Finalist of the “Two Thousand Nights and Awakening” literary contest
The places we build our lives around get stuck inside us. They are the backdrops of our recollections, the ones in charge of projecting the image that will linger in our minds long after everything else has faded away. No matter how hard we try to avoid it, there is always something of ourselves we leave behind when we depart from them. And when we finally get to return to them, we cannot but feel betrayed when we realize that they haven’t stayed frozen in time and aren’t exactly the way we remembered them.
I shot a look at the patio and thanked God for having allowed my grandparents to leave the country before the war erupted. The whole patio lay in ruins, coated with a thick layer of dust and ashes. Everything within sight had been drained of color and rendered gray. Suddenly, I recalled the graffiti a friend of mine had sprayed on one of the walls enclosing the patio to profess his love for his neighbor, and my heart sank. It read, “I confess to being madly in love with you. Punish me if you must, but know that you will never make me feel guilty for it.”
My grandfather’s old house could be seen from where I was standing. I remembered the colorful blanket with which they used to cover the large bench they sat on in the afternoons and which had been sewn together from pieces of the clothes the family members had passed on to one another as they grew out of them until nobody could wear them any longer. Grandma used to say its smell reminded her of the olden days. She knew better than anyone that smells have the power to trigger memories and made sure we would remember her whenever we would come across the aroma of basil. My grandfather, on the other hand, I remember being less affectionate and more mischievous. There is this memory I have of him that I believe provides a pretty accurate reflection of the way he was, at least, with me.
My grandparents used to have a grape trellis in the garden, and one day, as he was watching over me while I was looking up at the grapes with desire, Grandfather said, “You are allowed to have as many grapes as you can reach without lifting your hands.” He then dissolved into fits of raucous laughter, as the branch that hung closest to my mouth was still at least a meter away from it.
In the center of the patio stood an apricot that had grown into the size and shape of a plane tree. That’s what I call a tree with personality! Every time the season arrived for the apricots to ripen, my grandfather exclaimed, “This tree produces so much fruit that we could feed a whole town with it.”
On the opposite side of the patio, stood the two blackberry bushes whose intertwined branches had provided hours of entertainment to the neighborhood children. By the end of each day, the ground and the benches would always be carpeted by sunflower seed shells and apricot kernels, which the ants would never take long to discover. In the mornings, however, the garden always looked tidied up and brushed clean. We never faced any consequences for our disregard of our surroundings.
One day in August, my grandmother woke me up in the middle of the night barking instructions at me. Her tone conveyed fear and trepidation.
“Get up, go wake up your uncle and run with him to the patio. Your aunt from Homs just called to warn us that an earthquake is going to hit Latakia tonight!”
I sprinted for my uncle’s bedroom, but when I tried to wake him, he dismissed me with a stream of crudely delivered expletives directed against Japan and some Richter dude, and promptly went back to sleep. I got scared, because I had never heard my uncle swear like that in the house. After I told my grandmother what had happened, even she balked at trying to wake him up again. One could tell, however, that she wasn’t at peace with the decision she had taken, because during that whole night we spent on the patio together with the rest of our neighbors, who we had invited to join us and who showed up wearing all their most expensive bling over their PJs, she did not once let the entrance to the house out of her sight. Except for the kids, nobody was able to fall asleep that night. However, the assembled multitude’s wakefulness was more owing to the fact that they spent the whole night cracking jokes about the situation their gullibility had gotten them into than to the jitters they had gotten initially but had been able to shake off as soon as the threat posed by a supposedly impending earthquake had started to lose credibility. When morning dawned, the neighbors all agreed it was about time they returned to their houses. Before the crowd dispersed, someone renamed the patio in an attempt to keep the atmosphere lively until the last moment with one final joke, “We should definitely do this more often. What do you think of another soiree at the earthquake patio tomorrow night? Anyone?” He wasn’t exactly cheered to the echo for the wittiness with which he had infused his remark, but the name stuck, and from that day on, the patio had a moniker with pizzazz.
Eleven years later, on a cold night and at a late hour, the same people who had come together to survive what had turned out to be an imaginary earthquake were reunited at the patio. On this occasion, nobody dared to open their mouths. Everyone had their eyes fixed on the pavement. Shots were being fired from all directions. My younger cousin clung to his father’s legs. Father and son were both trembling with terror. I looked at my uncle and he winked an eye at me to show me that he wasn’t afraid and I shouldn’t be either. Then he whispered, “I too miss the days when all we feared were earthquakes.”
There is only so much we can change, because the places we occupy end up becoming the negatives of who we are and don’t allow us to undergo revolutionary transformations. Looking on the bright side, though, we can always trust that they will be there to offer us the support we need to deal with whatever destiny throws at us.
For a moment, I thought I saw the spirit of the earthquake patio. It smiled. Suddenly, I could smell the distinctive aroma of basil. I turned my head around to determine where it was coming from and when I looked back at the patio, I saw that the apricot had blossomed and that my grandmother was there, scrubbing the dirt from the patio walls.
“I am Ghais, from Syria, where the always blue sky that we see over our heads with doves cruising across it can sometimes be deceiving. I now live in France, where I am doing a Ph. D. in Agricultural Engineering. My goal in life is to spread love, because that is what my family and my country, of which I have fond memories, taught me. I have high hopes and aspirations for the future, because, as far as I am concerned, life on earth is a one-time kind of deal, and I pray to God that he lets me stay down here for as long as possible, before sending me to Paradise.”