Fabulous at Five / Memoir / Barrak Alzaid

Read an excerpt from Barrak Alzaid's memoir where make believe and reality come head to head at a weekend away at the beach

Photo: Shutterstock

by Barrak Alzaid

Culture 25 February 2018

I stretched my gaze up past the plush cushion pressed into my face and licked remnants of tart salt and vinegar chips off my lips. The glowing 32-inch television, Khalti Haifa and Ami Fahad’s wedding gift to mama and baba, was piled high with VHS tapes of Arabic text Disney titles.

Onscreen, a pair of matronly birds peeped Cinderella awake. Her heart burst full of desire and, as is the case in all musicals, if a princess can’t speak her feelings, she sings them.

‘A dream is a wish your heart makes,’ echoes in my ears and Cinderella and I stared out her attic window at the gleaming castle. She continued,

‘Have faith in your dreams and someday, your rainbow will come smiling through.’

I grinned and pulled myself up on my elbows. I had my pink blanket wrapped twice around my waist and it flowed past my feet like a gown.

All too soon the clock tower chimed the hour and Cinderella called out,

‘Oh that clock! Killjoy. I hear you! Come on, get up you say! Time to start another day! Even he orders me around. Well there’s one thing, they can’t order me to stop dreaming.’

I slid my right sock almost all the way off to get at the itchy parts between my toes, then grasped the hem with my other foot to slide it back up my ankle. I was wishing and hoping and dreaming right along with her.

‘Yalla Barrak, come on, time to go to Mama Badriya’s chalet,’ I ignored her as her voice continued to echoe from upstairs, ‘Amik Fahad, Khaltik Haifa and your cousin Laila are all waiting for you.’

Ami Fahad was baba’s youngest sibling but he was the most intimidating of all his brothers. Laila was his daughter but she wasn’t just my cousin. We were practically twins, born two weeks apart in summer. Her grandma, Mamma Badriya lived in a beautiful chalet by the beach that Laila invited me to visit, sometimes just for the day, other times a night or the whole weekend.

Mama swept into switch off the TV and I tried to gather her in my arms, while she dragged me across to the stairs. Giggles burst from my chest in feigned resistance.

‘You’re getting too big for cuddles habibi,’ she said her voice short as she gave me an impatient hug.

I tumbled head first out of her embrace and gathered a couple of Barbies and a few Thundercats action figures into a plastic jamiya grocery bag that I dragged up the marble steps.

‘Do you have your overnight bag? Pajamas, toothpaste, everything?’ Mama called after me.

‘Yes Mama,’ I called back.

‘OK bring it from your room. Walk slowly, hold the rail.’

Her warning echoed against the stairwell’s concrete walls and followed me out the front door.

‘I can walk to Laila’s house by myself.’

‘Habibi, you’re still too little-’

‘I’m almost nine and it’s just behind Ami Yusuf’s house, past the baraha.’

Ami Fahad pinched his thumb and forefinger on my shoulder and pulled me alongside him on the couch, deeper into the smoky haze.

My grandma Mama Latifa had four plots of land for each of her four sons to build houses next to one another. Baba’s oldest brother, Ami Naji owned that empty plot of land, but he’d never built a house on it like Baba and his other brothers had, so Laila and me used it as an easy through fare when we played at each other’s houses

‘Look you can see me walk across it.’

Mamma’s eyes scanned the trash riddled expanse of sand. The Iraqi invasion had left landmines tucked into the desert and stories of kids on dirt bikes losing limbs haunted our parents. Mama’s teeth gnawed her pursed lips.

‘I’ll walk you across the street, but I don’t want you going through the baraha. Go the long way on the sidewalk and call when you get there.’

Mama was already on the phone with Khalti Haifa when I slid the sliding glass door open. Khalti waved me inside and pressed her cheeks against mine in greeting, the phone crackled and dug into my shoulder as floral wisps of khalti’s musky oud perfume stuffed up my nose.

Laila and I had attended to her as very young children when she readied herself for weddings. We were Parisian couturiers who swaddled her in silk and chiffon dresses, matched pocketbooks to shoes and dangled earrings in front of the mirror. These days she took a kindly but distant attitude to our play time.

Sumana popped her head in from the kitchen and signaled me with a cheekily raised eyebrow. Alongside her primary duties as nanny and cook Sumana was a reliable third player in UNO card games and an enthusiastic extra in our performances.

‘Sumana, I have an idea for a new play!’

‘Oh, yes? Tell me about it Barraki’.

I chattered about mashing all the princess stories together while we shuffled downstairs with bags of extra juice boxes, melty mozzarella and mortadella sandwiches and ketchup flavored chips. I squeezed in a grateful hug before sidling in next to Laila in the back seat of Ami Fahad’s GMC.

Laila yanked one of the juices out of my bag and we raced each other to eat the melted mozzarella nestled in the hotdog buns. Sumana clucked her teeth at us and dutifully pulled Kleenex from her pocket to wipe our faces. Ami Fahad cast a disgusted look from the rear-view mirror and popped the gear into drive while Khalti swatted a fly out the window passenger seat window.  A rush of warm air poured in as the car accelerated, pressing our heads into the seat cushions and into drowsy repose.

Ami’s car phone rang and rang, and rang me awake.

‘Ya hala Ubu Barrak. Yalla, tell me.’

I loved it when people called Baba Ubu Barrak, ‘the father of Barrak’. It was a term of respect that had the added benefit of letting everyone know that I was the first-born son. Baba was calling to check in with ami about our progress to Mama Badriya’s chalet.

Mama Badriya’s, Laila’s maternal grandmother was a fierce woman, with an ample bosom and an unmannerly disposition that contrasted sharply against my own grandmother’s quiet demeanor. Despite her cussing and bouts of rage, Mama Badriya’s chalet gathered grandchildren from all four of her daughters. Her only son had never married and we often spied on him while he roamed the beach in front of the chalet, ashing his cigarette in the sand. Mama Badriya was constantly yelling at him to at least stay in front of their own chalet, since the beach stretched out in front of dozens of other family chalets in either direction.

Tires shifted from black asphalt to bumpy sand, then crunchy gravel. The shifts and turns jolted us against our seatbelts before coming to a stop behind a whole mess of other cars.

Sumana eased us, heavy with sleep, out of the car and we sidled past her into the living room, straight into a loud gathering of Laila’s khawaal and khalaat. I passed through the left side of the room, laying my hands in the hands of Laila’s khalaat, and smacked their cheeks against mine, mimicking the kissing noises their pursed lips made to accentuate our greeting.

I kissed Mama Badriya on the forehead in respect, and she embraced me in a damp hug, her thick arms looped around me.  Ami Fahad tore a glance in my direction, so I made my way over to the men on the other side of the room.

A few of them smoked their Marlboro Reds and ashed into thick glass ashtrays. Ami Fahad pinched his thumb and forefinger on my shoulder and pulled me alongside him on the couch, deeper into the smoky haze. He had this way of seizing your body and rendering it under his absolute control, it was one of his preferred methods to prepare you for a serious lecture.

‘Lat fashilni jiddam ilalam. Don’t embarrass me in front of the company.’

My heart flapped against my ribs and his hot breath trickled into my ear.

‘Remember, be a man, don’t go to the ladies when you greet them. Just lift your hand up, say ‘salam alaykum,’ and go straight to the men’s side.’

I felt his words swamp my inner ear and the acute pain of his fingers seared into my shoulder.

‘Inshallah ami.’

Men were also supposed to withstand cigarette smoke, but my allergies guaranteed a cough was coming, so I pulled myself away before I could show signs of weakness.

Luckily, Laila’s cousins barrelled through the room and swept me into a soccer game on the beach.

Laila was already chasing the ball across the field, sandy grit shaking off her curls. I lingered on the sidelines before one of the boys dragged me into play defense. My teammates eyed me warily. I paced in front of the goal and doodled in the sand with my toes while just a few meters away a group of women stood in the sea, washing their hair with henna. The brown paste ran through their fingers and trickled out toward the horizon. Earthy wet hay mixed with ocean brine sailed over the sweaty boys to settle in my nose. I daydreamed about mermaids washing up on the shore.

I glowed with possible stories, grabbed a sheet from the laundry line, wrapped it around my waist, and twirled.

A ball bounced into my field of vision and startled me out of my reverie. I dashed towards it to block the attacker and allow someone else to clear the ball. Defence was a safe position because I didn’t have to handle the ball, all I did was get in the way of the others who were trying to reach the goal.

The kids ran up and down the beach and as the day wore on Sumana dutifully doled out Sunkist and KDD juice boxes while the mothers sat under the coverage of the patio. They dropped one or two sugar cubes and mai ligah, sweetened palm water, into their tiny glass stikanat brimming with tea. They gossiped about their week and periodically approached the water with trousers pulled up to their knees to cool off from the late afternoon sun.

After one team or another had racked up enough points we threw off our shirts and ran into the water. Thick clumps of seaweed collected around the shore and I dodged trails of detritus that swirled around my body. Thick little curlicues of hair jutting from teenage boy armpits bobbed in and out of the water.

A couple boys swiped sugar cubes from the khalaat’s crumb covered tea set and sucked on them noisily. They shoved me towards the outdoor showers to test out the temperature and I swiftly rubbed soap on my face, squinting as though the suds stung my eyes. A pretence to try to catch more exposed skin. We didn’t have much time before the tepid water became scalding as it often did in spring and summer so they threw their shoulders back against the water, body hair matted down by rivulets of water and recapped their exploits. A mess of feet slapped against the ceramic and skidded out of the shower, leaving the full brunt of the scalding water to rush onto my back.

Laila sat on the patio sipping a mug of chai haleeb, tea sweetened with condensed milk, her drying hair wrapped in a cloth ghutra belonging to one of her male cousins. I slid the glass sliding door shut, muffling the din of eight kids scrambling around their video games.  Citronella candles were lit along the patio’s perimeter. Their flames reflected against the glass and cast rhythmic shadows on sheets hanging from the clothes line.

She looked up at me.

‘Let’s make a play. We can show it to Baba tomorrow when he picks us up.’

I glowed with possible stories, grabbed a sheet from the laundry line, wrapped it around my waist, and twirled.

‘I get to be Aurora, Snow White and Cinderella!’

‘OK so who’s left for me?’

‘The fairies and the prince, all of the movies have a prince.’

‘Fairies sound boring, I’ll be the prince!’

Our rehearsal drew Khalti Haifa and a few of her sisters who took up residence on plastic chairs, their damp faces shone with the day’s fading heat. Laila and I pulled three toddlers out of their mothers’ laps to stand in for the fairies. I ushered Sumana over from the wings. Their gossip hummed.

With my blanket dress hitched under my armpits, I gathered the fairies around me.

‘OK, Sumana you’re the evil Maleficient and she curses me so you have to make me sleep, and then I’ll wake with true love’s kiss.’

I quoted the film, matched the rhythm of the character’s lines. Sumana curled back her lips with an evil witch sneer, and the fairies stared at me, dribbles of saliva and crumbled Digestive cookies dotted their cheeks.

‘But you have to yell, okay?’

‘Habibi Barraki, I not yelling,’ she said, her accent inflected the syllables with the musicality of her mother tongue.

‘You have to,’ I urged, ‘pretend we did something bad. You’re evil, OK?’

Sumana stroked my hair and hitched my dress up to my shoulders like a cape, her bemused grin crept over a feigned look of suffering.

‘OK I do like this,’ she twisted her eyes around and hissed.

Laila had pulled a scabbard off the living room wall and carefully unsheathed the curved saif from its velvety case. The blade was dull but its metal reflected the candlelight with each stroke that Laila took, she fought shadows that writhed across the sand. Our evil queen smiled brightly at us, transformed into a radiant queen of light.

‘Inzain Barrak, OK, let’s practice the kiss.’

I reluctantly followed her behind some flapping laundry. I tugged the sheet tighter around my waist and Laila drew me towards her gallantly. My eyes gaped open and she ducked her head towards mine. I whisked away from her to the other side of the sheet, worried that the light would cast us in shadow theatre. But the stars were winking, the aunts were gossiping, and we were invisible. I knelt in front of Laila, squeezed my hands around damp sand and met her dry lips with mine.

The next morning we sat out two chairs of honour for Khalti Haifa and Ami Fahad. I slipped a black abbaya over my head. I rummaged through Mama Badriya’s cupboard looking for the perfect cape of chiffon. There were everyday abbat, worn and dusty along the hem, and abbat that slipped through my fingers, light and coarse fabric that made my back tingle when I touched it, as if I was handling dry chalk.

I finally found one that was lined with rhinestones on the bottom. Laila was much more utilitarian about it. She came out from behind the flapping clothesline wearing my white dishdasha. I caught Khalti Haifa flick a wrist at Ami Fahad’s terse glare. His shadow crept over me like Maleficent’s forest of thorns. Khalti Haifa edged forward, past the shadow, her beaming demeanour shielding against Ami’s stance.

Laila hummed Snow White’s lilting ‘Someday my prince will come’ and I sang with all my heart, ‘Away to his castle we’ll go, to be happy forever I know!’

The muezzin from the mosque down the road signalled the call to prayer. I tensed. You weren’t supposed to play music, let alone sing, during the athan. But chalet wasn’t quite Kuwait. You could get away with a bit more out here on the southern coastline. Khalti Haifa rocked her head in tune with our song, and I commandeered our stage.

‘Khalas, it’s finished,’ Laila whispered loudly.

Ami Fahad stumbled over the audience of stuffed animals who occupied the row behind him, and tugged his wife into the hallway.

The door was closed, but we could still hear a heated discussion,

‘Hatha mushkilla! This is big problem. Ishloon? How can you let this happen?’

‘Shino il muskilla? What’s the problem?’

‘Boys can play girls. Girls can play boys? What are we teaching them?’

‘We were with them all night when they practiced. They worked hard. They make something they’re proud-’

‘I don’t care.’

Ami continued his tirade.

‘We have to tell his parents this business.’

‘No, no need to tell them anything. Khalas, we won’t bring him to chalet anymore.’

Laila peeled off her costume and rolled her eyes at me. I looked away. Sumana rubbed my back reassuringly and helped me gather our toy audience and return them to their bin in the kids’ room.

I crossed the gravel driveway alone on my way back to the car. The heavy feeling that had sunk into my gut when we bowed in front of ami and khalti spread across my body.

Barrak Alzaid is a writer, artist and member of the art collective GCC. He lives in Chiang Mai with his husband and their dog Starbuck. He is currently working on his memoir

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