Gardenia

Guest contribution by Ahmad Zahzah

My mother was fifteen years old when she brought me to this world.

She always told me, later on, that she often thought of herself as a child bringing up another child. She bought toys for both of us and she used to enjoy sharing them with genuine, childish interest.

While walking together, during my teenage years, my mother and I looked more like siblings than a mother and her son. This used to make her laugh a lot.

My father fell in love with her at first sight, when she was thirteen. He turned down his father’s wish to marry within the family and insisted on pursuing my mother driven by a strong passion. When my grandmother objected, saying that Nawal is still very young for marriage, my father took out his gun and placed it on the table and said: “The matter is settled. I want to marry her today and not tomorrow.”

At thirteen she was engaged to my father, who was fifteen years older. He coaxed her with chocolate bars and trips to the movies accompanied first by her brothers until he firmly pushed them away from his outings with her.

At fourteen my mother married my father and soon they had a son whom they named Ahmad. Later on, Nawal had two boys and three girls but Ahmad remained always the closest to her heart, as she often mentioned. She knew how to shield Ahmad from arrogance and selfishness, which plagues most spoiled children, by instilling pure love, genuine kindness and an everlasting optimism in his heart.

Despite never finishing her formal education, my mother was a voracious reader who read everything her hand could reach. She read all kinds of magazines, novels, and non-fiction books. She managed always to keep a reading lamp next to her bed, undeterred by my father’s complaints and repeated requests to turn off the light.

My mother was a gifted painter whose talent for drawing was not nurtured by any training or formal education. I guess she had passed that talent to my youngest daughter, named also Nawal, who is similarly a gifted painter with a strong resemblance to her grandmother’s lightness of being and purity of soul.

My mother had a sharp sense of humor and witty sarcasm. Upon my return from the movies as a child, she insisted that I retell the entire story of the film. She would listen patiently and she would ask pointed questions that covered every detail. I guess that was her way of teaching me how to understand movies and how to appreciate their diverse artistic qualities –– a passion that remained with me all my life.

My mother imitated the way her talkative neighbors acted, in amazing accuracy, drawing huge laughter from her sons and daughters –– her loyal, loving audience. In the presence of any talkative visitor, my mother’s favorite reaction was to lift one eyebrow and look at us with a straight face forcing enormous, suppressed laughter lest the visitor finds out about my mom’s mocking gesture.

She pushed us all to observe and make fun of things. She had no sacred cows in her life. Everything and everyone was a suitable target for her piercing remarks. Neighbors, relatives, passersby, and traveling salesmen were all legitimate targets for her unyielding humor.

While cleaning the house one day with an electric cleaner, she asked me how I imagined the reaction of a cockroach when sucked up by the powerful tube. I said I didn’t know. She opened her arms and ran around the room screaming: whaaaaaaaaaaaa! This hilarious scene never left my mind as I replayed it many times to my family.

My mother was born in Haifa where she lived until she was ten. She opened her eyes on the tragic stories of the systemic dispossession of the Palestinians as she experienced it firsthand. She retold many times the stories of the Nakba, the details of the suffering of Palestinians and the early beginnings of the psychological war of rumors, and extremely violent massacres, organized by Zionist terrorist groups leading to her family’s expulsion to Lebanon, along with 750,000 refugees in 1948.

My mother’s family was one of the last few remaining families in Haifa, in what came to be known as the Jewish quarter at that time. My grandfather kept clinging to his land until he received repeated warnings to flee or else his daughters would face the dark prospect of rape and death that plagued many Arab villages and towns.

Before being forcibly kicked out of her town in 1948, my mother was hit by artillery shrapnel fired by a Zionist terrorist group which left a permanent mark on her shoulder.

My mother told us many stories about the stolen land of Palestine. She instilled in us a critical way of thinking towards all the corrupt Arab rulers who paid lip service to the Palestinian cause while aiding the Israel’s occupation. She did that with laughter, humor, and sarcasm, without showing pity on her own difficulties in life. She faced her calamity with pride and resilience.

My mother did not have an easy life. After college each of her sons and daughters traveled abroad and started new lives in various places. She would always complain against the hardship of loneliness. She found her relief in revisiting her stash of old family photos –– a habit that she taught us all to nurture and keep.

In times of stress my mother tailored at home beautiful dresses for my sisters.

In times of wealth she took us to the finest shops and spent money lavishly on everyone around her.

My mother was always elegant with an everlasting touch of perfume filling the air around her and emanating from her silk scarves. I remember vividly how she used to wear an improvised gardenia necklace every night. My father used to pick her favorite gardenia roses from our garden tree.

One day, while walking with my sisters, my mother was stopped by a traveling lottery salesman. He first offered her a lottery ticket, only to pull back and say: “Lady, looks like you don’t need a lottery ticket!”

She told me the story while laughing. She said the salesman never guessed he was talking to a Palestinian refugee who had lost her home, her land, and her entire country.

We lost our mother in 2003 after a brief struggle with a sudden heart attack.

No one ever recovered from that open wound.

My mother was a princess from Palestine.

A princess who left plenty of perfume that fills the hearts of her grandsons and granddaughters, who are spread worldwide, and inspires them to breathe the air of Haifa, my mother’s stolen town, wherever they land.

Ahmad Zahzah

Ahmad Zahzah is a writer, actor, and media consultant who resides in Dubai. More of his writings can be found at azahzah.wordpress.com.

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