Ghada Alatrash is Syrian-Canadian. She holds a PhD in Educational Research from the University of Calgary. She is the author of Stripped to the Bone: Portraits of Syrian Women.
On Feb. 12, 2017, my first cousin in Syria lost her son Farouk Nassif to a merciless Syrian war; he was 21 years old and had been married for only 2½ months. In November of 2016, I was sent photos of Farouk’s wedding via Facebook Messenger; only a couple months later, photos of his funeral appeared on my newsfeed with his body lying in a casket and wrapped in the Syrian flag.
On March 31, 2017, the late groom’s brother posted on Facebook that the wedding photos had finally arrived, and he tagged their mother (my first cousin) in the post. Today, the mother’s profile photo is of her dead son. Under his photo, she wrote, “Congratulations to you O grave, for we have sent you the dearest to our heart… our dearest Farouk.” I am unable to imagine the pain that will eternally dwell and burn in her heart.
Last month, as I was scrolling my newsfeed on Facebook, I saw what I first thought was a photo of my dead cousin, Farouk. However, I noted that there were recent condolences in the comments section. I was confused. I looked at the name of the deceased, and it was Fidaa, not Farouk, but he looked so much like Farouk. I still did not understand. My mind was unable to fathom that Fidaa was Farouk’s younger brother, and that he, too, was now dead.
I called my mother, still in disbelief. She was also in a state of shock, but she confirmed the unbelievable news. I also happen to be a mother of two sons. I understand the meaning of motherhood and what it means to mother two sons. But to lose two sons, I cannot understand. Today, I am still at a loss of words. Two young men who deserved to live and to love, to laugh and to dance, to be husbands and fathers, have fallen dead at the feet of a heartless Syrian war, a war that continues to pick the most beautiful flowers, one after the other, leaving our land and our hearts deserted and broken. Today, I visited Fidaa’s Facebook page, and I saw that his profile photo is of his dead brother’s name, Farouk, tattooed on his chest.
My two cousins are not the first and nor they will be the last of the dead in a Syrian war thirsty for blood and carnage. I was saddened to write a poem back in January of 2013, after a bombing took place at Aleppo University’s Faculty of Architecture leaving 82 dead including students and children. It was my attempt to try to imagine what it may have felt like to stand in the shoes of Syrian mothers, and of all mothers losing their sons and daughters to wars and senseless killings in this dark humanity. I still do not understand nor am I able to imagine.
Um [mother of] Muhannad
The first day of exams
at the University of Aleppo.
She prepares breakfast
for her son Muhannad
who stayed up
until 2:00 a.m.
studying to the light of a candle
for his architecture exam;
the electricity was out yet again.
She brews his coffee
with extra cardamom
and two overfull teaspoons of sugar –
just like him.
She prepares mint tea,
just in case.
By 5 a.m.
on the table is
a bowl of her homemade labneh [condensed yogourt]
with olive oil and dry mint sprinkled on top,
a plate of cucumbers,
the reddest tomatoes she could find,
a bowl of green and black olives with
pieces of lemon and stems of thyme,
her handmade pickled makdous [eggplants],
and Saj bread she baked this week.
She doesn’t have eggs
but Um Nabil
will deliver some later today.
Tomorrow, she will scramble them
with parsley and onions,
just as he likes them,
for there is always tomorrow.
“It’s five ḥabeeby [my beloved].
Your coffee is ready
and so is your breakfast.”
She doesn’t eat
but watches his hands
as they move from one plate to another
to the light of a candle.
He holds her two hands,
kisses them one by one,
“Yumma ḥabeebty [mama, my beloved],
pray for me.
I will be back by 5 inshallah [God willing].”
1 p.m. to 3 p.m.
Um Muhannad praying
to an Allah deafened
by the noise of praying mothers.
Banging at the door;
pulling her hair
“They bombed the University of Aleppo’s Faculty of Architecture;
5 p.m.: Muhannad.
6 p.m. 7 p.m. 8 p.m. 9 p.m. 10 p.m. 11 p.m. 12 a.m. 1 a.m. 2 a.m. 3 a.m. 4 a.m.: waiting.
Breakfast is ready,
a plate of scrambled eggs.