“Grab him! Get him quick!”
The loud cry accompanied pounding feet, and the sound of clanking kitchenware, disrupting the calm atmosphere of the store. A slim child, dressed in a worn tracksuit, squirmed out of the grip of his pursuer and dove into the nearest passage.
“Hey, stop it right now!” ordered a woman who was wearing a light blue kerchief.
The figures froze, breathing heavily and the tall one said with a guilty expression on his face, “Sorry, Mom...”
“You’d better be sorry! Where do you think you are? At soccer with your friends?” The woman seemed furious, “Now take your younger brother and put back the pots you’ve knocked down! Rustam, you are old enough not to behave so recklessly.”
The young boy in the tracksuit peeked around the corner of the passage.
“You too, Ajar,” the woman added. “Do it quickly, before your grandpa returns and sees this mess you made in his store.”
Ajar knew that this threat was meaningless. Grandpa Bilal was tender with his grandchildren and essentially with everyone else. On the other hand, Ajar didn’t want to instigate his mother’s anger, so he joined his older brother Rustam and his sister, Nur, putting everything back in order.
The family was from a respected Kurdish clan in Tagrit, a small town in central Syria.
‘Family is the most important thing in life; it comes second to none.’
This motto was the favorite expression of the big grandpa Bilal d’Arji, Mom’s father. Bilal’s father was a shrewd merchant of houseware, as were his father and the ancestors before him; passing the secrets of the trade from generation to generation. Family unity allowed the continuity of the firm, without losing it to quarrels and disagreements. It provided the clan with a stable source of income, and every member of the family was recruited for the benefit of the business. Thus, respect for the family was always high. While some benefited directly, working with or for the store, others paid their respects to increase their chances of getting a more significant discount on the new pan that their wives desired. The unusual sound of his surname, along with some reddish tones in his hair, somewhat uncommon in the Kurdish community, were probably due to a bloodline of French origin that got mixed with the family in the 19th century.
Grandpa was a big, heavy man, with a beard and kind eyes, always sparkling with naughtiness when his grandchildren stormed into the shop. He allowed the children to play as they pleased, and his pockets were always full of sweet candies. The children snuck among the metal pots and pans, playing hide and seek at the lower stands of the exposition. Poor Nur always ended up exhausted, trying to find Ajar everywhere; even in the smelly storage room, full of old cardboard boxes, dark and hot as a sauna.
Bilal had long since been widowed, even before Rustam was born, but he never remarried and lived by himself in a large house, not far away from the family’s home. Being a businessman and a family man by nature, he was very involved in the family’s life, providing employment for both parents.
The second grandpa, Ibrahim Hisami, was totally opposite of Bilal. He was a small man, with a goatee and extraordinary white teeth. He worked as an accountant in a small office on the main street, always going busily somewhere in his brown suit and a dark leather briefcase. He loved the kids in his own way, probably as much as a grandparent should love his grandchildren, but he had never shown affection. His wife, Naan, was a copy of her husband; small and skinny, with shiny gray hair. She, too, was cold as an ice cube. They were rarely involved in the family routine and were seen only occasionally, usually on big family occasions.
Their son Hassem, the children’s father, was somewhat similar; being reticent in showing his affections, but on the other hand, was kind and attentive. He was a clerk’s son and as such his looks were grayish; a slim middle-aged man with a big dark mustache. He usually helped his father-in-law behind the counter, but it wasn’t uncommon to find him in the tea and coffee department, packing the merchandise pedantically into small cotton bags and weighing it on the large, old-fashioned scales in the corner. His clothes carried the smell of fresh ground coffee, and this scent was etched in Ajar’s memory.
It was Mom who provided the warmth and love that young children needed so much. Salma was an elegant and incredibly beautiful woman; her graceful face was adorned with silky black hair that was constantly escaping the light head kerchief she usually wore. Azure was her preferred color, resulting in owning bright blue clothes in various styles. But there was a fire contained in that calm colored dress, a tiger in sheep’s clothing. She was the most prominent seller in the various departments of Grandpa’s store; her clear voice was always heard, and her presence was everywhere, one moment smiling and talking with the old Mrs. Abodi, the other moment arguing passionately with the spice supplier about a late delivery. That was Salma; a volcano of emotions, a mix of heat and affection. She easily managed the housework, preparing all that was needed for work and school, cleaned the apartment and fried up delicious kebabs.
Ajar’s sister Nur was like Mom. Her impulsive character drove her feelings, crying one instant and then bursting with laughter just a couple of moments later. Fortunately, she seemed to have good judgment. She was softer than Mother and never raised her voice at her younger brother (well at least not without reason); she always cared for and fussed over him.
From the time Ajar learned to walk, no force could keep him inside the house. He was always outside, in the hot sun and cold rain alike, running with his older siblings, as well as with his cousins, Kamal and Salim. Their parents, Jomerd and Suzann, were considered cool by Rustam since they were modern and well educated. They even lived abroad for a while until finally returning to Syria to settle and build their future nearby their family. Jomerd was a pediatrician and was the de-facto doctor of all the kids on the block. He was one of Father’s four siblings; the others lived far away. His second brother, Yafiq, immigrated to Germany with his wife Sarah a few years ago. She was the daughter of a poor Jewish merchant from Latakia and the non-traditional marriage caused a fearful reaction in the local conservative society. Jomerd, as the richest of the brothers, had visited Yafiq’s family several times in their home in Hamburg. He described amazingly tidy streets, an abundance of products in the shops and the best free education and healthcare system. Most of all, they were amazed that as an immigrant, Yafiq had all the social benefits and financial stability of which no Syrian could have dreamed. He was just a simple clerk in an electronics shop, yet he had a lovely apartment and a new car, while his two sons received free education in an excellent public school.