into my flesh
Marks on my skin
My legs scarred
Clung to me
As I ran
Our new home smells of vanilla. Mama makes all our favourite desserts from many years ago. Cream puffs, elevated versions of eclairs: slow cooked dough, let it rest on the warm stovetop, take your time, ease it into the oven heat. Bake it for forty minutes. Stuff it with rose and cardamom custard. Top it with vanilla butter chocolate. Glossy, fragile, so easily destructible. I make a mess. Chocolate on the corner of my mouth, my chin, the top of my teeth. This tastes like my fifth birthday party, my last one with my thirteen cousins. They said they wished we were born every day so they could come over for cream puffs every day. Chocolate on our shirts, on the sides of our dresses where we wiped our hands. On a sugar rush we broke a couch, we jumped on top of cars, we made crowns with the palm tree leaves. We climbed over neighbours’ fences then raced to sneak out. If you didn’t get caught you got to wear the flower crown, and you got another cream puff.
At our new home we don’t have palm trees. We have trees that make our street purple. Apricot trees housing a hundred parrots. But Mama listens to the parrots and says ‘I’ll put some water out for the birds. They will pray for us. How about one of those purple trees in our backyard?’
Mama listens to the parrots and says ‘I’ll put some water out for the birds. They will pray for us. How about one of those purple trees in our backyard?’
Our new home here smells of tomatoes, garlic and black pepper. Sheets of lasagna. Béchamel. Mama makes it four hours ahead of dinner because she knows my father loves it cold. She makes the pasta sheets; the flour smothers her hands and paints her hair white every time she folds it behind her ears. She sings when she cooks, gana el hawa, gana, we ramana el hawa, ramana – love came to us, it came to us…
In our old home we dipped the broken lasagna sheets in leftover béchamel. We got full before lunch, yet we ate lunch and we went back for seconds. One lasagna dish for us, three for our cousins. When we decided to leave, we spent our money on passports and bribes. Lasagna sheets and béchamel became the standard lunch. When Mama noticed us getting bored, she would replace the sheet pasta with French fries, then with bread, then back to the sheets.
Here in our new home the locals eat fries with gravy. Mama thinks it’s funny. ‘Did the British spend all their money on people smugglers too? Signs of the Hour! Wallah.’
Our first interim home after leaving Iraq was a one-bedroom flat opposite a brothel; my parents slept on the floor, my sister and I in a bunk bed. Posters of Donald Duck and his three nephews on the wall, next to ‘prayers for the traveller’, ‘prayers for the foreigner’, ‘prayers for the distressed’, ‘prayers for the scared’ and ‘prayers for children.’ A photo from the newspaper of my mother at a corporate function. My sister’s report card: ‘Brilliant girl.’ My piggy bank wasn’t sitting next to Mama’s jewellery box because she sold everything. In our closet she had three wrap dresses, and they wrapped around her dark skin like she was the temple and they were in worship. When she told me stories before bed she blessed me, and I never had a bad dream.
Every other night I would fall from the bunk bed onto my parents’ mattress, never bothering to climb back up. My sister would pretend to fall off too, so she could join us. We were safe when we were together. When it rained too hard and we were scared, we fell onto the mattress. When the cars raced down our streets and drunk people were laughing outside, we fell onto the mattress. When the planes struck the twin towers, when Saddam disappeared, when my mother had a stroke, when my uncle was killed: we fell onto the mattress.
None of our interim homes ever had a tree. Scathing desert heat never let us grow lemons, or basil, or jasmine or orange blossoms to plant into our hair or into Baba’s suit pockets. Our second interim home was a desert house with a big backyard: two sand pits separated and surrounded by red bricks. We could not walk without shoes. Burn marks on our feet. The sand pits housed leftover bricks and cigarette butts that weren’t ours. Every time we removed them they reappeared. We didn’t smoke, but it seemed that was the only thing we could grow.
Scathing desert heat never let us grow lemons, or basil, or jasmine or orange blossoms to plant into our hair or into Baba’s suit pockets.
We invited our friends over to this house, Iraqis who went to university with my parents and left Iraq when we did, old family friends and their children making our new community that smelled a little bit like home. We tried to relive the ashura tradition where Shia Muslims cook rice and qima for our murdered ancestors and give the food away. We bought pots a metre in diameter. We arranged wood on the red bricks of our backyard and set it on fire. We slow cooked onions, chunks of meat and dried black lime over eight hours. Calm fire, calm stirring. Kilos of tomatoes, kilos of chickpeas and cardamom melted into our qima and the smell of an old memory filled our street. We hosted everyone we knew, two hundred Iraqis in and out of our desert house. They said we brought back home. We washed the pots in the sandpits; a week later, there was a chickpea sprout. Baba took photos of it from every angle. He said our ancestors were talking to us, they were in our backyard.
Here in Adelaide, we plant our first tree. Dwarf lemon tree in a small black pot. Baba gives her water before sunrise. He Googles ‘lemon care’. He buys a gardening book. He buys special fertiliser. He spends hours making her comfortable. He says he won’t let this tree wither like the chickpea sprout. Our ancestors have a home here this time, and it feels like he does too.
Here in Adelaide, we plant our first tree. Our ancestors have a home here this time.
The day after we get our visa approval for Australia, I clear my bank account on gifts to fill our new Adelaide home. Red, silky ruffled blouse for Mama and a gardenia perfume to remind her of our Iraqi garden. Maroon leather-patch cardigan for Baba and a bag, a wallet and a belt made from halal leather. Two cut glass pitchers for all the guests we’ll get back to hosting. Cake servers for the birthdays we’ll celebrate together, from now on. A framed, laser-cut wooden structure of a palm tree. Ten grams of saffron.
My father puts four threads of saffron in a saucer. He adds ten drops of water. Mixes. Lets it sit. He touches the solution and on a piece of paper he writes with the saffron ink: I seek refuge in the Lord from the evil of his creation, from the evil of settled darkness, from the evil of black magic, and from the evil of enviers. He makes four of this hirz and puts one up next to each person’s pillow.
We crack an egg against the kitchen bench: a sacrifice, like Abraham in the Quran. We speak to our gods together. We pray in a group for the first time in a while. My prayer cloak was sewn by my aunt for my fifteenth birthday. She made it oversized so it would stay with me for life, and so it has. When we pray we ask for protection, we ask for forgiveness, we ask for support in our battle against our own demons. We ask our gods to share this home with us. If we do everything right, evil won’t find us here.
A few weeks into our life here, I have a dream of all the good people we know, gathered into our new living room: on the couches, on the arm rests, on the floor, in the corridor, outside the window, in the sliding door to our backyard. Our old friends, martyrs of the war, school friends we had said goodbye to, my cousins and my aunts, they fill every corner and they start to pray together. They pray that God becomes our seeing eye so we may find peace. They sing their prayer in a soft hum and our walls sway with their tones. As we pray, angels come down and stand in the corners of our ceiling. White ghosts praying with us, their shadows floating across the room, hovering with the lorikeets from my mother’s backyard.