Souvenir is one of the first French words I learned in childhood, before taking any language lessons at school. I was enamored with its luxurious vowels, its music. I learned the Arabic-accented pronunciation of it from my mother and her friends, women of the Levant, as the French would designate their homelands, living in Saudi Arabia, polyglots, multicultural exiles and expatriates, whose conversations, like their wardrobes, were layered in silks smooth and raw. The word was lavished on their pretty lips, gathered into a bouquet and then unfolded in two more elegant pouts of different shapes, a series of kisses, long and short.
Souvenir is also a verb. It is an act. A series of decisions that require us to reach into memory and elevate something to the status of keepsake.
In the climate-controlled snow globe of my childhood, souvenir was a noun, the treasure to be found or selected at the end of a journey to a place visited for the first time. In childhood, the world unfolds as a series of sensory adventures, from visits to friends’ homes so different from our own, to cities only recently named in geography class. From Athens, I brought home a postcard depicting the Evzones at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in their pleated skirts and pompom shoes. From our Aleppan friends’ home, a candied quince from a tray of fruits glistening, bejeweled with sugar crystals. From Vienna, a tin of chocolates emblazoned with the image of a blushing Mozart. And in the kingdom where we lived, a birthday invitation to a real princess’s palace. My third-grade classmate, a decidedly ordinary girl who took tennis lessons and dreaded math class as I did, handed out the gilded invitations one Tuesday afternoon. She was one of us, and like many of my classmates, she was picked up from school by the family driver. Her family’s driver, however, arrived in a Mercedes, its back window obscured by pink velvet drapes.
The gilded invitation is long lost, but I have another souvenir of the birthday party I attended at her family’s home. There was a pet peacock roaming the grounds. Possibly two. The tail feathers flashed before my eyes, unraveling a game of tag in which I was engrossed. I remember the sound the girls made, almost in unison, when the elusive pet sauntered past us, and the nanny cautioned us not to chase it, her voice trailing behind our quickening steps. From that evening with twenty third-grade girls in their best dresses playing in a marble-floored minor palace among several on a compound ringed by a high stone wall and heavy metal gates, my souvenir is a Polaroid photograph. I am smiling, grasping the edge of my new dress with one hand and holding my blue paper bag of treats with the other. In childhood, the souvenir that mattered most was the treat bag. This one had, among other wonders, a pack of melon-flavored chewing gum. My mother preserved the Polaroid that commemorates this temporary suspension of everyday life in a photo album. Much like the ubiquitous gold bangles of the Saudi souks, my yellowing artifact only grows more valuable with age. A souvenir of a world now inaccessible, that seems almost imagined.
But souvenir is also a verb. It is an act. A series of decisions that require us to reach into memory and elevate something to the status of keepsake. Its Latin predecessor subveniresuggests that the remembered must be brought up from the depths in order to come over, to cross into our memory, which lives in the present. Souvenir as time travel.
During the winter of tenth grade, at the height of the first Intifada which unfolded on our television screens in Amman every night, my friend’s parents decided to take her to visit relatives in Jerusalem. My father scoffed at what he deemed dangerous, to take children to a place that was even more unstable than it had already been, not even a wedding or a funeral to justify such risk. I had inherited his fear or had been raised in it. That fear, manifesting in an instant bile that floods the throat and reduces all words to sour shards, was the souvenir of my only childhood visit to Palestine. I was one or two years old, too young to claim any of the memories for myself, just water-color drifts from my parents’ narrations. We travelled across the Allenby Bridge from Jordan into Palestine. The crossing involved a series of transports, as it does today, the hyper-management of our bodies from station to station for careful inspection, from the security forces of the Jordanian government to those of the Israeli military occupation. My parents had only been married for a few years, and so did not yet share the same citizenship. My father, already a US citizen, and I, his Seattle-born daughter, were placed in a different queue than my mother, who had nothing but her Jordanian passport to speak for her. I was predictably distraught. And in the retelling of my loud meltdown and the methodical insistence of the Israeli soldiers to keep me from my mother are many souvenirs.
My father’s anxieties, exacerbated by the crying of his child, raised the slow simmer of his experience of lining up to return to his occupied homeland to a rolling boil. The heat of the summer near this lowest point on earth, with its stretch of barren hills and military checkpoints awaiting us even after we crossed, all shimmer in the crystal of this souvenir like the beads of sweat I can imagine on my father’s brow. My mother’s narrative of this day is imbued with intention. Her attempts to reason with a soldier as a woman, as a mother whose baby is crying. Her attempts to reason with an occupier from the line reserved for Arabs whose presence is grudgingly tolerated on good days. Her attempts to reason with a very young man toting a large machine gun, someone whose hatred for her she could feel on her skin, someone towards whom she actively resisted full-fledged contempt.
Memory is the work of the present for young and old alike. In Amman, my grandmother, herself an expatriate from Damascus, spent the last few decades of her life devoted to curating the memory of places that were vanishing.
In the pantheon of border-crossing experiences, my own is a non-story. Nothing really happened. I cried and was miserable. My parents were powerless to do anything other than sit through the exercise of abject power by the occupier. And then we made it through. The souvenir of the story is a cautionary tale, a long string of what-could-have-beens clicked like worry beads every time a relative narrates their own journey.
When my tenth-grade friend returned from her trip to Palestine in the winter of 1989, she wore a kuffiyeh around her neck every day well into the warm months of spring. “It’s my uncle’s,” she told me, new stars dancing in her eyes. The headlines of nightly news reports were of teenage boys and girls our own age, wrapped in kuffiyehs like her uncle’s, hurling stones the color of which I had preserved in my mind. “Weren’t you scared?” I asked her as we lined up to buy our za’atar sandwiches for lunch. It was not the right question, one that was inappropriate in Palestinian company. Fear was a scarlet letter, the privilege of those who did not live under the boot of soldiers in the Yitzhak Rabin era of Broken Bones. But my soft-spoken friend, the accomplished pianist, the thoughtful writer just said: “You can’t believe how beautiful it is there.” And she looked at me as if to pour into my eyes what she had seen, the way she had seen it, the fullness of its rain-drenched beauty, beyond the tear gas and rubble of news. “You have to go one day and see for yourself. You just have to.”
I asked my friend why her father thought now was the right time for her to visit. Her answer was surprisingly simple. The people inside Palestine and the hundreds of thousands of refugees waiting to return to Palestine bled and suffered and wasted away, but in neighboring Arab capitals, we engaged in prose, not wars of liberation or any substantive solutions. We waged our battles in gymnastic flourishes of speech and hyperbolic proclamations. Governments expressed their devotion to the cause in an unending stream of adjectives, an exhaustion of abstract nouns. So, I was disarmed by her very matter-of-fact choice of verb: “To remember.” James Baldwin tells us that “history is not the past. It is the present. We are our history.” My friend’s act of remembering was a journey not into a fabled past, into the landscape of her parents’ youth before it was scarred by the violence of dispossession and occupation. It was an act of resistance in the present. To remember was to insist on her, on our history in this place, the history made of this moment. To remember is to resist the transformative powers of violence. If occupation tries to reduce a homeland to collapsing camps and ominous military checkpoints, resistance is remembering its beauty, is seeking out the stones and red anemones and wild thyme of the hillsides.
Memory is the work of the present for young and old alike. In Amman, my grandmother, herself an expatriate from Damascus, spent the last few decades of her life devoted to curating the memory of places that were vanishing. Damascus was not yet a war-torn capital, but it had long ceased to be the palace of her childhood. She lamented with equal ardor the security regime that suffocated its citizens and the slow collapse of a style she had consecrated as authentic. She was powerless over the changes that swept across her city, the old homes with mosaic tiles and jasmine vines perfuming the fountains in their courtyards giving way to sprawl, the honeyed apricots and plump almonds of the ghouta valley shriveling in the drought. Her only power was to transmogrify—memory made word. Her language—her voice and its inflections, the stories of her childhood—were dusted to shining, placed on the highest shelf, and gifted to us. Souvenirs of a place we were yet to learn we could never visit again.
A few summers ago, I returned, in a way, to a souvenir of my grandmother’s city. In Spain’s southern province, Andalusia, the city of Cordoba is home to the largest mosque in the West. Like all Levantine Arabs, people whose homeland French colonizers of previous centuries labeled the native land of sunrise (levant, French—to rise), there was a memory rising in me, forging a path into the now. The mosque, like all great monuments, is the site of layered stories. Many conquerors have etched their names on the place. Under the stones of the courtyard, ruins of Janus’ temple sleep, and the caverns of Visigothic shrines are buried beneath a forest of rose-colored double arches in the Muslim prayer hall. A cavalcade of golden saints and angels burst from the altar of the chapel installed by a Catholic king in the heart of the mosque. A Spanish guide with a healthy sense of humor walked us through the onion of the place, peeling back the skins of architecture and sacred geometries. The Umayyads who built the mosque were Arabs from Damascus, and the courtyard of soft-singing ba7ras—octagonal fountains shaded by citrus trees—recalls the homes of my grandmother’s stories.
At the Mihrab, the altar of Muslim prayer, the guide stopped to explain at length. She had been rapid-fire, hurling information and anecdotes quickly as we followed her around the building. She seemed bemused by the history she was narrating up until this point. At the Mihrab, a wistfulness befell her, her gaze travelling over the tesserae of the arch, and toward the ribbed dome above us. “This Mihrab is a mistake” she said softly. In the translation void between Spanish and English, the Qur’anic verses glinting around us, a silence filled me. “When you build a Mihrab, you are supposed to face Makka, all Muslims face to Makka when they pray. But where is Makka? It is not in this direction.” The Khalifa who commissioned the mosque, Abderahman I, was a Syrian refugee. He fled a homeland that he loved and longed for. He commissioned a tribute to his beloved city, of marble columns and sinewy arches, ornate wooden panels and stones the color of his, of my skin. A monument of memory, raised up from the heart of his longing. He sent for the trees and flowers of his homeland and nurtured them in the grand courtyard of the mosque. “This mihrab would have faced Makka if he was still praying in Damascus,” the guide explained. The heart’s stubborn coordinates. Was is it a mistake? Or was it a final love letter to his city? Until I heard that story I had assumed the resonance I felt in this place was due to the familiarity of architectural elements, the sensory delights of sunlight falling in familiar hues on limestone, or the calligraphy of prayers. But maybe this Khalifa had a rebel heart? A rebel heart that quietly subverted mosque-building tradition in favor of his love for Damascus. Who can resist, even across centuries, the magnetic pull of a rebel heart? And so, I found myself walking the cobble stone streets of a city that was not his beloved, a city that was not mine, touching the walls and looking for souvenirs of the refugee khalifa’s memory, like a jasmine vine, and the mirror of a ba7ra, waiting to receive its falling petals.