By June 16, 2012 0 Comments

The Old Man And The Grapes

Every summer, my mother used to take us to Syria to spend the summer holidays at the beach in Latakia. We used to stay at the ‘Cote D’Azur’ of Latakia otherwise know as the ‘Blue Shore’. The resort was heavenly;  a stretch of white sandy beach with crystal clear waters and frequented by international tourists. It was rejuvenating and liberating, playing in the sun, splashing in the waters, fishing and boat rides into the sunset on lazy afternoons.

We loved the beach and we cherished the times we spent with family and friends. These were healthy times for us as children exploring the world and living through adventures beyond our imagination. There was never a dull moment. In the daytime we played in the sea and at night we wandered in the vicinity of the resort eating grilled corn, drinking liquorice and fresh juices. Latakia was an oasis back then and everyone lived as a single extended family. Children played unsupervised in the streets, in playgrounds or in any public attraction without the need for anxious adults monitoring their every move. There were no electronic games back then, life was real and simple. We ate good healthy food and we enjoyed real life adventures. Fishermen brought us fresh fish and the butchers the fresh meat. My blessed grandmother cooked the most scrumptious meals made with ingredients that she personally grew at our farm.

Occasionally we the youngsters would get into a taxi and head to town to watch a movie or to wander about and discover new places. We often made stops at ‘Jaara’ an ice cream parlour that served ‘Arabic’ ice cream. A fragrant and milky rich ice cream flavoured with pistachios and other mysterious essences. We also made visits to ‘Majnoun Leila’ a local patisserie that served Arabic deserts like ‘Knafeh’ A very sweet and delicious desert that contains melting cheese and ample quantities of syrup – not for the faint hearted!

An interesting fact is that these two very established venues are still running till today and they still serve unrivalled deserts and ice cream.

Going to the cinema in the bustling part of town was an adventure in itself. Kung Fu and Western movies were quite popular back then. People smoked, ate and drank throughout the movie and half way through there would be the inevitable ‘interlude’ during which time the reels would be changed over. Everyone spoke loudly during the movie, they cheered and clapped for the hero and wolf whistled when a ‘special’ female appeared. We never did mind any of it. It was amusing and a natural part of the show, the culture and spirit.

There was an undeniable ‘innocence’ back then. Maybe it is because I was a child or perhaps life and people in general were different. Maybe it was a combination of both – I do not know. What I know is that life was simpler and fun – people smiled more often… people were kinder to one another.

Eventually my parents decided to buy an apartment in town so that we could always have somewhere to stay when visit Latakia. The apartment was spacious and comfortable but it was located a distance away from the beach. I dreaded going to the apartment as there was very little to do besides buying falafel from across the road and watching television all day.

The apartment had a balcony that overlooked the neighbourhood and being on the first floor it had a good view of the surroundings. A family who apparently were once the owners of the building before selling the apartments occupied the ground floor. They grew a large vine tree that grew very tall and it had in fact found its way to our balcony and extended at the front. It was quite difficult to see what went on below because the leaves of the vine tree and the hanging grapes obscured my vision. I used to enjoy eating the grapes and would often reach for them, sometimes even dangerously simply to enjoy the sweet nectar on the hot afternoon.

Then one day I discovered a new form of entertainment.

There was a frail old man living with the family downstairs, I had no idea who he was in relation to them but the old man had a temper and was always shouting at the family members. He used to sit on the balcony in the afternoon with his little distorting and loud radio, roll up tobacco and a whole pot of coffee. I used to watch the old man meticulously roll up a cigarette, light it up and inhale it as if he was taking his last breath! His radio would be blaring with the news and occasionally he coughed and cursed at the news.

This character fixated me, I watched him perform his ritual every day. So one day, feeling mischievous and for no apparent reason, I decided to have a bit of fun. I picked a small bunch of grapes and aimed for his head with a single large grape and fired! I quickly hid when I heard him gasp and swear. He probably assumed that a single grape had accidentally dropped on his head from the tree… I giggled and threw another one. There was the same dramatic response and as I peered through the leaves I saw him staring above, puzzled but he could not see me, cheekily laughing behind the leaves.

Eventually I decided to make it more exciting and in the days to come, I learnt to wait for the old man to doze off before I threw more grapes at him. It was probably the heat and the monotonous radio broadcast that sent the poor old man to sleep. I’d wait for the right moment and just as he’d start snoring, I would launch a grape, aiming always for the head – I was terrible, I would even try to get one in his wide gaping mouth if I could! Without fail, it would always result in the same reaction; loud cursing and swearing, shouting and coughing… The old man never guessed that I was behind the fruity missiles and I persevered in my mischief.

At the end of our summer holidays, we left Syria and returned to Doha. I spent a whole year at school and time flew… before I knew it, it was summer again and mother took us once again to Syria. For some reason, we were to stay at the apartment and not at the beach resort but I did not mind, I had my ‘entertainment’ lined up and eagerly looked forward to more mischief. Our relatives were at the building to greet us and help us take out baggage upstairs. Aware of our arrival, the neighbours from downstairs came out to say hello and offer their help. It was as if everyone in town were gathered in the ground floor of the building. I spotted the grumpy old man among them and I intentionally ignored him, making sure that I was looking elsewhere.

After a hearty lunch my mother spent the afternoon unpacking while my brother and I watched cartoons on television. Soon, I realized that it was time for the old man to sit out in the garden under the vine tree. I heard his radio as I opened the balcony door, so I ran to the edge of the balcony and peered down. To my horror I discovered that they had removed the vine tree and I was fully exposed! Before I could retreat, the old man, cigarette in mouth lifted his head and looked back at me. At first he seemed almost friendly and smiled as if to say hello but my expression must have given away my true intentions.

It was like a scene from a cowboy movie when two foes stare at one another before the inevitable showdown. My face was blushing red and his face was twitching with anger as he slowly realized the culprit behind the falling grapes. He said something but I could barely understand, he shook his head as if to say ‘I know it’s you… you just wait and see!’

I retreated and ran back into the apartment and spent most of the summer indoors. I dreaded leaving the appartment, worried that I might bump into the old man on the stairwell or in the street.

We were there for a week before moving to the resort at the beach, I was relieved… but my overwhelming guilt meant that I was always peering over my shoulder thinking that the old man would suddenly turn up and give me a slap. As a child and with a vivid imagination, I could not remove his face from my head. Even when swimming in the sea, I had to constantly look over my shoulder!

Oh and how much I dreaded grapes and the sight of them for the rest of that summer.

Garo Dedeyan
15, June 2012

London, England

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