A few months ago, after a productive day of work, I decided to explore Bank street a little more. I never realised that South Keys was the little Middle East of Ottawa. I had been missing Arabic culture terribly, or maybe I was just missing the Al Reef Fatayer. Whatever it was and despite the flurries whirling past my head, it felt good to be back.
The first one I walked into was part store part shawarma place- a classic combo. Its fridges were empty except for spices and an expired bottle of mango juice. At the counter, a lone man reading on his phone. At the back a middle-aged butcher arguing with his co-worker. I walked around and stumbled across a mamool box, just like the kind I used to eat when I was a child in Dubai. The dough always crumbled, forever too soft for my liking. But in that moment, the mamool became an old friend I hadn’t seen in years. I gasped and clutched the box to my chest.
A few blocks down there was a strip mall with a Dollarama, a muslim women’s clothing store, and a few Arabic bakeries. I went into one, and to my delight, found that they sold Sajs!
Just what I had been craving for so long! Sturdy and chewy dough, topped with tangy zaatar and a handful of shredded mozzarella cheese. The sales man put the “pie” as they called it, into the open oven flame right before my eyes. I wasn’t even hungry, and the air was frigid, but I but couldn’t resist ripping off a morsel of the warm bread.
I continued my journey until I reached the “New Middle East Market.” A much larger market than the rest, no doubt. It was clearly still doing well, fridges well stocked, at least 15 people in the store at a time. I stepped inside, and the first row of food was just dates. Vacuum packed dates, dates in Styrofoam packages with glucose syrup, fresh soft dates from Iran, and the bitesized “lulu” dates that Baba despises. There were even more dates in the fridge, the fancy ones from Saudi Arabia that needed the refrigeration to keep fresh.
In the background, the hum of a television playing Al Jazeera. I strolled along the rows, happening upon the tea isle. From the corner of my eye I spotted the orange glimmer of “Al Waza Tea” that we always had in our cupboards at home. Even the less desirable “Ahmad Tea from London”, that Janat would make me drowned in milk at our house in Sanaa.
I began to well up. Fighting back the tears remembering tea time on the green carpet, in the living room of Gida’s house in Al Qusais. The family gathered around sweet steaming cups of Shay Haleeb, spiced with cardamom. I could hear my cousins playing the tabla with a tissue box, and everyone singing along and laughing.
I saw the red and blue stained glass in the ornate windows of our Yemeni house, the wooden shutters, the beautiful Malakitul Layl flowers through the window. Their perfume wafting through the open door. Everything was safe, everything was beautiful. The sunflowers were almost as tall as the car. The land was so fertile, they said anything could grow there.
It felt so odd to be surrounded by people speaking in Arabic, by people who looked just like me, acting as if they had never left home. So this is how people cope. They recreate home wherever they go. So why didn’t I do the same? Why was this the first time in five years that I had been to this place?
Even though I took comfort in that store, drifting from aisle to aisle, the shopkeeper spoke to everyone in arabic, took one look at me and spoke to me in English. How did he know? I wanted to speak our mother tongue. His mother tongue. My father’s. Not mine at all.
I wanted to go home, but I did not know where to find it.
Now, I am in my rented house with granite countertops, I listen to Tuareg singing with electric guitar rhythms. I listen to Yemeni Israeli jews mixing the trumpet and tabla. I burn oud and read Hermann Hesse.
I cannot find home, it is true.
I think I have to build it.