The sun entered their home through a small window in the kitchen, stifled and timid, like an uninvited guest. The house was sparsely furnished — like mine when my kids and I first arrived. The walls were bare, displaying nothing but a padded black velvet wall hanging with the word Allah embroidered on it in gold sequins. The couch that Citizenship and Immigration provided was still the same muted beige, and still stiff as a fucking rock.
Abdel Razzak was sitting across from me. His legs were crossed and his hair was a luminous wave of sandy brown curls, forcefully slicked back with the fluorescent hair gel they sell at the dukkaneh for two dinars. Hanan — his wife and the reason I was there — was telling me he had packed at least ten of them in their suitcase, sealed tightly in a plastic bag with two large cartons of Winston cigarettes — the man is fleeing war and destruction, and these are his bearings. His eyebrows were thick and grew out of his skin in bushy clumps. In his eyes I saw a glimmer of his daughter, Nawar, who was yanking a stuffed bear out of her sister’s hand in the next room.
“I wanted to thank you, Suha, my sister, for the strollers and the clothing you arranged for the kids,” he said, his eyes were level on my forehead.
“No need to thank me,” I responded, feigning a smile. “It’s just the Christmas hamper the organization arranges every year.”
Hanan was fumbling around in the kitchen, sent to make us a cup of qahweh with a wave of his veiny hand, but I knew that she was listening closely, hoping that something meaningful would bloom from this exchange.
“You know, I was against receiving it at first; the exchange is muharram as it is a holiday for kuffar, after all.” He tilted his chin upwards, to the ceiling, so that he looked down at me, like a judge nauseated by his defendant.
“Ah well, yes, but your welfare cheque also comes from these kuffar,” I responded with a smile, my blood pressure rising.
There was something about him that I could not handle — as much as Hanan had told me about his insolence and stubbornness over the weeks that I was her settlement worker, I found in him a new agitation. El blad is littered with men like him. Men with shiny hair and eyes that chase and track women with the same keen interest of a dog with a bone. Men that flock to the word of God when they have no more tools left to wield. Sitting at home, ijr-a-ijr, with their balls between their legs, while their wives run around collecting money on their behalf, from the government and charities and mosques.
A slow smile glinted across his face.
“Wallahi, if it weren’t for the circumstances, I would disagree with you.”
“You’ll be confronted with many things here that will force your hand,” I continued, trying to bring myself back to focus in on the equilibrium Hanan so desperately hoped I would bring to their home. Earlier, she had come into the office with her daughters in the (“hedonistic”) strollers her husband was now reproaching me for, begging me to come with her, to talk some sense into the man. I would have usually said no; in my line of work, you have to carve boundaries out of stone. But there was something about Hanan, about the hard edges to her face and the dusty colour of her eyes, which made her impossible to say no to.
“Wallahi, that is what I am afraid of. Already
I see Hanan changing, becoming disrespectful, and forgetting her place. Her duty! We are not like them, el ajaneb,” the tone of his voice rose so she could hear him scolding her. “You should have heard her the other day! She was telling me she wanted to drive — imagine that. Drive!” He remarked, his head rhythmically nodding back and forth. “Wait till my mother hears about this one! Bidha terbay!”
“Lawsamaht, Abdel Razzaq! How do you think I got here?”
The expression on his face shifted. “No! No! I did not mean anything by that,” he said, waving his arms in the air, as if appalled by his own mouth.
“Yes you did,” I interrupted.
His apologies resumed again, in a thinly veiled flurry of regret.
Hanan came in with a tray in her hand, two cups of qahweh and two glasses of water balanced on it, with an empty space where her finjan should have been. She handed me my cup. Shukran habibti, I told her. She placed his on the stand by the armchair and her fingers twitched, wishing they could be attending to anyone else.
“Tfadal,” she said, her eyes avoiding his.
She went back into the kitchen, and at her exit the clamour of pots and plates began filling the living room.
“Come sit with us,” Abdel Razzak yelled.
“You’re the one who called her over to talk to me!” “I’m just cleaning up the kitchen, Abed,” she said dismissively, banging the coffee pot on the counter.
“See, see, how she talks to me.”
I ignored him, the guiding words I had practiced in the car slipping from my mind.
As I embraced Hanan at the doorstep, I told her to be patient. Her husband would come around. The words were untrue and hollow and slipped from my mouth easily.
No he won’t, she remarked.
I kissed her goodbye, and stepped out onto the street. The air was inclement and the sun shed its light timorously from behind moony clouds. Hundreds of looming pine trees stood tall and stoic, like criminals awaiting execution, their needles bristling in the wind.
Entering the car, I let out a heavy sigh. The rain was beating down on the windows. I turned on the engine and the blinkers, but could not bring myself to drive; the thought of going back to the office for a team meeting turned my stomach.
I had parked under a cherry blossom tree that had just sprouted its first f lowers; the soft pink petals lay wet and crumpled on my windshield like tiny severed tongues, expelled by wind that blew softly through the slit in my window.
I turned the car off and rolled the windows all the way down, letting the rain fall onto my lap and my forehead, wetting the scarf I had wrapped tightly around my head this morning. I took out the pack of cigarettes that I had hidden in my glove compartment (Saudi Arabian Marlboros, not the fourteen-dollar shit they sell here) and lit one up. I watched as the silver smoke began to drift from the cigarette, looking at myself in the rearview mirror as I took my first drag. The image of myself pleased me. I felt a slow clouding sensation plummet down my throat, and expand into my lungs, only to be pulled back up and out into the wet air.
My sister, Najla, and I arrived on a day much like this one. We landed in the first hours of the morning, crammed on a plane filled with Iraqis who too had been accepted as Government Assisted Refugees. Malak, my daughter, was eighteen months old (she is now fourteen years old — and Iraq is a figment of her imagination. Sometimes, when she calls over to me, the “o” in Mom drawled out and swallowed, I forget that it is me she is calling, and I stifle the urge to slap her lazy jaw back into place.)
She slept silently, unlike the other children on the plane who wailed and kicked and screamed the whole night next to mothers who were too busy flipping through the shiny selection of movies on their screens.
I was sitting by the window, Najla beside me, our mother Majida, sitting in the row behind us, sandwiched between Najla’s daughters Nawal and Nariman who lay asleep on her shoulder. Through her earphones, Elissa’s voice whined and trailed and echoed, audible well into the night.
To me, they are all that is left of Iraq. I left my husband in the ground in Baghdad, next to the empty plot we had reserved for my own departure. If you had asked Najla where her ex-husband was, she couldn’t have told you; she had ejected him out of her life long before the invasion.
I remember looking out the window, into nothing, and having this sinking feeling in my stomach, like a root pulled from the earth. We were flying through a thick fog, a haze that covered the entire atmosphere, and on occasion I would see the peak of a blue, a shade cast by the snow that sat atop the mountain year round.
I took one final drag and threw it out the window before I turned my blinkers on and drove back to the office.
Zeinab & the Girls
They were all sitting around the table when I entered the office. All ten of them.
Zeinab sat with her face beaming, a plush oval of praline skin framed tenderly by her deep orange hijab, the color of a tiny flame. Hala on the other hand sat apathetically and sweetly, all too aware that nothing will come of what we would discuss here today. Her bangs, I joked with her earlier, were in need of a cut. Finally there was Linda, Julie, and Sally, who traded in Chinese names for English ones.
I greeted everyone as I came into the room, and I was met with quiet murmurs of hi’s and hello’s. A meek reception, at the end of a long day when none of us wanted to be there — except for Angela, who sat coiled and bright-eyed at the head of the table. I inhaled deeply as I sat down next to Zeinab who had, as always, kept a spot for me next to her.
Hala set down two plastic containers of desserts, one filled with tiny rectangles of walnut baklava stacked neatly on top of each other, the syrup they had been brushed with gleaming lustrously under white neon lights; the other housed a bundle of honey biscuits. She had told us earlier that she made them because she knew Angela had a nut allergy but could not remember which nut. We had each brought a little treat from home as part of a “cultural exchange,” a new team-bonding initiative Angela had put in place to get to know us a little better. For most of the white people in this sector, it seemed to be an excuse to get a nice afternoon treat.
Zeinab, the g irls, and I are called Multicultural Outreach Workers. We help immigrant and refugee families resettle in their new homes. The guidelines for this work are simple: help them fill out applications, get jobs, find homes, and Build a Future in Canada. Evidently, most of the time we’re going into their homes and doing couple’s counselling, babysitting their children, translating text messages they unearthed from their husband’s phones late into the night, while the brown of their eyes get browner, and they curse the day they got onto the plane to come here. And, at midnight, when they call us after their husbands hurl a glass or a slap at them, we help them fill out the police report, and the no-contact order, only to find that they’ve returned to their freshly repented husbands the next day.
Every time I tell someone what I do, they look at me with soft, doughy eyes, touched by the wholesomeness of my line of work. But to be frank, I find that I am just as dead inside as every banker and salesman in this fucking country.
Angela got up and reached for another piece of baklava — her fourth.
“Does anyone mind if I have the last few? I want to take some for my daughter.” She said, grinning, a small piece of walnut trapped in the corner of her mouth.
My Sister Najla’s Apartment
Najla’s apartment in Baghdad was on the top floor of an old building. She shared it with her husband and her two girls, Nawal and Nariman. After her divorce, she sold all their furniture and emptied the place, hollowed it out entirely. With that money, she refurnished it, retiled it, and turned the sun room into a terrace (her husband was always afraid of people seeing into their home, so he kept all the drapes closed and the windows shut). At his departure, she filled the whole place with plants — big leafy shrubberies that sprang out of brass pots and grew in wild tufts. She hung grape vines on her terrace and hired men to screw in planters to her railing, and in them she planted little mint and sage trees that grew sluggishly all through the seasons. She dwelled in this new life, a woman freed from burden.
On the eve of the New Year in 2003, Najla and I were gathered on that terrace with Maha, Nadwa, Maryam, Medina, Malak, Samiha, Majd, Anoud, Shams, Aisha, and Amira. The pale blue smoke from our cigarettes and argeeleh dancing before us, and the smell of hot arrayes, hummus, and mint tea wafting in the air, our laughter ringing through the night like lightning. I miss those sahraat more than anything. More than my husband, whose body I used to clutch in the dead of night when Bush’s men were ripping through Baghdad.
That evening, we had all prayed together — except for the young ones, who would run into Nariman’s room to smoke, drenching themselves with so much perfume afterwards it would be hard to smell anything else.
We read our dua’a and prayed for a generous year, but alas God had other plans. I still think of that crowded terrace, with its overgrown plants and wicker furniture, in the hours of the night when the small of my back would begin to ache and sleep would refuse to come.