Monthly Archives: December 2014

A Child is Born – a Christmas story

A child is born.

A child is born in snow and squalor in a makeshift tent in Arsal in the Bekaa Valley. The tent is constructed from plastic sheeting and splintered wooden pallets. The floor is made of flattened cardboard boxes laid over a morass of black, squelching mud and raw sewage. As the mother labours, the door-flap is torn open by the wind and gusts of needle-sharp sleet barrel around the tent, snatching away her moans. Oblivious, she grips the midwife’s hand and pushes with all her might. The lamp goes out; as the father fumbles for his lighter, the baby’s first wail is heard above the buffeting of the gale. A son. Al hamdu lillah!

A child is born in the Holy Land. A land of rare beauty, the hillsides are fragrant with thyme; in summer apricots, almonds and olives bend the branches of the trees down to the ground. They say the earth here was made fertile by the blood spilt by succeeding generations of invaders and insurgents. This is where history began, where faith and dreams collide with cold, hard facts on the ground. A promise was made here, but to whom?

The child’s father is Samir. This is not his native land; he was born in Aleppo across the border in Syria. Until the war came, life was good for Samir. Talkative, good-natured, clever with his hands, he had high hopes of taking over the car repair shop on the corner, when his Uncle Faruq finally hung up his spanners for good. The repair shop no longer exists, and neither does Uncle Faruq. Also numbered among the dead are Samir’s father, Ziad, and his brother, Rifat. Another brother is somewhere with the rebels; his sister, Fatmeh, is alone in Turkey with three children under six and no husband.

This time last year, the family was still together and Samir was celebrating his wedding. Childhood sweethearts, he’d known Zohra from when they first started at school. She lived in an apartment across the street and they used to walk home together, dawdling in the park or hanging around Ali’s cake shop in the hope of cadging some chewing gum or a sweet, sticky mouthful of homemade baklawa. Now only Samir’s mother is left among the ruins of Aleppo.

A child is born into a world of strife. Be that as it may, for now at least, the baby has no allegiance save to himself. From time to time, Zohra pours out her grief and anguish. “Those animals! If they were here now, I’d gouge out their eyes and tear the limbs from their bodies! May they never have a second’s peace! May they die writhing in unbearable agony! May their children fall ill with horrible diseases and perish before their eyes!” Samir feels for her in her impotence and rage. His people have long endured prejudice and disadvantage, but for all that, he’s no soldier. He’s listened to the hot-heads calling for blood and vengeance and holy war, but in truth, he has no desire to swap one tyranny for another. He has no desire to wage war on his neighbours. All he wants is a quiet life. All he wants is to look after Zohra and the baby.

A child is born into a cold and timeless universe. A tiny scrap of humanity, he is helpless and wholly destructible, just one of thousands of children in this camp alone. Not even his birth is unique in this godforsaken place on this bitter December night. Many kids are still wearing sandals. Most lack winter hats and coats. None is at school. They make the best of it as children do, fashioning a football from string and a discarded piece of sack-cloth. On his way to the distribution tent, Samir pauses to join in the game and for a moment is himself a child again, jubilant as the ball sails over the keeper’s head and lands between the pebbles that stand in for goalposts. He marvels at the resilience of these kids, at their unconquerable capacity for joy.

The aid agencies are stretched to breaking point; the scale of human need is beyond all calculation. They do their best, dispensing rice and dried pulses, jerry-cans of water and cooking oil. It’s not enough, never enough: each day brings a further flood of mouths to feed, new injuries to treat, dozens more to clothe and care for. In richer, luckier places than this, appeals go out – spare a thought, give a little, make a difference – but the world is weary of conflicts too complex to comprehend and someone else’s crisis is always more pressing or more photogenic. There will always be those that have, and those that have not; it’s part of the natural order of things like the turning of the tides or the phases of the moon. There is nothing to be done.

A child is born into a community. The neighbours gather round and word soon spreads. A woman from along the way drops in with a packet of Pampers. Another has dried milk. A man from two tents down turns up with a bail of straw and big grin. “Let me see him, the little one.” Zohra opens the baby’s blanket a little and a shrill cry breaks loose. The neighbour nods in approval, “He’s a strong one. I can tell.” Together, he and Samir stuff the straw into a pillowcase and squeeze it into the bottom of a cardboard box. “Now he’ll have somewhere to lay his head.” Samir thanks the neighbours. All the next day, the battered kettle boils and endless cups of tea are drunk. To Zohra’s relief, the baby sucks eagerly at her breast. The neighbour’s right; he’s a strong one. He knows what to do.

A child is born into love. As Zohra’s son gazes up at her, her heart swells with an emotion more powerful than any she’s felt before. She knows without question she’d give her life for this heedless, mewling bundle of flesh and pencil-thin bones. For all the hardship of her pregnancy and their current life, she cannot regret the baby’s arrival, not even for one second. She takes Samir’s hand and squeezes it. As he gazes at his wife and son in the wavering gaslight, he realises he’s never seen anything more beautiful or intense than Zohra’s face in that moment.

“We must choose a name,” she says.

“Let him be Ziad like his grandfather.”

“No, he should have a name that belongs to him alone. Don’t let him carry our sorrows for the rest of his life.”

“So what should we call him?”

“Let him be Kamal, because he’s perfect in every way.”

A child is born and with him, the hope of the world to come.

A child is born.

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When We Were Young

“I sigh that kiss you,
For I must own
That I shall miss you
When you are grown.”

That little rhyme by WB Yeats was brought sharply to mind as I was watching the infants’ nativity play at the local primary school where my children began their education, and where I am now a governor.  It’s all too easy to be overcome by nostalgia.  In a few short years, my adorable tots have been transformed from innocent little angels dressed in white pillowcases, with tinsel halos falling over their eyes into…teenagers!

Nursery NativityAs they have forgotten the words to Away in a Manger, they have learned every swear word in the book and developed a well-honed skill in delivering crushing put-downs to each other and their long-suffering parents. Instead of making gingerbread stars or sticking sparkly spangles on cardboard crowns, they now enjoy texting people they’ve only just parted with, instagramming embarrassing photos of themselves to all and sundry and watching X-rated TV shows on the family tablet when they’re supposed to be asleep in bed. How did this happen?

Amid the tantrums and exam angst (the daughter is doing ‘mocks’ as I write), it can be easy to overlook some of good things about living with teenagers. Without them, I’d be more intolerant, less well informed (particularly about music) and definitely more set in my ways. Every day, I’m getting a clearer picture of the mature adults they’ll soon be, and while yes, I miss the little children they once were, I’m also looking forward to what I hope will be a wonderful friendship between grown-ups just a few more years down the line.

Some of the conversations I’ve had with my teenagers recently have been amazing. The things they come out with are not only surprising but often profound and incredibly thought-provoking. It’s hard not to feel privileged to be able to share their thoughts and feelings as they learn about the world and their place in it. Politics, celebrity, freedom of information, the nature of justice, why slavery still exists… we’ve discussed all these things and many more over the past year. You name it – they have a view on it.

Periodic table of texting

While they like to parade a veneer of world-weary cynicism, not far below the surface, you’ll find a pair of idealists and dreamers, two young people full of potential who genuinely want to learn and make a difference in the world.  As I enter the middle stretch of life’s journey, I want to tell them to enjoy every moment, live life to the full, and not be afraid to reach for their dreams, while all of life’s choices are still open to them.  In sharing their hopes for the future, they remind me that, if I can borrow a little of their optimism and good faith, it’s not too late for my dreams to come true either.

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