Tiny green grapes grew every Syrian spring on the vine in my grandparents’ concrete backyard, and Giddo snipped off underripe clusters for me and my siblings. We dipped them in salt, puckered our mouths at the astringency and spit the bitter pips into the ground under the loquat tree.
They tore him open. They ripped into the priest’s face, scooped out his eyes like glistening grapes, and left him to die slowly. They spit vile questions into him before emptying him, washing their hands with his blood. He baptized me when I was a baby and came to visit my family often in our little apartment. He sat on our sage green couches and laughed as four-year-old me came dancing out in a new dress I wanted to show off. I don’t even remember his name.
Around age five on a summer afternoon I convinced my cousins Mike, Maggie and Mireille that we should take off our clothes and compare urine streams. My aunt had only to glance at my face to know that I was behind the row of kids, little shorts bagged around chunky ankles, genitals exposed, faces equal parts amused and guilty. I ran all the way down the street, Amto Michline trailing far behind me as she yelled. My young legs lapped her heavy ones.
My cousin Raya almost died five times in Syria, bent her legs in basement lockdowns and hugged her sister close, pressed her foot hard on the gas to escape the exploding neighborhood pharmacy, stepped within inches of airborne shrapnel. “We were happier there than we are here,” she says. Raya went out with her friends in spite of the risk. She didn’t care. “We were scared but no one gave a fuck.” She works harder and harder every day in pursuit of her desires because everyone back home cannot. She motivates herself with the thought of her cousin Majed stuck in Aleppo, stuck defending his crumbling land, stagnant with unspeakable visions glued to his mind. She paints her life in fiery colors because he cannot, sculpts her days into stairways toward the future because he doesn’t have one.
Little tadpoles flitted around the jar held between my slippery hands one summer afternoon. I caught them by drawing the jar through pond water, the pond with the big black rocks jutting out of it and overripe figs rippling the surface. I came up with ten feisty fish, admired them for a while, then pulled them out with my hands to feed to the new kittens of a friendly alley cat. The kittens pounced toward me and devoured the still-wriggling, shimmering tadpoles. I marveled at the ferocity of nature. I felt no guilt at being a predator.
I’m comfortable in my warm Columbus apartment. I inhale clean air and watch my laptop screen flicker with footage of children suffocating. I have their dark eyes, their thick brows, their olive skin, and nothing else. I wake to sunshine and fresh drinking water rippling out of the tap; my people rise to bombs in place of birdsong. Why them and not me? Why is my breathing so easy?
The stars winked at me, cool little studs puncturing the hot velvet night. Melodies floated out of Ammo Tony’s oud, strings vibrating into the notes from his throat. He made up little ditties, inserting our names into the lyrics. Laundry hung from thin lines stringing the yard. Glass teacups tinkled as sugar granules melted from silver spoons. Cigarette smoke clung to my growing lungs, to my clothes, to my hair, to the spaces between my taste buds.
They breathe fire into my land. Powerful nations wrap their scaly skins with a keffiyeh and call it religion. They paint their stacks of dollars with graffiti and call it revolution. They hide their oil-glazed eyes with reflective glasses and call it media. Government officials feed us bitter lies tucked into smooth lines and coat their words with honey, each syllable dripping with obscure sweetness.
My grandmother left various foods to dry on the concrete steps; juicy figs shriveling in August sun, apricot pits, big black watermelon seeds. Later we’d take a hammer to the apricot pits and crunch the tender kernels inside. Bitter baby olives drooped from their branches until Teta gathered them in her strong arms and took them to the neighborhood press. While the machines squeezed oil from olives, she sipped a tiny cup of Arabic coffee with her thick pinky finger raised, relaxed her quiet mouth into laughter with the other housewives, and lifted her cracking feet out of her shoes for a moment.
I brew Arabic coffee whenever I run out of American grounds. My electric coil burners have left circular scorch marks on the bottom of my ibrik, but it still boils water. Once the water bubbles, I lower the heat. A long-handled silver spoon gathers mounds of powdered, cardamom-infused coffee beans. Constant stirring is key; an ibrik of Arabic coffee left unattended is sure to boil over. Soon, a milky crema collects at the top layer, and I stir and stir until the liquid turns viscous. Before the first sip, I wait for the grit and sediment to settle at the bottom of my tiny cup.
Amto: (AHM-toh) paternal aunt
Ammo: (AHM-moh) paternal uncle
Giddo: (JI-doh) grandpa
Ibrik: (Ib-REE) long handled pot for making Arabic or Turkish coffee
Oud: (OOD) a large, pear-shaped stringed instrument similar to the lute.
Teta: (TAY-tah) grandma
Celina Nader is a Syrian-American writer, editor, chef, and entrepreneur. She reads cookbooks like novels, runs a small food business in Columbus, OH (Scrappy Cat Co.) and is currently working on a collection of creative nonfiction stories regarding the Syrian people and their lives during war. You can read her words on food, culture, and sexuality at Insatiable, and follow her business on Instagram at @ScrappyCatCo.