Stories of Home with the Scottish Refugee Council: 'Home'
For Book Week Scotland 2014, we've collaborated with the Scottish Refugee Council for a very special project. We invited three of our previous New Writers Awardees to work with women from Iraq, Syria and Palestine to create unique stories of home. The project will be celebrated at an event on Sunday 30 November, introduced by Jackie Kay. This week, we'll be sharing each of the pieces created on the blog. Today's piece is 'Home' by Allan Radcliffe and Abeer Abeer Abu-Toq.
Abeer lives in her car. She lives out of her car. For Abeer, the black Volkswagen Tiguan four-wheel drive is more than a means of getting from Aberdeen to Berwick. It is her office, home from home, storeroom and left luggage locker. In summer, when she takes her annual European trip, the car becomes her holiday home. If her boot contains everything but the kitchen sink, that’s only because the kitchen sink has reluctantly made room for her spare bags and umbrellas, clothes and shoes, tissues and wipes, perfume and make-up, torches and first aid kit, notebooks and pens, and the sweets and chewing gum that keep her sharp as she moves from place to place to place. Abeer once saw a bumper sticker on a campervan that read: Home Is Where You Park It!!! She tells her children she would like one of those for her rear window.
Abeer used to say she needed an extra pair of hands to hold her thermos and cigarette while she drove and took calls. Multi tasking has grown easier over the years. These days, most cars come fitted with cup holders as standard. Satnav is a godsend, especially when she’s required to go off the beaten track. The speakerphone allows her to talk to clients between jobs. Well-padded, supportive seats take good care of her back. She upgrades every three years to keep pace with technology. One day, insha’Allah, they will invent a driverless car. All Abeer need do is type in the postcode, sit back and relax as the vehicle delivers her to her destination.
At work Abeer is a kind of ventriloquist. She speaks other people’s words. She provides a linguistic bridge from one culture to another. She has translated for people lying in the dentist’s chair and women in labour in maternity wards. She has passed on diagnoses and prognoses from GPs to patients. She has sat in prison cells and she has spoken up in courtrooms. She has lost her way in the dark on lonely dirt tracks in rural East Lothian and once nearly lost control of her car on the zigzagging road to Stranraer. Another time, late for an appointment, she was stopped for using her mobile at the wheel and ended up with a police escort.
Twenty years ago, Abeer was a pioneer, a one-and-only: the first female Arabic-to-English interpreter in Glasgow. Today, many more women do what Abeer does, and yet Abeer has never been busier. She doesn’t have a website, has never tweeted. You won’t find her name on Google. Her clients come to her through word of mouth. People trust Abeer. She makes them feel at home.
Some days she has to talk so much – switching between English and her mother tongue – it makes her light-headed. At other times her clients talk without words and her input is minimal. She enjoys her work, but she has also seen things that have troubled her. Abeer keeps her counsel, in both languages.
Every day brings new destinations, new stories. Her phone will go and a number will appear on the screen of her Blackberry or the Bluetooth device stuck to her dashboard, and Abeer will plug in her satnav and turn her car north to Dundee or Inverness, south to Carlisle or east to Edinburgh. The scenery on either side of the M8 is as familiar to her as the view from her bedroom window.
Sometimes, in among all the unknown numbers, the word Home flashes up on the screen. Abeer smiles and pictures the house in Kingfisher Drive where she sleeps but spends so little time. Home. With the grass needing cut and the odd light bulb needing replaced. Perhaps one of her children needs something or just wants to know when Mum will be coming home. She loves these calls. They break up the working day. But Abeer sees Home on the screen of her Blackberry less and less these days. Her kids are grown up now. The last of them is about to move out of the house in Kingfisher Drive. When they have all flown the nest she wonders what word they will type into their phones above their mother’s number. Home?
It is a word Abeer hears every day, from friends, clients, people who have come to Scotland from far off places in search of a peaceful, settled life. Some of them talk of their homes with affection, some with anger or sadness. Some never want to go back. Many of them long to return but can’t. Whenever people ask Abeer about her home and where she comes from, she doesn’t miss a beat. ‘Palestine,’ she says, and she notes the mix of curiosity and sympathy in her questioners’ eyes, the heads tilted to one side, mouths ajar, eager to know the rest of the story yet too polite to ask outright. Abeer is at home with her answer. ‘Palestine,’ she says, and she imagines the house in Nablus that her father built, with the seven bedrooms, one for each of the sons he planned to have. The fact that he went on to have eight daughters and one son never seemed a particular source of disappointment to him. Sometimes, Abeer thinks with a smile, God’s plan differs from our own.
Once, driving between cities in the rain, Abeer listened to a song on the radio called Home is Wherever I’m With You. She looked out over her steering wheel at the glistening road. Abeer has lived all over the world, but never in the place she calls home. Her parents fled Palestine long before she was born. Their new passports told the world that their home was now the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, but her father worked in the oil industry and so her parents and the children who came one by one by one kept moving from place to place, country to country.
Abeer’s first home was Qatar. The family moved again. Home was now Saudi Arabia. A prince came calling. He asked Abeer’s father and mother if he could marry one of their eight daughters. Anyone else might have welcomed the chance to marry off one of their nine children into royalty, but Abeer’s parents respectfully declined. Their education had helped them start again when they fled their home. They wished their daughters would complete their studies so they, too, could stand on their own two feet, wherever they ended up in the world.
And now they are everywhere in the world. Three of Abeer’s sisters have returned to Jordan; two are back in Qatar; one lives in San Diego. Her brother is still in Saudi Arabia. Her closest sister is a short car journey away from Abeer in Banchory, Aberdeenshire. They are doctors, pharmacists, teachers and lecturers. Abeer lived for a time in Baghdad before fate and love brought her to Glasgow. Like her siblings she has travelled far. But she is happy that God picked Scotland out of all the countries in the world to be her second home.
And now, it seems, the world is getting smaller. The family gets together on Skype. Abeer and her brother and sisters talk about the house in Nablus with the seven bedrooms that exists for most of them only in their imaginations, and they talk about where they live now. They speak with sadness about the lack of peace in the Middle East, and they wonder when the situation will improve. They discuss the possibility of a homecoming, though they know this will not happen any time soon.
Although Abeer has not visited the place she calls home in thirty years, her head is full of the stories her parents told her. If she closes her eyes she can picture the house in Nablus. She can see the bricks and beams and she can smell the stone. Home is in her head, always, it is there in the harsh light of displacement, and in the glittering surface of the A9. It is far away and nearby. As she drives around Scotland Abeer sometimes sees home in unexpected places. Dundee – a part of the world she knows well – has been twinned with Nablus since 1980. A shield, presented by the Mayor, hangs in the City Chambers alongside a document that reads: ‘The two cities pledge that together they will actively co-operate to ensure the continuing development of close relationships between their citizens.’
And still, the reminders come and they come. Her children, with their Scottish tongues, who have never set foot in Nablus, wear the chequered black and white keffiyeh with matching woven bracelets and go on marches carrying placards that read, ‘Free Palestine Now’. A few months ago she saw the flag of her country raised over Glasgow City Chambers. Only the other week, her son emailed her a photograph of the Saltire flying alongside the Palestinian tricolour on a mountain overlooking Nablus. The flag of her home and the flag of her second home, flying side by side. Things break apart and things come together. Truly, Abeer thinks, as she drives between cities in the rain, the world is getting smaller. Home is moving closer.
Allan Radcliffe was born in Perth and now lives in Edinburgh. He is an award-winning journalist and currently works as the theatre critic for The Times in Scotland. His short stories have appeared in Out There, Elsewhere, Markings, Gutter, ImagiNation and New Writing Scotland and his story, Outing, was recently broadcast on BBC Radio 4. He is a previous recipient of a Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award.
Abeer Abu-Toq's family is Palestinian, from Nablus, but they left in 1948 as part of the exodus following the partition, and resettled in Jordan, where they were given Jordanian citizenship. Her family travelled and lived all over the Middle East. Abeer, who is one of nine children (eight daughters and a son) was born in Quatar, grew up mainly in Saudi Arabia, where she attended school, and then graduated from university in Baghdad. She has been living in Glasgow for 23 years, and was the first female Arabic-English interpreter in Scotland (she continues to work all over the country). She now has three children, who all identify as Scottish-Palestinian.