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”.
The night before we’d driven along the coast road. I could hear the waves but couldn’t see a thing, all the same I felt like we were near the edge of something. When we arrived at his house there was short run through the rain from our van, a blue postal service issue. Entering through the cellar we took off our shoes and left them damp amongst the wellies, waterproofs and toys left by the grandkids. In the middle of the basement floor lay a the local newspaper, spread out like a blanket, it cradled about 20 purple potatoes, raw and precious like something usually kept form the light.
After dinner, lamb I remember, the old postman wondered off. I thought he’d gone to the living room but after calling his name and then seeing a light on in a small farm building from the kitchen window, his wife said he’d gone to feed the animals. The storm raged, and the rain battered the house on all sides. Though as the night wore on the sky became more clear. I headed out of the house, over a brook and up to the out building were the old man kept some sheep. Inside 5 or so rams shuddered. I was new here. A sink had been plumbed into the front part of the building and a plastic bucket that once held feed was now filled with rams horns sat like mussels waiting to be washed. ‘They’re used for ornaments’ he said before I could ask.
I stepped out into the night sky and looked up at her great body. It was hard to hold a steady viewing position with the wind blowing so hard. I could hear the waves hitting the beach and I knew they were close. That night, fast asleep, I’d walked into the bathroom at the postmans home. I remembered for a split second in the morning between reaching for the toast how I’d stood looking out of a rectangular window in the dark and imagining I was watching a scene playout from backhome, when in fact I was staring into the dark of the sea.
In the morning I could see where we were. It didn’t look so threatening. The storm had blown itself out and I pulled on my waterproof. As I left a young girl from the village arrived at the door. She’d come to have her hair cut by the old postman’s wife and I was shown the salon he’d built for her that linked to the basement near the wellies, the toys and the spuds.
I’d drank a lot of coffee and this heightened the moment I stepped out and felt the sea air on my face. I walked some 200 yards to the beach and was a little worried about standing on its black and beige mixed sand, it still looked charged from the previous night. A tree trunk had been washed up, for some reason part of it had been burnt. It started to rain again. I craned my neck backwards towards land, I wanted to get off the beach and so joined the road out the village. After ten minutes I walked out along a headland, an old lady watched me from the first floor window of her yellow corrugated iron clad house, but when I looked back she’d turned away. Although it was mid morning she sat by her window with the tabel light on. It was winter, but maybe she always did this.
Passing a boatshed I arrived at the small harbour, built to shelter the local fishing boats. The sea was dead calm, the kind which looks as though it is capable of unimaginable strength, in fact more like a kind of torque. The habour was empty of boats and along it’s concrete walls lay bunches of red seaweed thrown from the sea during the storm. All around it lay like an offering, a gift from the sea. At first I thought of flowers thrown but it wasn’t like this, it was more like pollen that had missed its target.
I sat there for a bit, took a photograph. I was told not to go down there when the weather was bad, the waves run right over taking whatever they want back into the sea. It was time to go to the next village. I walked back along the headland to the house and the grey waves rolled past, and the black beach waited to be hit. The house came into view. The postman’s dog sat under a street light in a light rain shower looking out to sea, a light went off in a home and the girl with her new hair drove across the valley to her young children.Continue Reading
I took lots of photographs from my old flat kitchen window, seven stories up in the air. These are lights from the Olympic stadium, a trial run they were practicing before the main event. This happened when everyone was in bed about half two in the morning, I liked the idea of this dancing about in the sky while everyone around Hackney was in bed.Continue Reading