Magnolias, Tea and Testimony

March saw us meeting Siobhan Warrington of Oral Testimony Works, a specialist in community-based oral history. Oral histories tell people’s stories, but they are gathered with care for those who tell them, allowing people to unfold their own lives as they see fit. These testimonies may enable people whose voices are quiet to be properly heard. For those who hear the results, the ensuing sharing of memories, of long-nurtured traditions and inheritances, is a great gift and grants us precious insights into people, cultures and societies, things which would otherwise remain closed and unimagined. Oral history is a great connector.

At our initial meeting, my rather woolly thoughts of collecting Syrian stories from Lebanon and Turkey were gently marshalled by Siobhan, as she helped steer me towards something more manageable and realistic. After a fortnight, we have a short working document setting out how to implement what I believe will be the first Oral History Project of Syrians who have been given refuge in the UK since 2011. The project will initially be small – only about 40 people. Now the work begins to find Syrian community partners and – inevitably – funding as we begin this exciting project.

The end of March. Out like a Lamb. Clear blue skies, soft breeze and a sun that finally warms us all, wherever we are, inside and out. I am meeting a family from Homs who now live in London and on my walk to their new home, I see a gardener carefully sweeping the fallen petals from a magnificent magnolia soulangeana into a wheelbarrow and find myself wondering if Syria has magnolias. I look it up later and of course there are, abundantly so on parts of the coast. It reminds me again how limited a view of Syria we most of us have. I meet the family – the parents, Amina and Zaher, have kindly agreeing to meet to talk about food – specifically Syrian ‘mezze’ for an event we are planning.

Makdous
Special 'Homsi' aubergines being prepared for the city's signature dish ‘makdous’.

The family I am visiting has young children, but all are now at school, apparently happy and settled. That of course is everything. We sit in the sunshine. I explain as best I can why I feel a visceral connection to their country, but it is difficult with the language barrier. They invite another Syrian woman to join us, her name is Sabeen, she’s from Aleppo and has been in the UK only a few months. Her English is fluent. As Zaher brings in and pours coffee and serves us all delicious kibbeh and cakes, we begin to speak about food. All are keen cooks. He leaves us, I think to collect the children. Sabeen mentions a particular speciality of Aleppo, which I know prides itself on its food, then Amina suggests a dish from Homs, Sabeen counters with an Aleppene drink made with milk and almonds. They vie. I learn that Homs too is a culinary centre, the rich agricultural land fed by the great Orontes River. We decide to have signature dishes from different regions. Then I ask if they still have family in Syria…

I don’t know if it was the right thing to do, but it was natural. Sabeen tells me that she lost ten of her younger relatives. Ten. She reminded me of Haneen, a young woman I had got to know when researching our BBC series Syrian Voices. Haneen’s fortitude and determination has stayed with me ever since. She had been starved by sieges, her youngest brother had been detained and died at Sednaya prison, taken the same month as my brother. Later she and her family had been caught up in the infamous chemical weapons attack of August 2013, but still she laughed and loved and believed in life. In the end Haneen pulled out of her phone interview the night before it was due to take place, hearing that her ninth relative – an 11-year-old boy – had been killed; buried by a barrel bomb. The women ask if I knew where my brother John is now, if we have any news. I say we don’t know, that he was last seen in Mosul. Amina tells me she has a sister stuck in a town held by ISIS with her children, her son wounded. There was a moment of heavy silence. ‘Let’s talk about food… about good things or we will cry,’ says Sabeen. So we do.

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