With A Brain and Belly Full

Brain and Belly Full By Faris Habayeb

He often laid newspapers around the house. Newspapers purposefully lay on the kitchen’s tiled floor, sometimes in our living room, and the bedroom. The operation ran the gamut: an incessant workshop dedicated to personal grooming, cleaning of fish and shrimp, pomegranate deseeding, and shoe polishing. Upon reading the Arabic and English dailies printed and collated from the world over, he would ensure that they were to be folded and stacked. They would pile into a dedicated space in the living room. He obsessed about his newspaper reserve. I could not recall a time where the supply was running low. The international bushy stacks grew taller, forming wild, shaggy structures. Subject to the frequency of utility, the size of these piles would vary, signaling a sense of panicked urgency on his obsessive part to collect and stow even more papers. Every now and then, my mother would sound the alarm, lamenting that the newspapers were plotting our demise as they began their invasion of our living room.

When it came to shaving, he kept an old, chipped, peach colored china bowl with a faded Grecian key pattern that wrapped around its lip. It held the freshly boiled water that he had me boil twice for him. His shaving toolkit also included a little mirror, a brush, and a disposable razor. A tube of Indian Godrej shaving paste, the color of a pale mint green was always coiled into the old bowl. The tube’s shriveling tendons would give to his relentless kneading and molding, ensuring he would get all the paste out prior to discarding.

In the late afternoon, after having had his siesta and three cups of turbo-strong Turkish coffee, he would lay a spread or two of newsprint on the floor. Turning the dial on the radio, a stuttering of static ushered the three o’clock news bulletin. Overlaid with political commentary, he would sit cross-legged, the orange and white Bic razor running along his lathered, rosy cheeks to the sounds of Big Ben’s chimes: A Palestinian Buddha fixated on a cleanly shaven path. I used to think that was the only way to shave. As I grew older, I was surprised to learn that people conventionally shaved standing upright, against the sink in the bathroom. Newsprint, a meditative posture, and BBC Radio, were completely discretionary.

A man of utility with tools for every trade, he also repurposed newsprint, a toothbrush, and an old t-shirt; to buff and polish his brown and black shoes. The cleaning of fish and deveining of shrimp, along with the deseeding of pomegranates, all took place in our kitchen. He had special knives reserved for the freshly caught and purchased seafood. After laying the newsprint on the floor, cross-legged, he would zip the jagged sharp edges of his large knife, along the contours of the fish. He would make a loud, scraping sound, as fish scales dispersed onto the newspaper, making way for the remainder of the gruesome cleaning process. During the month of Ramadan, he would dedicate a good hour or two to deseeding the tart and rosy, gelatinous fruit. With legs crossed at the ankles, his knees pointing outwards, he amassed mounds of glossy, red pomegranate pearls into a big vessel for feasting upon sunset. His hands, and the very tips of his fingers would be stained with the sweet gore of the fruit for hours after.

My father was a provider of function. He ensured we were fed and went to posh, British, schools long after he could no longer afford it. He was obsessively set in his ways and peculiar with his inclinations. His departure from conventional being, he is at a long-term care facility now, has often left me questioning the ways in which he cared for our family. My father was not one who hugged or kissed. He was a challenging husband and often bickered savagely with my mother. On the very rare instances I scored well in Math class, he would tell me he was proud of me. Other opportunities for praise and tenderness were left unnoticed, maintaining a good distance from the expressions of conformist familial love. A workhorse, he worked two shifts during the day, leaving our lunch meal after school, the sole chance for communion. But when he was served soup, it had to be piping hot or it was grounds for retaliation.

My father drove me to school almost everyday, until I graduated from high school. On those drives, in between blaring newscasts and the smoldering cigarettes that dangled from his lips, he would insist that for a Palestinian education was the sole option for survival. My father took care of us but from a distance. Summer holidays, like many other days in the calendar year were spent without him. He much fancied to engage in self-contained rituals, working extra hours at the office, or in solitary, cross-legged habits of utility. He nourished us with the kind of love that retained his independence but managed to keep our hunger and nescience at bay. It did not facilitate for frills or emotional indulgence. It was practical, efficiently maintaining the necessities for survival as he saw fit.

© 2013 words and art by Faris Habayeb

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