Encounters, London, People, Stories
Saad and Salwa in their living room in Plaistow, London and their grapes in the yard they turned into a garden.
In the garden is an apple tree. It’s tethered from either side with string to keep it upright. Saad bent the branch towards his chest “last year we had eleven apples”. He pointed to the ground where the paving stones in his yard had been removed to make a garden. Spinach and celery grows amongst the weeds. An Elder grows in the corner.
A apricot tree stands in a space between two masionettes. The building is from the 1960s, it’s right angles and shadows have been softened by the take over of plants. Their home is on the ground floor and through the privets you can see the pavement and a nearby bus stop.
“It’s always raining and the the sun comes HERE” he spread his arms across the gap. Along the gable end of the block is a grape vine. It runs along a makeshift frame. It goes as far as it can and then tails off around the back. “At the back there is no light, the soil is no good’.
Inside the tv is on and Ireland are beating Italy in the rugby. On the wall are two boats framed in Arabic. “This is Noah’s Ark” Saad says. It is supposed to have started it’s journey from Iraq. On the other wall is a plastic dove. ‘My wifes name means bird of paradise, or beautiful bird’. The kitchen door moved slightly when he said this, and a triangle of coloured linoleum lit up the hallway.
In the front room he tells me about his job. He’s testing concrete on a huge tower thats being constructed in the City. He tests it for it’s quality, it’s ‘properties’ he says. He’s an engineer but can only really get these agency jobs working from site to site for about seven pounds an hour.”We put them into squares, leave them and then return to them. We put them under a lot of pressure. Concrete is cheap and quick to use, I’ve used it in Basra and Baghdad. We build low though, not high. We use white bricks, small and rectangular. When I started on the site here I had to take a dictionary. I know these materials but I couldn’t understand what people were saying”.
“All the houses in Iraq should have a garden. The houses should be horizontal, not vertical and the garden will smell beautiful, especially in the evening. Two flowers that I know would be in these gardens are jasmin and the rose. Iraqis never leave their garden without plants. You will see the date tree appearing over a garden wall from the road. Not every house will have a date tree, but you know, every third house or so. It’s famous, like the oak here. We like to grow and plant. I also think now of orange trees and fig trees in the north and grapes too”.
The streets smell of flowers. I played football in these streets and I remember playing until late at night, until ten o’clock. Football and mathematics are what I remember, Mr. Aden the teacher, he was well respected. I went to study soil science at the university in Baghdad, but after graduating there wasn’t any work. I tried setting up in business but then moved to Jordan where I married my wife.
In Iraq every family tries to live together. Your’e not allowed to leave the family, they never let you live somewhere else. If they don’t have enough space then they’ll think about buying a another place. They don’t like to let their sons go and they want their daughters to be living with her husband’s family. Every week they have to visit their mother and father.
When I left they were crying for years. My mother got worse and worse because of this and eventually had a stroke. She grew more and more unwell day by day as she couldn’t forget. It’s not just me though, every family that is exiled feels this. If I think of my family I will cry, straight away, I will cry.
Before I got married to my wife I was like a child that has lost its mother. I was always crying. I never slept”.