Small dry oranges. Rubbery leaves. The scent of citrus in the garden. Smells I can’t quite describe except in terms of emotion. The scent of a happy childhood, I guess, sentimental as that sounds. What can I say about Damascus, except that it was home? I remember sacks of sugared almonds in the souk. I remember standing in the street one December when I was maybe six or seven years old and being absolutely SURE I saw Santa and his sleigh in the sky. I remember the man who used to come round selling corn on the cob, sweet and hot and stored in the metal canisters on either side of his donkey. I remember the Syrian nightwatchman who used to piggyback me up and down the hall of the Embassy reception and then make me sweet Arabic tea. I remember the restaurant with hummus that had an inch of olive oil on the surface, and no hummus has ever tasted as good since. I remember the pillars of Palmyra. The dusty earth filled with history. I remember Abu Shahir and his shop next door where I’d spend my fifty piastres pocket money once a week. I remember when it snowed for the first time in years. I remember my mum sieving weevils out of the flour she bought. I remember dried milk was the only milk. I remember Tang Orange mix. I remember learning to swim in the freezing Andalus pool. I remember the little baby tortoises in the garden. I remember the arabic boy next door whose garden had the empty swimming pool and me and my sister would share the chunks of cucumber we used to snack on with him.
I know that my memories of time in Syria are born out of privilege – as much as I hate the accusatory nature of that word as bandied about the Internet. I was a child there. I was ignorant to the politics and the hardships.Yes, there were signs, even then, that not all was well. I remember the day that hundreds of pink flyers were dropped from planes overhead, covered in Arabic that I could speak a tiny bit of but couldn’t read other than the numbers. It seemed like magic for a seven year old, that confetti from the sky. I remember the six months off school because of the cholera outbreak.
But until I was eight years old Damascus was my home. I was happy there. I loved my school. I loved the warmth. I loved the people. I loved the hundred different smells that there are times I wish I could smell again. I loved the hubbub of the streets. The crazy busyness of it all. The guttural sound of the language. The call to prayer. Even the time I stroked some weird cactus and had tiny spines stuck in my hands for days. I remember the tiles under my bare feet in our flat. I remember my home.
I remember coming back to England at eight years old and going to boarding school in what felt in many ways like an alien land. I remember missing the sunshine and the dust and the freedom of my jeans and T-shirts. England didn’t feel very much like home. It was a new place, grey and dark and cold.
I’ve grown up since then. I’m now a middle-aged, middle-class, very English woman. Sometimes I think that part of my heart is still in that dusty earth, but it’s not my home now. Now I’m a Londoner. It’s a different world. It has different problems. The Damascus I knew and loved is gone – for now at least. But I think of the child I was who was so happy in Syria and then I think of how wonderful it would be if a Syrian child could be as happy here.
Because when you’re five, all home needs to be is safe. And warm. And welcoming. At five the politics don’t matter. Maybe we should all stay five years old. Maybe the world would be a better place that way. You can’t kill the love for a place you had when you were five years old, however much the world might want to influence you with facts and figures and fears. Love is hardy. It won’t be swayed.
I can’t be five years old again. But for now, I’m hoping that maybe a child from Damascus will get the chance to feel about England the way I felt about Syria. Happy. Safe. Loved.
And maybe the world will be a better place for it, that sharing of home. Because the earth is the earth is the earth, as the line from the poem goes. It’s all of our home. I can budge up a little, if you can. There’s space right here.