The Arabian Jasmine
I closed my eyes and tried to sleep on the airplane. But Ahmed’s thoughtful gaze and strong voice kept coming to me. We met at university. Our campus was a beautiful sanctuary of trees and shrubbery in the crowded city of Beirut. Purple blossoms from jacaranda trees drifted down onto the streets and when one landed on my head, Ahmed plucked it from my wavy strands and apologized for startling me. He gazed at me with kind eyes, introduced himself and asked me out for coffee. We dated. Weeks turned to months. I remembered weaving around ancient buildings and racing through alleyways with him. A surge of happiness filled my body. He was Muslim and I was Christian. We knew our relationship was risky. And when the war broke out in 1975 between Christians and Muslims, our love seemed almost impossible. But we kept loving each other. Kept weaving and racing. Sometimes out of happiness and sometimes out of fear.
One day the skies thundered and rained bombs. Mama, Babba, my brother Marcel and I had been sitting at the kitchen table chatting and eating olives with pita bread. When our home shook, we dove under the table. I remembered Mama covering my brother’s head and my own with her arms. Another blast. The house creaked loudly. Babba swore. Mama screamed. I yelled too. Only Marcel remained quiet and when I glanced over at him, he was slumped on Mama’s lap. She wept, rocking my brother in her arms. Babba hugged me, his tears wetting my own damp face. Another bomb. This time the house plummeted and everything went silent and dark.
A while later, I heard Ahmed calling out to me. At first, his voice was faint but then it grew stronger. I struggled under the broken stones to move, to breathe. When he finally freed me from the wreckage, he carried me to his sister Wafaa’s home. Then he went back to my house and tried to find my parents and brother. He returned to Wafaa’s with a dirtied face and scratched hands. With slumped shoulders, he told me he had found my family. When I asked where they were, he kept shaking his head, then he took me in his arms and held me while I wailed in grief. When I stopped sobbing, I stared in his sad eyes. His own parents had died years ago from cancer. He could understand my grief. After that day, I lived with Ahmed and Wafaa. They nursed me back to health. I was Christian and they were Muslim but this didn’t matter to us even though our city was divided. A green line of weeds and shrubbery grew and separated West and East Beirut.
Then months later on his way to get us water, Ahmed disappeared. Wafaa and I searched the streets of Beirut and neighbouring towns and villages. We risked being kidnapped at checkpoints, but we didn’t care. All we cared about was finding Ahmed. When Wafaa worked at the hospital, I walked the streets alone past severed limbs on cobblestone. Hid when I heard the whistle of approaching shells. Two years passed and I couldn’t find him. When I couldn’t get out of bed, Wafaa begged me to rise. “Nadea, you have to be strong.” But I couldn’t be strong anymore. I had lost everything. My family, my beloved Ahmed. Everything. “Keep living,” Wafaa pleaded with me. Then she told me she was leaving for France with her fiancé Pierre.
“How will Ahmed find you if you’re gone?” I murmured.
She whispered, “If God is willing, my dear brother will find his way back to me. I want to believe he’s still alive, but I can’t keep waiting, Nadea. You can stay in the house as long as you like.” But I couldn’t live there anymore. I left Wafaa’s small stone house. The sweet, rich scent of her jasmine plants followed me outside until I could no longer smell them. I stayed with an old classmate. From time to time, I returned to Wafaa’s house, sat at the window and waited, hopeful Ahmed would come back home. I watered the jasmine plants when water was available. Bombs still fell. More people died. More people went missing. More time passed. No Ahmed.
Now the airplane jolted me from my memories. I sat up and stared at the back of the seat in front of me for a while. When the plane landed, I sighed deeply and made my way through the Ottawa airport. My legs were unsteady. Following the signs, I wandered down the wide hallways, weaving around the crowds and wishing Ahmed was with me.
The customs official searched through my luggage. My cheeks felt flushed when his fingers fumbled with my underwear. He didn’t look up at me. Then he asked to see my carry-on bag. He lifted out a jasmine plant. It was wrapped in a plastic bag.
“You aren’t allowed to bring plants here,” the man said.
My mouth opened in surprise. “It’s an old country tradition.”
“A tradition,” the middle-aged man said rather curtly. “We might have to confiscate this tradition. I’m surprised you made it through customs in Beirut.”
“Please, it’s only a jasmine plant. My boyfriend Ahmed always said that when travelling, it’s important to carry a plant with you. You know, to always stay rooted to somewhere,” I explained on the verge of tears now.
The man looked away from me and brought the plant closer to his nose. Smiling, he said, “It has a powerful smell, doesn’t it?”
Then he said in a softer tone. “It’s beautiful. My wife would like something like this. What’s it called?”
“An Arabian jasmine.”
He handed the plant back to me and said smiling now, “You can keep it. But next time, don’t travel with plants.”
Grinning widely, I promised not to do this again. Then I snapped off one of the white flowers and passed it to him. “For your wife.”
I waved at him as I exited the area. Walking through the open sliding doors, I stepped out of customs and into the arms of my former schoolteacher who rushed towards me. We hugged for a long time and when we finally pulled apart, I saw how my teacher had aged into a graceful woman in her late fifties. Her once long brown hair was cut short and she looked elegant with her floral dress. “You must be tired, habibti.” Honey. She took my suitcase and hooked her free arm through mine.
I couldn’t stop smiling. After so many years, we were finally reacquainted. “Thank you so much, Madame Souad. Thank you for helping me get to Canada.”
“It was nothing,” she said, waving away my thanks. “Are you hungry?”
My stomach rumbled loudly.
“I guess your stomach is answering for you.” She winked.
“Yallah, let’s go.”
On the curb of the sidewalk, I gazed at Madame Souad’s home. It was a two-storey house with red-brick. Grey shutters were beside the tall windows. The front porch was spacious with wicker chairs. “You have a beautiful house, Madame Souad,” I said.
“Shukran, my dear. My Aunt Myriam left it to me after she died. It’s what people call a heritage house because it has been around since the early 1900s,” she explained.
We walked inside. I could smell garlic and paprika. I felt my eyes tear because these spices reminded me of Mama’s cooking. Every room was covered with hardwood floors, plus a few Persian rugs. There was an old-style clawfoot tub in the bathroom. The bedrooms had sloped ceilings and tall windows that poured light over the canopy beds. “It’s so beautiful,” I said again.
When we stepped into the dining room, the table was set with wine glasses and blue porcelain plates. “I’ll be back in a second, habibti.” I went to follow Madame Souad but she insisted I sit. “You just had a long flight. Rest. Let me serve you.” Within a few minutes, my old teacher had the table covered with dishes of taboulleh, hummus, baba ganoush, Lebanese chicken and kibbeh balls. We clanked our wine glasses together cheering our reunion and my new beginning in Canada.
We stayed up past the early morning hours catching up on our lives. Madame Souad told me that she never worked as a teacher in Canada, but instead worked as a waitress and when the owner of the restaurant retired, she bought the business from him with her Aunt Myriam’s help. “We have the best fish and chips in the city!”
“Do you miss teaching?” I asked her.
“Sometimes, but my life is good here so I can’t complain. Well, except for the bitterly cold winters! This old house gets drafty during those months. I have to throw on several blankets when I sleep.” She paused and stared out the window for a second, then looked back at me. “It wasn’t easy when I first came to Canada, but with time, things got better.” She went on to say that the restaurant provided a good income and she was fortunate to have good people working for her. She led a comfortable life despite the cold winters. Just as the sun began to rise and light the living room, we climbed up the old staircase. “Sleep well, habibti. I’ll see you in the morning or, rather, the afternoon!” She laughed and went into her bedroom. In the other room, I slipped off my clothes and into my pajamas. I lay under the canopy of the bed until I fell into a deep sleep.
I slept until it was almost early evening. There were no bombs or bullets to wake me up. Everything was calm in Madame Souad’s neighbourhood. Slipping out of the bedroom, I took a leisurely bath in the odd-looking tub and smiled how I thought the small legs would not hold me as I spread my body across the long, smooth surface. When I was dressed, Madame Souad took me to her restaurant and I ate my first fish and chips.
The following weekend, she drove me to Montreal. “The city has great shopping and beautiful art and architecture. You’ll love it.” When we entered the large city, Madame Souad honked her horn at a car that cut her off. She managed to squeeze into a long line of traffic. “It’s like driving in Beirut here.” And when another vehicle almost hit us, she lifted up her right hand and cursed, “Ya sharmout! What the hell are you doing? Where did you learn to drive?” I couldn’t stop myself from laughing. I had never heard her swear before. “I hate driving in Montreal. Just as much as I hated driving in Beirut. But the shopping and food are so good that this makes up for the crazy driving.” She laughed.
We shopped and took in a few sights. When it was close to dinner time, Madame Souad suggested we head to this bakery. “It makes the best flatbread. Well, of course, next to my own and my mother’s. God rest her soul,” she said before crossing herself.
As soon as we walked inside the bakery, the smell of fresh, oven-baked flatbreads overwhelmed me that I almost cried because it reminded me so much of home. I ordered a cheese one along with a soft drink. We ate quietly then Madame Souad excused herself from our table to use the washroom. I looked out the large window of the bakery. The shop was across a row of homes. I admired the wrought-iron curved staircases of the old apartment houses. I wondered how those dwellers managed to climb down those winding and steep steps in the snow and ice without tumbling. But the stairs looked stunning on this crisp autumn day. Red and orange leaves had fallen from large trees and gathered on the metal steps in tiny heaps. Turning from the window, I looked around for Madame Souad and realized she was taking longer than expected. I wondered if she was feeling all right. And just as I was about to get up from my seat to find her, she suddenly appeared with a man walking behind her. When he stepped aside, I sunk back in my chair, taking quick breaths.
Ahmed pulled out a chair and sat beside me, patting my back and asking, “Are you all right, sweetheart?” I nodded but when I opened my mouth, I couldn’t find the words to say anything. My eyes watered. “It’s okay, Nadea,” he said, laughing and crying at the same time. I glanced across at Madame Souad whose eyes also welled with tears.
Shaking, I finally whispered, “I thought you were gone forever.” I kept touching his face as if making sure he was real.
“I know,” he said, his voice cracking. “I went back to my sister’s and when I saw the abandoned house, I thought you both had been killed. I called my uncle and he told me Wafaa had moved to France with her new husband. Then I called her there and she told me you were still in Beirut. I tried to find you. Tried for weeks, months. Then my uncle sponsored me and I felt so guilty when I left Lebanon because I was leaving without you.”
“But how did you find me?”
“I found Madame Souad.”
Madame Souad spoke now. “He showed up one day on my porch. He told me who he was and showed me a letter I had written to you with my address on the yellowed envelope. We kept in touch while I worked on your immigration papers.”
“That’s right, Nadea. Some of your letters were still at Wafaa’s house,” Ahmed said.
“Madame Souad, you tricked me,” I said teasingly with tears filling my eyes again.
She patted my hand, got up and carried her flatbread. “It was a good surprise, no?”
Nodding, I squeezed her forearm and watched her walk to the counter where she now sat.
I leaned closer to Ahmed and grasped his hands. “I thought you were dead.”
“I thought I’d be killed too, but I managed to escape my kidnappers.” He stopped for a second and looked down. I saw the scars on his wrists. My body froze, picturing the torture he’d endured. He looked up again and went on, “My uncle owns this bakery. Montreal has been good to me. I can now sleep a whole night without the memories of the war. But they still sometimes come to me.” I squeezed his hands, didn’t tell him that I couldn’t forget those painful images either, but the way he stared tenderly at me made me realize that he understood how I felt. “I like Montreal. I even found some friends.”
Lowering my eyes, I wondered if he had found a girlfriend too. Then as if reading my thoughts, he said, “But having these friends don’t make up for the companionship you gave me. I never stopped loving you, Nadea. No one could ever replace you.”
I wiped my eyes, then clutched his hands tighter. “I never stopped either.”
We gazed at each other. His hair had grown long. I ruffled the loose curls. “When are you going to cut this mop?” I teased.
With his eyes gleaming, he gave me a kind smile. He was unshaven and thinner but still handsome as ever. I could feel my stomach flutter and this reminded me of how I felt when I first met him, plucking that purple blossom from my hair. Ahmed rose and led me past Madame Souad. “We’re going to take a little walk,” he said. She smiled and nodded.
He took me to the kitchen, introduced me to his uncle. He was a jolly man who embraced me as if he had always known me. “Nice to finally meet you, Nadea,” he said.
“Likewise,” I replied.
Then Ahmed led me out a back door to a small garden. A jasmine plant was thriving there in the Canadian earth. “I grabbed an Arabian jasmine from my sister’s house and hid it in one of my bags. I managed somehow to get it overseas without any major problems. At first, I thought the custom officers might think it was some illegal drug but my charming personality got me and my plant through,” he said, giving me a mischievous grin.
I laughed and brought him close to me. I told him that I had done the same thing.
“We’ve already set our roots here,” he smiled warmly.
I nodded, took his hand. We walked down the street, past the winding staircases and the bakery. Madame Souad waved then turned her attention back to Ahmed’s uncle who now sat across from her.
With a cool breeze swirling the autumn leaves around us, we walked and when we stopped at a street light, I turned and gazed longingly at Ahmed. He smiled again. Still hand-in-hand, we kept walking. Violet streaked across the Montreal sky. The spiralling staircases and towering maple trees seemed to merge. More leaves tumbled onto the asphalt. The approaching dusk produced shadows. Our shadows too. Everything looked mysterious and magical. “Winter will be here soon. I can smell it in the air,” Ahmed murmured. We moved on. I knew the coming days would bring us more sunsets and sunrises. And snowflakes too. I imagined our Arabian jasmines trying to survive the icy cold. Would they thrive in this climate? Being here with Ahmed, I knew anything was possible. Just then, a fierce wind tossed more leaves around us and when they scattered, I squeezed Ahmed’s hand before we quickened our pace.
Sonia Saikaley: "I was born and raised in Ottawa, Canada to a large Lebanese family. My first book, The Lebanese Dishwasher, co-won the 2012 Ken Klonsky Novella Contest. My first collection of poetry, Turkish Delight, Montreal Winter, was published in 2012 and a second collection, A Samurai’s Pink House, was published in 2017 by Inanna Publications. I am currently working on a novel called Jasmine Season on Hamra Street. A graduate of the Humber School for Writers, I live in my hometown of Ottawa. My novel The Allspice Bath is slated for publication in the spring of 2019 (Inanna Publications)."