Beyond the glass enclosure of the pool, past the herb garden, city lights bristle at the seams of the sky. Out at the edge of a nature reserve, this house stands at a gentle gradient; on nights when the moon is on the rise I get a tidal view of tree heads standing tall like sentinels at the borders of my house.
At two in the morning, Hajj and my two youngest boys are asleep inside. The back yard is still, its silence punctuated by the occasional roar of tyres turning on the road in the distance. Underneath a cauldron, petals of flame curl and unfurl in steady succession. I stand here, wrapped in a cocoon of sour smells, and try to figure out the rhythm of the fire—the flare is due to the rustle in the air—but give up when the fire suddenly ebbs. The contents of the cauldron gurgle steadily and that is all that matters, really.
By noon tomorrow this dish will be served. Two sets of fingers will pluck rice and meat-stuffed grape leaves from a silver-lacquered tray. My eldest son’s fingers are skilful, they will lift one roll after another, successfully plopping each one into his mouth. My son’s wife’s fingers will be clumsy, swollen taut by all the water a foetus demands to remain buoyant, to take leaps in throughout the nine months. A few rolls will slip through her fingers before one will reach her mouth; juices, tart and glutinous, will trickle down her wrist. A stain, the shape of a tree perhaps, will appear on her sleeve.
This open kitchen in the back yard is my workspace. There is an indoor kitchen too, all marbled counters and a shiny stove, but the smell of frying animal fat wades its way into other rooms and clings to everything: my Iranian rugs, the weaves of my curtains, the soft linen on our beds, between the knots of my crocheted doilies, between the bristles of Hajj’s dense beard, to the boys’ crisp school uniforms in the mornings. I often complain to anyone who would give me an ear that it is Hajj’s oversensitive nose that has condemned me to a life outdoors, but really I am the one who cannot bear the smell of kitchen outside the kitchen.
This kitchen out here is smaller by comparison, granite counter and a single-bowl sink is all there is, but when you pass the small table that doubles as my chopping board, there’s a large table beside the pool.
Behind the table on the wall is a photograph of the 700-year-old fortress next to our house in Tripoli, one wall burnt to charcoal by the air raids I witnessed as a child. The photo is framed in antique metal brass with gilded detailing. My father gifted this photograph to me in Lebanon 25 years ago on my wedding day. We, the young ones, dealt mostly in cheap things; anything gold and gilded was handled by the elders. My sisters, all younger than me, went cross-eyed with envy. I carefully folded the gold-framed photograph within leaves of an old French newspaper and placed it at the bottom of my suitcase, one that was gathering dust by then, suspended in a state of limbo between the storeroom at the back of the house and the narrow corridor leading to the front door, its destiny hinging upon the arrival of a letter from an immigration office in Australia. Now it hangs on the wall, a reminder of what I fled from. I make certain all of our happy-family photographs to be sent to Lebanon are posed at this table, the frame behind in clear sight.
In keeping with the age-old tradition of Lebanese households, our family’s affairs vortex around my kitchen. We celebrate happiness through eating but also throw food at grief and sorrow and fear. Over za’atar sandwiches (the oregano is sun-dried and rolled at home) and watermelon breakfasts, over meaty midday meals and late-night Arabica coffee and sugar-syrup-dripping baklavas, a certain set of vocabulary is indefinitely shuffled and reshuffled to accommodate, or counteract, whatever life throws at us in this new land—a mere twenty-five years spent here in contrast to the ten centuries through which my elders trace their family tree in the Levant. Think: not one tombstone here to call my own in this land that Hajj has dragged me to.
My stove burns all day against a backdrop of chatter before each boy goes off to school and after he returns from it, bickering with Hajj over bringing back groceries I did not ask for, against the incessant chatter of Arabic TV.
Only when the sunlight begins to mute, when faint sepia light rays first strike the kitchen wall that I face most of my days does my stove begin to cool. Once the cicadas take over the night, I sit here at this table and smoke away to the mellow din of bubbling nargileh. There is no revelation nor any variation in my nocturnal routine: time slips by as I smoke away in the dark, the bush next door hums away, the coals in my nargileh live and die, the far-away lights morph, as they always do, into lights I know still dot the Mediterranean in view from the kitchen I first learnt to boil rice in.
But last week something unusual happened, the first omen, perhaps, that life for me would not remain the same. I was dozing off with the pipe dangling limp in my hand when a sound ascended above the usual night buzz. The sound was the shape of hollow discs, one frisbee flung at me after another. I woke up with a start, almost knocking over the nargileh. A burning coal fell to the floor, right next to my foot. Before I could curse into the night and pick it up with a pair of tongs, the sound wheeled at me again, challenging my knowledge of my surroundings. I got up and walked over to the farthest end of the yard. A poisoned jarrah rested an arm over the fence, its fingers arching in the back yard. On that dead arm was perched a large owl, ember-eyes looking straight at me. My mother always said that in dreams, owls herald destruction. I swung around and wobbled back on these swollen feet of mine.
I did not spot the owl or hear its call in the yard again, but a premonition of destruction leeched into my heart. I cursed Hajj a hundred times over for buying a house adjoining the bush and vowed never to sit out at night again.
It happened as my heart had felt. I was dousing zucchinis in olive oil for lunch when I saw, through the glass panels of the door, Hajj receive a call in the living room. He sat on the edge of the sofa, face wiped clean of all movement. You have not seen Hajj’s face. It is covered by a filigree of frown-crevices; the man does not know how to keep an expression off his face. Even in his sleep he frowns, showing his disdain for only God knows what. But here he sat, without a single crease on that old face of his, staring straight ahead at the pool.
My son’s wife is pregnant. It was my son Bilal breaking the news to his father over the phone. I had this boy when I was twenty. And now twenty years later, when my own womb has begun to dry up, he is about to father a child, one who could possibly come into this world bearing none of our family’s green-grey eyes or blond hair.
Hajj said she is Tongan, the woman my son is going to have a child with. Not Lebanese. What was I going to tell people back home who this woman was, where her family came from? I asked Hajj if that means she is from Hind. He said no, not Hindu, Tongan.
Once on a bus ride many years ago, Hajj and I had the same conversation. I saw a dark-skinned girl sitting opposite us and asked Hajj, ‘From Hind?’ To which he replied, ‘No, not Hindu, Tongan.’ I had never seen a Tongan before. I do not know how Hajj could tell one from another. But she was sitting there, earplugs buried into her ears, chewing chips from a McDonald’s red box. Her thighs jiggled and jerked like she needed to go to the washroom, her mouth at work, alternating between chewing chips and singing out loud, perhaps in sync with whatever was blasting in her ears through the plugs. She closed her eyes, threw her head back every time she sang happpyy and opened them only to pluck another chip from the box. I bunched my black cloak around me and stared.
She was in the middle of plucking a chip and singing another happpyy when she caught me gawking at her. She smiled. Not a constipated, straight line that I am often thrown at the shopping malls, but a smile that sent the corners of her lips soaring up, baring almost all her teeth. Swear upon God, I wanted to smile back but I looked down quickly, not knowing how to smile at people I do not know, people who do not share my language, who do not come from my mother’s country, who do not come from the same village as my mother does in her country. What if the smile leads to a hello? What if the hello hurls me into a ‘How are you?’ I have mastered the art of saying ‘How are you?’ like an Australian, elongating the ‘are’ and dipping the ‘you’ short, but like Hajj can, with a nod of his head and a wink of his eye, add ‘mate’ to that mix, I cannot. I wanted to be pleasant to that stranger who did not treat me like one, who smiled at me despite the disparity between my voluminous black cloak and her shockingly short shorts. But I just let my eyes roll down to the tan lines visible just beneath the edge of her denim shorts and back to my own buckled boots.
I thought of this woman on the bus, the red McDonald’s box in her hand, when I turned to Hajj and said, ‘Get your son to bring the woman over. Tomorrow. Our grandchild needs to hear our voice, feed on our food.’
I keep my back firmly to the towering tree heads now, determined to shield out any signs of destruction while I stand, like a sentry, above my stove. Under the muted light of a ten-watt bulb, I prod a rolled grape-leaf here, push down another one there. Heat sneaks out from the brim of the cauldron into my hands. Over and over, I disrupt the continuous symmetry of the vine cigarillos, packed delicately in some twenty concentric layers, needlessly, only to perfect it again.
Until last year, my grape leaves were supplied to me monthly from my sister’s garden. Sure, there was that one time when she returned from Lebanon after a month-long visit and did not bother to call me, her elder sister, on her first day of return. For a period of six-and-a-half months, no short break in the life of a kitchen, I returned the monthly basket of grape leaves untouched. As it is with sisters, a truce was eventually called; a few spilled tears of regret from her, and I found many reasons to forgive her.
This grape leaf lull was not easy on us. It felt as if the mother of this household had died. Why else would a Lebanese kitchen go for months without a cauldron of vine leaves rolled over soft rice and mincemeat, seeped through in mint and lemon juice, cooking away overnight on a bed of beef bones? We all suffered but Bilal suffered the most. It was his favourite dish, the one I made as a consolation every time he fell sick, as a treat every time he came first in class, after every soccer match his team won.
Bilal asked if he could make a trip to Abu Saleem’s, the only authentic Lebanese grocer in Sydney, to get vine leaves pickled in glass jars, but I could not consider it. Who knows who plants the vines, whose hands pluck the leaves from those vines of obscure origins, whose hands pickle the leaves from the vines of obscure origins? We thought of planting our own vine then for the first time. But our own back yard did not have enough space, did not get enough sunlight. Hajj said our soil had been stripped of its nutrients by the wild roots that snaked in from the neighbouring reserve.
Just when the leaf supply arrangement resumed, Bilal, the same one about to become a father, was caught by the police driving late into the night. The police trapped the poor boy; no good Lebanese boy from a good Lebanese family ever goes near alcohol. Wrath be on the machinery that declares the innocent guilty. Without a driver’s licence, the boy had to move in with friends close to the city where most of his car-repair work took place. I cursed the day I decided not to learn to drive.
After leaving the house for the first time, Bilal did not visit us for an entire week. Did he not miss us? Finally Hajj called on the seventh day and told the boy he was coming over to pick him up. Hajj wore his best clothes, brown corduroy pants with a woollen blazer that matched the colour of the pants. In his front pocket he carefully folded an off-white silk handkerchief. It was not every day that one of us had a chance to head to the city. But his clothes went unwitnessed by anyone other than us. Hajj was not invited in to meet the new city friends our son was sharing accommodation with.
Bilal had taken none of his clothes the day he left, saying he would be back for his clothes soon. On this day he was wearing the same white polo shirt he left in, but it had been washed and ironed. Bilal would not know how to turn a washing machine on, let alone wash in it and then iron out the creases on his shirt. I asked, ‘Found a laundry woman, young one?’ Like that, on an impulse. The twenty-year-old laughed in return, looking relieved, I thought.
I did not know how to proceed. I hurried back to familiar grounds, grounds on which we, mother and son, had weaved our intimacies over countless meals and sweet things. ‘Habibi, what all do you want me to cook for you? I will send your father to pick you up twice a week so you can eat at home.’
The boy laughed again, ‘Nah, Ma! Found a cook too.’
A laundry woman and a cook too, all in a week? I could not say much after that exchange. All I did was catalogue every detail on his face; the blue-grey eyes he inherited from his father, how they stared right at me when I started saying something but mid sentence they drifted from my face to somewhere else like he knew what I had to say, like he had already pieced together in his mind everything I will ever have to say. I took in, again, the deep wedge slashed between his brows, where the bridge of his nose—that angular nose our family could be recognised for throughout our city—first dipped down, the scar visible on the outside. The pain of the scar still cuts, years later, at my insides: he was in year ten when his friends from school circled him outside the mosque his father and their fathers were praying in. Four of them, all Arab in language and build, pounced on his face, kicked him in the gut and left him bleeding. Two of those boys had visited our house and eaten at this very table, one of them calling Bilal ‘Bill’. It made the headlines the next day. He refused to press charges and I refused to press him to press those charges. The boys who attacked him were suspended from school for a month. Bilal, however, lasted less than a month. By the time his wounds had healed, he was already a school drop-out, going to our family friend’s workshop every day wearing petrol and turpentine smeared overalls.
When he was not looking, I looked at him; at his lips that trembled and drooped at the corners every single morning of his first year of child care. ‘Skutt, act like a big boy, Bilal. Do not embarrass me. Do not let the other mothers think my son is a coward,’ I hissed, as nervous as him, but carrying twins in my belly and incapable of realising, just then, that this small bundle of red button-down shirt, white socks with green trimmings pulled up to the knees, in grown-up-looking lace-up boots was standing as tall as he could stretch, was waging a war with his own tears at too early an age. He was brave enough to face a bare world at three years of age, day after day, while I, the coward, repeatedly retreated to the snug security of my home with its straight-out-of-Lebanon photos and Lebanese-smelling kitchen.
I catalogued his moles, his scars, how his hands always found each other. I took an inventory of that face, still as familiar to me as my own, knowing well that life would inscribe on it in my absence, that time would alter it, perhaps beyond recognition.
A week after he moved out Bilal packed all of his clothes and his mechanical equipment and took them away. The spot in the back yard where his tools once lay in a jumble was now vacant. Wild grass began sprouting arms in the empty spot. Detesting the wild things that took over my son’s space, I grasped each arm and yanked it out by its hairy roots. The ground was made flat, like no wrench ever grew rust there. Hajj resisted at first, but between my erratic spells of silence and screaming, he eventually got to work. Within a month, as if by magic, one of the trees arching in the back yard lost most of its leaves; the sunlight that once sprinkled silver in the yard now flooded it gold every morning.
We planted a trident of bamboo sticks. That summer, a meek grapevine tendril shot its head out of the once barren spot, wrapped itself around one of the three bamboo sticks and began its journey towards the sun. The leaves simmering in this pot now are the first produce of that grapevine.
I dip my hand into the pot, retrieve a snugly rolled grape leaf and take a bite; the skin melts away in my mouth but the veins remain stubborn, intact. I spit it out straight into the bin. Another dip, this time with a pair of tongs, deep into the pot’s belly. Another bite and there you have two squashed bats lying flat in a bin. Made-in-China bulbs snap on in the outdoor kitchen. To hell with those who sleep.
It has only taken five minutes of incessant swearing—sharmootah, shrameet, shraaameeet—before a dishevelled Hajj runs down the stairs, out in the kitchen. ‘Have you finally lost it, crazed woman? Where are the hordes of whores you are screaming at?’ Made bold by the stupor that still lingers in his eyes, Hajj whams at me.
‘These rotten leaves, here, taste them.’ I throw the ladle in his direction. He sidesteps it, reaches out for the tongs. ‘I said they are hard, our grapevine is useless.’
‘Give me a leaf.’ I wave him away. ‘No, no use.’
‘Too many trees, too many roots to do away with, Um Bilal. Did I not tell you the roots from the bush make their way to ours? Your vine stands no chance.’ Hajj turns around and leaves me alone with my shame-inducing vine leaves. I know I should turn off the heat under the pot but the veins are still rubbery, stubbornly clinging to the rest of what makes them whole.
For the seven months that Bilal had been living away, I had refused to visit him in his new home, refused to meet the woman I knew he was living with. Two months ago, when I called him he said, ‘Ma, I’m at Aldi. No time to talk. I’m a married man now.’ I knew he was smiling on the other end, pride blooming in his voice. What use of a marriage now when the marriage was consummated long ago, how many times I did not want to think about. I cried into the phone; my son did not console me.
Pink is beginning to blotch the sky, and the morning call to prayer will soon go off on my mobile phone. Heat flashes between my temples, threatening to bubble through my head. I do not know when the meat at the bottom of the cauldron starts to burn but soon smoke and the smell of the burning cauldron are all around me. The smell nudges at me and leads me back to when I was five.
We were walking back up to our house on the third floor of the building I was born in. We had hidden in our neighbour’s basement for two days straight while the Syrian tyrant Hafez al-Assad’s planes bombarded our part of the city. All these years the photograph on my wall, with the singed wall of the fortress, has reminded me of nothing but the soot-bride our city had turned into in the aftermath of the air attacks. But what rushes back to me now is a memory, buried long ago, of an unexpected excitement: the excitement of a child finding her house gutted, its insides churned outwards for inspection, for finding things once thought lost splattered around her feet like burnt manna.
I ran my fingers on a melted rubber doll that I had not seen in months, still warm. The airplanes now spent would return to my city only decades later. My elders took to the balcony and spoke in reverent whispers of rebuilding what was lost, for my people are Phoenicians, reared in the art of rebuilding from ashes. No balcony in the neighbourhood was empty that daybreak, not one family had deserted their home.
In the complete security of the moment that only a child can ever possess, I could not keep up with the solemn tones of my elders; my joy at the prospect of rebuilding what was lost took its own language; it rippled up from the pit of my stomach, leaped out at the world in a gush, in a single, unbridled giggle.
The memory of a laughing child standing on a charcoaled balcony, in a city burnt to ashes, walks away with me from that table like an old friend till I am lying next to Hajj submerged in outward silence. Perhaps I am still giggling away on that balcony, perhaps I am laughing with my son in the kitchen, when sleep finally opens to me and I softly slip into it. •