Rooms With a View
Remembering my Damascus, the city I cannot return to.
By Sarah Dadouch
The day before I missed my plane back home and got stuck in California for a week, I received an email from my father. The subject line read, “The view from my window last week made me think of you.” The email itself consisted of an attached photo taken from our apartment’s balcony in Damascus. It showed the big park across from my building, covered in snow, the trees leaning sideways from its weight. It was the first Damascus winter I’d missed and as I stared at the photo, I realized I had never seen that much white covering my usually warm city. My family was enjoying the biggest snowfall the city had seen in 30 years, while I stared at a screenshot halfway across the world, the California sun shining outside my window as it always does.
The next day I missed my flight. I went back home for three days, cried myself to sleep every day and cried when I woke up and realized I was still not home. All my friends had left for break, my $300 laptop from Best Buy broke and died on me, and my red flip-phone had no internet capabilities. I read four books and ate fried chicken sandwiches in bed. I went back to the airport extra early to catch my make-up flight. “We can’t put you on the flight,” the woman at the airport desk snapped at me. “There’s a snowstorm in Europe and everything is canceled.”
I went back to the dorms and spent four more days reading books and eating fried chicken sandwiches in bed. My suitcases remained unpacked. When I went back to the San Francisco airport for the third time, they told me I could get on the plane. I was ecstatic when I landed in Paris, less ecstatic when I saw everyone stuck and camped out in Charles De Gaulle, everyone in desperate need of showers, everyone yelling at the desk attendants, at their phones, at each other. I was ecstatic again when I realized mine was not one of the flights delayed. I got on the flight, ready to take off — and sat on that flight for six hours, still on the tarmac. I had missed my connecting flight from Jordan to Damascus. I borrowed a phone from a nice French man and texted my father before the air hostess barked at us to turn off our phones. I sat down and ignored the Jordanian man next to me telling me he can’t believe I’m Syrian because of my blue eyes. I stared out the window when we finally took off, and blanked at what I would do when we landed.
“Sarah Dadouch, report to airport security,” the pilot said once we landed in Amman. I stood up, alongside another man whose name they’d called, and walked slowly to the front of the plane, all the other passengers staring at me walk by, wondering what I’d done to have them ask everyone to wait until I disembarked first. The other man whose name they’d called was taken to an interrogation room; I was handed a plane ticket to Damascus for tomorrow and waved through security lines. “Your father called the airport,” the gruff Jordanian airport security officer said.
A woman named Claudia picked me up and said she was related to us somehow. My flight back home was the next day at 6 p.m., she told me. It was midnight. I lay in her guest room bed until 6 a.m., pretending to have fallen asleep but actually reading old Arabic fashion magazines about celebrities I’d never heard of and occasionally crying from exhaustion.
When I heard her get up and open and close cabinets in the kitchen at 7 a.m., I got up and joined her. Yes, I slept great, I smiled. Thank you for having me, but I’m not waiting 11 hours for a flight. I’m taking a cab.
She tried to talk me out of it but I had made up my stubborn 18-year-old mind. I didn’t have enough money, but she convinced the cab driver that I’d pay him when I got home. “She’s from a good family, they’ll pay you, I promise,” she told him. The man grunted okay, threw out his cigarette, and opened the cab door for me. He chain-smoked the whole drive from Jordan’s capital to Syria’s capital, and I cried the whole way in the back seat. Quietly, but I’m sure he knew anyway.
Five hours later, I was somewhere outside of Damascus and could see my sister from far away, a tiny dot getting bigger and bigger as she ran towards me and I ran towards her. We slammed into each other, crying and hugging. My mom paid the driver and drove me home.
For four days, I couldn’t sleep. I developed a pattern: around 4 a.m. I would give up completely on my bed and move to the living room. I’d try watching old reruns of Friends on the Saudi channel MBC4 for a bit, then go out to the balcony where my father took the snow picture and stand in the crisp December air. I’d watch the sole old man make his way around the park to go to the mosque for dawn prayers and would wonder what he’d do if I yelled out to him into the darkness. I’d watch as dots of light appeared, slowly at first, then almost in unison, as people got up to pray, then all of them turning off lazily as people got back to bed. I’d watch Qasyoon, the big mountain that towers over my city and takes up most of our balcony’s view, turn colors: drenched in the cold blue of night first and then fading into pinks and reds as the sun comes up. Then around 7 o’clock, when everyone is starting to wake up and the constant thrum of car horns begins its shouting, I’d go back to the couch and fall asleep, covering myself with my mother’s short white wool blanket that we were forbidden from using as kids.
I still have the white wool blanket in my father’s house in Austin, Texas, where he lives now. It’s in a broken orange carry-on suitcase my mother gave me as a gift when I was 18 and moving to America. The suitcase also has a photo album and a notebook I had in high school. These are most of the things I still have left with me from home: I lost the watch my father had gifted me for my last birthday in Damascus, left it in some restaurant in Berkeley. I lost the turquoise and gold necklace I’d had since I was child in the move after college. I broke all the mugs I had brought with me and can’t find any clothes from that time anywhere. But I didn’t bring that much stuff with me here in the first place, because I always thought I was going back.
I don’t remember the last time I stood on our balcony and stared at the familiar massive mountain staring back at me. I didn’t know it was the last time and so it was just a normal day looking out at the view I thought I’d be back to see in a few months. I didn’t pack my favorite dress that I wore to my father’s engagement party and I didn’t pack my Harry Potter copies that had lost their covers and spines from wear. I didn’t hug my cousins and aunts and uncle extra hard. I didn’t take a photo of my blue and cream bedroom, the colors my father picked because I had told him of a blue and cream room that I read about in a book once. I didn’t take a photo of me in my favorite place on earth, the Umayyad Mosque in Old Damascus.
I can Google it in New York now and read in English the things I knew in Arabic: the mosque is 1,383 years old. It was built in 638 on the site of a Christian basilica. It is said that the basilica used to hold the head of John the Baptist, and today it holds Saladin’s tomb outside in the courtyard. Before it was a basilica it was a Roman temple.
Outside the mosque is Al Hamidiyeh, my city’s famous outdoor souq. Google Images can show you photos of its cobblestone streets bustling with people maneuvering between the shops, the souq’s very high ceiling peppered with holes to allow streams of light shining down on people like spotlights. But I remember the souq at night, when I could hear my heels clicking on the old cobblestones, the sound reverberating across the empty dark streets, the shops’ wooden doors bolted shut. My father, sister and I made our way to an old Damascene house where we sat in the courtyard’s balcony, drinking tea and listening to a famous Syrian singer’s nostalgic Arabic and Armenian songs.
UNESCO’s site will tell you that the Ancient City of Damascus, which includes both the mosque and souq, is protected as a World Heritage Site. So was the Ancient City of Aleppo with its own Umayyad Mosque, but unlike their counterparts in the capital, the souq in Aleppo watched itself burn in fire and the mosque saw its walls, prayer hall, and great gate destroyed and damaged by rocket-propelled grenades. You can find photos of them before the destruction both online and in my father’s laptop photo album, when he took us to visit the city back when we were too young to remember. There’s a yellowish discolored photo of my grandfather and grandmother smiling politely in the courtyard of Aleppo’s mosque, another of my little brother and sister running in the distance down big blocks of steps in the citadel, my other sister kneeling over ahead of them, either staring at something she found in the ancient ground or out of breath.
If you visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, in the Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art, you can find limestone sculptures from Palmyra in glass boxes with tags next to them that tell their whole history. When I used to go to Tadmur, as we call the ancient city, my father would point at gaps and tell us that the missing sculptures were in famous museums abroad. I didn’t quite believe him until I saw the bust of Habba in the Louvre, the 3rd century sculpture’s hand weaving through her veil, looking like a girl nervously combing through her hair, who was then unknowingly suspended forever in time. My sister snapped a photo on her iPhone of me by Habba’s side, mimicking her movement, and we laughed and moved on, not mentioning the sadness that welled up inside us.
My cousin visited Damascus last summer for the first time in years. He told me he went to our house and took photos. Send them to me, I said. No, he said. I’m worried you’ll get too sad. When he finally sent them, I studied them to see the changes in every room: the photos of my cousin and his wife, who had moved in, hung over the fireplace. The new little plant next to the couch, the knick-knacks atop the piano, the fake yellow flowers on the glass kitchen table that my father had emblazoned with quotes from us. My bedroom had changed the most. It had a new dresser and a changing station with baby pictures on the wall adjacent to the one that had hand-written messages from my close friends and family members saying goodbye before I left the first time. The books I had left behind were now mixed with the ones my father had left, lined up in the living room bookcase. But the balcony view was the same: the houses were intact and the park was still lush with greenery and the mountain was still imposing. The flag I once considered my own is flying in the distance, right next to where the sun was setting when my cousin took the photo.
I saw the photo and looked at the view in my New York dorm room: the Hudson right next door and New Jersey in the distance. It’s beautiful, just like the view from my apartment in the Turkish border town of Gaziantep, overlooking the busy street leading to the Old City where men with motorcycles yelled in Turkish and where my vegetable guy whistled every morning as he arranged his batches of parsley and mint. My view in Istanbul before that was of an endless sea of fir trees, sometimes topped with caps of snow, covering the graveyard we lived next to, with houses beyond that as far as I could see. My Berkeley apartment’s view was less exciting, overlooking the daycare below us and the children who woke me up each morning with their squealing and their scampering.
My father packed up most of his life in suitcases and said a halfhearted goodbye to the apartment he had been working on all my life. He had a return ticket booked, thought he would be back in three months, did not anticipate the bombing that kept him away. But he took one last glance at the living room as he left, knowing he was officially, for now, moving out. He saw his black and white photographs that he had printed and framed and hung on the living room wall, the very very very old green and beige fabric duck that sat on the couch’s arm and had a torn pouch that was meant to hold the TV remotes, the gardenia tree that always threatened to die but always came through with blossoms, and the line of weird trees whose seeds my dad smuggled in from outside the country that grew inside the house and gave the living room a permanent jungle feel.
It is said that when the Prophet Mohammad got to the borders of Damascus, he stopped and said, “Man should only enter paradise once, and I choose the one above.” And so he sat down, stared at my city from afar, got his full of it, then got up and continued on his way.
I sat on that balcony most days of my life, eating cheese sandwiches and watermelon slices in the heat and drinking tea and hot cocoa in the cold. I stared at my city and was never tired of it staring back. I picked the gardenia flowers and let them float in bowls of water, like my mother taught me, their aroma lingering in whatever room I placed them in. My sister and I chased our turtle around on that balcony, until it died. We chewed massive amounts of gum and stuck them onto cracks that leaked out ants, thinking we were solving the problem. I met my stepmother on that balcony, her nervously showing up with gifts for the oldest daughter she’d heard a lot about. We took a bad, blotchy family photo there the night of my father’s engagement, one of those monstrosities in which everyone either looks bloated or has his eyes closed. And that is one of the few photos I have on that balcony, because we never took photos of our ordinary everyday life in Damascus.
I don’t remember what I did and where I went the last time I was in my city. I don’t remember the last meal I ate or the last thing I saw. I don’t remember whether I overslept the morning I left or if I woke up early to catch my flight. I don’t remember crying. I don’t remember what I left behind because I left behind so much. I didn’t put my memories in a suitcase or document them in photographs because I thought I was coming back and packing memories and taking photos happens when you know you’re saying goodbye.
A few months after I left, I sat in the right back seat of my father’s car in a border town in Texas, watching the sparse greenery zoom by, deformed by the speed. “We are not going back home,” my father told me. I looked at his face in the rear-view mirror. He pretended to be focused on the road but really he doesn’t like to look you in the eye when he tells you something serious. “We can’t go back home for a while, not until Assad is gone or things change.”
I don’t remember crying. I remember my sister being next to me in the backseat but I remembered wrong: she was still in Syria. We don’t cry about missing home because ours is still intact and our family is still alive whereas so many others have had their favorite balconies and bedrooms blown off and have watched their families die in their arms or burn in front of them or foam at the mouth from chemical weapons being dropped on their beloved cities.
Instead, my sister and I cried during a trailer once while waiting for a comedy to start and she just turned to me and pointed at her face and said, “I don’t know why.”
We talk about home without crying, about the open-faced cheese pastries, the oil-pickled eggplants, the juicy apples and grapes. We talk about the smells of jasmine mixed with the smells of sewers, the smell of hairspray mixed with cigarette smoke.
We talk about the happy things and the ugly things. How judgmental everyone was, how generous everyone was. How our grandma was a bad cook but because we lived on the floor above we ate her food most days of the week, but how her grape leaves and kibbeh are the best in the world — and how she could order in Syrian food like no other.
If we wanted to cry, we would do it separately, by talking about the small things. I would say, remember that cabinet in my room with the book shelves on top? I wonder if my books and teddy bears are still there. And she would say, yeah that’s the cabinet I cried on when I found out Fred died in Harry Potter.
She would say, remember when you’d mess up dad’s espresso because you were 12 and couldn’t concentrate to save your life? And I would say, remember how you used to get so mad at me and so I would make milkshakes and put them outside your door as an apology?
Remember our red bunk beds, she would say.
Remember when you fell at Krak de Chevaliers because dad told you to tie your shoes and you didn’t and so you split your head open and I held your bloody face and hair in my 6-year old hands, praying to god all the way back home that you wouldn’t die, I would say.
Remember Grandma’s yellow house where we spent all our summers and how we boiled tomatoes for weeks and it made you hate hot tomatoes forever? she’d say.
I wouldn’t tell her, the house whose side was bombed in the town that was under siege for months whose people were starving.
I remember, I’d say.
Writers need readers. Follow me on Twitter at @SarahDadouch.