A little conversation I had with WG today sparked off a trickle of memories. Our lives in this society are so insular. We live in our little boxes with our schedules and diaries, isolated from the world, our friends, families, neighbours, communities.
It’s not like that in Syria. It was such a massive shock to the system. I hid in my room for weeks when I first moved in with the family. I was lonely but too scared to do anything about it. I ran out of the house as early as I could in the morning and when I came home I checked furtively to see if there were people around before scuttling back into my room.
Eventually the family decided enough was enough and presented me with food before bullying me into joining them for meals. From then on they called me for breakfast and dinner every day. They learned that I wouldn’t go up without an invitation. It felt like a massive invasion of privacy.
They, on the other hand, had a near constant stream of visitors. Quite often they would sit in the courtyard outside my bedroom with their guests, leaving me trapped inside because I was too nervous to walk past them to go to the loo. Oh, the terror of being introduced to someone new. People just wandered in and out.
Just as I was getting used to this, the family decided to completely invade my personal space and tidy my room while I was out. I wouldn’t have known until I got home had it not been for my friend who came round and saw them merrily rifling through my clothes and hosing my floor down. Fatima was a total clean freak and it disgusted her that I hadn’t squeegeed my floor for a week. I should have been hosing and squeegeeing every day. She even hosed and squeegeed the path outside the house – it was just compacted mud. She cleaned mud.
My friend got a bit of a surprise when she caught the entire family squeegeeing away having the time of their lives. And I realised there was absolutely no point to me locking my door as they just wandered in with their own key anyway. What is this thing you call privacy?
The next day I had to get up at the crack of dawn to retrieve my drying underwear from the courtyard before the stream of visitors came round for tea. Thongs in Syria – the horror. I have no doubt that people would have a wonderful time discussing the weird English girl in glorious technicolour detail.
I tried to impress on them the notion of privacy but they didn’t get it. It was draining for a long time. Five children in and out of my room, dragging me upstairs for mashed aubergine and tea, chattering constantly, insisting that I was far too thin and needed to eat more, always more, eat more.
A few months in and I had acclimatised. Drinking tea in that courtyard was wonderful. It was cool enough, with just a hint of steam from Fatima’s squeegeeing. Jumping up to stop the boys using the tortoise as a football. Slowly wending our way through the afternoons.
If I thought it was a culture shock moving out to that, it was worse coming back. I don’t think I’ve ever fully adjusted. It grates to have to make appointments to see my friends, to have lost such spontaneity. It’s lonely here. I’m so thankful for my online friends because I realised recently that most of the time I only see people on pre-scheduled days. Work, band practice, church. Weeks go by and I haven’t just gone out for a coffee with a friend or had anyone round for dinner. That’s awful. Our scheduled lives.
Still, at least my thongs aren’t hanging in a courtyard for the men of Damascus to stare at.