It’s Christmas Eve in London and Heba Hayek’s narrator is looking to bake something that reminds her of home. She settles for Basbousa, a coconut yoghurt semolina cake, which translates as ‘little kiss.’
“No one should be this far,” she thinks to herself at the end of a video call in which her father and mother argue over whether she should add cream to the top or middle of the cake.
Heba’s narrator was born in Palestine and has now moved abroad to study, where she is trying to navigate her feelings of being a foreigner in a strange land and memories of home.
Sambac Beneath Unlikely Skies, published by Hajar Press, is a collection of vignettes on girlhood in Gaza, fragments of intimate memories which flit between a homeland and a new land.
These memories are of her family being stopped at a checkpoint for questioning, hiding under the tables at school from the bombs, and a window shattering over her face during one of the bombing campaigns.
“Never has anyone warned you about what it’s like to be a war child away from the war,” the narrator says; then later: “You will learn that even parents can’t protect your children from war.”
But her memories are not only of conflict. They are of the smell of spices from traditional recipes at home and the memories of hot sugar wax, trips to the beautician with female members of her family, and of her Sitti massaging her with oil.
Heba Hayek describes, with some humour, and a writing style that is a joy to read, about the concept of khattabat, or matchmakers. When a man is looking to get married, his mothers and sisters to knock on doors and ask if there are potential suitors inside.
“Sometimes I overheard women noting that enquiries about their sugar preferences granted a girl bonus points for politeness and consideration. If a girl was really adept, she might even see a photo of the groom.”
How do you survive abroad in a country that is so far from your own? How do you carve out a home in a faraway place? Resilience is our only chance at survival, the narrator tells us.