Tracing my roots, by Carmen Sheridan
So much of Carmen’s article in today’s newsletter, about her grandma’s connection to plants from Syria, resonates with me. From older generations trying to recapture a part of what was home, to the ridicule for their attempts to do so, to experiences of erasure and bigotry, to the generational trauma, to the desire to reclaim heritage, to the hankering for understanding, memories and healing. So much here in this short piece. These themes of loss, grief, shame, reclamation and healing preoccupy me often these days. I was moved reading it and am grateful to Carmen for writing and sharing today’s piece.
Tracing my roots, by Carmen Sheridan
I remember the flowers growing in my grandma's tiny courtyard garden. Impossibly bright. The white brick walls making them even more so. Grapevines climbing a trellis abundant with fruit, damask rose, and bougainvillaea in a more vibrant shade of pink. On closer inspection, most of these plants were plastic. We used to laugh about this, her fake flowers. But now I think, she was cultivating a garden that reminded her of home.
My grandma, Teta as we called her, fled from her home in Damascus, Syria to Chester when she was just 16 years old. I can't begin to imagine what this uprooting must have felt like, the culture shock and the lasting effect it carried. She was never able to return to her home and spoke little of it - for it was clear it was painful. But I do remember her saying she dreamt constantly of Damascus; the sights and smells of the streets. Now I wonder, what plants were alongside her growing up, what plants did she dream of?
I read of Damascus being called “The City of Jasmine” and can imagine the heady scent on balmy evenings. Lacking her memories, I have constructed an image of the place in my mind; Teta as a young-girl rushing through the streets, trailed by her nine younger siblings. Perhaps she’s heading to the market. I imagine her choosing large, ripe, pomegranates - the scent of these mixed with earthy spices and of Jasmine.
The Damask rose (Rosa x damascena) must have stopped her in her tracks, getting closer to breathe in their scent. Maybe she crushed rose petals to make her own perfume, just as I did as a child. The rose has been cultivated in Syria for thousands of years. A symbol of love, faith and beauty, they are grown in hedgerows where they are protected from the winds. For perfume and oil production, the petals are hand-picked daily in the early mornings, when the scent is at their finest. These roses were believed to be brought to Europe in the 11th Century, by Robert de Brie - a French crusader who participated in the siege of Damascus.
Did she run her fingers through the soft, feathery foliage of Nigella damascena? A flower so commonly associated with the ‘English Cottage Garden’, but was introduced to the UK in the 15th Century. Did it arise through cracks in the pavement much as it does there?
I look up Gardenia; these must have been cultivated and appeared in Teta’s childhood, for this was her favourite scent and flower; it will always remind me of her. In doing so, I find a piece about potted Gardenias, nurtured and cared for by youth volunteers in Homs, a city under siege for the duration of the Syrian civil war. These pots are each inscribed with the name of the young person that cares for them - symbolic of them caring for their community and finding ways to rebuild and grow. What picture do we build of a place? From the news, we see one perspective, ‘a war-torn’ country - there’s little room for hope or beauty in this narrative.
I can still see Teta's small garden in Chester on a hot, sunny day - a particular smell, sticking to the white plastic chairs so it was painful to get up. I wish I could sit there with my grandma now and ask her about her childhood, her memories. Even talk about the pain she carried.
From a young age, I learnt to hide my culture, to feel shame in being different. I think I picked this up from her, I believe she felt she never quite fitted in. I would conceal this aspect of myself, wanting to belong, afraid of being judged. This was a behaviour to keep myself safe, for I had experienced many misguided, ignorant and hurtful comments. One conversation that stays in my mind; upon being questioned about my appearance by a stranger - “not from England are you?” and sharing my heritage, I was met with “so a terrorist then?”. This cut deep and ignited that familiar burning shame - perhaps a pain carried between generations, the roots of it deep within myself.
Tracing my heritage through the plants can connect me to it and to her, helping me to untangle those roots of shame. I can celebrate this heritage in other ways too, proudly saying I am of Syrian (and Iraqi) descent, I can learn about the food, the music, the art and the history, and no longer hide this aspect of myself. Honouring her and her home of Syria.
I think about the memories that plants carry for each of us, often unknowingly. The beauty they offer us, the hope, sanctuary and safety. I believe this is what Teta was striving to create in her backyard, a space where she could belong that reminded her of her roots.
Carmen is a gardener living in Brighton, currently completing a botanical-horticulture apprenticeship at Wakehurst. She finds great joy and support in learning and connecting with plants. She also co-creates and edits Florxl zine - an inclusive, accessible zine that celebrates the joy of plants, horticulture and gardens, bringing together a range of writers, artists and passionate plant lovers - all profits go to the Lemon Tree Trust. You can find her on Instagram @_carmengardens and @florxl_zine.
Carmen has been paid for this article.
Collage/illustration by Carmen Sheridan