The Fattoush

A martyr's funeral in Duma, close to Damascus, Syria

Any resemblance to reality is decidedly intentional.


Diab visited me in my dreams and asked me to cook him a fattoush. Thus, I called Sami’s mother to help me prepare it.


The two women started to make the dish for the boy, who had died two months before. That afternoon, Sami’s mother wrote on her Facebook wall, “I have been thinking of late of all the guests for whom we lovingly cook, write songs, and dance, and who, however, never end up showing. Not only do they turn their backs on us, but they also foist their crude absence on us. Today I recalled the features of the poetry about absence and presence that I once studied. Then I plugged away at putting the fattoush together for Diab, a boy whose acquaintance I never made. I know how he died though, as well as what he looked like by virtue of the two pictures I have seen of him. One hangs on the wall of his house; the other is in my son Sami’s possession.”


She had named her older son “Sami,” after her brother, who at the beginning of the ’80s had been locked up in Tadmor Prison, located in the desert. She spent years dreaming of seeing Sami the Elder lift Sami the Younger up and carry him piggyback around the neighborhood. Finally, in 1998, fourteen years, four months, and three days after Sami’s arrest, someone knocked at the door to break the terrible news to her: Sami the Elder had passed away.

There was nobody to ask about when or how he had died, nor what his last words had been. She could not bury his body nor arrange a funeral to lay his soul to rest and say her goodbyes. But she took some solace in knowing she had support from the outside when a small group of people gathered to join her in her mourning the next day. Sami had simply vanished, leaving nothing behind for her to remember him by, as if he had been air all along—nothing but a mirage that had one day melted away into the blue sky above her house.

When Diab offered himself up as a martyr, she had known neither him nor his mother. All the same, she had gone with a friend of hers to offer her condolences to the martyr’s mother. Diab’s face reminded her of Sami’s. The women greeted each other, coffee was poured, and then they chorused their prayers to weld together their feelings of woe and bliss. She asked the rest of the women to praise the blessed who had met their Maker. She spoke about the outstanding courage they had plucked up to stick to their beliefs and refuse to kneel down before a mortal ruler. The women let out trilling howls of merriment. Their unabating enthusiasm led them to think that although God may be tackling matters of graver concern—such as bringing order to the world—He would still be listening to their aching hearts. Their howls slowly turned into a prayer that struck the whole world dumb.

The other women in the house, who were all from different regions of Damascus and had all encouraged their children to submit to God’s will and give up the ghost for the cause, thought that Sami’s mother was the martyr’s sister. Many went to Diab’s mother and said with regard to Sami’s mother, “Blessed be his sister. She seems to be as tough as a man!”


“Dear mother of Sami, you are the one who has taught me that my son is in fact a hero. Your words herald his ascension to the sky. Others have buried him, but you have brought him back to life. I love you for that. You are now my sister. I have always wanted to have a sister, since I was the only girl my parents gave birth to.”

Then Diab’s mother started to tell her about Diab’s salad days, about how as a teenager he spent the evenings with his friends and took care of his appearance. She could go on and on for hours.

The women finally finished the fattoush and placed it on the table. They sat down and started eating with their eyes glued to the picture hanging on the wall.

“Blessed be your hands; this fattoush tastes delicious!” said Sami’s mother.

They then turned their eyes back to the picture.

Next, Diab’s mother said, “And to think that Diab left with an empty stomach . . . During his last day on earth there were so many things that needed to be taken care of . . . He asked me to make him a fattoush. I wanted it to be special, but by the time I had it ready to be eaten, he had to go. He never got to taste it.”

The two women fell silent. The portrait shot them a piercing glance. Their sense of loss became palpable. Diab’s mother then looked at Sami’s mother and, feeling like a shy schoolgirl trying to find her voice, she said:

“Dear mother of Sami, unlike me, you have gone to school and studied. Please, forgive my ignorance and tell me, do they serve fattoush in Heaven?”


Written by Jamal Saeed.

Choose your own adventure

Taking a human life has to be declared beyond the pale. This act comes at the cost of shaking the belief that dying means finally having supper in the sky after having been

a) condemned for all the wrongs one has done.

b) redeemed for all one has endured while alive.