STORY BY HEATHER M. SURLS PHOTOS BY ISABELLE BERNARD & HEATHER M. SURLS
Outside the northern Jordanian city of Ajloun, I sat cross-legged in Wael Rabadi’s olive grove, stripping ripe olives from just-pruned branches. Looking up from the work in my hands, I could see olive trees and oaks, grapevines and stone walls blanketing the hills in all directions. Eighteen hundred years ago, Rabadi’s ancestors owned this whole area, including the prominent hilltop behind me crowned by the centuries-old Ajloun Castle.
La Nonna’s name was Jone Corti then. Jo-ne. It slid off the tongue like a berry gelato. It
was strange to burden a young Italian girl with a Greek name, especially one that referred so specifically to Ionia and the adjacent sea. It annoyed me when her biddy friends mispronounced it, suffering the harsh J instead of the more lithe Y. p>
This happens when I have been alone too long—the words start to leak out of everything and they will not stop. I cannot look around, I cannot take a single step, without it becoming prose, and it is not welcome. It thrusts me into a place where language imposes this acute separation between me and everything else—leaks its ink out of the bark, the pavement, the sky, flowing directly from itself to me in the form of a stream of words, and it will not let me rest.
Some aspects of life really are the same, regardless of geography. My hairdresser’s shop feels like the Albanian version of Steel Magnolias, with women dropping in and back out again, mostly just stopping to chat or help themselves to my hairdresser’s tools and beauty supplies.
One winter day, I was walking my dog when my neighbor invited me to sled with her and her friends. “Don’t worry, we are all over 30 and from the neighborhood, so take a turn. I’ll hold your dog’s leash while you go.” I was so excited to have a snow day and to finally have some pandemic-era human interaction, along with the chance to live my inner child.
Throughout the past year, I have wondered how “that woman” is doing. I don’t know her name, but I can see her face clearly in my mind: the brown eyes under thick eyebrows, the sharp nose, her black hair pulled back in a French braid.
I saw her regularly at the Washington, D.C., area gym where I worked out. She was chatty with the other women in the ladies’ locker room, often dominating the conversation. She cornered me once and asked whether I would take her into my house as a renter. She would be a good roommate, she said. Unobtrusive and tidy and responsible. Politely, I replied that I would let her know if I heard of anyone looking for roommates. She also worked in the childcare room at the gym, but my 6-year-old son didn’t like her and refused to come to the gym with me if she was going to be there. Was she mean? I asked. No, he replied, she just completely ignores us.
In June 2019, at the age of 43, I was diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer. I underwent colon resection surgery and eight months of chemotherapy, and was then declared “cancer free” in the early spring of 2020.
The Brotherhood of the Blood (la Confrérie de la Sanch) is a religious and charitable organization that has existed in Perpignan since 1416. Its founding mission was to commemorate the Passion of Christ, which is the short, final period of the life of Jesus Christ; to assist prisoners who had been condemned to death; and to preach penance and help sinners prepare for their final judgement and salvation. As part of this mission, members of the brotherhood, known as penitents, would accompany prisoners condemned to death on their final walk through the city to the scaffold.
PHOTOS BY HAWA IMAGES, USED BY PERMISSION OF WORLD RELIEF CHICAGOLAND
Years ago, a neighbor gave me a glossy 4×6-inch picture of Myanmar politician Aung San Suu Kyi backed by the red and yellow of the National League for Democracy’s flag. I no longer remember the giver’s identity—at that time my Burmese neighbors numbered in the hundreds—but since the country’s late-January military coup that imprisoned Suu Kyi and others, Myanmar (formerly Burma) has been on my mind.
When I reflect now, those three years among the Burmese were like bootcamp for me, a foundational, immersive course in relating to people different from me. At that time, I didn’t realize this would be a preparatory phase for longer-term work among refugees. I moved in with the idea that I would help them—I did not know how much my neighbors would shape me.
Today, I saw some storks. Three, to be exact, flying over the Western Mediterranean marshlands where I live, heading to their breeding grounds further north. Late January and a presage of spring already, accompanying the mimosa trees that have suddenly burst into flower as though a child has taken a pot of the brightest yellow paint she could find and splashed drops all over a wintery canvas. It was just as the spring migration was beginning last year that France entered its first lockdown.