‘More sugar?’ my uncle asked. A heaped spoon hovered threateningly.
‘No, no, no, thanks amo.’’ my hand preemptively splayed over the top of my full-to-the-brim glass tumbler, steaming my palm. A thick layer of sugar sand had settled at the bottom, resting expectantly under the crystal amber sea of gunpowder mint tea. Shay. Chay. Cha. Thee. Tea.
My father’s brother considered bartering with me, for just a moment, but there were other guests in peril of empty glasses. So he issued a disappointed ‘Akh, habibi’, with the slightest shake of his head, then moved along the chain of men and boys. We all sat either on cheap white plastic garden chairs or up-ended crates, decked with small cushions.
Twenty men and boys assembled on my uncle’s roof, under the blanket of stars that coated the desert sky. Members of our direct family as well as more distant members from the wider tribe. Our clothes reflected 150 years of history and conflict. My father’s cousin, a Mufti, graced us with his presence. He wore an amamah - a kind of red fez, suffocated by a pure white turban. An Ottoman holdover. His body was shrouded in long, grey (or were they blue?) robes. My favourite uncle wore an old suit, a tan holdover from the mid-1980s with a deep scarlet paisley-patterned tie. He sported a thick black Saddam Hussein moustache, as was still the fashion for men of his age. My grandfather wore a white Egyptian cotton jalabiya, a black chequered keffiyeh held together with a black igal rope band, and a grey suit jacket as old as my father. He wore sandals without socks displaying his strong, manicured feet that put mine to shame.
I sat in my own small black jalabiya, a gift from one of the assembled family members, and an unnecessary pair of blue Levi’s denim jeans.
I carefully manoeuvred the full tumbler to the makeshift table in front of me, before a steaming became a burning, and turned my attention back to my Gameboy. Though the sound was off, my mind invented music to drown out the myriad conversations happening around the ring of chairs. Smatters of chatter on gossip, politics, religion and food. One group would lean in close across their chairs to whisper about this or that. Peals of laughter rang out as memories of childhood indiscretions were dug out of communal memory. One moustachioed cousin yelled across the circle to get the attention of another. The menthol smell of cigarettes, strong oud perfumes, fresh sweat and our sweet tea mingled in the lukewarm air of a Jordanian summer evening. A familiar smell of comfort.
‘Khalid, baba…’ my father called me by my name, reversing the relationship terms, as Arabs are wont to do. My mind registered his voice but Super Mario had my attention. ‘Khalid’, a note sterner and with a light touch on my arm. I gave a barely-audible sigh, turning to him while fluidly switching off my gameboy. The batteries were running low anyway. ‘Yes, baba?’. Go down and ask your auntie Nida for the sweets. ‘Ok baba’. I stood and put my Gameboy on the chair, as though reserving it. I eyed my tea quickly wondering whether I could chance a sip but it was still steaming hot so I hopped around the chair and went to the stairs.
Pounding down the stairs, my sandals slapped on the crumbling stonework like a fish escaping a net but landing on the boat. My auntie wasn’t in the kitchen but I paused to breathe the aromas of a hundred spices while I was there. I moved to the reception room and knocked lightly on the thick wooden door. Dozens of female voices thrummed in the room, an internal echo of what was happening above. There was music also and the buzzing of fans. They could not hear me.
I opened the door ‘Amti Nidat, I…’.
Two of the seated women had immediately reached for headscarves before realising it was me. A barely-there shift of mood from indignation to delight. I was the darling nephew, grandson or young cousin. I wasn’t a man. ‘Come here Khalid!’ my auntie Hala offered, beckoning with her hand.
‘Sorry amti, I’m looking for amti Nidat, I need to ask her for the sweets’. My eyes roved the room, trying to pick her out from the myriad faces. ‘Ok ok, she’s not in the room but Saida will help you. Saida. YA SAIDA.’ Without getting up she yelled for her daughter’s attention and received it. Saida paused laughing with another teenage cousin, ‘Yes mama?’.
‘Go help Khalid with the sweets, yalla, quickly!’. ‘Ok mama.’
She quickly threw her white hijab around her head and expertly clasped it while rising and walking towards me. All in one expert motion. ‘Yalla habibi, come with me.’
She took my hand and led me back to the kitchen.
‘Ya Khalid, which sweets?’ she asked in the corridor.
‘You know, just the sweets.’ I responded, realising I didn’t know.
We entered the kitchen and she rapidly pulled trays from various crevices and cupboards. ‘Ya’ani, we have ghraybeh, baglaweh, warbat, knafeh, gadayef…’. Baglaweh. Baqlawah. Baklava.
‘Something of everything, please habibti.’
She smiled in return and took out a pan to begin heating some of the sweets. She was thin and tall for her age, equipped with long eyelashes, a disarming smile and a fiery temperament that could meander from honey-sweet to warlike-danger. When I was bored she would often play writing games or board games with me while talking over the latest Arabic music, films or books.
I think she felt my eyes on her head. She looked over her shoulder and flashed me a smile. I’d heard my father and hers joke - at least I hoped it was a joke - that we should be married one day. We were only separated by a few years but she was still older than me. Surely she would find a husband well before I was ready?
The hints of a sizzle came from the pan as the knafeh cheese began to melt and the syrup boiled away. ‘Ok, we’re ready. Habibi, fetch me the plates’. I went to the cupboard with assorted plates. Not the fine plates used for more formal meals but the colourful, chipped ones, used for minor family occasions and I gathered together some of the larger plates.
‘Bizzubt, exactly habibi those ones.’ She gently touched my shoulder in affirmation. I pulled the plates up and put them next to the frn ghaz. Gas cooker. Frn. Firin. Fournos. Forno. Oven.
As she began loading, I reached for one of the triangles of warbat. Thick, sweet cream eager to leave folds of filo pastry and coated in pistachio dust and syrup. A nightmare of diabetes. And just within my grasp. Her hand lightly smacked mine away as she giggled. ‘La! Wait your turn. If you keep sneaking those sweets, you’ll get fat! Here, take this plate upstairs, yalla.’ She thrust a large plate into my hands and ruffled my hair as I moved off. ‘Akh, Saida!’ She must have had syrup in her hands; my hair remained in place.
I emerged from the stairs into a cool breeze. I hadn’t realised how warm it had been inside. The poor women in their traditional Palestinian thawb and abayah. I instinctively checked my forehead to see if I was sweating and nearly dropped the plate and, worse, myself. Down the stairs. But luckily I kept my balance. My chair remained unoccupied but for my Gameboy but my dad was smoking one of his Dunhill cigarettes now. He knew I hated the smell and the /+risk to his health, even at this age. So he would very rarely smoke in front of me. When he caught sight of me edging towards him with sweets, he quickly took another drag and stubbed the offending white stick on one of the many ashtrays, proper and makeshift, on the tables. When my eyes caught his, I rolled them and increased my pace.
‘Baba, you said you wouldn’t! Saratan!’. Saratan. Áizhèng. Rak. Kanker. Cancer.
‘I know habibi, I know. It was just a little. I’ve just heard your great-uncle Radwan has died!’
‘You remember, you met him five years ago.’
‘Baba, how old do you think I am?’
He laughed as he picked up a couple of pieces of ghraybeh, a kind of shortbread.. ‘Take the sweets around ya Khalid.’
I moved around the circle of makeshift seats and the sweets began to disappear. When I had circled back to my chair, I put the plate in front of me and took my seat. There was a single piece of warbat left.
I reached out to pick it up but as quick as a hummingbird, the plate left the table. Saida picked up the plate. ‘Mmm Warbat, my favourite.’ She grinned as she lay another fully-loaded plate back on the table. She winked at me and turned to leave. I shook my head and reached out to the new plate. There was no more Warbat. I didn’t care. I picked up my tumbler of tea again and sipped warm happiness. This is Hub. Hub. Ài. Agape. Liebe. Amour. Love.