In Damascus, women keep a spotless house. There are strict rules for slippers: one pair for the kitchen and hall, another for bedrooms, one for the balcony, and qib qbs for the bathroom. At first, in Toronto, Maya Kabbani tries to follow her mother’s example. As she adapts to her new life, she learns how to recreate her mom’s home, but on her terms.
In the early morning, I was lazy and lay in bed. It was a chilly day in Toronto. But my room was filled with a lovely refreshing soap smell, a smell that took me back to a fall day in Damascus. I came back from school and opened the door to find my mom doing the seasonal cleaning. I could hear her voice: “Who’s that?”
“It’s me. Maya.”
“Take your shoes off outside. Be careful when you put your feet inside your slippers. Don’t put them on the floor. I just finished cleaning, and I don’t want to see any footprints!”
I did exactly what my mom said. While I was taking off my shoes, I noticed the vase behind the door was empty. She had taken the flowers to wash them.
I went through the guest’s washroom. The sink was sparkling. New towels matched the washroom colours of white and blue. The soap bottle was refilled. There were new bottles of perfume. She had put the washroom slippers on a new, white cloth to dry.
From the kitchen, I could see the balcony. The carpets were out in the sun. Mom believes sunlight is the best sanitizer ever. I could see the flowers dripping on the white, plastic table, making tiny lakes.
In the living room, everything was bright, neat, and smelling like love. Mom had taken the curtains to the laundry and removed all the frames and photos from the walls. She had washed the ceiling and walls—and even the TV.
Whenever I went with Mom to get cleaning stuff, I saw how much she cared. “This one cleans very nicely but doesn’t have a good smell,” she would say. “I’ll get this one for cleaning and also this other one that doesn’t clean so well but has a very nice smell.”
Mom is a practical person who wakes up early and starts organizing her tasks. I think if she had had a chance to go to school, she would have become a poet. She was a diligent student and very smart, but in grade ten, her father stopped her from going to school because Assad’s father banned the hijab in schools. That scared all the conservative people, so women lost! After that, she had two choices: to be a homemaker or a ‘gossip girl’. Mom chose the first, and in her free time, she read. Women like her competed to have the cleanest house, and my mom was the best.
She has very strict rules. Everyone wore four pairs of slippers in our house: one for the kitchen and hallway, another for bedrooms, one for the washroom and one for the balcony. Damascus is a city of people obsessed with cleaning, otherwise known as “OCD.” I was told many times, “Ohhh, you are from Damascus. Do you still have slippers for the washroom?” The answer is yes. These slippers are qib qbs. They are famous on TV shows, and there are even candies made to look like them.
Moving to my own place in Toronto was difficult. At first, I spent all the time cleaning like my mom, and I worked six days a week. But then my father passed away. When I got the news, I started wiping the floor. Then I stopped. “What are you doing, Maya? Are you crazy? Your father passed away yesterday! You have to give yourself time for grieving.”
After a while, I started to think about my life. Other women here have activities. But I just cleaned and worked. I decided to release myself from the strict rules and start some activities. One time I told Mom on the phone, “Yesterday I didn’t have time to wash dishes.” She replied, “I’d never forgive you if anyone saw your place not clean.” Then I said, “Mom, don’t worry. I have your spirit here in my place.”
Although my Toronto apartment is small, I use three pairs of slippers. After my daydream of our home in Damascus on that chilly morning, I got out of bed and put on my slippers. My washroom smelled clean and refreshing. I have recreated my mom’s home here in Toronto but on my own terms. When Canadian people take off their shoes at my front door, I am happy.
Maya Kabbani comes from Syria. She moved to Canada in 2017. For her, moving to Canada was a turning point in her life.
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