A Carry-On Full of Pictures and Letters
Heba Hayek is a London-based writer born and raised in Gaza, Palestine. She completed an MFA in Creative Writing at Miami University, Ohio, and is studying for an MA in Social Anthropology at SOAS University of London. Sambac Beneath Unlikely Skies, her first book, is a collection of remembrances of a girlhood spent growing up in Gaza. Hayek pairs each vignette with a song from a playlist – an artistic choice that echoes the care with which Hayek writes about her memories, which are multi-layered and dreamlike, tender and brutal. In this extract from the book, faded photographs and old wounds drift to the surface of memory as the writer asks what it really means to leave a place behind.
Sambac Beneath Unlikely Skies is published by Hajar Press on 29 July, 2021.
Each home in Gaza had a distinctive smell, reflecting the spice each mother would use liberally. Our home smelled of orange blossom and cardamom, combined with a haze of the fragrant sambac shrub that crept from the garden to the windows of the first floor where we lived. Mama would pick the white flowers and stick them in our clothes or stuff them in her bra. She smelled of jasmine mixed with the salty sweat of long hours working around the house: sweet and pungent.
Whenever she was stressed, Mama would flip the house upside down. She would rearrange furniture, spill water everywhere, bake, shout and wash everything, including the curtains that covered our living room windows. The task of getting these down was one thing, but putting them back up was an even bigger challenge, and she definitely fell off the ladder a few times.
I remember when I realised that this was my mother’s way of dealing with anxiety. Our house that day was flooded with sunlight, the smell of cinnamon apple cake and soap. Mama was on one of her cleaning raves, and while helping her my brother and I had just found a pack of cigarettes she’d hidden away. We mostly enjoyed the secrets we discovered about our parents, and we had known for years that Mama sneakily smoked cigarettes, but we had never before been able to locate them. Hearing Mama calling our names, we placed the little box back inside the ottoman and gave each other the we will study this later, very carefully look. My brother hid a Marlboro in his back pocket, not knowing that Mama counted her cigs.
We found her sitting on her bedroom floor in a pool of old, yellowish photographs. She had taken out a worn, dusty, black carry-on from the bottom of her closet. It sat open on the ground, and there were more photos inside.
‘Come and look,’ she said, pointing at a photograph of me and my brother covered in sand on the beach. We had seen many family photo albums before, but never this carry-on, full of pictures and letters that our parents had exchanged at the beginning of their marriage, when Baba was in exile. This was where all the extra, older photos had been kept, ones that weren’t fit for the albums. Some were happy, others weren’t; some were of people our parents had known and lost.
There were many photographs of Baba from those days in exile — cooking on a wood fire, standing in front of a Cedrus libani tree, brushing his teeth before a little mirror in his shared tent on the border of Lebanon and Palestine, and always smiling at the camera, because he knew he would be posting the photo to Mama later.
I didn’t know why Mama cried then. She seemed tired, not wanting to clean anymore. She didn’t look like she cared about the cake in the oven, or the fact that she was making a mess.
Even at ten years old, I wasn’t ambivalent about the fact that our parents, just like anyone, had had lives of their own before us. But this was the first time I’d witnessed my mother having a breakdown. That was the day I learned what it felt like to see people you love suffer.
The next time I find myself in a pool of photographs is at Lubna’s flat in Amsterdam.
Three years ago, Lubna left Gaza without telling anyone, including me. Only a few days before she crossed at Rafah, we had checked her out of Al-Shifaa Hospital; she had broken her arm after a fight with her uncle for returning home late. When she was ten, Lubna’s dad had been one of seven people martyred after the occupation forces targeted a car in the middle of a busy street. She’d been planning her exit for years; I just didn’t think it was really going to happen.
The tap squeaks as Lubna finishes washing up after our dinner. Her small studio in Zeeburg smells of cheap lemon dish soap.
‘Thank you for doing this with me,’ she says.
Her asylum case requires some proof of her life in Gaza, so I paid her mother a visit before I left. Lubna and I sift through the small box and home goods I have brought with me.
‘I’m sorry I didn’t tell you,’ she says finally.
Lubna can’t help but directly address any awkwardness or uneasiness she feels. While I try to suppress much-needed confrontations, she finds such situations unbearable. We haven’t really talked through how she left, but had just resumed as normal after I was done being upset.
‘I know,’ I respond. ‘At least now I do, and I’m sorry about the way I acted.’
‘I received a text that I was registered to travel that day we went to the hospital. I didn’t tell you because I didn’t want to question it.’
That day feels like the oldest memory I have. I can barely remember it at all, or the person I was when I hadn’t yet imagined what it meant to leave.
‘I love my mother, but she couldn’t protect me. I love you, but you couldn’t either. I’m a lot better now, you see?’ She waves her hand in the air, and I look around and nod.
We sit across from each other the way we did under our school benches, arms crossed around our knees, so still you’d think we were in a snow globe. Lubna’s hair is no longer in braids and ponytails; it’s very short and a bit messy, in a good way, and has traces of pink and purple. Her arms are tattooed, but I can discern some of the old scars that they hide. Somehow, despite the difficulties of her asylum case, she looks radiant.
I make a joke about her hair to announce that I’m done talking about the past. In situations like these, humour is my personal brand.
Lubna hangs a little photograph of her and her mother on the cabinet above the sink. They are sitting on the beach, Lubna sinking into a white chair twice her size, her mother looking at her, smiling. I think of the day her mama had called me to tell me that she had fled, and of the things we and our parents do to each other. I think of that feeling I’d first had when Mama was sitting on the floor, surrounded by her old photographs — the feeling of not being able to do anything.
Sambac Beneath Unlikely Skies is published on July 29, 2021 by Hajar Press.