Apricots

Hanan Merheb

Cover image: Ady Neshoda | @adyneshoda

 

 

The fruits never taste as good as they do back home.

 

Grapes here are a little too sour, a little too soft. Figs are always too big and dry, the rich syrup that drips from their core somehow lost among the chemicals and pesticides. The mulberries are never as sweet either. Back home, we’d pick mulberries straight off the trees, fingernails stained purple, and no matter how careful we were, we’d always find spots of the bright juices on our clothes. The stain never goes away.

 

But it’s the apricots that I miss the most.

 

The apricots here have no real flavour and are always a little too dry. Buying a bag of apricots turns into a game of luck. You break them in half, exposing their dark pits, only to realise the flesh inside is pale and dry. One or two might be good enough to eat, but not as good as the ones I used to have back home. Those apricots were always better. They were the sweetest fruit, with just a touch of tartness that danced along the taste buds. Bite into one, and the soft skin would break away easily, the moist flesh meaty, with just a bit of juice. Back home, the apricots taste better.

 

Here should be home. Here, in Australia, with my house and my family. Here where my brothers and sisters boarded a plane to reach a new country, to make new connections thousands of kilometres away. Here where a hundred different landscapes and raging oceans and borders and politics stand between me and the people who raised me. Here where war only exists on our TV screens, and where the electricity never cuts out.  

 

But no matter how firmly I plant my feet, it is not home. I can cut my beard shorter, and loosen the Arabic knot from my throat. I can learn to drop the r’s from the ends of words and to blend “good day” into “g’day”, but this will never be for me to own.

 

My daughter thinks it is hers.  

 

Samira thinks her roots belong to this one plot of red land, and nowhere else. She doesn’t see the seeds that were sowed before her and the uprooting it took to bring her here.

 

I see her now, sitting away from her family, hunched down low in her seat. Her eyes watch for every person that passes by our holiday cabin, and she winces when her uncles yell out “good morning” in their broken English. When her grandmother blows out billows of smoke from her shisha and when the water bubbles up from the bulbous glass bottom, she shuffles her chair further away and covers her nose.

 

“Bloody Arabs,” she says, her voice low. But what does she think she is? Does she think they look at her and see one of their own? Does she not realise that to others she too is the Bloody Arab she so wishes to condemn?

 

“I was born here,” she tells me. “I’m not like you. I’m Aussie. Oi, oi, oi.” She thrusts her chin into the air and crosses her arms over her chest, eyebrows raised. Pride. A birth certificate and a passport are her claims to superiority. She thinks she is one of them and is better for it. But she forgets the ancestors that have carved themselves into her body.   

 

She doesn’t see my curved nose or her mother’s wide hips. Her grandmother’s thick hair and bushy eyebrows, and her grandfather’s murky green eyes. Her paternal grandparent’s widow’s peak and milky white skin. She forgets the blood that courses through her veins is the blood of the people she rejects.

 

The tattered flyscreen door bangs open onto the peeling wood behind it, and Samira’s aunties step out onto the front veranda, balancing plates of buttery fried eggs, oily green olives, and soft bread. They cover the glass table with their food, and when they can fit no more, they open up a folding table and cover that too with sliced tomatoes, pickles, onions and pots of tea. I hear Samira mutter something about normal people having toast for breakfast, but she digs in anyway, her Lebanese appetite unlikely to be satiated by just a piece of bread. A family walks past us, bright green and pink zinc stripes painted across the bridge of their noses.

 

“That smells wonderful! Now that’s a breakfast.” The wife lifts up her straw hat and moves closer to us while her children giggle at the sounds of the shisha. I pass her a plate filled with a mixture of soft chickpeas, garlic yoghurt, and crispy fried bread, which she takes eagerly. Samira smiles, relieved at their approval.

 

“Come, please, join us! We have plenty of food,” my brother calls, but they laugh and decline, and thank us for the plate of food. Samira’s smile vanishes the moment the words leave her uncle’s lips and she shakes her head, embarrassed at how inviting we were. This is where her pride should be, with our hospitality that extends beyond the colour of skin and the sounds of language. Where our love of food becomes our love for people and tables are spread out across neighbourhoods and cities to share the meals made with the fingertips of our women.

 

Pushing away her plate of buttery scrambled eggs and spicy sujuk, Samira grabs her younger brother and a punnet of freshly washed raspberries and heads down to the sandy shores of the lake. She inspects each berry before eating, twisting the soft red fruit over in her hands, making sure there aren’t any hidden bugs.

 

Does she remember the fruit from back home?

 

Does she remember sitting on the shoulders of her grandfather and picking grapes from the vines that crawled above the driveway? Or sitting under a fig tree while her mother peeled the green skin for her? Does she remember plucking an unripe fig that hung low, feeling the milky white sap ooze onto her hands? She was so little then.

 

I should have taken her back.

 

Maybe it’s all my fault. I never gave her a chance to truly see the country I call home. I took her once when she was two and watched her stand under the snowy cedar trees, her chubby cheeks pink from the cold, and again when she was seven and she proudly argued back to my teasing cousins in her haphazard Arabic. She used to dance outside the shops, her shoulders shimmying along to the sound of the traditional drums. For a while, “Dad” was forgotten on her lips and I became Baba. But then we never went back.

 

Now, her only memories are tainted by the pictures of war and corruption that she sees on the news. When I suggest we go back for a holiday, she argues with me, telling me that it’s my home, not hers. So I listen, and I pack my bags and spend fourteen hours on a flight trying to reach my country.  Alone.

 

“When I die,” I tell my brothers, “bury me in Lebanon. Don’t let them rest my body here.” They laugh at me.

 

“You’ll be dead,” they say, “it doesn’t matter where you are.” But it does. It matters to me. Let my body decay into the soil that my people ploughed, and let my bones settle into the same earth that belonged to my father and his father before him.

 

I break open an apricot just as Samira comes back up to the veranda, her brother racing in front of her. To my surprise, the apricot isn’t too bad, its flesh a nice golden orange. I hold my hand out to her, offering her one half, but shakes her head and turns away.  

 

She doesn’t eat apricots.