By Perav Abbas
I Imagine most people associate their childhood through the scents of crayons, of home cooked food, of fresh cut grass and such. What brings me back is the smell of gasoline, of smoke, of dirt and mud. Then again, anyone who’s spent enough time in Syria becomes familiar to those scents eventually.
Both my parents are from the city of Qamishli in Rojava, or Western Kurdistan. Since you probably don’t know where that is, I’ll save you the google search. I come from a stateless land in the Middle East, where my people are split between four countries. One of those four countries is Syria, where I visited as a child only a few times before my family was forced to flee and it turned into a war-torn wasteland.
To most, it isn’t a beautiful country, especially the state it’s in now. But most don’t experience the uneven land blanketed in green waves of grass. Most don’t have the pleasure of watching the sun rises that are infinitely more colorful. Most don’t have the opportunity to see the stars that aren’t ruined by light pollution. I was the lucky one.
Contrary to popular belief, the Middle East isn’t a big desert with a few buildings scattered here and there. When I think of the city I stayed in, I see beige buildings and dusty roads overlooking villages on the outskirts. I suppose it was more rural than America, but it was certainly alive and thriving.
Even as a kid, I stayed up past sunrise, I’m a night owl at heart after all. Or maybe it was just jetlag. For whatever reason, I was up much later than I was supposed to be. I was watching reruns of a cartoon I didn’t find particularly interesting when the slight glare of light from the window shined in the corner of my eye. Before going to bed at an ungodly late time, I wandered over to the balcony to see the sun peeking over the sandy buildings. There were a few people wandering the roads in the early morning, and I wondered what they could be doing at such a time. Maybe it was the dry heat of summer, the change of light in the region, or perhaps I just remember it differently, but watching that sun rise in my home land was different than any I’ve ever seen in America.
One of the more vivid memories in Rojava would be the time I visited a village of my grandfather’s. When my mother told me about the mountains in Kurdistan, I was determined to scale their peaks and look down at the land below. As we were driving to the village, I looked around expecting to see sharp points piercing the heavens, but I only spotted large hills at best. I was quite disappointed with my mother, perhaps she should have told me we weren’t going to be mountain climbing that day. As much as I tried being mad, I still had fun running up the hills and making myself dizzy by rolling down. It wasn’t as high as I’d hoped it would be, but I still got to see my land from up above. Once I rolled myself down the hill/mountain enough times, I was led into the village by nightfall.
There was very minimal furniture in the long, rustic buildings, only rugs and cushions to sit on with a few tables scattered about. It housed the family and many children living there. At the time, I wondered how such a small space could be shared.
Next to the minimalistic houses were the goat pens, which were much larger than the buildings. I suppose they had their priorities. It was pitch black where all the goats were housed, so I made my way through the darkness trying not to bump into anything fuzzy with the fear that they might step on me. I don’t remember anything about the people there, but I remember my time with those fluffy friends. I attempted to ride them, ran with them, one of them tried eating my bracelet. Even until now, anytime I smell mud or farm animals, that place always comes to mind.
In the empty space in front of the pens and buildings was a space where everyone would gather to smoke and speak and be with one another. The scent of sweet smoke from the hookah mingled with the smoke of the warm fire, mixing together as it rose to the starry night sky.
After playing with my new animal friends for long enough, a few of the children showed me the way to the top of a building. I laid on my back and gazed at the blanket of stars more visible outside of the city. As a child, I was always doing something, whether it was playing or running or laughing, but I couldn’t find a reason to leave such a view.
I can’t remember what I had for dinner yesterday, but I remember everything about that small village. The sound of a fire crackling, the feel of soft fur, the smell of dirt and smoke are as vivid as my memories of the day before, maybe even more so. Those simple memories are what I hold on to when I see the damage done to my country.
Across from the homey apartment I stayed in with my grandparents was a small drug store. Since there isn’t an abundance of junk food in Rojava like there is in America, my grandfather, baba Fawaz, took me to get candy and ice cream whenever I wanted.
I only got to see my baba the few times I visited Rojava, but I still can’t help missing him. While my grandmother acts more like a wildfire, my baba was a candle light. Everything about him was so comforting, from his embrace to his scent, it was all calming. I don’t have one memory of him where he wasn’t smiling or trying to make me happy, not a single one. Whenever I see someone that reminds me of my baba, with a silver beard or warm aura, I feel a longing for something I lost long ago but never realized.
Only a few years later, the civil war started, inciting chaos from all sides across the land. My grandparents, my cousins, my aunts and uncles fled and scattered to different countries across the world so they wouldn’t be caught in the crossfire. When my mother’s parents left, my baba’s health deteriorated quickly, as if the war came with him. He died on the winter solstice, before he could see his children, before he could see me.
The chaos of war in my country is losing momentum, some even say it’s over now. Once the power hungry decide to stop wrecking the land, maybe I can see my home again. When the time comes, I can see my father’s home village that he always talks about and make new memories from the old ones. Maybe I can see the fields of wildflowers, maybe I can climb the mountains, maybe I can see the stars again.
8 April 2019