eldThe following short story is a work of fiction based on historical facts. It is the viewpoint of city life by a young girl who was displaced from Syria with her family owing to the recent turmoil in the region. A recent stay in Paris prompted me to write about an aspect that is not commonly attributed to the city of love. 

I am mad at my little brother! He lost my favourite ponytail holder when he was playing with it. I have very few of them left!! 

You see, I have very long and curly hair and it always gets into knots. This would mean that Ummi (mom in Arabic) had to spend more time brushing my hair. Ummi would try to rush through combing my hair, so she can get the housework done, give jhaddoo (grandfather in Arabic) his food and cook lunch for baba (father in Arabic) to take with him to work. This would mean a lot of pulling on my hair and I do not like it. It also puts Ummi in a bad mood when I whine about her pulling my hair while combing it. Ummi and I both do not like it when she gets in a bad mood. 

Baba was heading to Palmyra for work. It is near the Temple of Baal and the Triumphal Arch on the main street. He had different jobs and during the tourist season, worked as a guide. He loved talking about ‘al zabba’ (Queen Zenobia) and the ruins. When he took me to work sometimes, he would tell me the stories he told the tourists. He spoke about her intellect, beauty and her long curly hair always found a way to end it with “and that’s why I named you Zeynab”. It made me very happy to be named after a powerful and beautiful Queen and that my brother was named after a mere prince. 

I decided to ask Baba to get me ponytail holders in five different colors. This way I could try and put a few of them through the length of my hair and keep it from becoming knotted. Baba gave them to me after Friday prayers and there were 10 of them and more than all the colors that I asked for! I mixed and matched them and tried two-sided braids with the ponytail holders, five each. I was planning to show my new braids to my friends the next day, but baba announced to the family that we would  all  be traveling with his friends to Paris. I heard Ummi and Jhaddoo asking him questions, but they closed the door and all I heard was ‘Al Daesh’ .

Ummi got my brother and me ready and I made sure I took my bitania (blanket in Arabic) as I feel cold. It has been more than a year since we came to Paris. Jhaddoo and Baba leave in the morning and it is Ummi, my brother and I. We usually all sit by the Exki (a national chain cafe), beneath the awning and there are several families by the Gare St.Lazare train station too. This is in the 9th arrondissement (district) of Paris. Ummi sits quietly holding the “Famille de Syrille” (Syrian Family) placard and a Starbucks cup. My brother and I used to play games guessing the value of the euro coin that passers by dropped in it. We had to be by my mother’s side at all times. Our entire family’s belongings and those of our friends were stacked near the alley by us on Rue D’Amsterdam. 

It is almost late August now and mercifully, not very hot anymore. Baba rarely talks to us but mentioned once to me that there were two triumphal arches like the one near the Temple of Baal, close to where we lived. He said that they were impressive but he still thought the one in Palmyra where he worked, was better. When Ummi asked him if he heard anything about his work back home, he said that there was no Temple of Baal or the arch in Palmyra anymore and that Al Daesh  had bombed it. Ummi fell silent and that was the first day she left us all by ourselves on the sidewalk. 

My brother and I wandered till the Gare St Lazare and tried to weave in and out of the constant stream of people. Sometimes we go to the park by the Eglise de Trinite (Trinity Church) and watch the little children play. There is always a couple trying to kiss each other there and I close my eyes and ask my brother to do so too. Sometimes I secretly take a peek. Once, I fell laughing as the children sitting around them started throwing flowers and grass at them so they would stop kissing. L’amour is funny! 

My bitania keeps me warm at night but Ummi’s friend by the Gare said that if she found a discarded good sized cardboard, it  would keep us  warmer. Ummi brushed my hair in a hurry again and I have only four of the ten ponytail holders now. Today she absentmindedly wrapped two of them in her wrist as she left to find some cardboard for us to sleep on. 

My brother was getting restless and wanted to go by the Gare St.Lazare again. I asked him to stay with me and told him he could play with my ponytail holder. He used the others I had as a slingshot and broke them. I gave him one and tied my hair with the other and reminded myself to get the other two from Ummi when she returned. 

Within a few minutes, my brother asked me for another ponytail holder. I was so annoyed! I was not going to give him my last ponytail holder! He started whining about wanting to go to the Gare (Train Station) again. I scolded him and fed him the baguette that the boulanger (baker) Al Daesh Arabic Language Acronym for the ISIL (Islamic State of Syria and the Levant) had given us. He got quieter and we waited for Ummi to return. We watched the people wearing long coats and colorful woolen scarves walk briskly past, hurrying  to the metro or the Gare. 

My hair is still quite long and it does get knotty very often. My hair is several shades lighter than what it was in Palmyra as I am out in the sun all day long. It is getting dark and I see Ummi walking back with heavy cardboard boxes. She looks tired, but is happy to see us sitting quietly all well-behaved. She inquires if we have eaten and settles to give us our dinner. We eat quietly and she turns to me to tell a story. 

She was on the hunt for good-sized cardboard boxes and went near the Boulevard d’Hausmann shops. She could not find any and kept walking further towards the Rue De Septembre near the Opera. The Opera with its gleaming golden statues on top is very crowded and Ummi is friendly with this monsieur who sits on the streets with his pet rabbit. She has taken us there once to feed the rabbit. She could not find any cardboard boxes and walked to Le Marais. She could not find any there and was trying to hurry back to us. This is when she saw another lady carrying three large boxes and was waiting to cross the street at the traffic stop. 

Ummi eyed the boxes and the lady smiled at her. She complimented Ummi on her bangles on her wrist and said they were unique and colorful. Ummi looked at her wrist and was surprised to see my ponytail holder there. She told the lady that they were my ponytail holders. They stood talking for a while and exchanged stories and Ummi told her the reason why she walked up to Le Marais. The lady said that she would be glad to give her the cardboard boxes and Ummi, not wanting to take something for free gave her my ponytail holders that she had on her wrist. Ummi kissed me and said I was the reason that she found us the cardboard boxes and a friend. I know I will sleep fitfully tonight as my hair will twist in my bitania when I move in my sleep. But, Ummi is happy and just like ‘al zabba’, I am Zeynab, the valiant, with one ponytail holder still left. 

The best things in the world are not things. 


  • Lavanya

    1987-1991 Lavanya Srinivasan, has always had a passion for writing. She started her journey as a writer often writing plays for her friends to act as part of community theater. She grew up in Chennai but has lived a large portion of her life in the United States. The author has self published a Whole Foods Plant Based Cooking Book that can be found at Amazon. Her blog on her travel and travails while she stayed in Paris can be found at http://jetrouveparis.blogspot.com

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