I don’t remember a day in my life before her. She was there, a year earlier than me. I wasn’t sure how we were related, I just took it as it was, that we were together in this existence.
She used to visit us with an old woman, I was told to call teta and I knew that “teta” was part of my surrounding, someone my parents looked ok around, so I was ok around. She looked old but seemed nice, she would smile at me. Looked like she loved me but I was more interested in the little girl who was always with her. I didn’t know when to expect her but she used to come with teta to our house. We would play a little, then she would leave again with teta to wherever they came from. I never knew when she would come next. But I looked forward to seeing her again. The play time became play, arguments and I remember hair pulling too, then play again as if we didn’t have a fight 3 seconds ago. We managed ourselves pretty well. I remember my mom shouting at us and threatening to separate us and that she would have her go back with teta to her house if we don’t behave. It sounded like a threat to her more than it was to me. I remember wondering why it feels like coming to our house was a reward to her that she would lose if she is sent back home? I also remember wondering why my mom was meddling with us?
As the time passed, I learned that we were related. She was my cousin. Her father was my mom’s brother. And I started to gather pieces of information about her through small conversations between the grown ups in my family. As they see me coming, my mom would make a motion with her face signalling to them to be careful around me. But I gathered that she lived in a broken home whatever what that meant. And I heard whispers about her mother being a bad woman, while my uncle was a good loving man with no luck in life. He shouldn’t have married a Lebanese Shia woman. They are not loyal to their families like Syrian Sunni women. Things did not add up as my cousin was telling me a different version and I believed hers.
She was regarded in the family as a troubled kid who didn’t have a stable home and that teta was the guardian angel of this unfortunate kid. Everyone seemed to appreciate teta and her sacrifices taking care of a neglected girl that was not lovable and rather a burden. Something felt wrong, I did not like the nuanced meaning behind their sympathy. There was a stigma there. A daughter of a woman who left her husband, a potentially bad woman too. And I, was regarded as the doll of the family who had a good home, lovable and adorable and good as my mom was a good woman. I hated being lovable and adorable, they disgusted me including my mom. My cousin was a queen in my eyes. I made her make fun of me. That was the best I could do for her and getting revenge at their labels about me being lovable and an adorable kid. I didn’t want to be better than her. I am not better than her. I made myself a clown for her. It made her happy. It made me satisfied. Fairness restored.
I watched her growing confident, fearless and full of life. I wanted to follow her everywhere. She would climb trees, leap over the stairs and asks me to do as she did but I wouldn’t. I was terrified. She would look at me with a smirk on her face, shrug her shoulders and leave me to play with the other kids. She got friends. I didn’t. I wasn’t allowed to. When I ask to sign up for the school trip, you would get dizzy from the school bus they said. You would be better in the car my parents said and they would take me on a trip on that same day. Just the three of us. One day – on the EID celebration of the ending of the fasting month. Swings and rides magically appeared overnight, right in the neighbourhood. It was a dream came true. Going to the Luna park on normal days was an agony. We beg, we insist, we promise to behave for a week, to do the homework on time and to stop asking to go to the Luna park for ever. Then we had to sit patiently in the car while we got through the traffic until we see the Ferris standing tall on the Mediterranean cost. We keep the eyes set on it till we arrive then we had to deal with the long lines. A true agony, while on the EID day the theme park comes to us without any effort. The neighbourhood transforms into a heaven overnight: an unlimited play time, unlimited type of sweet, parents free, full of colours of children wearing new clothes. And everything is allowed. True heaven. My cousin and I and other kids have the change in our pockets looking to jump on the wings. She chose the highest swing and asked me to join, I wanted to. I whispered in her ear that I cannot be on the swing as I would get dizzy. She thought I was a loser. I saw it in her eyes. Sit here wait for me till I finish the swing she said. She rocked that swing so high and I knew I would never be like her. I was terrified. I watched her grow fearless and blossoming while I sank in. We started to drift away. She was still a queen in my eyes.
Her life became more difficult, living at different homes of relatives for short period of time as her father was not capable of making a living. Strangers adored her as she was confident, she knew how to survive with adults and make her self lovable. While I was drowning in my books, it was the only place were I felt good and capable. One evening she was visiting, she asked me to play with her but my father was around looking at me. So I offered her a book. She knocked it down. I was better than her at reading. There you go, you can jump high, I can read. I had a smirk on my face and kept reading my book and sneaking a peak from time to time from the top of it watching her. She was bored, dad was happy that I showed no interest in playing with her. But there was a hole in my stomach and I knew it was because we were not the same like before. I kept looking forward to her visits but those visits became less frequent and then they stopped as she was taken to Syria to live with some relatives.
The bombing in Beirut became more intense, we fled to Damascus as usual. It is a three hours ride. They say Damascus is close and safe. I became expert in knowing how much left till we get to the city. At one point it becomes a lot colder and the mountains loose the trees. This is where I know we are close to the check point on the border. Guards are too scary. My parents would ask us nervously to stay quiet. My father always made sure to bring piles of pita bread and bananas. It looked like they love bananas too much. And father would smile nervously at the guards giving them the bread and bananas. This time of anxiety can remain between half an hour to 4 hours. Then after crossing the borders my parents would breath and I hear some angry mumbling from father, something like gluttonous bastards. My parents decided to stay for a few months in Damascus this time, we got an ugly house there. A week later I overheard my parents conversation.
No, not again. She comes from a broken home, she lived in too many houses god knows what she will teach our daughter. I don’t want her to come near her.
She is a kid, mom said. Our daughter loves her, she becomes more alive around her. It is good for her, she has no friends here.
She becomes more alive around her? She is ready to throw herself under the train for her — my father said it with frustration.
It is a short period of time. Mom said. I go to my room with a smile on my face, I was both happy and nervous.
She came over, she has become way taller than me and has the naughty look in her eyes still. She sat quiet around my father who was giving her the stare. Ready to bounce at her any time, waiting for one mistake. But she would never do any mistake. She always made me do whatever she wanted to, always with a smirk and if it was a mistake, I was the one to be blamed. I took the blame gladly. I knew back then that I was part of them and allowing her to get her revenge of them through me was worth it. My dad finally says what he had in mind: Listen, if you see my daughter reading don’t distract her. Come here, -he opened the fridge- see these chocolate milk bottles? These are for my kids. Don’t touch them. She maintained her poise, she was a queen.
We finally got to go to the room, it took us some time to warm up to each other. She told me her stories with excitement. How heroically her mom found her at the relatives house right before she was taken to Syria. She was amazed at her mom being able to find her. I think I never saw her as happy and as wanted in my entire history with her. The relatives allowed her to spend couple of days with her mom. She took her to her Shia village in the south of Beirut. She described it hill by hill, tree by tree. She got her new clothes and had ice cream every day. Then she stopped talking for a second with her eyes wide open. She continued: my mom bought me the most amazing yummi food on earth. It is called hambourgar.
What is that?
Oh my god, you never had a hambourgar? My mom took me. I drool just by talking about it. It has a round shaped meat inside of a bun and all sort of things on top, fried egg, ketchup and hot fries. Believe me you will not want to eat anything after you eat the hambourgar not even the moujadara.
Dad opened the door and asked me. What are you doing? My cousin becomes a statue.
Nothing, I am about to go to bed.
Is she distracting you?
No. I become a statue too.
Ok, you two go to sleep now. I don’t want to hear you talking. Tomorrow after lunch we will go to the fair.
Thank you daddy. Good night.
We kept whispering and talking till late. We tried to stay awake as much as we could. For a short period of time, we were back as we were before. I was happy.
The following day over lunch. Dad says:
Get ready we will go to the fair. As we both were getting off the chairs, he looked at my cousin and said. Not you. You will stay home. This is our family time. Your aunt, your cousin and me. Only. She sat still like a statue.
But I don’t feel like walking, I want to finish the book you gave me. I am half way through and my stomach hurts.
You have been asking for days to go to the fair. Are you pretending so you stay with your cousin?
No, I really like the book.
You will finish it when we get back. You, stay quiet and don’t open that fridge or anything else in the house.
She wouldn’t even move an eye lash.
We went to the fair, I was impatient wanting to go back home. I dragged my feet trying to show how tired and ill I was. None of my tricks worked. passing through the slides, gun shooting games, I showed no interest. And whenever my dad tried to have me play I was looking ill at him. Then I saw a food station and a big sign: Hamburger.
I am hungry. I want to eat Hambourgar. I yelled with excitement.
I thought your stomach hurts.
Hurts from hunger.
My mom looked at him mad. What’s wrong with you? She’s hungry.
Stop feeding her. She has become overweight because of you. Feeding her constantly. All what she does is either eating or reading. Do you see how much I am trying to have her play and move?
I looked at my mom giving her the puppy face and a few motions of desperation.
Get her the Hamburger. She never tasted it before.
It is unhealthy. And they don’t do it properly here. Look. Even the pop corn smells horrible. We should get back to Beirut as soon as they reach an agreement.
She gave him the look.
Fine, how much? looking at the cook.
I watched the cook making the Hambourgar. Amazed how he cracked the egg open in one hand only. Then cooked the round shaped meat as she described but I did not see any bun. He wrapped it in a pita bread. He handed it to me.
I took it like my life depended on it.
Why you are not eating it?
It is too hot, I am waiting for it to cool down.
It is not tasty when it is cold.
Ok, I will in a minute.
He gave me the stare and looked at my mom. I knew it. She only ordered it to make me pay money. She will eat a bite and I will end up eating this shit.
No, I will eat it all. It is just too hot.
Show me. Eat it.
I took the smallest bite anyone can make. I thought I am an ant and will eat ant bites until we come home. But it was also windy and I did not want the hambourgar to get cold before we arrive. So I put it inside of my pocket and kept my grip tight on it so it stays warm without forgetting to take it off from time to time and pretend that I was nibbling on it and enjoying it so much like it was the best food I ever had. I was naughty but stressed and afraid to be exposed and my plan debunked. I was both thrilled and afraid.
We (the hambourgar and I) made it home safe. She was sitting still on the chair in the living room as if she did not move the entire time. Even though I had no doubt that she touched everything. Last night she drank the chocolate milk. We did it together, we giggled and put the bottle back. I passed by her without saying anything but somehow managed to sign to her to follow me to the room. I had a sense of heroic achievement, proud to be naughty and tricking my own dad. Carrying my prize with pride. I took the Hambourgar from my pocket.
There, I say.
What is this? She asked.
Hambourgar, I said. I saw the cook crack the egg in one hand, there are lots of fries. I know it doesn’t look as good as when I first got it.
She burst out laughing.
Do you want me to eat this crap? My mom took me to the land of hambourgars. There, is the best hambourgar in the world. The hambourgar my mom gets not this crap.
She wanted her mom’s hambourgar not mine. I took my book.
Come play with me.
No, I want to finish my book. Help yourself and pick a book.
I don’t want to read a book.
I read a book every day during her visit. In my eyes, she is not the queen. She is a troubled kid who yearned for her mom.