The Peninsula is serialising every week Rachel Hajar’s My Life in Doha: Between Dream And Reality, published by Strategic Book Group.
The jasmine ﬂowers are harvested during the day and stored in a cool place until night. During the scenting process, the ﬂowers are layered over tea leaves at night when the ﬂowers bloom with full fragrance. I like jasmine tea. Jasmine imparts a very delicate ﬂavor to tea and the bouquet is divine. I keep a can of jasmine tea in my ofﬁce and occasionally prepare jasmine tea for colleagues and friends who drop by my ofﬁce. Sometimes in the middle of the day when work slows down, I take a break. I brew jasmine tea, and then sit back, sipping it slowly and savoring its ﬂavor and fragrance. Just sipping it and smelling its heavenly scent is relaxing.
Gumamela (hibiscus) . . . sampaguita (Arabian jasmine) . . . “Ave Maria” . . . Gregorian Chant . . . they are part of my heritage, part of my past. It is comforting to see the nostalgic ﬂowers in my terrace, in my husband’s country Qatar, and now mine too. My husband has planted them for me. He narrated to me once a touching story about Abdul Rahman I, ruler of Arab Spain in the eighth century. Abdul Rahman I was a prince of romance. He was a descendant of the Umayyads who ruled the Arab Empire from Damascus, Syria. At that point in history, the Arab empire stretched from the Atlantic and the borders between Spain and France in the West to the borders of China in the East. The Umayyad Dynasty came to an end in 750 AD when they were deposed and massacred by Es-Seffah, “the Butcher,” who founded the Abbaside dynasty based in Baghdad. The Umayyads were hunted down in all parts of the world and killed mercilessly. Abdul Rahman ﬂed to Spain, to Cordoba, where he established an Arab kingdom separate from the Abbasides in Baghdad. He was a poet too. He imported a date tree from Syria, as a reminder of his homeland, and to it he dedicated a sad little poem expressing his loneliness and sadness away from home: “Like me, thou art separated from relations and friends; / thou didst grow in a different soil, / and now thou art far from the land of thy birth.” Sometimes, in the quiet moments of my life here, I share the sentiments expressed by that poet in the distant past and feel a kind of kinship with him.
The house is quiet, being a weekend, and my thoughts roam freely. . . Many Octobers, fall, winter, spring, and summer have come and gone. I have watched the passing of the seasons in my little terrace. Through a French window my library opens into a small terrace, my tiny garden—my little corner of paradise in Arabia. The English word “paradise” is derived from Greek “paradeisos,” which means enclosed garden but Merriam Webster traces it to the Iranian word: pairi-daeza (enclosure), from pairi (around) and daeza (wall).
My paradise is enclosed by concrete mineralite-covered walls on three sides, but open to the sky. When I sit in my library, I see a bit of blue sky—my own little piece of blue sky—through the sliding glass door. And I see my plants and ﬂowers—splashes of green, dashes of reds, pinks, yellows, and violets. The tiling is in the style of Sevillan or Cordoban courtyards—large, plain off-white colored tiles with just the merest hint of design and texture. Decorative ﬂoor tiles run along the walls. Hajar had wooden grills mounted around the concrete parapet considerably cutting down the intensity of light and making the area look cool, tranquil, and intimate—and elegant too. It is where I sit in the evenings and on weekends when the weather is pleasant, listening to the sounds of life: the swishing sound of water as the garden around the house is watered, dogs barking, cats mewing, screeching, children playing, the distant sound of cars passing, and birds twittering on the date-palm trees in the garden around the house.
Years ago, Hajar had planted an evergreen tree beneath the western side of the terrace when I complained at the intensity and harshness of the afternoon sunlight ﬁltering through the glass door of my library. “A tree will last and give you shade as well as greenery,” he said. The tree grew, reaching the parapet of my balcony’s front wall with the top part peeping through the wooden grill, and marked the passage of time. Sadly, that tree didn’t last; it was sacriﬁced when the front garden was re¬landscaped, underlining the fact that the only permanent thing in life is change.
As yet, because of the weather, there is not a profusion of ﬂowers in my garden. We are waiting for the weather to improve before putting in more plants and ﬂowers. Hajar says “a couple of weeks more.” Now that it’s planting season in Arabia, I look forward to having more ﬂowers, a repetition of previous pleasant seasons: violets, geraniums, roses, dahlias, petunias, azaleas, and other varieties. Soon I shall hang on the wooden grille small pots with cascading ﬂowers, hoping to recreate the remembered lovely Calle de las Flores (Street of Flowers), a little street behind the Great Mosque in Cordoba, Spain. Hajar, however, prefers larger containers because “the plants will last longer.” But I am not after longevity. Flowers bloom . . . fade . . . wilt . . . die . . . bloom . . . just like everything in nature: birth, death, and rebirth—a physical law that is embodied in the religious and philosophical corpus of Eastern and Western civilizations.
The thought of more ﬂowers in my little garden sets my heart pulsing with anticipation. Sometime ago, coming back to Doha after the family summer holiday in Switzerland where ﬂowers abound, Hajar had gone to a nursery and saw “a plant with delicate white ﬂowers” that he wanted to get for me but “it won’t survive outside.” He was told they were orchids and he wondered if I knew about orchids. I told him that we had orchids in our garden when I was a child. My father used to graft them on trees. Before my mother became bedridden, she tended in our garden some white orchids. All I know about caring for orchids, however, is that they need humidity. Orchids have a delicate beauty, and I would love some in the terrace but I don’t know if they would survive in the desert.
I cannot imagine a world without ﬂowers. One evening, I came back from a vacation in the Philippines and after freshening up I had eagerly peaked at my balcony—little paradise—curious how my plants had fared while I was away. I had been delighted at the profusion of ﬂowers. Hajar found me in little paradise and told me he was planning to show me the ﬂowers in the morning “to surprise you.” I thought it was so sweet of him to ﬁll up little paradise with ﬂowers on my return. The climate in my own country is tropical and ﬂowers bloom all year round. During that vacation, I used to sit with my sister by the window in her living room, sipping tea, looking out into her garden, idly chatting, admiring the ﬂowers in her front lawn, listening to her ﬂoral plans, and reminiscing of the ﬂowers in the garden of our childhood home.
In Doha, the variety of plants and ﬂowers is limited, but the palette of colors in little paradise is more than enough to drench a watercolor canvas of my life here: green leaves, blooming fragrant ﬂowers with colors varied as the rainbow, and clear blue sky; occasionally cloudy skies but the rays of the sun stubbornly and ﬁercely pierces through and proclaims that here in Arabia the sun reigns supreme.
On weekday mornings, I don’t have time to look at my garden but on coming back from work, I would immediately go to the terrace to check on my ﬂowers. When I see the hibiscus blooming, dancing and ﬂirting with the sun, the roses ﬂowering, or the violets quietly ﬂourishing, I feel such joy. At such times I muse, what can a heart desire that cannot be had in a garden? And I remember the summer of my arrival in this part of the world, so long ago it seems, and seeing the dying ﬂowers in my husband’s family courtyard home. It is like that here still in the summer: Plants and ﬂowers wilt and die or at least appear to. I remember the Syrian rose bush. When summer came, we had transferred it down to Hajar’s garden where it was put in a shaded area and when October came around, we transferred it back to my terrace. It had come back looking as dry as a mummy’s bone, and I thought it was dead. Hajar said, “Let it be and see what happens in a couple of weeks.” I had tended it without much hope. Then three weeks later, I had been startled to see it sprout a profusion of young tender green leaves. It had made me so happy, and reminded me of the practice of medicine. Physicians frequently take care of patients whose condition seems hopeless but as physicians we do the best we can, utilizing new-age medical knowledge, and miraculously the patients rally in spite of the odds. Life is like that . . .
(to be continued)