Friday, October 17, 2008

Chapter 7a: Love

We hardly ever eat meat, the staircase in our building is filthy, my sisters are wearing last year's fashions and my brother wears an old uniform with a few rips in the hem when he goes to school. There is a perpetual scent of sewage oozing out of our bathroom and the corners of the kitchen floor won't come clean no matter how hard my mum scrubs it. My grandmother sometimes takes her meds and sometimes doesn't, depending on when we have enough money to fill her prescription. I often walk halfway to work to avoid paying the extra ten cents for a connecting service minibus.

I don't have my own room like I did in Mosul. Every night, my mum lays out two thin mattresses on the living room floor for my brother and me. She wishes us sweet dreams and heads into the bedroom that she shares with my sisters and grandmother. Little Rashad is still an angel and before Mama has left the room he is usually asleep. Then my long night begins, every night.

Before, it was worries about my family, about how we would pay the rent and about how to ensure a future for my sisters, that kept me up at night. Now it's Hanan.

Hanan whose flashing white teeth smile at me every time I see her. Hanan whose skin is fair and whose hair is never quite perfect but always eye-catching. Hanan whose eyes are soft and pure. They speak of kindness but also give a sense of mystery. She isn't the type who says everything she's thinking, and her eyes don't reveal a whole lot either.

I met her when I first went to the Catholic Sisters to ask if they could help us. We'd been in Damascus for a few months. From the day we arrived I kept hearing about an order of Catholic Nuns who would always help us if they had the resources. And they were always kind and thoughtful even if they couldn't give us the aid we needed. They were described as if they were a group of personal envoys from heaven sent to help us Iraqis in Syria. Too perfect to be true, I was sure. I didn't really believe what I'd heard about them, and I figured that even if it were true, the Sisters were already too busy helping everyone else to have time for our newly arrived family.

But things kept getting worse and worse for us, it seemed. Never any better. And after a few months I really didn't think we were going to survive. So I decided to go to the Sisters and present my plea.

Hanan's was the first face I saw when I walked in to the little top floor office. She didn't look like a nun, I thought. But she did look like an envoy from heaven. She smiled at me and invited me to take a seat. I obeyed her, feeling a bit overwhelmed and perhaps a bit shy.

"You're Maslawi?" Her voice hit me like a bolt of lightning. I looked up from the spot on the floor I'd been staring at and peered at her. I took in the teeth gleaming at me and the soft light-brown eyes. I had the sense that my eyes were stuck, that there was no way I would be able to ever look away again.

Then, after a second or after an hour, I couldn't tell you which, she furrowed her eyebrows and tilted her head, and looked even cuter. But that little motion jolted my mind back into action. She'd asked me a question.

"Uh? Oh, yes, I am."

"That's nice," she said. And she got back to work doing something with the papers on her desk. My eyes were still locked on her, but with her no longer paying attention, I managed to eventually pull my gaze away. I looked back at the little dark brown pebble in the mosaic floor at which I'd been staring.

I wondered how she knew I was Maslawi, so I quickly glanced up and back down again, then worked up the courage to ask her.

"And you? Where are you from?"

She looked up at me and smiled again. "I'm from Mosul, too. But not from the city, from a village about 20 minutes away."

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