some comment about Mama's hairstyle.

There were scenery photos. I must admit my sister did a good job of picking out pictures to help us remember home. There was the outside of our house, there was a photo of every room in our house. There was the view of Mosul taken from the mountain on the outing that Mama was remembering this afternoon. There was a scenic photograph of Baba's village which we had visited every summer.

The album went on and on, but it wasn't quite full. The last five pages or so were empty. I asked Nour about that and she said she had wanted to save some space for the new memories we were making here in Syria.

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