Om Kalthoum, Jasmine and Coffee

My friend explained to me today an idea he came across about cultural intelligence. In simple words, he said that humans have two levels of attributes; core and flex attributes. the core ones are the ones we believe that if we give up, we are no longer who we are, whereas the flex are the ones we are willing to negotiate or compromise.

My friend’s idea left me with some thoughts about what my core is. I left a big part of me in every house I lived in, but I was also lucky to be able carry parts of my houses everywhere I went. As an architect, think a lot of the three-dimensional space, I always check places around me and analyse how designers think when they build things. I evaluate and compose a silent opinion about everything. It is annoying sometimes, but it also makes me feel special in a way. However, I believe that the emotional and the sensual dimensions are more significant to the space. I am starting to recognise this in London, especially in evenings like this when I open my window and a breeze brings the smell of the rain into my brain, “oh God! This smells like our village” I think. then I realised that places also can travel 🙂 .. In moments like these, I play Om kalthoum and I can grow roots wherever I am.

Well, there might be three dimensions for a house and five dimensions for a home… I started to recognise the sensual dimension of our home from the moment I started to be aware of who I am. I remember that our house in Damascus smelled like a specific soap. that smell was home, until spring came, then the Jasmine blossomed, and our windows would always be wide open and our house smelled like jasmine all the time. Evenings and mornings smelled like a mixture of Jasmine, coffee, and lemon blossom.

Om kalthoum’s music takes me back to the time when I was six years old playing in the yard while my parents listened to her songs and had coffee near the Jasmine tree. Familiar music notes pile up, they hold each other to build walls and ceilings, they build a home, a womb where I hibernate. I remember that I used to dislike the music my parents listened to; Their taste made me think of them as old backward couple.  Tonight, I couldn’t spend an hour at a club with my friends. I told them I have to work tomorrow then returned home to play my parents’ “backward” music and grow my roots again. After seeking change for a long time, we then seek familiarity.

looking back now, back to my friend’s idea about cultural intelligence, I think my core is not made of big ideologies or beliefs, instead it is filled with om kalthoum (in relation to my family), jasmine, lemon blossom and coffee …

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my favorite tailor

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It always impresses me how Picasso’s “La guernica” portraits me, and almost all of my close friends who have been through the same path more or less, except we look normal from the outside, the mess is only from the inside. I recognise how fragile my balance is when I can not engage in a conversation about how difficult it is to have your mother visit you over Easter while you have too much to study… my mom can’t visit me, that nice old lady will not see the beautiful red London buses or the stunning architecture. So yeah, I have more time to study; I will not have to be her tour guide in London, I will not take her to the Thames or London Eye. She will not see my room or the garden where I read my books.

My colleague was complaining how she doesn’t have time for her mom’s visit, while all I said was “Yeah, I know it must be difficult”, I showed a fake smile of sympathy and thought to myself, is it my fault that I don’t sympathise or that I get angry at this type of problems? I know that everyone is fighting their own battle, but why should my battle be this difficult? Why can’t I worry about my food not being organic enough or not having my vacation in the best island in Greece or even spending my birthday alone! These are the kind of problems my colleagues complain about on a daily basis, while I stay silent fearing if I talk about what worries me, I will hurt their feelings or ruin their evening. It worries me not to have a place to go to after I finish my masters because my country is not accommodating and is not a “pleasant” place to live in. It worries me not to ever see my mom again. It worries me that I don’t have a place to call home, the uncertainty, the loneliness, the exile of everything and everyone I love, death worries me… life too does… I wish I can just worry about global warming, then I would go every day to protest in front of Westminster with those nice people, but I am too broken to worry about the Earth. I wish I am that sane and sweet, but I am neither. If I am given the choice, I would probably choose to complain about the amount of field work I have to do, that I have to travel 70% of my time despite being paid three times more like that guy I met today, but I know I would be grateful to get a job unlike these people who would seize every opportunity to complain. I am not like them, I am broken. I would like to believe that I am unique because I left my pieces behind and tried to stitch myself nicely. I stitch myself on my own, I am not a good tailor, but I do my best. I do my best to be nice, to sympathise, to understand, and appreciate. I am not always a good tailor, but I am my favourite tailor.

I am sure that to other people in my country, I am like my colleagues who complain about spending their birthday alone. I live in London and I share nice photos on Instagram, oh God! We are all broken, but do I want to be fixed?

No, I don’t…

How do wars end?

It has been eight years since the nightmare started. Does it mean we were living the dream before that? No, but ignorance is a bliss almost always. In eight years, I have changed five cities, seven homes, countless skins, two hair colours, and two souls. I lost the track of time and the sense of place, and I most importantly I lost the sense of belonging somewhere.

It has been more than a year I haven’t visited Damascus. The strange thing is that I was haunted by this city; I was in love with its old stones and narrow roads.  I thought I will always have it as my home despite the destruction and the tears I dropped there. I left my home in 2015 with a lingering wish in my heart “I will come back someday when the madness evaporates, and men come back to their senses”. This never happened… Not yet, and never will apparently.

Despite the glamourous new year’s celebrations in London, I decided to spend the holidays in Damascus. Although was not excited to visit Damascus again, However, I wanted to find solace with mom who is the only reason I would always want to go there. My mom is 63 years old, she has that smile that makes me feel safe and loved. She is the elastic bond that ties me to my country, wherever I go I find myself going back for her. Also because London with all its glamour and its nine million people still makes me feel like the loneliest person on Earth.

I travelled from London to Istanbul, then from Istanbul to Beirut, then Beirut to Damascus. The car in which I came from Beirut left me near a small shopping mall, and the other car that was supposed to drive me home was late. So, I went inside the shopping mall until the driver arrives. The shopping mall was full of goods that no body bought, because people there can’t afford to buy “luxurious” things, and by luxurious, I mean new clothes. Outside there was a checkpoint where two men check IDs. I don’t remember that I was this intimidated by guns like this before, rifles were “silly” and normal. Now is when I realized I became a “white Syrian” somehow. I learned at the age of 13 how to assemble and reassemble a gun and a rifle, but now I can’t even look at them.

As I was going through the highway that leads to my home (the picture), I saw the destruction, the dust, and ghosts of people who died there, or whose dreams died there just like me. Everything changed, only the sun still visits the place every day to show us the fiasco and disappointment we should feel for what happened.

The question in my head was; What will happen after the war to these places? This road will be built again, high rise office buildings will attract businesses, those same businesses that funded the war and destroyed these homes to forever displace the land owners and start a new era… the era of the war nouveaux riche.

For eight years we thought that war is ugly, but the realization of this trip was that post war will be uglier.

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What is home?

I stopped writing a while ago because the theme of my blog was meant to send my voice from Syria to the rest of the world. I moved to Turkey and had to make myself a new life in a country that was very close to home, but also very far. In Turkey, I always felt that this was not my final destination. I learnt enough Turkish to survive, buy my food, and have enough conversation while having a good pretext to not discuss politics, Syria, and what is happening there. Once I am asked about these things I smile and say “excuse me, I don’t understand Turkish well”.

This September I also have to reinvent myself, the idea of home and relationships. I was lucky to get a scholarship to continue my master’s degree in London. The process took a whole year but I got my visa very late so I had to leave Turkey in two days. I was left alone among all the things I have bought to make my house feel like a home. Around me were The small Christmas lights that I use throughout the whole year, my nice blue carpet, my pink glass light that I bought in one of my trips to Cappadocia, my sticky notes, the love letters (yes I am old fashioned), the toaster which means a lot to me because that was the first kitchen piece I bought to feel home, and etc… I had to pack one suitcase of 30kg including my winter and summer clothes in one night. I didn’t have time to think. I gave away everything and kept my warm clothes because I will need them in London. I tried not to think of the sentimental value of things and be practical otherwise.

In two days here I am, in London. Although I lived in Istanbul before, but London seems to be more daunting, colder, and less welcoming. I get into my room. It has a big window that has a view on a park and a desk near the window. I have been here for a week now, and I didn’t buy any of the essential things I need. I don’t have a mug or a plate. All the little things that we think are little, they matter in the end. The salt and pepper jar, the spoons and forks… I have to start all over again, and make this room be my new home for the next year. What will happen after this? I don’t know where my home will be.

I started with hanging the only artwork I brought with me, which is a calligraphy in Arabic that says “Love is my religion”. I hanged it and looked at the wall, but it still looks empty. Then on another thought, I decided to keep this room as it is; cold, beige and soulless. There is no room for more emotional attachment to things and places. I should focus on doing what I am here to do and think of the room as the physical space that allows me to do what I am doing… Is this right? No. Am I going to really do this? Again, NO. These are just the frustration thoughts of my first week here. In the End, I will fill this room with colors and lights, and then I will leave it with a heart break.

I think my relationship with homes and cities is like love relationships. I always want them to last forever, but they won’t and they can’t. They will break your heart and ask you to leave. There is a piece of my heart in every house I lived in, and in every city I lived in. I hope London will be nice to me when I give her its little piece…a new place to call homelove is my religion

A voice of a voiceless

An internal monologue for a refugee, a simple woman who faces discrimination, hatred, and cruelty of humans everywhere…

In this part of this city, in these 200 m2 specifically, you stand in a miniature of Syria. You move around and you can easily hear Syria in different ways and accents, smell it from the carriages of street hawkers selling beans or Sahlep, even taste it; taste the poor part of it… even the dust in the street tries to resemble that in the streets of old destroyed cities.

Wherever you look you will see women in black, Brown, or whatever dark colors they find. Yes this is who we are; we are scared of colors, we feel exposed, Black helps us disguise and keeps us as invisible as we have always been.

It is very noisy in here but I can get myself out of this noise whenever I want. I learnt this technique when I was a child; every time my father would shout or beat my mom I would sit in the corner and sing in my head a song I used to hear from those children who went to school. The song says “those chicks! How cute they are! They are turning around their mom” so that I don’t hear my mom cry, and in times like this I do the same thing but with different songs, I don’t hear any of these women complaining about waiting for several days or since the early morning, I can only hear the song in my head and think of my own problems. I have enough of them!

I hear other women saying that you have to know how to write your name in order to get your assistance. I wish my father (RIP) hears this, he always thought he was protecting us by not sending us to school. He thought I will be more useful in my husband’s house; if only he sees the look on people’s faces when I say I am forty and I don’t know how to write my name! They look at me as if I was a savage coming from some forest. I don’t have the urge to change that look they have. I can’t read or write, I wasn’t sent to school, it is not my fault but then it is my father’s my village’s my people’s fault. What change does this make! In their mind it is either I am a savage or my people are! I don’t care as long as I will find a way to convince them that whatever I write is my name, I would cry, I would beg, I would even act dead, I will not go back home empty handed.

Oh look at my toes, they look funny. I had to take off my socks because we didn’t expect it to rain while waiting. They were wet, they made me cold. I put this nail polish four weeks ago when Ahmad (my little son) slept for thirty minutes during the day. I thought of impressing my husband but he didn’t even notice. Every day when he gets back from his work in construction I feel that another part of him is dying. I hope that seeing his five children growing up creates a strong motivation for him to go on… I can’t help the idea of being alone, I was never allowed to depend on myself, it is even weird that this assistance was sent under my name! I don’t understand why they would give it to the woman while there is a man in the house… they are usually in charge of everything outside the house.

Again I wish my father was alive to see where we are now and see how different life would be if I was sent to school or learnt to do anything to make a living. Will I repeat the same mistake with my daughters? I will try not to!! Probably to a level…  For different reasons; because we are refugees, because we are poor because I can’t afford food on the table. Maybe it is our destiny to be the invisible.

The security guards are annoyed of this number of people; maybe five hundred people are waiting. They count us and give us numbers, perhaps they don’t know that each one of has a story, a life, maybe a love, and a home that were left behind … this is not something we have chosen…

Enough! I have a headache… I need to stop thinking and go back to the song in my head… to the silence there… to being someone in the crowd, someone insignificant, meanwhile I will only imagine the smile on my children’s faces when I come home full handed, this will keep my knees stronger, to stand for the next eight hours.

refugees

 

 

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First thing you get to learn through crisis is to let go To let go of your memories … you start to forget your old friends, the faces of your neighbors, the phone number of your first love, the promises you have made for them…
If you are lucky enough you then let go of the memory of your pain. You look back and just see vague images in your mind… like a gathering you and your friends have had in a cheap restaurant back in the days when you were all students. An image of the person you were. But with no pain.
To let go of your friends, of your beloved ones. To let go of your lovely things, of your properties.
To let go is a virtue, that can make one understand the abstract meaning of being one. We most of the times have a misunderstanding with our own selves about the meaning of being.. are we the things we have ? are we our pain? Are we our memories? Our hope ? our love? Our friends ? or are we the things we created ? I have no clue actually what am I and it always thrills me in any job interview that question “please, tell us about yourself” Letting go of everything may get you closer to who you really are. But I know one thing , that through this journey, Never let go of your dreams, and your smile.
In this occasion, I am letting go of these 2 paintings that really mean a lot to me and that I always refused to sell. I always thought that these paintings are me, the image of the inner me. Now I am letting go of that old me. I think I am free now. I am unattached. If anyone is interested contact me on my Email: btoolzalkha@gmail.com
name of the painting: me and my city

   name of the painting: me and my city

oil on canvas

oil on canvas

a post that has no title, and no meaning

I am leaving this country as soon as possible…

A thought that filled my mind for moments. I don’t remember how many seconds or minuets or maybe hours I heard this sentence swinging between my ears,  In that place where I used to have a clear brain and smart ideas while now it looks exactly like Damascus; a complex of unfitting elements and colorless buildings.8f0471c7185d925a4d9326426cc3dd04

I am leaving… somehow somewhere. I only have this will now that is not figured out. It hit me just when I was running down the street of Babtooma (the old city) praying to god despite my agnostic belief to live one more day. I heard the noise of mortars near, I held my breath and held my friend’s hand. She told me that’s normal don’t worry it always happens here. I looked around, the streets were not crowded as always and there were that girl wearing a summer hat and walking slowly like nothing is wrong and talking on her cell phone. we were about to go to the main street when a soldier ordered us to walk through another way and stay near the wall… that is when my knees became weaker … why near the wall, because it’s safer. My friend kept telling me “that’s normal, why are you afraid?” … I knew that was normal, I mean for god’s sake we are in war and you never know when things can get crazy for five minutes and then it gets normal for the rest of the day… just five minutes that don’t matter in a normal day, but it can make a lot of change in a country like mine. It’s not that we make a big deal out of our time; we are people who can live ten years without changing our breakfast meal or the road we take to work, but seriously five minutes can matter more than ten years here.

While walking near the wall I told my friend “I don’t want to die today, or any soon” she smiled, then we reached the main square, ran to a taxi and got away of this place. My friend laughed at me and said I am a rabbit.I thought to myself, seriously why was I scared! I wasn’t like this before, it was just an ordinary mortar shelling like the normal days, but I am not the same anymore.

I realized that I want to live more and experience life… real life not this one I am living. I want to know how it feels to wake up and go to work not worried about which road has less snipers or less mortars.

How it feels to walk in a city that has no check points or soldiers.

How it feels to plan your vacation.

How it feels to stay out late in the night and be able to get back home without being worried?

How it feels to sit in a park and talk to a stranger without him wanting to know about your religion or your political views?

How it feels to take a photograph anywhere any time.

How it feels to be free, to be fearless, and to be light…

How to be happy… really happy without that deep deep feeling inside that something wrong may happen in any moment.

I always said; If you can’t be happy here, you can’t be happy anywhere, but everyone who ever knew me knows that I was never a sure person, never. But for now I want to leave and also I am not sure about that, not sure how, not sure when…