The Gardner

The Gardner by Iman Al Dabbagh

Although I’ve put an extra sweater on, I’m still soaking from that walk to the supermarket. London seems to be eternally cold and wet in April. As I walk towards our kitchen, a familiar melody journeys down the hall to greet me. I set the bag of groceries on the wooden floor, finding Baba at the stove, immersed in a soothing Rahbani tune as an array of simmering pots whistle before him. He’s wearing a white t-shirt and navy blue sweatpants – comfortable and ready to engross himself in the green chicken curry he’s making for dinner. The intoxicating smell wafts towards me, and I feel warmer already.

There are a select number of things my father enjoys, none of them being typically “macho.”

He loves reading, walking in parks, exploring museums, watching movies, having very good meals, going to the theater, and taking road trips to various country sides. He’s come to love the things that didn’t exist where we grew up. Few of his activities are typically “Arab” – except for reading and writing, of course. Baba is a devoted fan of literature, classical Arabic poetry being the most cherished, and this is a trait he passed on to me.

The only time baba and I speak in Arabic is when engaging in the complexity of Arabic poetry. It would always happen unexpectedly. While some pieces were recited at predictable times, like before going to bed, the enchanting words of Antarah or Umr’u Al Qays were always orated in the most curious of moments. The qualities of ancient rhyme seemed to suit baba’s company most especially when he had fallen ill. Perhaps lending himself to the melancholic quality of these ancient words, he’d read to me then explain the poetic meanings – the environmental and social metaphors wrapped within words, the adjectives that hinted as to what the poet was feeling at that particular moment, and the larger messages about love, loss, or pride. Through this ritual, my father taught me to love the art of language, and to believe in the power of communication, of connection – particularly in our moments of weakness or drought – as it were. Once upon a time, the Arabs of the Peninsula were masters of it.

That land is in my heart… How pleasant its meadows….

بروحي تلك األرض ما أطيب الربا

This verse is perfect. I believe that every Arab will find it relatable. That pleasant meadow which seems to be lost, could it be Palestine, Syria, Iraq? How many Arabs feel estranged today? Does my father feel it? I’m not sure when or how we came to lose this power of communication, what the ancients called “magic”, but I do believe that we have. Our loss of this ability to connect is what caused me so much struggle as I grew up living in Saudi Arabia.
I was born in Dhahran and lived there for 17 years before moving away to pursue my higher education, and I now work full-time in the field of culture. At the age of 14, I remember sitting at the usual Friday lunch when a family member aggressively blurted something out, accusing all Jewish people of belonging in hell. I opened my mouth to try and correct him by saying “you mean the Zionists?”, but as I looked for my father’s approval and saw that he had caught my train of thought, I quickly decided not to say anything. He was shaking his head subtly as if to say, “stay quiet,” so I did, for a very long time.

I am the first grandchild on both sides of my family, one side being quite different from the other. As a result of this, I was made to hear countless contradicting tales of religion and politics as I grew up. The only connection between both sides of my family’s stories is that both were immersed in patriarchal thought. Feminine perspectives seemed to be worn out, or simply muted. I remember hearing things like, “don’t gossip like a woman, there’s a special place in Jahannam for that,” or “our daughters don’t play football.” These anecdotes formed a very large chapter of my formative years.

As though we were created for distance, and that it is sin for us to be with each other again…

كأنا خلقنا للنوى وكأنما حرام علينا أن نجتمع

I snap out of my thoughts, and find myself at the kitchen table, looking out of our flat’s window as baba continues to stir at the stove. From here, we’re able to see our building’s inner courtyard. We’re surrounded by eight stories and perfectly white frames. My mother often likes to peer out from the window and peek at what other people may be doing in their homes. This curiosity perhaps comes from having previously lived through civic law that demanded that houses be surrounded by fences of at least two meters in height. When we lived in Saudi, we had little idea of who our neighbors were; we only knew what cars they had parked outside.

But from the 7th floor of Berkley Court, a simple turn of the head revealed a myriad of living rooms, terraces, and kitchens – some littered with children’s toys, others with pianos and house plants. Every window frame giving insight into the dweller’s character, creating a cinematic sense of community, of knowing one another by living in proximity – by glimpsing our differences and similarities from a distance, connecting from a distance. This completely conflicts with the Arab sensibility that demands public and private life remain distinct from one another, much like public and private opinion… Sometimes I wonder if the “land” As-Summa refers to is a place that only exists in memory. I wonder if what lives in memory is even real anymore.

And how pleasurable its summer and spring stays…

وما أحسن المصطاف والمتربع

Though I deeply appreciate this Meccan poet, I do not know of the moments of “spring” he is referring to. All I remember about being outdoors on a Saudi April day is coming out of school in the starching heat, only to be met by a flock of boys in cars, driving out of their way to pass by our female section of the segregated school when classes were over. They looked like dogs in heat, panting and sweating under the sun, flailing their arms out of windows to get our attention. Occasionally a schoolmistress would stand outside as we exited the school and bark at us, “cover your faces!”

Despite that I did not experience tangible moments of “pleasurable spring” in the land I call home, I did experience many moments of mental awakening. Whilst they often came to me in agony or in sickness, these moments were inspired by the words of the great Arab minds who came before me, through the voice of my father. The merit of these words was made known to me through his guidance, in the same way it had been revealed to him through his own fathers’ voice. I was trained to find refuge in verse, in the sound and meaning of metaphor and simile. Sometimes I feel as though my ancestors handed me a survival toolkit by teaching me to love the art of connection, of words in rhythm; they’d shown me a hidden meadow: a place of solace no matter what surrounded me.

I remember the days of Al-Hima and bend over in sorrow, fearing my heart will break.

واذكـــــــر أيــــام الحمى ثم انثني على كبدي من خشـــية ان تصدعا

I remember when Baba explained what al-hima means. It comes from the word himaya, which carries a meaning of protection and preservation. My grandfather taught him this – he too, was a poet, and a member of the Saudi Bureau for the protection of the environment. Al-hima, are the green lands in the middle of deserts; they were – and remain, to an extent – to be considered sacred grounds. These were the grounds upon which early Arabs dwelled in freedom of thought and expression, on which the greatest of ancient poems were mused and narrated. I like to think of these grounds as a state of mind too – capable of carrying us through time and space. Perhaps they’re capable of carrying – and empowering – an Arab woman on her journey towards other grounds.

Lo, the nights of Al-Hima will never come back again, so let your eyes to tears

وليست عشيات الحمى برواجع إليك ولكن خلي عينيك تدمع

I don’t know what baba is thinking most of the time, but his mind must be somewhere beautiful at this moment; I watch, as he stirs the steaming mixture in the pot and hums along to As-Summa Al-Qushairi’s words as Fairuz carols. I muse to myself later on in the evening: here we are, sitting down together for our curry dinner in the capital of the world and looking out our window at the neighbors, each with their own stories and notions of home. In this moment, despite all that’s surrounding us, the Arabic language remains what moves me the most, my endangered meadow, my home, full of mysteries and riddles. With each chapter of Spring, I long to discover what else can grow.

موشحة الصمة القشيري

Al-Summa Al-Qushairi’s Ode

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