• The last time I saw Mama, she was standing in our driveway holding grocery bags, soft brown hair matted down on her buttercream face. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
The last time I saw Mama, she was standing in our driveway holding grocery bags, soft brown hair matted down on her buttercream face.
By
Sara Saleh

20 May 2020 - 10:08 AM  UPDATED 20 May 2020 - 10:08 AM

The last time I saw Mama, she was standing in our driveway holding grocery bags, soft brown hair matted down on her buttercream face. ‘Ta’ee. Take these,’ she instructed calmly, slightly panting. That night, she left home, and never came back.

-

Growing out of my family home’s garage rooftop is a grey television satellite dish the size of an upside-down umbrella. I stare at it as I stand in front of the garage. When we installed it, a chorus of 200 Arabic channels, ART, MBC, Dubai TV, Al Arabiya, began blaring in our lounge room. Mama, the sound of her footprints normally coming and going as she cooked and cleaned and crocheted, lost her days in the bowels of the news and dramatic political talk shows. She scolded Tony Khalife and Mahmoud Sa'ad as though they could hear her and spent her evenings humming patriotic ballads by her beloved Arab singers, Um Kalthoum, Farid and Abdel Halim, all of them long dead.

‘Do you have strata permission for that?’ Our neighbor Lisa asked, her short, stubby fingers pointing to the satellite dish as Amo Wa’el completed the installation. Mama and I stared silently at each other hoping the question would dissolve into the air around us. Each day, Lisa, with her bowl cut ginger hair dangling over her face, patrolled the street like an investigative reporter from 60 Minutes.

‘Shu?’ Amo Wa’el furrowed his eyebrows from atop his ladder, pretending not to understand her as he carried on. Lisa shook her shaggy red head, mumbled something, and waddled off.

‘Ya Allah,’ Mama said, waving her arms in frustration. ‘All of Boronia Circuit is going to hear about us.’

‘Ya Allah,’ Mama said, waving her arms in frustration. ‘All of Boronia Circuit is going to hear about us.’

Inside the garage are brown boxes full of ornate silver ibriks and rusty tanajir, Mama’s old pots. An oversized wooden bookshelf looms at the back, a pillar keeping the garage upright. The shelf is an Arab museum. Mosaic blue and white tiles spared from old bathroom renovations on the bottom, an assortment of maroon acrylic vases take up top shelf real estate. As I got older, I came to understand that my mum was a hoarder. As a family of first-generation Palestinian-Lebanese migrants, we only had trash to store and even less to inherit. Two large argilehs, pipes draped across their gold and green stained-glass bodies, are placed side-by-side on the middle shelf. The argilehs were gifted to us by Tante Farida, Amo Wa’el’s wife. They only came out when she was over. Tante Farida spent every other weeknight with Mama watching episodes of Bab al Harra, a popular Syrian soap opera set in 19th century Damascus while complaining about her ajnabi Westernised son Haissam, now Hamish, who lived with his Polish girlfriend Natalia.

Tante Farida and Mama enjoyed the safe harbor of each other’s presence and it wasn’t long before Tante Farida and Amo Wa’el became family. We met Tante Farida waiting in line at Abu Wadi, the local grocery store, days after we first moved into the area. With her pungent smell of five ashtrays, she wasted no time Arab Aunty-ing me: ‘Bintik beautiful. Pretty soon, we’ll be finding her a handsome arees!’ Tante Farida always said things about me to Mama, with her words wrapped up in phlegm, a heavy Lebanese accent and a lifetime of lighting cigarettes. I forced myself into a tight-lipped smile, annoyed by Tante Farida’s nosy, misguided efforts. ‘But this is how we look after our “own” in ghorbeh, in foreign lands,’ Mama had said to me whenever I complained.

-

Here it is! My bicyclette leans proudly on the garage wall. Turquoise handlebars. Bell attached. Bright ribbon tassels. Cobwebs. Wheels intact. I had spent months holding onto that year’s Eidiyah, the pocket money I received from Tante Farida, Amo Wa’el, and Mama as part of the celebration marking the end of Ramadan. I had resisted temptations to spend the $117.50 on more books or overpriced Crayola gel markers like the other girls in class. Finally, on one particularly humid day at the end of the Year 11 school holidays, Mama marched into my room. ‘Yalla, you’re finally getting your bicyclette.’

‘Amo Wa’el says Haissam is getting too big for his bike so we can have it.’ Dreams of K-mart, brightly lit aisles, and a colourful bouquet of bikes, were quickly abandoned. I tried to hide my disappointment at yet another hand-me-down. I could feel Mama watching my sunken face as she continued slowly, ‘So... are you sure you need it anyway? We barely even have space.’

Because you hoard everything! I thought, rolling my eyes.

Three days after we bought my bicyclette, SBS Arabic news presenter Mariam Ibrahim announced, ‘more death and destruction in Gaza’, in her signature somber tone and slight Syrian accent. Mama received a phone call from Khalo Sulaiman, her oldest brother. Like Mama, he had grown up in Burj, in the middle of the Lebanese civil war. To avoid conscription, he escaped to one of the tiny Gulf states, where he spent most of his adult life working as a project coordinator with some large construction company. I once asked Mama why Khalo Sulaiman never called us like Khalo Samer did. ‘Your Khalo, he’s a quiet person. He doesn’t want distractions…he doesn’t like politics.’

Three days after we bought my bicyclette, SBS Arabic news presenter Mariam Ibrahim announced, ‘more death and destruction in Gaza’, in her signature somber tone and slight Syrian accent.

I tried to listen as Khalo Sulaiman continued to speak on the other end of the line. Mama’s face dropped and her eyes immediately emptied. I froze, refusing to let my body exhale a single breath as I kept trying to make out Khalo Sulaiman’s words.

That morning, as part of Israel’s escalating attack on Gaza, Israeli shelling had hit Al Nur Hospital, where Khalo Samer was working in the trauma ward as part of a medical delegation. He was instantly killed, along with 47 other medical staff and patients.

‘Allah yerhamo ya rab.’ I heard Khalo Sulaiman pray through static. ‘Innah lilah wa inna ilayh raji’un.’

Mama’s body suddenly jerked, the phone falling from her hands. I stood motionless as she shrieked and cried and shook her fists, the years of yearning and loss that were lodged in her body coming out all at once. She spent months in her room with Tante Farida in-and-out, looking after us. I never did get to ride my bicyclette with Mama.

I keep going over fragments of that day, the last time I saw Mama. Any sign of dislocation or despair in her, the kind that shouts and shudders, that goes off on its own – nothing you can ever keep still. 

I tighten my grip around the bicyclette handles, thinking of my mother’s resentment towards me, built up like all her yesterdays that took up too much room.

‘Sofiya! Sofiyaaaa!’ Mama called, ‘Ta’ee. Take these.’ Calm. Panting. She looked the same as she always did, girlish. But the last few years had hollowed her cheeks. She stopped at the front of the driveway, holding two navy canvas bags spilling with ripened red tomatoes and eggplants. I rushed over and grabbed the bags.

‘Mama, why didn’t you wait for me? I would have gone to get them.’

‘Mama, why didn’t you wait for me? I would have gone to get them.’

Malish, it’s okay. It’s fine, it’s fine. I know you’re busy.’ Arab Mother Guilt. Standard, but somehow still hacked away at my insides.

‘By the way, the bechamel is on the stove. Kitchen’s all cleaned up, I wiped the countertop and mopped the floor.’ I rattled out my achievements, hoping this would absolve me of the blame I knew was coming. Mama nodded silently.

That evening, she slipped out. I think she went back to Lebanon.  And it took me years to understand, Mama’s guilt was never about me.

This is a work of autobiographical fiction extracted from Sweatshop Women: Volume Two - a contemporary collection of prose and poetry written by women from Indigenous, migrant and refugee backgrounds edited by Winnie Dunn. Sweatshop is a literacy movement dedicated to empowering culturally and linguistically diverse writers through reading, writing and critical thinking. You can buy a copy here.

Sara Saleh is an Arab-Australian writer who is part of Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement. Twitter: SaraSalehOz, Instagram: @InstaSaranade

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