We are like syringes. Drawing from our individual backgrounds, sucking in what we can of our lineage, our experiences, and ejecting our stories as we journey down the different roads that life leads us on. Parallel paths that fluctuate and differ but on occasion synchronise in turbulence.
Recent events have reminded me of Jordan’s lockdown during civil war which my family and I, as a baby, lived through. I grew up hearing what we endured. Stories of a time that now seems oddly familiar with its parallels. Like being confined to your home, fear of the outside world, a threat lurking in the streets. What imminent danger awaited if you left, went out hunting for supplies, only to find empty shelves? Might your body suffer the invasion of the enemy, the terrorist in disguise – the grim reaper of a virus? In Jordan, the odds of disaster were higher than Perth, danger was stacked upfront in your face, the neighbouring sound of rifles firing as evidence of what awaited. Might your body suffer a bullet wound outside your front door? Perhaps even inside your home?
The curfew in the capital city Amman lasted 12 days. My sisters heard gun shots around the house. One time when my mother was taking my sister Tonina to the bathroom, a stray bullet hit the wall outside. It was so loud and terrifying, my mother violently screamed, “My head”, crying in panic clutching her head, thinking she had been hit. Little Tonina was clutching hers too thinking the same had happened to her.
Hearing of mounting deaths from the virus, the Covid grim reaper knocking on the door of so many, led me back to my parents’ ordeal of a guerrilla soldier knocking on our door in the middle of the night. Holding artillery equipment, he wanted to get to the roof of our block to start firing and hurling bombs against the enemy.
My mother came to the door armed with nothing but me – her newborn baby, a weapon that might inflict an emotional response of sympathy, at best. She stood there with my father, pleading in Arabic, “Please, there are families with children here and we will all be killed if you attack from here. Please, can you find some other block that is vacant? We can offer you what little we have to eat and drink while you rest for a moment.” My parents hosted him that night, cooking, giving him what they could spare in alcohol until he was convinced to leave in search of another block to shoot from. We traded with the grim reaper that night, sacrificing our supplies.
Reading about Melbourne’s lockdown in council block apartments, zoned by police, made me reflect on our apartment block in Jordan and the older couple that lived above us. They knew it would be safer to stay in our basement flat, so my parents hosted Um Toobeh and her husband. Bringing what supplies they had at hand, they joined us with no warning of the 12-day curfew. It was announced via the sound of the war sirens erupting loudly. My sisters still recall the ominous sound. When they hear it in a film these days, it makes their stomach sink to their feet, giving them danger alert flashbacks.
My mother luckily had extra flour at hand and was baking bread everyday back then. She fed our neighbours what she could, but towards the last few days when supplies were running vastly short, she was forced into a horrible situation that goes against one of the virtuous pillars in Middle Eastern culture – hospitality. She had to tell her beloved neighbour that there wasn’t enough food to spare the couple, that she needed to feed her children first. My parents were worried we were all going to starve and were rationing portions. It was then that my mother was struck by another adversity – she couldn’t produce enough milk to feed me. Her body was reflecting her stress. In Jordan, people starved in their homes.
This wasn’t the first crisis my parents had endured. They both came from a history in Palestine ravaged by war when they were merely children. It was more horrific than Jordan’s civil war. A time that was so dangerous, you had no choice but to flee your country for your life. When fear permeated the streets, when gunshots fired into civilian homes, when bombs exploded on local buses, in homes, businesses and hotels. When food and supplies were continuously scarce. Fleeing Palestine’s civil war brought my parents as children to the safety of neighbouring Jordan.
When the civil war ended in Jordan, my three sisters were allowed to play outside once more. They found bullets and began collecting them. It was the first time they felt metal copper shaped into a killing tool. With toys being a rare commodity in our home, they were excited by this gift the war had given them to play with.
It’s strange now to think that at one point, supermarkets ran out of stock recently. I recall walking down the pasta and rice aisles seeing them completely empty, being astounded, discovering more shelves empty, yet feeling a distant sense of familiarity since I’d been raised with the fear of impending scarcity. Now, it was here.
My parents died young from cancer or, some may say from stress. What if they were still alive to witness this pandemic? Would they have laughed at people’s hoarding? Would my mother and father have thought people were overreacting in a first world country of abundance? Or would they have been one of the first to prepare, stock up, taking heed of the early warning signs of an imminent threat? Who were the hoarders? Had they themselves undergone lockdown in wars, or were they first world panic buyers responding to unprecedented times?
Without the civil war in Palestine, my mother and father wouldn’t have met. Without civil war in Jordan, my father wouldn’t have applied for a job in Australia which led to citizenship for our family. Without this virus, there would be no comparison to make, no chance for awakening. An awakening that ignites gratitude, compassion and empathy for all people, wherever they call home.
Randa Khamis is a singer and songwriter who learned English as a second language growing up in the rougher suburbs of Perth. She has an Arts degree from Murdoch University; became a music journalist; lived in London as a session singer; released two albums; and worked as a music lecturer. She is now pursuing creative writing for pleasure and is inspired by people’s stories and the history of her Palestinian heritage.© Randa Khamis 2020