Middle East | Syria – Mari: the seven sisters

Middle East | Syria – Mari: the seven sisters

From my spot on the High Terrace, I could see nobody at all. If I walked about ten miles east, I’d be in Iraq. I knew that there were scatterings of farms and villages around—I’d heard a tractor about an hour earlier—but I felt like the country was entirely empty. This dusty, abandoned city felt like the edge of the world. I’m comfortable with no company but my own, and happy to spend days in silence, but right then, among the ghosts in the trenches, I was lonely.

There was a flood of questions battering at my brain—why am I here? What is the point of sitting on a bus for hours to walk around a fallen down city, all on my own, in the blazing sun? What on earth am I doing? Why am I spending my time poking about in forgotten relics, when I could, should, be making fabulous friendships and having involved conversations? Shouldn’t I just be at home, with Snarl? But the answers were louder than the questions.

Why come here? Easy. Because I can come here.

Because I can see what came before, see how the world grew, see traces of the empires that rose and fell, and left glimpses of lost worlds behind. Because it is full of wonders and I get to claim them as my own, because I’ve seen them. Because it is a jigsaw puzzle. Because I have to get from here to there and show myself that I am bold and brave and that it’s all very easy, much easier than I’d ever have imagined before trying, and because people are kind and open and welcoming. Because I can see a fox in the temple, and chase crickets through the palace. Because I can walk, and so I must. Because travel is now such an easy luxury that it seems a terrible waste to ignore the opportunity. Because, however much you read and how many films you see, nothing will ever beat being there, and seeing it all for yourself. And I want to, oh, how I want to see it all and show it to other people with words and help stir up that itch to explore.

The answers are so screamingly obvious that I was embarrassed by the doubts, even though the reassurances sound so entirely cheesy.

But did I wish that Snarl were with me? Hell, yes. Not because it’s easier that way, or less hassle, but because out ways of seeing nudge together. They overlap and push forwards. Because we are good at spinning stories together. Because he takes the piss out of me when I get all wifty-wafty and swoonsome. Because we urge each other along, and it’s much harder to be lazy when he’s raring to go out and see, see everything.

I was out of water, the sun was glowing its last over the horizon, all this introspection was making me queasy, and my eyes were entirely full. It was time to head over the back to the mission house, make some polite small talk, and get an early night.

+ + + + +

As I came back over the low ridge, though, a little girl in a bright pink shirt and flowery long skirt came skipping towards me, and then broke into a run. She came to an abrupt halt, bang in front of me, thrust out her hand with great formality, and collapsed in giggles when I shook it. She corrected me, by holding my hand tightly, and swinging our arms we marched back towards the houses. As we came into sight of the family, two other kids came out to join us, in a clamour of introductions, questions, and laughter. There was some mild squabbling about who got to hold my hand, who got to carry my bag, and who got a piggyback ride. Now they knew my name, they started to weave it into a shouty, tuneless, giddy song. The only words I could pick out were ‘Kate’ and ‘mahaba’, but I took it for granted that it was a nice song.

Mamma was feeding the three cows, and the pretty brown calf, with shockingly green bundles of alfalfa, pulling out handfuls from loose canvas wrappings, and strewing them around. A teenage daughter had just finished the milking–with one frothing basin on her head, and another in her arms, there was a narrowly averted disaster as she tried to nod and wave hello to the grubby foreigner.

The young ambassador tugged at my hand, pulling me towards a pair of brick ovens—smooth-walled hollows, inside a large brick-built platform, glowing with coals—and announced, ‘bread!’ She patted her hands together, flipped them over, patted again, ‘bread! I smiled at her big sister, who was peeling fresh rounds of bread from the walls of the oven. The smallest, with a mad tangle of curly hair, had started to use me as a climbing frame—pulling out my hand, and then walking up my legs, until she was nose to nose with me. I swung her around, and deposited her on the ground. Bad move. This was too much fun, and had to be repeated, again, and again as I talked to the baker. She was pink in the face from the heat of the fire, and trying to shoo the swarms of children away from me. This became another game, a round of grandmother’s footsteps, with wild shrieking and laughing, and hammy acting of all innocence.

Sister Baker was a charming mixture of incredible shyness, and huge mischief. She had fragments of multiple languages, and we found a fairly comfortable mixture of English and French, well, enough to get by. She taught me more Arabic than I’d learned before, but I’d forgotten half of it by the morning. (If I had three wishes, from a trapped goblin, or a fairy godmother, an aptitude for learning languages would be the first.) As the girls dug through my bag, and played with my umbrella, and danced around in circles, we got through the preliminaries of home and travel and family. She ripped off pieces of steaming hot bread for me to try, and ran through the ‘husband? Married? How many babies? That many years and no babies!’ routine, but, before I can launch into my white lies she’s giggling, and tickling the tiniest girl (who is currently sitting on my hip anyway).

“Take this one. You be her Mamma.”
“OK! She’ll do. Can I have another, too?”
“No, only this one. Because she is too naughty for us to keep!”
She translates for the gorgeous kid, who looks horrified, then intrigued, and then announces that yes, she would please like an English Mamma, but not today. She planted a kiss on my cheek, jumped down, and ran away, cackling, to pester the calf.

“I think you only get to borrow her,” said Sister Baker. “She is a little crazy anyway. I don’t think you’d keep her long. She would drive you crazy too.” She tapped her forehead, and pulled faces. It seems that this girl, I think the oldest of the daughters, was the official sensible one, herding the little ones around. Every time I saw her, she was wiping a face, or straightening hair, or taking sharp knives away from the youngest three. Eleven children in the family, stretching from knee high to grown up. As far as I could work things out, there were two mothers for this brood, but perhaps one was a mother-in-law instead because there was quite a large age gap. Not that this mattered. The whole crew was incredibly welcoming, and it was a real pleasure to be surrounded by talkative women.

As it got dark, the television was put on, and I was dragged inside so that I could watch their favourite soap. Eight of us clustered around the small screen. Flickery with static, and in rapid-fire Arabic, I couldn’t work out what was going on, but I had an enthusiastic commentary from the two middle girls.

‘This one loves this man, but his mother thinks she is bad. Oh. This man is married to this woman, but she hates his other wife. She, she is telling her mother about the bad woman. Here is Mamma! No! She is very upset now. That is because her brother is in prison now. Look. Oh, she is very beautiful.”

I nodded and ummed and ahhed and said “oh, really”, but I was tangled in plot and characters within five minutes. But I had no intention of moving away, or stopping watching. The youngest children were sprawled over me: one, curled up asleep on my lap, a second with her head on my shoulder, the third had her arm hooked through mine, so she could play with my bracelets. Two young boys edged out and sat at the table, peering at me a little dubiously.

I batted at the flies and admired the pictures of the Assads, father and son, on the wooden wall. Sister Baker smiled, dreamily, when she saw where I was looking. “He is so handsome, so beautiful. Do you love your president?” Somehow, I can’t imagine Tony Blair inspiring such a teenage crush.

As the soap ended, and conversation was reaching the end of our vocabulary, I pulled out some origami paper, and started folding cranes, peacocks, flowers and frogs, letting the kids choose which colour I should use next. Within a few minutes, three very serious under-tens were folding, carefully, amazed at the easy magic. The older sisters sat back, watching, congratulating me on the quiet concentration of their rabble.

As we folded paper, and compared our creations, not thinking, I drank glass after glass of water. I was so dehydrated my lips were cracking when I laughed. The water was cold and sweet, so I downed about three pints of the stuff.

(Six months later, I’m still ill. Oh well. I’d not exchange that evening for anything.)

After we’d eaten—a dozen of us together at the long, low table, digging into rich omelette, icy-cold yoghurt, tomatoes and cucumbers, with torn off strips of the new bread—the power crashed, and so we moved outside. Or rather, I was ushered outside to the courtyard, where carpets and cushions had been spread across the earth to make an outside sitting room, and the girls were packed off to bed.

I was joined by the older boys, and the young man who I’d met first off, who spoke very little, but watched me as I smoked cigarettes, and smiled. I probably looked like the village idiot—glowing with happiness, good food, and glorious company. Lights swung across the courtyard as people drove their trucks home from the fields. Three tall men in long gowns appeared from along a path, were greeted and seated. They nodded politely to me, accepted a cigarette each, but there was business going on, and I was less interesting than that.

I leaned back on the cushions and looked up at the sky. There was no breeze, no noise but the occasional volley of dog barks and the background murmuring of the conversation around me. The moon was low and fat and full, making the whole world silver. An owl flew low over me, so close that I felt the stirring of the air from his wings. I was drowsy and drifting, content.

Perhaps it had been nothing spectacular, just a smooth-flowing domestic evening. They were very polite, to being with, but within half an hour of joining them in the evening, there was a tangle of teasing and laughter. There was no ceremony, and no formality, beyond the astonishing hospitality of the Syrian people. I was just a temporary addition to their home, surrounded by seven sisters. It was entirely lovely. I retired to bed before the magic broke.

Category : Middle East | Syria , Uncategorized