Sunday, March 31, 2013

Handwritten Letters

One of the earliest memories I have is walking with my dad to the Post Office, hurrying to catch up with his long steps. The visits to the Post Office bored me, but I kept myself entertained with the sweets that my dad would get me from the newsagent's on the way and an occasional don't-step-on-the-cracks game.

Those days, nobody had the luxury of sitting back on a bed or a sofa tapping away messages that will reach anywhere across the world in a split second. Before the internet came, people had to get up and go get things done, as foreign as that sounds today. This meant having to go to the Post Office. Actually writing down a letter neatly, getting the spellings right the first time. Putting it in an envelope and sticking a stamp on. Printing your recipient's actual location on the front, smiling at the funny street names. Then carefully handing in your envelope like a mother leaving her dressed-up kid on a very long bus route alone.

Later on, when my dad left to live abroad, it was handwritten letters that would keep us in touch. Just like there was a Homework Time, Fruit Time and Bed Time, there was a Writing Letters to Dad Time where my sister and I would sit on the dining table by the window, surrounded by markers, coloured and glitter pens, stickers and any other random thing we wanted to add, and carefully make our letters, with my mother on hand to help us write a line or two in Arabic. On Eids and birthdays we'd get greeting cards, and sometimes, chocolate tubes and ketchup sachets (yes, for some reason, mini-ketchup packets really excited us). I would tear off stamps and collect them in a stamp album. Sometimes my mom would come back from the Post Office with fresh stamps for my collection. Soon I had around three hundred, the special ones with Quentin-Blake illustrations (!) at the front.

I still have that stamp album. I don't think it's a thing to be proud of but nostalgia defines most of my life. I live in the past and not a day goes by where I haven't looked at old photographs, read past diary entries or browsed through my "Memory" box. I found an envelope in there yesterday that's older than ten years. Inside it was a letter a friend sent me from Pakistan.

Wasn't is so much more special when you'd touch a letter and know this is the same paper they picked out to write to you? When more than what they say is their handwriting eternalising a part of them forever? It's true that the internet and e-mailing have made life easier and more practical, but you can't gain without losing something as equally valuable.


Friday, March 15, 2013

The Toy-shop

I have this strikingly-red chilli-shaped rocking chair in my room that I reserve sitting on for pensive moments. Seriously, I believe the chilli is endowed with nostalgia-provoking powers. As silly as it sounds I don't want to end up exhausting them.

I'm on my desk (in a charged up mode, because I'm in the process of creating my next comprehensive to-do list) when my sister comes in, props herself on the chilli across the room.

And that's when lightning strikes, and the magic begins.

Her eyes cast about the room like it's the first time she sees it, as she often likes to do, pointing out random bits and pieces and pronouncing on them her latest observations.

'Those, it's time to get rid of them'. I look up to see what she's talking about. Two, barbie-sized cardboard shopping bags, one with a Dalmatian dog and one with a Winnie the Poo sticking out from. They sit on the edge of the desk, looking as abandoned as ever. Twelve years of age coat them. Their furry bodies surrounded by that greying dust that's difficult to get rid of.

'No way,' I reply, and she doesn't need an explanation. We both remember the day we brought them. It was one of the best days of our lives.


A green Volvo is driving along one of Baghdad's most popular streets- Al Mansour Road- carrying on its wheels a load of excitement. It slows down, moving towards the sidewalk and finally parks in front of its destination. Just two seconds go by before the doors swing open and four children clamber out, moving slowly because they are slightly dumbfounded. They crane their necks to read the shop's sign, squinting in the sunlight (Al- Jalaywi; a family name scribbled in large Arabic letters across a yellow board) before they are hurried on inside.

A splendid array of red, yellow, green, blue, greets us. The shop is rectangular, its shelves run from ceiling to floor, and there's not a single bit of the wall that can be seen. Toys smile back at us from all sides. There are walkie-talkies and trains and remote-controlled cars. Play-tills, play-kitchens, and anything else imaginable. Cards and trick-games. "Look at the quality of these footballs," gasps my cousin Ali, throwing one from hand to hand. "Barbie sewing machine," whispers his sister Maryam, moving towards the pink display of Barbie and her accessories.

"Remember, Jidu said as many toys as you want. Anything." We all turn and eye her, trying to fathom this foreign message.

People think children aren't fit for making decisions, but nothing could be further than the truth. Give a child an infinite number of choices, and they will end up picking the most rational ones after careful and calculated evaluation. We took a very long time picking our toys in there, but we left with an appropriate number of bags stuffed with goodies, and there were no 'If only's or 'I wish's in the car. We rode back home in silence, clutching on tight to our bags and wearing satisfied smiles.


It's the same day, afternoon, and the "hall" (iraqi term for sitting room) is strewn with evidence of a birthday party. Paper hats with badly-stapled elastics lie on the floor, bored balloons float around, pieces of torn wrapping paper over the sofas. The coffee table in the centre groans under a half-eaten cake, used plates and tea-cups with sugar residues.

Of course, we had to have surprise guests in the midst of our promised party. We watch the garden outside from the open kitchen door, look at the family setting out enough plastic chairs for everyone, eye the guests' girl-our-age from top to bottom. Then we go back to hide all the gifts and tidy-up the party remains as instructed, feeling very disappointed at losing the prospect of flaunting them.

'Not one word about the party,' they whisper to us again, as we call her inside to play.

As soon as we do, in trots our witty three-year-old. 'Did we have a party without you? No, we didn't. And did we get any toys without you? No, we didn't. Okay?'

We all look at each other and burst out laughing.


Al- Jalaywi's toy shop doesn't exist anymore. I'll never be able to throw away those two filthy and lame cardboard-shopping bags with a Dalmation dog and Winnie. One day, I might show them to my grand-children and tell them about that day. And how an innocent man and his two sons, who sold the best toys to the children of Baghdad, had their lives taken away.


Friday, March 8, 2013

Your loyal attendants

If you're ever feeling down, remember that there are over a hundred trillion tiny wardens whose sole purpose of existence is to keep you well and comfortable. Some of them make sure nothing harmful ever gets to you. You might not feel it when you're down with the flu, but those guys are kung-fu-ing their lives out of evil invaders. Many of them die trying.

While you're hogging out on food, your devoted guardians are working day and night ensuring you make the most out of your meals. They create careful amino acid structures (very complex ones, mind you!), referring to your genes for instructions, all without even a pause to wipe their foreheads.

It's a whole other world in there. Sometimes they're short of oxygen and send the commands to make you yawn. Other times, they can see how tired you're getting and force your thinking to slow down and eyes to flicker.

Just look down at yourself right now and feel loved, because everything, from the pumping heart and the breathing lungs, the enthusiastic nerves and the wise brain, is working 24/7 at your service.

Friday, March 1, 2013

The Greatest Therapy

It's funny who we want to turn to with our can of worms for a solution- to people just as helpless as us, not really bothered to add anything to their plate, a simple word of comfort, an 'mhm' and an 'aha' with an eye on a phone and a mind on a billion issues other than your own.

But this- this is the real deal. He goes, "You need anything? I'm right here, closer to you than your neck vein." A session with the One behind it all. What idiot would want to turn that down?

It's not so easy standing before You. This isn't like any chat where I can give a biased version and innocently leave out all the little crimes. But knowing of Your Mercy makes me shameless. Turn not away from me when I have turned my face towards You.

Hands to the ears- God is Great. Who can have tasted the sweetness of Your love, then wanted another in place of You?

Hands down- All praise is due to You. How can I ever achieve thanksgiving? For my thanking You requires thanksgiving. Whenever I say, 'To You belongs praise' it becomes thereby incumbent upon me to say, 'To You belongs praise'

Hands on knees, bowing down. Utmost Hope, Patron and Responder. To You is my humble pleading. Have Mercy upon your lowly slave of silent tongue and few good works. Shelter me under your shade.

I stand- God listens. Though my stores travelling to You are few, my confidence in You has kept me hopeful. Your blessings are abundant -my tongue is too weak to count them. Your favours are many - my understanding falls short of grasping them.

On the floor, forehead on the ground- the dust that I was made from, the dust to which I'll one day be bound. Will You show forbearance toward him who puts his face in the dust before You in lowliness?  How should I have hope in other than You, when the good - all of it - is in Your hand? How should I expect from others, when Yours are the creation and the command?

It is overwhelmingly flattering that I'm allowed five appointments with You every single day. And Your undivided attention (in every sense of that word). There can be no greater therapy.

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