Ola Saad Znad
1“فوق النخل فوق … يابه فوق النخل فوق”
Is the first thing that crosses my mind when I remember my hometown, my roots.
“This cafe is my refuge” said one of my grandfather’s regular customers. He then casually pulled out a chair and sat on a table next to two men playing a game of chess. A few minutes later, smothered with the cheers of an excited audience, the losing player scratched his bald head in confusion before pulling down his sidara2. One wins, one loses, they both laugh and order another estikanah of Iraqi tea.
Look around the café. Every detail in this place calls you to be part of it. Embraces and contains you. I saw the door of time crack open, and I entered with my right foot. Like the museum of innocence, the walls were so telling. Each picture tells a thousand stories. The walls exposed and vulnerable, fragile and precious. I hugged the walls to keep the stories from falling apart.
At the table, I sat and observed everyone and everything, alongside my imaginary friends from a transient community. If we are not here to walk across the bridges, then what are we here for?
It’s morning again. Was I dreaming again? I know is that I woke up grinning. I am not ‘there’ now, but I can go ‘there’ whenever I close my eyes. For now, I am ‘here’ and all alone. The bridge is shaking but I’m holding on to a reality studded with fractured dreams to keep me sane.
I asked my father, “Baba, what do you really miss?”
“Your grandfather,” he replied, longing for times long gone.
“Do tell me his story again, please!”
My father said:
In the old days, your grandfather, a typical Baghdadi man was attached to his homeland. He had four boys: Tariq, Sameer, Saad, and Ali, and five girls: Sameera, Baheeja, Suaad, Huda, and Shatha. He worked hard to raise them with dignity. He provided for them with his sweat and blood. He took them to the best schools in Iraq. Everyone in Baghdad was your grandfather’s friend. “A flower from each valley,” he used to say. In the heart of Baghdad, he and his flowers gathered. They watered their roots and flourished in the shadows of mosques, churches and temples.
My father continued…
Years later in 2003, a vicious sectarian conflict spread like wildfire, dancing to the beat of the drums of war. My father closed his beloved coffee shop soon after. And just like Baghdad, the café was shredded to a million pieces.
Puzzled, I asked him: “What happened? What made this gap between neighbors, friends, and families so deep and wide?”
He paused to think for a moment before he said:
Back then Baghdad was one of the greatest cities, people appreciated its history and glory. What we didn’t account for was the residue of war, the walls built between neighborhoods. The walls built in people’s hearts. Occupation segregated us, made our differences so visible and ugly. High concrete walls emerged and we couldn’t see past them. Soon enough, people became strangers to each other. These concrete walls are so high, so heavy, so hideous. They’re nothing like the walls of the café you see in your dreams, Ola.
“مدري لمع خده يابه … مدري القمر فوق”
I don’t know whether his cheek is glowing or the moon has risen
In this part of the story, I close my eyes again, so that I can travel to where dreams are woven: to taste my grandfather’s tea, to smell the museum’s walls, and to touch all of my what-ifs.
What if this café that lived in my dreams, with the loud noise of people, their cheerful laughter and chatter, the aroma of tea steeping for hours… What if they all come back to life?
What if someone urged them not to listen to the strangers in helmets behind concrete blocks?
What if they hold each other’s hands and push together against these concrete barriers?
Could their eyes heal from the blindness and see?
Could their ears heal from deafness and hear?
Could we tell another story where Baghdad’s laughter was never interrupted?
Oh, the excruciating pain of what-ifs.
“والله ما أريده … باليني بلوه”
I swear I don’t want him, I grew tired of him
Yes, Baghdad and I haven’t seen each other since the war, but am I brave enough to change its perfect image in my memory? The walls of Baghdad extend their reach to me, protecting the only solid memory I have of the place I love, where my roots run deep. These walls keep me wondering: what would my life be if I had never left my home?
Between myself and I, I always wonder, I always hope…
“What is it like to love home?” asked mind.
“Like being planted in a place, but your head is breathing air from another land,” I answered.
“What is it like to be loved in return?” asked mind.
“Being seen after ages of darkness, being heard after a lifetime of silence,” I replied.
“What is it like to lose it?” asked mind.
“Like this…” I sighed.
Baghdad, my beloved, to you I write this love letter
From the day I longed, I felt your presence
I wonder when our paths would cross again
I often think of where you are.
Are you happy? Are you hanging on?
I hope they are gentle.
I know you well,
you and I hurt from scratches,
You see, our souls were made from a single breath
I know I came late, forgive me
things haven’t worked out how I planned
Trust me when I tell you I am finding my way back.
To fight, that’s what your love taught me to.
Until then, think of me, dream of me and I will do the same.
I will come to visit you in a lifetime, live you and breathe your air. I will tell everyone how beautiful and merry you are despite your cuts and bruises. We will realize, my dear, that we have known each other all along and we lived across the bridge from one another.
Until the end of the time,