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       Nujeen, p.3

           Nujeen Mustafa
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  I learnt quickly. Nasrine went to the local school to beg textbooks for me and I would finish them in a couple of weeks. Once I could read, my world was books, TV and sitting on the balcony. From there, among the plants, I could look across to other roofs with their flapping laundry, satellite dishes and water tanks. Beyond them were pencil-thin minarets from where came the prayer call five times a day and which in the evenings were bathed in magical green light. Mostly I kept an eye on our street. Both sides were lined with apartment blocks like ours – the only shops were a grocery and a store selling football jerseys. The road wasn’t too busy, every so often a honking car or a motorbike, and every morning a man would come pushing his cart selling gas cylinders for heating and cooking. I guess he was a Christian as his music box always played Christmas carols.

  On his cart like everywhere there were pictures of our dictator Bashar al-Assad. Our leaders in this part of the world like their personality cults. Everything was named Assad. Assad, Assad, Assad – Assad Lake, the Assad Academy, even the Assad Writing Club. Billboards appeared on the street with different pictures of him almost every week, some as the serious statesman meeting other heads of state, others meant to show him as a fatherly figure, smiling and waving or cycling with one of his children seated on the back and with feel-good slogans like ‘Kullna ma’ak’ – ‘We are all with you’. People said the eyes had been tinted to look bluer. I feel I was deceived by all these things.

  There were also pictures of his late father Hafez, who started the whole family ruling enterprise back in 1970. Hafez had been born poor, one of eleven children, but had risen to be head of the air force about the time my dad did national service, and then ran the country for decades after seizing power in a coup. Like us, the Assads were minorities – they came from the Alawite clan – but they were Shias, while most Syrians are Sunni like us. Maybe that made them insecure, for they ran our country as a police state with fifteen different intelligence agencies, and if people protested they were locked up or killed. Hafez survived several assassination attempts, but in the end he died naturally of a heart attack in 2000, the year after I was born.

  The plan had been for him to be succeeded by his daredevil eldest son Basil, who was an army officer and horse-riding champion. But Basil loved flashy fast cars and died in 1994 when he crashed his Mercedes at high speed on the road to Damascus airport. So the shy, thin second son Bashar took over, the one people called Mama’s boy. To start with people were happy about that. Unlike his father, who was trained as a pilot in the Soviet Union, Bashar had studied in England as an eye doctor – he was doing postgraduate ophthalmology at the Western Eye Hospital in London – and his wife Asma was British born (her father works as a cardiologist in London). We were proud of having a young handsome President with a beautiful wife who travelled the world, even meeting the Queen, and thought they’d be more open-minded and change things. And at the beginning they did – he released hundreds of political prisoners, allowed intellectuals to have political meetings and authorized the launch of the first independent newspaper for decades. He reduced the retirement age in the army to get rid of his father’s old guard. People called it the Damascus Spring.

  Unfortunately, within two years, everything went back to how it had been. Maybe because of that old guard who didn’t like changes. Once again people lived in fear of the Mukhabarat, our secret police, and never quite said what they thought as they didn’t know who was listening or watching.

  My favourite saying is ‘Laugh as long as you breathe, love as long as you live,’ and I don’t see why anyone would want to wallow in misery when there is such a beautiful world out there. It’s one of my Nujeen principles. Another one is I don’t believe anyone is born evil, even Assad. The problem is he grew up as this spoilt boy who would inherit his father’s kingdom. It was like the Assad family owned us and believed they should never give it up. We never talked about Assad, even at home between ourselves. We knew they have agents everywhere. The walls have ears, we used to say, so don’t talk.

  I watched things too and would know when men had come home from work in the late afternoon as the sweet smell of tobacco would rise up from them lighting up their hookah pipes and start to tickle my treacherous lungs. Sometimes as I watched the shadows move across the street and caught sight of figures disappearing down winding alleys I wished I could wander. What would it be like to lose yourself in a warren of narrow streets?

  Aleppo was a place where many tourists came and which everyone says is beautiful with its medieval citadel, Great Mosque and the world’s oldest covered souk selling goods from along the Silk Road like Indian spices, Chinese silks and Persian carpets. Our apartment was high so if one of my family helped me stand I could see the citadel lit up at night on a hill in the middle. How I wished I could go and see it. I begged my mum to take me but she couldn’t because of all the steps.

  All I saw was our room and the parts of my home I could drag myself to with my rabbit-jumping. My family did try to take me out but it was so much effort as we had no lift, so I had to be carried all the way down five flights, and then the streets were so full of potholes that it was difficult even for an able-bodied person to walk. The only place I could go was my uncle’s house because it was near by and his building had a lift, so I became less interested in going out. When I did, after five minutes I would want to be back, so I guess you could say I was the one who locked herself up.

  Sometimes I saw Yaba looking at me sadly. He never told me off even when I flooded the bathroom by playing water-polo and he would fetch me anything I liked – or send my brothers – whether it was fried chicken from a restaurant in the middle of the night or the chocolate and coconut cake I loved. I tried to look happy for him. He never let me do anything for myself. Nasrine used to get cross. If I was thirsty and demanded a drink, my father would insist she fetched it even if the bottle was just across the table from me. Once I saw her crying. ‘Yaba,’ she said, ‘now we’re all here, but what will Nuj do when we all die?’

  The worst thing about being disabled is you can’t go away and cry somewhere on your own. You have no privacy. Sometimes you just have a bad mood and you want to cry and push out all that negative energy, but I couldn’t because I couldn’t go anywhere. I always had to rely on people. I tried to avoid people looking at the way I walked. When I met someone for the first time my mum would recount the whole story of my birth then go on about how smart I am, as if to say ‘Look, she can’t walk but she is not mentally disabled.’ I would just stay silent and stare at the TV.

  The TV became my school and my friend, and I spent all my time with adults, like my uncles who lived near by. I never played with toys. When relatives came to visit, they sometimes brought dolls or soft toys, but these just stayed on a shelf. Mustafa says I was born with the mind of an adult. When I tried to make friends my own age it didn’t work. My eldest brother Shiar has a daughter Rawan who is a year and a half younger than me and she and her mum came to stay with us several times. I really wanted to be her friend so I would do anything with her, play even the most boring game or let her use me as her model for experiments in hairdressing. But as soon as anyone came who could walk I would be brushed off. One day when she was five and I was seven, I asked her why she didn’t play with me. ‘Because you can’t walk,’ she replied. Sometimes I felt I was just an extra member of the world’s population.


  The Girl on TV

  Aleppo, 2008–2010

  Apart from facts I like dates. For example, 19 April 1770 was the day Captain James Cook found Australia and 4 September 1998 was the date Google was established. My least favourite date is 16 March. That is a black day in the history of Kurds when in 1988, in the final days of the Iran–Iraq War, around twenty of Saddam Hussein’s fighter jets swooped down and dropped a deadly mixture of mustard gas and nerve agents on Kurds in the city of Halabja in northern Iraq. The town had fallen to the Iranians who had joined forces with local Kurds, and Saddam wanted to p
unish them. We call that day Bloody Friday. Thousands of men, women and children were killed – even today we don’t know how many, but perhaps 5,000 – and thousands more were left with their skin all melted and with difficulties breathing. Afterwards lots of babies were born with deformities.

  Every year on that day our Kurdish TV channel would play mournful songs about Halabja and show old film, which made me so sad. It was awful to see the clouds of white, black and yellow smoke rising up in tall columns over the town after the bombing, then people running and wailing, dragging their children behind them or on their shoulders, and bodies piling up. I watched one film where people said the gas smelled of sweet apples and after that I couldn’t eat an apple. I hate that day – I wish I could delete it from the calendar. Saddam was an even worse dictator than Assad. Yet the West kept supporting Saddam for years, even giving him weapons. Sometimes it seems that nobody likes the Kurds. Our list of sorrows is endless.

  March is actually the best time and the worst time for Kurds because it is the month of our annual festival Newroz, marking the start of spring, a festival that we share with the Persians. For us it also commemorates the day when the evil child-eating tyrant Zuhak was defeated by the blacksmith Kawa.

  In the days running up to Newroz the flat would be filled with heavenly smells of cooking, Ayee and my sisters making dolma, vine leaves rolled around a stuffing of tomato, eggplant, zucchini and onion, and potatoes filled with spicy mince (apart from one potato that we always leave empty for luck for whoever gets it). And it was the one time of year when I went out. A few days before Newroz we and all our neighbours would festoon our balconies with coloured lights in red, green, white and yellow, the colours of the national flag of Kurdistan. On the actual day we would dress up in national dress and set off in a mini-bus.

  Of course the regime didn’t like it and put lots of police on the streets that day. They only allowed the festival because they knew how stubborn we Kurds are and feared there would be riots if they banned it. But you still needed an official permit which was hard to get, and we weren’t allowed to enjoy our festivities on the local streets. Instead we had to go to a sort of wasteland called Haql al-rmy on the outskirts of Aleppo, which the army used for rifle practice and which literally means shooting field in English. It was a bleak rocky place, so we took lots of rugs to sit on and to spread our picnics on.

  To be honest, sometimes I hoped it would be banned because I hated going to it. First it was almost like torture to get me down those five floors of stairs. Then when we got there it was totally loud and crowded, and so uncomfortable sitting on the hard ground. I couldn’t even see the folk dancing or the march with our national songs. And we had to be careful what we said because among the revellers were vendors selling balloons and ice-cream and candyfloss and people thought they were spies for Assad’s intelligence. Actually we were always careful. In the evening there would be a bonfire which people would dance around and fireworks would light up the sky.

  Then a week or so later would come the arrests of the organizers, the people who had set up the stage for the musicians and sound systems. In 2008, police shot dead three young men celebrating Newroz in a Kurdish town and there were calls for it to be banned. Rather than having an outright clash with all the Kurds, the regime announced that from then on that date would be Mother’s Day, and any festivities would be to celebrate that. See how wily these Assads are.

  That was the year I missed Newroz because the doctors decided to try and lengthen my Achilles tendons to enable me to stretch out my feet and put my ankles on the ground, instead of always standing on tiptoe. I woke in Al Salam hospital with the bottom halves of my legs encased in plaster. It felt as if my feet were on fire, and I cried. I missed my eldest sister, gentle Jamila, who had got married the previous year and moved away. Bland had finished his studies and got a job as an accountant for a trading company and Nasrine had just started at Aleppo University to study physics in the footsteps of my sister Nahda. I was happy for them but it meant I was alone at home all day with Ayee and Yaba.

  One day I was sitting on the rug on the big balcony when Ayee came with my uncle Ali, who had just been visiting relatives in the city of Homs. ‘Your uncle has something for you,’ she said. Uncle Ali handed me a tissue box and laughed as my face fell. A box of tissues didn’t seem much of a gift.

  ‘Look inside,’ he said. I did and there among the tissues was a small tortoise. Homs was famous for its tortoises. I was so happy I sat with the box on my lap all day long. I loved tracing the patterns on her domed shell with my finger and watching her little head poke out, all grey and wrinkled like snakeskin with little beady black eyes. That first day she barely moved and I was terrified I had damaged her as I was notorious in my family for breaking everything I touched. For the first few days I would check her every two minutes to make sure she was still alive. We kept her on the balcony, fed her salad leaves and called her Sriaa, which is Arabic for fast because she was very slow. Even slower than me.

  The only person who didn’t like the tortoise was Yaba. He complained she was haram or unIslamic. I laughed, but then summer came and we slept outside on the balcony and one night we were all awoken by loud cursing. The tortoise had climbed on to my father and he was furious.

  The next day I couldn’t see Sriaa anywhere. I looked all over the balcony, becoming more and more suspicious. Finally, I went to Yaba. ‘Where is she?’ I demanded. ‘I’ve taken her to be sold,’ he said. ‘It’s for the best, Nujeen, it’s cruel to keep animals confined.’

  ‘No!’ I screamed. ‘The tortoise was mine and was happy here. How do you know what will happen to her now?’ I bawled my eyes out.

  I couldn’t complain of course as he had got rid of her for religious reasons. And afterwards I was secretly relieved. I had been so worried about Sriaa dying. If you hold a tortoise by its tail it will die. I wouldn’t have been able to cope with that.

  With the other children from the building off at school, and no more tortoise to watch, there was nothing to do but watch TV. The satellite dish meant my room suddenly opened into a whole new world. National Geographic, the History Channel, Arts & Entertainment … I liked history programmes and wildlife programmes – my favourite animal is the lion, king of the jungle – and scariest is the piranha which can eat a human in ninety seconds.

  Mostly I watched documentaries. Everything I know about aliens or space or astronauts like Neil Armstrong and Yuri Gagarin is from documentaries. I was very cross with Gagarin because he said that when he became the first man to cross the Karman line into outer space in 1961 he didn’t see any signs of God. That is very hard for us Muslims. But later I saw another programme which said he didn’t actually say that. We are always being deceived.

  The TV was on all the time, its blue aquarium light flickering night and day until sometimes Ayee or Mustafa shouted at me to turn it off so they could sleep. As I didn’t go to school, sometimes I watched till 3 a.m. then got up at 8.30 a.m. to start again. My favourite day was Tuesday when they broadcast an Arabic version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? I loved quiz shows. There was also one every evening at six called Al Darb which means The Track where people competed as teams. I could usually answer all the questions.

  It wasn’t a big TV – 20 inches – and it had a big crack on one side because once I grabbed the TV table to try and stand up and the TV fell on me. I cried, not because I was hurt, but because I thought the TV would never work again. Every so often Bland got cross with me. ‘Nujeen, you’ve convinced yourself that you love home and TV and that it’s better than going out, but no one really wants to be indoors all the time,’ he said. I ignored him. But sometimes I did wonder what other disabled people did. Then I went back to the TV.

  Ayee, Nasrine and I liked watching tennis. The US Open, the French Open, the Australian Open and best of all Wimbledon with the umpires so smartly uniformed in green and purple and the grass courts so perfect like carpets. Soon I knew all the rules. Ayee liked An
dy Murray, while I liked Roger Federer and Nasrine liked Nadal, just as in football I liked Barcelona and Nasrine liked Real Madrid.

  The one time everyone watched together was during the World Cup in 2010. My family loves football! As usual everyone in the area hung flags for their favourite team. I hung an Argentina flag from the balcony for Lionel Messi. Our neighbour had an Italian flag. But I was distracted and kept crying for my second mother Jamila. The doctors had said I would get better as I was older but my feet, which were supposed to have straightened, seemed more curled up than ever. Eventually my brother Farhad in England found out about a famous orthopaedic surgeon in Aleppo. He was so sought after that it took months to get an appointment, so we went early one morning to his surgery to get a ticket and found villagers who had been waiting all night. We were number 51. Every patient got five minutes and we finally saw him in the late afternoon.

  When he saw my feet he was cross and told my parents they shouldn’t have let them deteriorate, that I should have been doing exercises. He said I would need to have three operations together as soon as possible and sent us to the hospital for blood tests, then he would operate the following day. He did a new operation on my ankles and two others to lengthen my knee ligaments, which had become too short from lack of exercise. It cost my family $4,000, paid for by my second eldest brother Mustafa from his water wells, and this time the whole of my legs were in plaster, from hip to ankle, only my toes poking out, and I had to lie flat.

  I was supposed to stay in hospital but insisted on coming out after one night to watch the football. I was desperate for Argentina to win, otherwise Spain. However, the pain was so bad I screamed all the way back in the taxi and again at home, until I drove Mustafa and Bland out of the room because they couldn’t bear it.

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