Perfumes in Memory

Hasan Almossa
15 min readJul 11, 2020

Basil Doesn’t Wait

They fled fearing for their lives. They reached the gathering point near the border, dreaming of a safe sky that didn’t rain death and a land where they can roam free from the threat of imprisonment. They were stressed and exhausted. They have looked death right in the eye, and now they have arrived with nothing but painful memories. The wealthy among them were those who managed to escape with all their children and a bag of clothes. These unarmed civilians did not find mercy from any quarter. They had escaped the fire showering them from both the regime and the opposition. They had escaped from “elephant” rockets, gas tanks and barrel bombs dropped by helicopters.

On that April day, even the sun showed no mercy — the scorching heat made us sweat from every pore as we welcomed the newcomers and distributed tents and blankets to replace their destroyed homes. We worked hard, using every iota of our remaining strength, especially that the clashes had intensified in the past few days, and more than one town in al-Ghab Valley has been captured by the “revolutionaries”.

I heard the splashing words of a man hollering with anger:

“How do we benefit from this liberation as long as they, the revolutionaries, cannot protect us? Once they succeed at liberating the country, jets arrive spitting destruction above our heads. We end up running away, leaving everything behind. This regime does not fear God; it burns everything down.”

Despite the huge influxes of displaced people, we managed to offer what they needed of food, drinks, and tents before evening.

Fatigue was gnawing at every inch of my body, only when I entered one of the empty tents and lay down on my back, did I manage to finally take a deep breath and taste immense relief surging through my veins. The more services I offered to the displaced, the better I felt, despite my physical exhaustion. I closed my eyes. A vision of the day softly crept under my eyelids as the summery breeze stroked my tired muscles.

I sank into children’s tired faces. I heard the cries of hungry babies. I experienced mothers’ panic. I tasted the tears of bereaved women and the humiliation in men’s eyes. I began to pluck out from my memory the pieces of stories I had heard that day. Everyone talked about their lives, but no one finished their story. One story was about a family whose sole breadwinner had been arrested. Another family lost their eldest child to the warp he never came back from the fighting borders. A third family was still mourning their child whom they buried in the house garden because they were afraid of putting him in the cemetery. Even cemeteries were not spared from the shelling, notably during funerals.

Only a few families reached the border with all their members, and barely a slim few of these managed to remain in sound mind, or body. Some lost their eyesight to shrapnel while others lost a leg to a barrel bomb that fell right next to their houses. Some lost a hand to an exploding bomb that chopped it off.

Fire from a landing bomb mutilated the beautiful visage of a girl in the bloom of her youth, leaving her with misshapen features. When I saw all of these scenes, I felt a blessing rarely acknowledged by normally living people. My body I was of sound body and could move my limbs; I can wake up in the morning whenever I want and breathe comfortably; I can see everything around me. Most people who haven’t lived through wars don’t recognize this blessing, and they will not fully taste it unless they live with those who have managed to escape and survive from the claws of destruction.

I, too, am one of these survivors, For I have succeeded in evading death the many times it tried reaping my soul.

I don’t know how and when I fell asleep that night. A fine line separated me from the realm of sleep until my phone rang and disrupted my serenity. It was a friend of mine, a doctor working on the border area, informed me that a new batch of immigrants had just arrived from al-Ghab Valley, the Hama countryside, and other areas. He told me to contact our volunteer friends to take care of these people and offer them what they would need. I was sleeping in my clothes. Before I had gotten rid of the traces of sleep clinging to my skin, I found my legs taking me to the camp’s square. There I asked my friends to follow me, a demand they catered to without tardiness.

If it weren’t for the woman who resembled my mother with her body clad in darkness, there would have been nothing new to write that night. Stories cradled smaller stories. Faces painted with sadness. Broken eyes tainted with misery. Hungry children who clutch at the clothes of their mothers. Babies who cried while digging at their mothers’ bosoms in search of protective warmth.

There would’ve been nothing new in these scenes without that woman standing apart from the crowd.

I saw her in the darkness. She stood like my mother. Her posture. Her clothes.

As I approached her, my heart trembled while my brain asked itself “Did they bomb my family’s house? Might they be here? Where are my brothers and father?”

My heart almost jumped from my ribcage until I caught a clear glimpse of the woman’s features. She was not my mother. It was rather Um Ahmed.

She was holding a small bundle that looked like a child. Under the moonlight, it looked like a black bag with a green, smooth-leaved plant protruding from it, pressed to her chest.

Without knowing how I found myself calling her “mother”.

When you work with victims of war, you have to be careful with every word you say, as some uttered words might mistakenly kill a soul that managed to survive a barrel bomb.

Yet, months passed and I made one mistake after the other.

One day, I committed a grave mistake by saying, “Come here mother, why are you standing there alone?”

She whispered to me as though she were speaking from a different world, to another human being.

“Mother! O’ mom, where are your mom?”

Then she said: “My son, I do not have children” and further pressed the pot with the basil plant to her chest.

Without hesitation, I replied, “We are all your children, mother. Come here, you must be tired. I will show you a place to relax in.”

I was about to ask if she had relatives with her, but instead I said: “Do you have your things with you?”

“No,” she said.

She had nothing but that pot of basil. She walked behind me in silence. I did not ask her anything. People like her, despite having the urge to speak at some point, undoubtedly do not want to hear questions buzzing above their heads. If she intended to keep silent, then all the questions in the world would not break her mute resolution. I guided her to an empty tent and asked her to rest until I came back with some food.

She refused, in the beginning, to occupy a tent by herself, since she saw people were still left in the open.

“Children are a priority. Whereas I am all alone.”

She only accepted to stay alone in her tent after I succeeded in convincing her that everyone would have a place of their own to stay in, even though I knew there might not be enough tents for all the people.

Some refused to stay in a tent. They still dreamed of returning back home and felt as though the tent would extend their exile period.

I came back after a while to find her sleeping with the pot balanced on her chest in a strange manner as if she were holding a baby, and there was a branch of the plant running parallel to her nose. I was confused and wondered about the story behind the woman and her plant.

I was about to leave the tent when she woke up, scared, and sat up. “In the name of God, the Most Merciful and the Most Compassionate, who is here?”

She gazed at me, as though trying to remember where she was.

When she saw the bag on my back, she pointed at it.

“What do you have in your bag?” she asked.

“My stuff. A notebook, some pens, and a camera,” I said.

“Are you a journalist?”

“No mother, I am the one who brought you to the tent a little while ago. I work here helping people who are in need.”

“And why do you have a camera? You are a journalist. My son would have loved to become a journalist…”

I did not ask her where her son was. I knew the answer the moment she shifted her gaze to the basil and remained silent for a long time.

I told her “Rest mother. You must be tired. Do you need anything else before I go?”. Without hesitation, she asked: “Do you have water?”

“Give me a few minutes and I will be back.”

I went out, my mind busy with the fact that she must be quite thirsty. I searched through several tents and finally managed to bring her a bottle of water. I sat beside her, staring in surprise as she removed the bag that was covering the basil plant and caressed its withered leaves.

Then, instead of drinking, she started to pour the water into the pot, and the basil permeated the air with its scent. Tears began trickling down her cheeks.

Um, Ahmed did not need questions as to tell me her story, for, the next day, she herself approached me: “Come here, my son. I want to tell you my story.”

Her story was mixed with tears, blood, and the scent of basil. It was a story of four martyrs — one of whom the history books might write about, while the other three will remain forgotten.

“More than 20 years ago,” she said, “Radi and I got married after living a love story that the people of al-Ghab Valley never stopped chewing and talking about. My family and his did not approve our marriage, however, he married me despite it all. We are from different sects.” She whispered in my ear with fearful eyes: “I am Sunni and my husband is Alawite.”

She looked me in the eyes to see any reaction to her words, but her confession did not shock me one bit. There were many cases like hers. Us Syrians, diverse in our sects and religions, lived alongside each other, nothing but the bonds of love and care joining us. We ate together. We drank together. We worked in the same markets and lived in the same land. Few were those who stood against intermarriages. It is a war that separated people from one another, and it was the warlords who tore open this wound.

Her voice pulled me out of my thoughts.

“He waited for me for ten years, and then we forced everyone to accept our marriage. He said that we could birth a clan of children, as I loved having many children. However, God did not give me a child in the first year, nor the second nor the third. We visited every doctor we knew, elderly sheikhs, and all shrines. We offered our sacrifices, sang our prayers, and raised our supplications to the heavens above. Five years passed…

Abu Ahmed, God have mercy upon his soul, was in love with flowers and roses. He would care for them as a father cared for his children. And, seeing through his eyes, I found myself falling in love with roses and flowers. We had about an acre of land, and I planted it with all kinds of flowers. I made a fence from tulips and a roof from jasmine pergolas. We raised flowers, taking care of them and caressing them. We would get drunk on their aroma and even kiss them goodnight. These plants were like our children, and every rose had a name. I spoke to them and they spoke to me. My home was a heaven full of all kinds of flowers. You do know that flowers have souls and they understand people. We forgot children for a while…”.

Um, Ahmad sighed and kept silent. I did not have the courage to interrupt her. Then she continued and said, in pain:

“But nothing compensates not having a child of our own. People told me about a sheikh who lived far away atop a mountain only the birds could reach. I did not tell Abu Ahmed about my plan. I went to see the sheikh, bringing a slaughtered sacrificial animal, as they told me to do.

God helped us, through him, and I became pregnant two months later. After six years of marriage, I had my son Ahmed”.

She was silent again, and when I looked at her face, I saw her eyes were full of two giant teardrops from her burning heart, dripping slowly down her cheeks burnt by the scorching suns of time. She sighed and continued:

“My son Ahmed was more beautiful than all of flowers in our house. All the roses were jealous of him, some withered and died from their envy. You know, children naturally envy each other.

When the protests were kindled on the streets, Ahmed was ten years old back then. When Ahmed’s father went to work for the last time, he kissed Ahmed, who was not yet eleven, and told him, “Take care of your mother, you are the man of the household when I am gone”.

Abu Ahmad seemed to know that he was not coming back.

He has not returned to this day, and we do not know anything about him. Some say he was kidnapped by some militia, and others say he was detained or possibly dead. I don’t know,” she said. “For a year, Ahmed would ask me about his father and I would reply,

“He will be back, my son. He will be back.”

In Abu Ahmed’s absence, everything in our lives began to wither. The first thing was Ahmed’s smile and his laughs, which used to fill our home with joy. Then the garden — the stemmed necks of our flowers started to bend, sensing they have become orphans. At first, I thought it was a lack of water, especially that a shortage was caused due to the destruction of the main water pipes. But I always bought water to ensure my plants never got thirsty, albeit, my efforts led to no avail. In their faded colors, I heard every day a different question: “Where is Abu Ahmed?’. He loved basil so much, may God have mercy upon his soul if he has died, or, if he lives, may God ensure his safe return.

One day, Ahmed came holding a black bag, ‘Guess what I brought for you, the most beautiful mom on earth?’

Analyzing the shape of bag, I answered ‘What?’

‘Something my dad loves a lot, and he will be very happy about it when he comes back. And you also love it. Come on, try guessing.’

From the bag I could taste the smell of Abu Ahmed. I said jokingly, ‘I don’t know.’

He opened the bag and it was…”.

She stretched a hand toward the basil and placed it next to her cheek. I thought she wants to smell it, but she started implanting kisses on the basil’s crumpled soft leaves as tears jumped down the stem, accompanied by her choking sobs.

Details of Um Ahmad’s story dug into my heart and burned in my blood. It felt as though steam was falling from my eyes. Still, I had a major question about her story lingering in mouth.

Where was her son Ahmed?

She looked into my eyes as if she had read what was on my mind.

“Ahmed had no legs. If he had legs, he could have ran to escape the barrel bomb, but I was…. It was my fault.”

Her last sentence froze my tongue. What did she mean by saying that she was the reason? Why did Ahmed have no legs?

She made an effort to gather herself to continue her story.

“When the barrel bomb dropped onto the garden, two days after Ahmed bought me the basil, it cut apart all the flowers, as well as Ahmed’s legs, right above the knees. His body was infested with shrapnel.”

The barrel bomb left me half a child. I thanked God a thousand times that he left me at least half of Ahmed, as all of our neighbors’ children who were playing with him in the garden died. The bomb shards mutilated their faces, we could not recognize the identity of either.

I took him to every field hospital, but their capacities were limited, since originally they were established by benefactors to serve people who would not want to risk going to regime-controlled areas for fear of arrest. However, God saved and healed Ahmed. He would now move around the house with his wheelchair as the floor squealed in woe yearning for his lively footsteps and childhood frolics”.

I said to myself, “Thank God he was not killed. He survived a barrel bomb, but where is he now?”.

And again, as if she were reading my mind, the strange woman gazed at my face with her wet eyes and continued:

“The first time he survived, because he had two legs and managed to run a few meters away, but the second time he wasn’t able to flee. He couldn’t move when he saw the barrel bomb dropping from the helicopter above him. I was at market, and I was the reason he was killed. If I had been beside him, I could have taken him away and escaped. When I came back, I could not find one piece of my Ahmed so I can at least bid him farewell.

She cried bitterly, and more than one woman passing by the tent entered and tried to calm her, but alas. When Um Ahmed lost control over her senses, her body bickering and quivering like a slaughtered bird, I could not help but call my friend the doctor to give her a relaxant injection.

After that day, I crossed ways with Um Ahmad multiple times, whereby she would hug and kiss me like an affectionate mother every time I saw her. I smelled my mother in her, warmth, and the basil that wafted from her chest.

Once, I saw her beside the water tank that distributed water among the displaced. She was holding an unusually small container.

I asked her, jesting, “Don’t you have anything bigger than this?”

She smiled. “I do, but this is enough for the basil, and if I bring a bigger container, I would have to wait for a long time in queue, and basil does not wait.”

“How about you drink,” I said, “and I promise you I will get the water necessary for the basil every day,” I recommended she set aside water for the basil daily in case she needed it.

Months passed, and I did not see Um Ahmed again. I was told she moved to a new camp that was made to cater to the doubling number of the displaced. This new camp was not far from the point where we first gathered to welcome the displaced. Despite the many problems we were busy solving at our camp, I left in search of Um Ahmed.

I learned from the administrators that she lived with some of her relatives who had settled in the camp. When I arrived at her tent, I was told that she was sick. I asked them to tell her my name. As they were entering her tent, I was surprised to see Um Ahmed running towards me. She pulled my hair, punishing me for my lack of communication and my absence while her relatives looked on in surprise. They watched her with eyes full of pity, especially when she called me “Ahmed” instead of my name. She guided me to the tent, and, ironically, she was smiling. Her smile was wide and bitter, a phenomenon I could not comprehend,

“Don’t you know? Don’t you know?? Come with me and I will show you.”

She pulled me by the hand, pointing to the corner of the tent. “Look!” she said. “It’s gone!”

In the corner, beside a mattress and pillow, I saw it.

It was in its black pot, its soft branches extended with their nakedness. The plant was utterly dry from life.

“You see, there is no basil any more, it is dead. It left me … all the martyred have left me… Ahmed went to his father, and the basil also followed them. while I stay here…”

All of us who were present had no language with which to reply to Um Ahmed’s words, except with warm tears trickling down our puzzled faces.

I wrote in my notebook:

Many are the martyrs who are forgotten by history. Who would remember a basil plant withering in the midst of a bloody war? It was martyred by the lack of water, and its death killed in turn the heart of a mother. A bereaved mother who breathed from its smell and reminisced the traces of her long-gone beloved ones.

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Hasan Almossa

Syrian - writer & Founder of Kids Paradise nonprofits - Author of I Was Born Twice : twitter x @hasanalmossa