My Friend’s Basement
My friend calls her basement home. It is a lonely home.
From the hope of the morning to the boredom of the afternoon to the never-ending night, my friend spends her time weaving dreams. With those dreams she cleans her basement, polishing the stubborn dirt and memories off its floor and walls and dissolving its darkness with all her faithful fantasies.
As she dreams, she knits birds onto blankets, sheltering them from the misery of the outside world in the new homes she fashions from her palms. Other times, she knits cushion covers, continuing till an hour of night only inhabited by other lonely, dreaming women. She knits a sweater to keep her soul from the cold, and a scarf which travels to the faces of the loved ones whose whereabouts she hasn’t known since her ex-husband sent her back and her family moved her to this basement: locking the door on her scathing account of why she had returned, and on her screams for mercy.
She sells what she has knitted and spins a new ball of yarn… Still dreaming, she reads Gibran and Tagore, Coelho and Mosteghanemi, limping between them like an abandoned gazelle. Dozing atop Qabbani’s poems, she becomes his brunette, his Damascus, his Andalusia, and embodies his love for all that doesn’t last. Still dreaming, she watches Bill Clinton’s charm on the television, Romário’s finesse, and Abdel Halim Hafez’s melancholy melodies. They keep her desires burning, and she weaves them together with the thin yarn that keeps her company until daybreak.
When she gets bored, she plays with the few chess pieces decorating the table in the corner of the basement: pieces she retrieved from the bin, after her cousin threw them away. “The bin is no place for the pawns of such a clever game,” my friend says, showing me how she arranges them in a line, adding two dice to the pattern to symbolise her “noble game against luck the extortioner.”
The ceiling of her basement room is seventy centimetres above ground. Seventy centimetres is enough to open two windows and send tiny written messages north, south, east, west, and anywhere else her paper messengers are willing to go. It is also enough to plant basil and carnations just outside.
She waits for my visits with such joy. It is the joy that comes from meeting a true friend, someone who does not sing to the same tune as those swarms of others who believe that now she is a divorced woman, everyone should forget her, her family should reject her, and her children should condemn the very womb out of which they came.
When her brother hands her money on Saturdays, she gives it back and returns to her yarn. “I’m the one who’s rich,” she says, “and they’re as poor as beggars.”
“Come and visit,” she says. “We’ll have coffee – we’ll smell it before we drink it – and I’ll cook you something. Let me knit you a case for your mobile phone, too. I don’t have a mobile... I don’t have a landline, either.”
“No one comes to see me,” she says. “I hope my neighbours saw you coming into the house. Then they’d know some people think I’m worth visiting.”
“I hide my money,” she says, “so I can buy books. I mourn every book I haven’t read. If only I’d been strong enough to ignore all the lies that son of a bitch told about me, he wouldn’t have swatted me out his house like a fly and replaced me with a new, younger, prettier wife… I could have finished university and got a job, and wouldn’t be here begging my family, my ex-husband, my children…”
“Your visit will leave me on a high for the next ten days,” she says. “Please come back before then. And bring news from the war out there – it’s exactly what we needed, isn’t it? A war… The perfect excuse for my family to forget me completely, once and for all… All they’ve left for me here is an old television that only picks up two Syrian channels. I watch TV every day and ask myself, what’s the secret behind these armed militias? They kill off one group practically every day and then new ones appear, more vicious than the last ones! To be honest, news of the war doesn’t bother me much. I just miss hearing from my children. If only I could see them, just to let them know I’m alright, and nothing more… I miss hearing about other people too. Weddings, birthdays, graduation parties… And you know what I really miss? Having a good old gossip!”
Then, she says to me: “I’d love it if you wrote about me, about the things I tell you. Writers are friends of God, and I’m all alone here…”
I leave my friend’s basement with a handful of fresh basil and a red carnation she gives me from her flowery window. As I exit the confines of this life of hers, frozen in time, it is Syria that stays on my mind: lonely Syria, knitting under a roof made of her own rubble, no end in sight.
My Name is Zahra
No one calls me by my name.
In our chatterbox village, they call me “the Sudanese man’s wife”. In the more esteemed neighbourhoods of Damascus, I become “the maid”.
Every day, I take the bus from Shebaa – my village, in the countryside – to Abu Rummaneh, al-Muhajirin, or al-Jisr al-Abyad, all in the heart of Damascus. I clean other people’s dirty houses and then return to my mother’s, the smell of bleach one step ahead of me. My father died when I was a child, leaving no inheritance, while my mother has passed down to me her profession, her frightful luck and the unhealing cracks on the soles of her big feet.
I dream of a husband, but no one proposes.
The woman I work for has offered to sell me a bedcover. It is as mind-blowingly beautiful as it is expensive. It’s made from red Indian cotton, decorated with fiery flowers, colourful beads, and ‘I LOVE YOU FOREVER’ written in English under a picture of a lit candle. I want it. But where on earth will I find three thousand Syrian lira?
A year and three months later, and the bedcover is mine. I have been paying for it in installments: two hundred lira every month. And still, no one has proposed to me.
But, eventually, someone does. I’m a pretty girl. So, why is it that no one has fallen for me, out of all of God’s men, except Muhammad, the Sudanese man?
“Although he’s black, we’re all God’s creations,” they say. “Although he’s from Sudan, he’s still an Arab. Although he’s unemployed, he’s our guest here in Syria!”
Muhammad came to Syria to study, but he didn’t study. He didn’t get a job either. And now he’s met me, he’s stopped thinking about going back to Sudan.
We get married in Shebaa. There are no fireworks at our wedding, no cake to cut with a big sword like other newlyweds do. Now, we live in a bare room near my mother’s house. In our hours of love, I don’t have the heart to spread my flowery bedcover over the borrowed mattress that I unroll and fold away again once it is over, can’t bring myself to feel sad when I have to go to work at dawn, leaving Muhammad alone to smoke away his boredom and stare at the photograph of his mother that he brought from Sudan. In the picture, she’s standing there in an orange, flowery dress, a blue belt making her skinny waist even thinner, picking bunches of bananas and surrounded by women and children.
He always hides his tears, pulling his gaze away from the photograph to watch the mist drifting underneath the only window in the room.
One year later, and homesickness has overwhelmed him. Sudan has become more beautiful in his eyes than Syria. More beautiful than Zahra. He doesn’t say goodbye to me. He just leaves, pocketing his desires – and my savings – into the front of his shirt and running back to his country under cover of night while I, collapsed on the floor, stroke my stomach, feeling for the restless movements of a baby who will slip out my womb in a few months’ time. I will give birth to a black son and I will call him Omar. I won’t lay out my red bedcover to celebrate his birth because I, abandoned and disgraced, will be forced to return to my mother’s house – a house which has never been graced with the presence of a bed.
My mother can’t stand Omar. She thinks the colour of his skin is a bad omen. So, out of love for her, I take him and leave. We move in and out of five rented houses, and at night I lie next to my son, comforted by his reassuring breaths. I stroke his curly hair, my two eyes blessing his long, thick eyelashes as they sleep soundly. Deep down, I wonder about his phantom father. Would it really have hurt him to stay with us?! Why did he leave behind nothing except Omar’s skin colour, and how had he never pitied me for having to work so hard? I have nothing left except the bedcover, which stays in its bag all but once a month when I spread it out under the warm sun, its flowers laughing a little before I return them, weeping, to their home, shoving soap and lavender between the folds as I tell myself that nothing lasts forever.
I have now saved up enough to buy a bed, and Omar is old enough to go to school. But the revolution has arrived and the shells have started falling on Shebaa.
Did it not occur to them to only start their revolution once I have a bed for my bedcover?!
Now we have moved to Najha. But here, the other schoolchildren hit Omar because they like the name ‘Ali’ and the name ‘Omar’ makes them angry.
When I phone the woman I work for, she says: “Come and visit. There’s no shelling over here in al-Jisr al-Abyad.” And when I tell her that the roadblocks on the way are awful, she says: “Come and stay with me, then. I’ll get your son into the local school.” So, I sell my bed for a pittance, pick up my son and my bedcover, and go to her.
Here, in her house – a house which cheers on the revolution – are lots of women. They have travelled here, like me; have been abandoned, like me; they are ex-prisoners, and artists, and teachers who have lost their jobs. In the day, they all go out, first to protest marches and then to aid organisations, and they spend all night knitting and embroidering, giving the money made from sales to anyone who needs it. Omar has started working with us: he can’t bear the thought of schools anymore, ever since the other students here at al-Jisr al-Abyad started ganging up on him, shouting “Black Omar! Black Omar!” behind his back.
In the house, one of the teachers has offered to give Omar English lessons. He’s started speaking it fluently, and learning how to write it, and he doesn’t even know Arabic yet.
My bedcover is still folded away.
As for Omar – Syrian-Sudanese Omar, born in Shebaa, living in al-Jisr al-Abyad, school outcast, English speaker… He has become like a son to all of these women.
And me? Right now, I sit on the precipice of my story. I have become used to all of my names: I am Zahra, I am the woman from Shebaa, I am the “Sudanese man’s wife”, and I am Omar’s mother.
But I will never be “the maid” again.
I’m dragging myself back to you, Aleppo. Skin as cold as metal, limbs creaking like rusty hinges. If I make it, pick me up and pity me, and don’t shut the door of mercy in my face.
I’m on my way to you, carrying nothing but despair, my baby girl, and our yearning for you. If we have to die of loneliness, hunger, longing, or need, let it be on your soil!
I know that no husband will be waving at me from the bus stop, flowers in hand; that no mother waits for me in the kitchen, making kebabs to dampen her worries and hiding her love inside Aleppo-style kibbeh. There will be no friends, either; no hard university classes to grumble over, and no house. The wreckage of what was my house, in the countryside of Aleppo, will be enough for me, and I’ll either lie down next to the other corpses inside or stand up tall, the house and I giving each other life.
It’s been two years since that day the bombs fell from your sky. Do you remember? I was in the final year of my English literature degree, just about to leave for class: eyes kohl-lined, cheeks rouged with rose paste, wearing an embroidered dress over my swollen stomach, and new shoes. I remember my husband’s hand: how it pulled me out from the cement of our collapsed ceiling and how, out on the road, the sky overcast, he had taken off his shirt and torn it up to bandage my bleeding hand. Then he stroked my stomach.
I don’t know how we ended up in Damascus. We met my father there, our family’s only survivor, but he died a month after that – he was paralysed. There was no ceremony when we buried him. Afterwards, we headed south to Sweida, our route zigzagging to avoid the roadblocks where they would have arrested my husband for avoiding military service. Once in Sweida, we moved into an unfinished building, a skeleton of a place where I surrendered the load in my stomach, washed my wounded eyes with my tears, and relinquished what was left of our money.
When the soldiers came for my husband – they’d been after him all this time; he was long overdue to serve the country – he ran. I was left there, feeling like I knew no one else on this great big planet. When winter arrived, I rushed to cover the windowless panes with pieces of nylon, shielding my daughter and myself from the cold, and from intruding eyes that might have noticed I was alone in my empty house. If you can call it a house. While I was recovering from childbirth, I remember the neighbours spoiling me with big bowls of soup. And I remember the letter from my husband, bringing the reassuring news that he had survived it all: the heaving queue of smuggled humans, the pillows of stone, the treacherous paths and even the vipers. The guards had been asleep when he crossed the barbed wire at the border, but his heart had still shivered in fear that the very night itself might betray him. And when he made it, alive, to the Jordanian government, they threw him into the detention centre they kept aside for all rebels on the run from Syrian justice. But he escaped, and fled to Za’atari camp. There, he was safe. Nothing to trouble him except poverty, pangs of longing and occasional feelings of helplessness, homesickness, and anxiety for his wife and daughter, all alone in a strange city.
Once the soup gifts stopped coming, I started working. The landlord agreed to pay me five hundred liras per night to carry blocks of cement to the third, fourth, and fifth floors of our building, from the lorries parked outside.
Nothing hurt me more – not my cracked, hardened hands, my scoured elbows, or my screaming back – than my baby’s cries. But she never did cry much. Even during her teething pains, she didn’t make a fuss: falling asleep with a smile on her face and waking up the same way. Her little mouth refused any food that wasn’t milk, and the only time she cried was when she didn’t see me next to her.
In Aleppo, I used to sing traditional Syrian qududs. I don’t sing here – instead, I’ve taken a liking to reciting the Quran. All I can bear otherwise is silence.
Sadness keeps pressing down on me. It is a self-assured sadness, kneading my skin like flour, eating a kilogram of my flesh every week and piercing my heart until, finally, I stop trying to fight my reality.
As we stood in front of the bus, I told my husband: “The only people who go to Damascus these days are either stubborn students, terribly ill, or scared of losing their salary.”
“There’s one more group,” he added. “Crazy people like you, going there just because you miss it.”
Damascus—hot under siege—is one hundred kilometres away from Sweida—noticeably safer in that regard. Before the war, it took about an hour to get to Damascus by car or bus. After the checkpoints were put in place, this single hour stretched to several hours. There are checkpoints for the army, checkpoints for the National Defence Forces, and checkpoints for the Lijan militias, each one belonging to an infallible authority that doesn’t acknowledge the legitimacy of whoever controls the checkpoint before or after its own. Identity cards are scrutinised (the identity checks are never-ending) and suitcases and handbags are searchedbefore the driver is allowed to continue.
My husband’s comment hit home after the fourth or fifth checkpoint, when two soldiers appeared suddenly, just like that, as if from the belly of the earth, pointing their machine guns towards the bus—towards us, the passengers, already terrified even before they showed up. There were two more soldiers behind them, making threatening hand gestures and ordering the driver to stop. We weren’t in a conflict zone, nor one of the “liberated” zones controlled by the tyrants of Daesh or Jabhat al-Nusra or their newer Syrian peers. We were still within the Sweida city limits, an area under complete control of the regime. Who would even dare target us here, in our own safe territory? More than a minute passed, the soldiers taking aim but not shooting, until an officer’s car appeared, windows tinted. The car simply drove across the road, from one side to the other.
At that moment, the road was as it usually is. Almost empty. The traffic moved feebly, the vehicles seeming almost lonely. The officer wouldn’t have needed to wait more than thirty seconds for the bus to pass, so he could drive across safely. He didn’t have to wait, though, because he was scaring us with his soldiers and their guns; because they were only here to keep us, the pampered minority, safe.
But the slogans scrawled on the checkpoints, in shoddy ink and even worse handwriting, suggested an answer. Heartfelt words appeared at each one, such as Assad or we’ll burn this country down! next to a magnificent picture of the leader. Above, below, and around the picture were the words We love you and We’re all on your side. Then another picture, bigger in size and splendour, with You’ve got this, boss written underneath. We also saw You are safe. The Syrian army is here and We are looking after your safety. I didn’t understand this one: Syria is men with missiles!. And on one small, modest checkpoint, somebody had written Our homeland is our honour!.My God, how I loved that last one.
We were stopped at the next checkpoint for more than a quarter of an hour. An officer with two stars on his shoulder parked his car in the middle of the road, blocking the exit to both the public lane with its permanent bad luck and the military lane that is usually luckier. This was the spot he chose to have his suitcase inspected, right from the boot of his car. We watched from behind our driver as the officer folded each item of clothing back into the suitcase as carefully as if he were in his own bedroom, gazing at each piece as if recalling a fond memory about this white shirt or that green sock. We looked on from our seats behind the bus driver, baffled by his elegant packing.
At the last checkpoint, we couldn’t continue our journey after our bags had been checked. A fancy car had parked in front of the bus, leaving no space to pass through the gate. An overweight man with a regal air was standing in front of the car, a Syrian citizen from the Lijan. He wore a black suit and dark sunglasses, his moustache shaved off but with a long beard, and with a large revolver poking out of his belt. The checkpoint officer got up to meet him as soon as he arrived. They embraced, greeting each other very warmly, and had a long discussion that must have been about the country’s problems. The passengers in the bus made sure to display their respect for their country’s etiquette by waiting patiently for the pair to reach an effective solution.
What do these checkpoints look like? Apart from the sand-sullied, thirsty oleander bushes at the roadside, the checkpoint is an exhibition of recycling techniques as far as the eye can see. Nature’s waste is turned into walls and a roof for the soldiers to rest underneath: tall, sun-baked sand barriers, their grains melting under the sun, are peppered with patched-up rubber tyres, rusty metal panels from the shells of damaged cars or oil cans, and fragmented concrete blocks from demolished, evacuated buildings. When the soldiers get bored of standing around, they amuse themselves with rocks of all sizes, moving them around and arranging them in horizontal and vertical lines, or creating zigzag courses like the ones in driving schools. They might move the checkpoint one hundred metres forwards or back, or widen the military lane to let pretty girls use it, who soften the soldiers’ hearts with a laugh or a whiff of perfume.
Most of the soldiers we saw hadn’t visited their families for more than a year, and most should have been discharged from military service long before that. Most hadn’t eaten food fit for a soldier—or even eaten their fill of the terrible food they did have—even once. They hadn’t bathed in warm water for a lifetime. They couldn’t have been more than twenty years old. They should have been in the first years of university, studying and dating and brimming with hope. As they searched and inspected us, it seemed as though their exhaustion reached their souls. They all asked for water to drink.
One of them walked towards the driver’s window. “On the way back, please bring me a cold bottle of water… It has to be water from Sweida!” he begged.
On my next journey, I’ll bring eight bottles of cold water. One for each spray-painted checkpoint on the road to Damascus.
Anam Zafar translates the voices that tell their own stories on their own terms. She translates to fight against misrepresentation and sensationalism. She works from Arabic and French to English and holds an MA in Applied Translation Studies from the University of Leeds. She was longlisted for the 2021 John Dryden Translation Competition and selected as a 2021 ALTA Virtual Travel Fellow, has collaborated with the National Centre for Writing as an Emerging Translators Mentee and translator in residence, and appeared at the 2021 Bila Hudood: Arabic Literature Everywhere festival. Her translations have been published in print by ArabLit Quarterly and the National Centre for Writing, and online by ArabLit, ArabKidLitNow!, the SpLitera Cultural Association, and World Kid Lit.