FRIDAY, 9 MAY 2008
I opening my eyes with a jolt, it took me a few seconds to register what had woken me, and where I was, then I heard it again Allahu Akbar Allahu Akbar, a call to prayer I had not heard for four years.
I rolled over and looked at the scene, the entire floor of the room was covered with plastic bags and wrappers, the small table covered with food remnants, and mounds of pistachio and watermelon seed shells, two oversized suitcases full of essentials for my family sat unopened in the corner, the other two suitcases lay gaping at the end of the bed, in exactly the same spot where the night before they had been opened and the contents passed around, they were now filled with reciprocal packages, date molasses, nuts, elaborate long dresses, and two canvas paintings of a street from home.
We had only moved into the rooms the night before, the past twenty-four hours had disappeared, and already we were into the second day.
But at last we had made it, we had talked about this get together for ages, planned and then re-planned, scheduled and then cancelled, we even got as far as the airport the year before but never boarded the plane when at the last minute it became clear that people could not make it out.
But here we were, all together in two rooms in a simple hotel, up a rather steep hill in Amman, I had taken the advice given by my mother’s friend and booked the rooms without thinking too much, it was only later that I realised the reasons she had recommended it, it was inexpensive and relatively close to the embassy.
The flights from Sana’a and London had arrived soon after each other, we had been held up for ages while someone in green (who had clearly attended the تفضل ويانا academy( interviewed M in a separate office, and tried repeatedly to extract from him details of trips to Damascus he had never made. When we were eventually released and having deposited the luggage we set out to the bus depot, a central point where buses of all sizes and private hire taxi arrived from Baghdad.
The bus arrived, almost two days after they had left home exhausted and dusty they descended the steps, tears of joy mixed with sobbing and sighs as one by one they were passed from one hug to another to yet another, before the trip back to the hotel for the night.
This morning we would go in search of a flat, we were here for only one week, the rest would be staying for a month and would need more space, two taxis and many false starts later we found a suitable place in Jebel Hussein and agreed the rates.
This was to be the first of many such snatched trips.
One week in the summer, for us a week of the almost familiar, the almost home, for them the week of almost normal, of almost free, one week minus six hours flight both ways, minus six nights of about three or four hours each, one week to cram everything in.
Months of preparation, coordinated leave, applied for six month in advance where bureaucracy ruled, and changed half a dozen times where uncertainty about everything was the norm, leave to travel that was bribed for, begged for, signed for by heads of departments, and more, hundreds of thousand of dinars raised, a brother’s house as guarantee, and several weekends of shopping had gone into preparing for this week.
“Give me a list of what you want,” I had pleaded, “give me your size again”, and “how long do the skirts have to be”, as the years went by it slowly became more difficult for me to imagine the sisters I had said goodbye to wearing what they were asking for, in my mind no-one changed for many years despite the photographs.
Clothes, shoes, and hair products were the staples, and at the airport just before departure, but after the excess baggage had been paid for, kilos upon kilos of chocolates, enough to be rationed for a year.
In that first visit we walked for miles during the day, up the steep hillside to the post office to send all those international application forms that burnt up so much cash and so many dreams, down to the centre of town after Friday prayer in the mosque, travelling out of Amman to a variety of hospitals, and countless universities in the desert, as well as schools nurseries and charities in search of any employment for anyone, and a good many of the evenings were spent in the open cafes of the Hashemite square beside the ancient roman amphitheatre.
Over the years we moved up in the world into the “Gardens”, attended concerts in Jarash, swam in the Red and the Dead Sea, and visited the incredible pink city in the rocks, but one place we returned to virtually everyday, in every visit we made to Amman was the phenomenon of Safeway’s.
The name we knew even before we arrived, the store we did not, but with time, it is incredible how fond of the place we became, eventually even collecting points on the loyalty card to help save for some piece of electrical gadgetry, for several years we would browse the pirated software on display within this store before starting the shopping proper, down the aisles avoiding the smiling holiday tour representatives desperate to get people to go to a presentation or enter a competition.
On the second floor as well as perfumes, clothes, and shoes were the books, and household items, and tucked away round the corner the yellow signposted room, where we headed at least once a day on that and subsequent trips, the internet café.
This was where emails could be accessed, and elusive replies awaited, where exam results could be checked, this was where news was searched for, and people found, long lost friends, long lost jobs, long lost opportunities.
The later it got the busier the store seemed to get, babies and toddlers still out shopping at midnight, and as well as the families there was another phenomenon associated with this store, as we queued waiting to pay or access the bureau de change I could see the entrance with the shawarma kiosk, and just within the front doors the ice cream and magazine stalls, all would be surrounded by single-sex groups of youngsters milling around in their “casual” wear, with full “shopping grade” hairdos, makeup and sunglasses, carefully “ignoring” each other from a distance.
On the first few days the shopping trips would be an opportunity to spoil everyone, they tended to be long, leisurely and loud, subsequent trips would be for essentials, brief, with arguments at the check-out, towards the end of our stay the final visits would be sombre, slow and silent, the shopping for returnees, and those waiting for their return was different, tins and jars and long dated everything, special treats, and vital sustenance, gifts for friends and relatives, and “gifts” for those on the various official stops on the way home.
For many years it seemed that every summer there was a new shopping centre to be toured, and every time there would be more horror stories, less confidence in imminent improvements, more urgency for escape, and deeper depression as the days of freedom ran out, but on that very first year, that very first trip and that very first supermarket visit despite all the trouble getting there, everything seemed so different.
POSTED BY 3EERAQIMEDIC AT 18:13 2 COMMENTS
Don't know what to say, but your post touched the wound.
Spending a long time waiting for it,fighting for the annual leave ,booking the flight as early as possible,collecting money and arranging things.
Then, simply, we're not sure when the exams are.
They should be soon, but they're still not sure when.
Possibly it will be something I should keep dreamin about.
Spending time with them is different; it's quite different, and This is going the first one after getting a job.
You've said once that the first ten years are hard.
Seems you're right.
09 May 2008 23:13
Yes time with friends and family is the most precious, and it makes no difference where that time is spent.