Amal stood on the little bridge and looked at the river. Manchester was just a few stops away. Soon she will be able to find Mama, and to tell her all about her epic journey across the desert and mountains, seas and streams, to start a new life. Amal didn’t know the answers to the questions that were swirling in her mind like autumn leaves in the wind - why was her school bombed? Why did everyone leave their village? And why did she have to walk on this long journey to find her mama?
Amal adjusted her heavy bag on her back as she started to walk again. The bag was all she had. She had left her village so quickly that she couldn’t bring anything else with her. There was no going back either - their house was gone and there was no one left for her there.
All she had was this bag. Her own bag of memories – some her favourite memories of back home, memories of school, cousins, the neighbours, and even her favourite brunch meal on Fridays. Some were too hard to forget. She brought them anyway.
These memories will help her along the way. Every time her feet ached or she felt lonely, she opened the bag to remember, to breathe, to give her the courage to continue. And she continued walking….
Although none of these memories could be found underneath this grey sky far away from home, they gave her the courage to continue walking to find Mama and to start a new life in Manchester, leaving her shattered life and demolished village behind.
Amal looked up at the path. There! Was that a garden? Perhaps she could rest her feet and regain her strength. But before she could make her way to the garden, a white rabbit scurried in front of her. Is this the same rabbit she had seen in London? Did it follow her all this way? Amal forgot all about her tiredness and chased after the rabbit. It reminded her of chasing after her cat back home. The rabbit hopped and hurried towards something. No! Someone. A little girl, with a blue dress and a white ribbon. The girl looked just like the Alice she had imagined a long time ago. The time when baba read her books. One of her favourite was Alice in Wonderland.
‘"Welcome Amal," said Alice, “I’m Alice.”
Alice stood in a beautiful garden of flowers, some daises, tiger-lilies, and roses. Roses were Amal’s favourite, they reminded her of the roses in Damascus, back home in their courtyard. The roses back home had bigger and larger petals, still they had similar fragrances…
But the roses didn’t seem too happy to see Amal. Amal didn’t care. She had met many people throughout her journey who thought she was in the wrong place, and had the wrong skin colour and was wrong to embark on this journey. But that didn’t stop her from walking all this way to find her mama.
Alice skipped past the rose ignoring it, and pulled Amal’s hand. She was excited to show Oxford, her beautiful city, with all its meadows, ancient buildings, and bridges. Alice introduced Amal to the tiger-lily, her favourite flower, she said. Amal’s heart soared and her burden lightened as Alice sang a song for Amal. The song was all about Amal and her courageous journey, and to thank her for coming to Oxford to meet with her.
As Alice’s song came to a close, they heard loud noises. The Red Queen arrived, with much fanfare. Alice wanted them to hurry before the Red Queen found them. But it was too late. “Where do you come from?” said the Red Queen. “And where are you going? Look up, speak nicely, and don’t twiddle your fingers all the time.”
Amal explained to the Red Queen that she was coming from a home that was no longer her home and she was going to find her mother. All she had was the bag of memories to help her on her way. Amal wanted to leave, to be on her way, please. The Red Queen grunted and reminded Amal that all the ways about here belonged to her and all memories were hers.
Amal stepped back a little, holding her bag tight. The Red Queen stepped forward and grabbed the memory bag and pulled it towards her! Amal held it tight. The Red Queen pulled harder. Alice helped Amal pull the bag back. All that pulling and pushing and kicking and knocking burst open the bag.
Amal’s memories scattered all over the air floating like bubbles. Small, big and giant bubbles, some glued together in hundreds and some beautiful ones on their own, they all flew into the sky. And as Amal and Alice watched, they sprinkled across the city.
Amal threw herself on to the ground and began to cry. Her memories were all scattered and broken. Would she be able to make it all the way to Manchester without them, to find mama? The journey never felt more impossible.
Consider anything, only don’t cry, advised Alice, as she held Amal’s hand. She offered to help her search for them all across Oxford, the place she knew so well. She was certain that they could catch them one by one, from the highest domes and from under the bridges. Her friends would help to spot them, and they could put them back in the bag for Amal to take with her on her journey. Amal smiled and agreed as they began a quest for the lost memories.
And just after walking for few meters close to the main road, Amal was able to spot something from afar, hanging on a window in a little alleyway. It was her memory of her floral dress blue, pink and yellow with big flowers all around it, and little white collar. Her mama had made for her to wear on the first day of Eid.
Amal remembered vividly how her mama presented her with the dress a night before the Eid morning, and how she couldn’t wait until next day to wear it. She slept with the dress lying beside her on the bed. The dress’ memory still had the strong smell of new fabric, mixed with the Aleppo soap smell that her mama stored in between fabrics in her big wooden ottoman.
Amal’s heart soared as she got closer to the window, she grabbed her beautiful dress. Alice’s eyes widened in wonder and without hesitation Amal gave the dress to Alice and helped her to wear it. She knew that her precious memory would be cherished with Alice.
As they walked, Amal and Alice heard noises of children shouting, and some others were cheering. They walked closer. A group of kids were playing football. Amal knew them. They were the children from her village, playing football after school.
Amal and her friends usually met next to the big bakery window and played all together. Sometimes they would even play a match against the children from the nearby village, and things would always get intense and often end with a fight.
Amal was the captain of her team, and the only girl in the team. Amal joyfully ran to join the game, but Alice didn’t. Alice didn’t play football like Amal did. Amal kicked the ball to Alice, and Alice kicked the ball back, and they ended up playing football together just like she did back home, before the bombs came.
Amal showed Alice her memory. The big bakery window was still there with the smell of warm bread spreading all around, the sound of Um Said the neighbour shouting from her window asking the children to be quiet, the cats softly padding nearby, only to be startled by the football flying above their heads and the infrequent cars that honked so loudly asking the children to move and not to play in the middle of the road. After they finished playing, Amal took all of these memories, and preciously placed them back in her bag.
Amal and Alice continued on their quest, still smiling about the memory of playing football. That was when they heard a whisper, coming from an alley.
Amal stopped and listened. It was the voice of a woman singing. They couldn’t make out the words. But as they got closer and closer, Amal recognised the voice and the words. It was mama singing a lullaby for her. Mama’s voice was so quiet that Alice had to shush everyone in the street so they could listen. The sad and beautiful melody urged Amal to fall asleep. "It’s time to sleep little Amal, yallah tnam, yallah tnam, nedbahlak tair el hamam…"
As they stepped on to the grass patch Alice spotted a bed, with white and blue sheets, a soft light brown blanket, and a white pillow with Amal’s name stitched on it. Amal stepped on to the grass gently, and collected the nursery rhyme bubbles one by one and placed them back in the bag, without saying a word. Then she sat on her bed for little while, by herself, while Alice looked around. After a short while Amal was ready to continue walking to find another memory, lest she should lose them forever.
Amal discovered Oxford through Alice’s eyes passing bridges, little alleyways, and beautiful buildings with domes and grand stained-glass windows. They retrieved several of her memory bubbles along the way. Her Jido’s coffee cup that Teta used to fill with strong coffee and lots of sugar, the sound of sellers in the vegetable market shouting and singing to catch people’s attention, barazek – Syrian biscuits with pistachios dotted with sesame seeds and slices of Raha (Turkish Delight) and her red bicycle with the new noisy bell that her uncle got her - more of Amal’s precious memories of back home.
They had walked far across Oxford. Amal was worried whether she’d find any more of her memories or whether they would all be lost forever. That was when they were stopped by a very loud and scary banging noise. They quickly hid in a corner. Amal peeped out.
A giant fig tree on the little hill near their home had been struck. Its shattered branches hung down in despair. A wooden swing that baba had strapped on to the tree branch was on the ground, alone like Amal was.
Amal told Alice about that day – the day when the bombs fell and fell and fell. The day when her joys were shattered like the branches of the fig tree. Amal walked slowly to the broken tree and picked it up to add to her bag. Alice stopped her. Was it not the time to leave it behind, her gaze seemed to ask. Amal shook her head. Amal added the tree into her bag as if to show Alice that however heavy it was to carry the memory of that day, it was her memory, and it would always stay with her. Amal picked up the pieces of the swing too and carefully placed them back in her bag.
Amal wondered if she had collected them all. Alice nudged Amal and pointed at something. A big apple tree. Amal stepped closer. It was the same apple tree in their garden where she played while her mum prepared lunch. The tree stood in a meadow filled with the smells of her favourite dishes, Fatteh’ magdous, Sheik Mihshi, Freekeh, kibbeh labanieh…. Amal told Alice about her mama’s cooking and the delicious dishes she made all from the vegetables in their garden. Alice wasn’t sure about trying anything as they looked unfamiliar. But she felt curious to taste what it was all about. Amal smiled and waited until Alice had tried her mama’s dishes.
As Alice watched, Amal ran in the meadow to collect all the bubbles in the air. She gently placed them in different corners, and in no time, the meadow turned into a massive feast, with lots of people that came to welcome Amal, some were just like her having left their home towns because of wars. They all cooked wonderful Syrian food to remind her of back home. Alice was shy to join the feast but Amal grabbed her hand, "Welcome Alice," said Amal, and took her to meet everyone and to try all the delicious food.
After a short while, while everyone was busy singing, eating and sharing memories, Amal walked away slowly, to continue her journey to Manchester. She didn’t say good bye because she didn’t want to disturb the warm gathering in the meadow.
Unknown to Amal, the others looked on, at Amal walking out of the meadow and they all knew it was her time to go, leaving the joy, the feast and the beautiful memory of the gathering behind with friends.
© Nadine Kaadan 2021