I wrote this piece for a creative writing course offered by the Centre for Faculty Development at UofT. The course aims to foster narrative competence through creative and reflective writing relevant to health practice and is taught by the eloquent Damian Tarnopolsky. I highly recommend it for those of you interested in narrative medicine.
Amjad is my youngest of two younger brothers. We are each three years apart. If I recall well, my parents originally wanted just two children. But later on, my mother, probably overcome with the amount of testosterone in our household and given her longing for her sisters, convinced my father that they would try for a third child. They hoped it’d be a girl. I remember them thoughtfully immersed in selecting potential names, girl names, as well as boy names. I guess they hadn’t wanted to confirm the sex. I had just recently turned 6 years old. That was 1989. In Damascus, Syria. The city of jasmine. I still smell its endless aroma in the summer night breeze just as it lands on my cool child cheeks, while I watched the sun setting from my grandparents’ balcony, or balconeh, and my ears lazily trying to filter through the faint conversations bouncing from one balcony to another, across the narrow streets. He was born later that night. I still remember that day, his arrival commanded a lot of attention, and he kept that attention for a while, probably still to this day. His cheeks certainly suffered at the mercy of my nearly pathological pinching; my mother reminds me. We always teased him about being the shortest, my middle brother being taller than me. And in the summer time his skin would be the most efficient at melanogenesis. He was the darkest. His enviable tan, together with his endearing height; we’d tease him that he may have been adopted. And would laugh when his confidence was shaken after having reassured him previously that he was indeed, biologically, our brother. We were so cruel! It is unthinkable to sample a topic facetiously in that fashion now, let alone, tease your youngest brother like that. He would probably shrug it off now and nonchalantly brag about how it ultimately got him more attention from women than us. He was a happy kid. Very active and engaging. He was often the mediator when we quarreled. An advocate of being the “better” man. He was disquieted by conflict and eagerly brokered resolution. He put his foot in his own mouth a lot and was oddly comfortable with it. We all loved him, even though he got all the attention. We were all protective of him. He was spoiled. Still is. I think we were palpably jealous of the attention he got and managed to earn bratty nickname badges from our grandparents for it. As for Amjad, he had a lot of nicknames and they all come with their stories.
I often tell friends, of all conversations I have with people, my conversations with Amjad were probably the most interesting, and seasonally agitating. We often declared our pride to be in a society where the minutiae of social fabric are readily discussed in public forums, which often sparked our own conversations. I say agitating because Amjad has a way of fixating on his arguments. He easily believed them. It is not easy to move away from a bidirectionally opinionated dialogue, even when I happened to be studying for an exam during my dental school years, when him and I lived together. What do you call someone who erroneously thinks he’s a philosopher or a know-it-all? A charlatan? Well in Syrian you call him Allaak. Allaak is a person whose logic defies all logic. The antithesis of logic. But you have no clue how to convince him of it. Perhaps because you can’t help but find him (or her – in which case Allaakeh) oddly endearing. Picture an annoyingly interesting person who talks to you while audibly, and obnoxiously, chewing a big piece of gum. Orating words smoothly while meticulously smacking his lips together as he chews. That right there epitomizes what allaak is; a literal description. So, inevitably, Amjad, the usual victim of our relentless pestering, earns the nickname allaak. Dad, whose sarcasm touched all of us, would be the one to coin this one, and others after. And given the now dominantly English dialogue at home, dad felt compelled to translate that nickname. And that is how Amjad became the “gum-man”. I’d hate to admit it to my dad, but it is awfully catchy. And unfortunate for him, it stuck. No pun intended.
Amjad loved sports, and played avidly, all sorts of sports. He was and still is very athletic and competitive. If you watched him play soccer, you’d be mesmerized by his foot work. He often complained that had our parents invested more in him, he would have been in the European leagues. But he loved basketball too. He often frequented the public basket ball courts and played against people twice his size. He wasn’t afraid to talk trash and stand up to them too. He often rejoiced when someone missed their shot after getting a questionable call saying “the ball don’t lie”. I recall one day while watching a game and learning of the acronym GOAT (greatest of all time) we decided – dad decided – it would make for a hell of a nickname. Partly because, like the real thing (goats that is), Amjad ate everything in front of him. How can you blame him. This is the guy who stretches every single morning and works out nearly every day. When we lived together, I often made fun of him because he would be falling asleep late at night watching a game, then get up to go to bed but grab a piece of cake before he did. I would joke he probably had a bucket of drumsticks under his bed. He always took it well and laughed about it. He’d shrug it off saying “if you worked out half as much as I did, you’d understand.”
Come to think of it, he deserved the attention. He was my roommate for 8 years. As much as our conversations drove me up the wall at times, they kept me sane in others. His deflection of my taunts only amplified the strength of our bond. His eagerness to resolve and advise made him look like the older brother many a time, even when he was needlessly sanctimonious. In his actions I saw my own. I need not embarrass Amjad revealing other nicknames. My intention certainly wasn’t to embarrass him. Well, at least not anymore.
(Photo credit: Ian Chang aka “The Prince”)