From the collection In The Tenderness of War, translated from the Arabic by Anam Zafar
I am in pain. My hand feels like it’s burning on the barrel of this gun but I can’t seem to let go. I don’t know why the barrel is so hot. It reminds me of the chimney on the roof of our house, in Umm al-Zaytun, our village.
On cold days, I used to squeeze my little body between the pigeons who would cluster around the chimney. I’d happily scatter the remains of our dinner around their feet, remembering Ummi’s promise that Allah wouldn’t let us burn in Hell if we made sure never to throw away our leftovers.
But right now, my hand is burning, and I don’t know where my glasses are. The glasses that I hate, that never leave my face except at night when I lay them next to my pillow. Since I started school, my eyes have been trapped behind their thick lenses, and after getting into my first fight at school, my nickname became Jam-Jar Glasses. My classmates definitively erased my real name from their memories, and later my siblings and our neighbours and relatives joined them. It was as if they’d all signed a pact to forget my name completely.
When I was in Class Two, the teacher patted my shoulder and said, ‘You’re stupider than all your brothers. Actually, you’re the stupidest child I’ve ever met.’ From that moment, school became the biggest disaster of my little life. I started roaming the streets instead, and would only join the other students when I saw them going home in the afternoon. When Abbi found out, he took me to the mechanic, the carpenter, the plasterer, and the baker to learn a trade. But I was fired from them all. One by one, they told Abbi that Jam-Jar Glasses would never be good at calibrating tyres, stacking timber, removing rust, or even counting loaves of bread. My father’s only option was to take me to our vineyards, far away. I would wake at dawn, groping for my glasses, cursing them, kissing them, lifting them to my eyes before I started digging the soil. I would watch as my fingers got bigger and smaller as I moved them closer to my eyes and further away. I’d laugh a little, panic a little, then go back to digging.
I would also spy on the young farmer digging, like me, in the neighbouring vineyard. She would look back without smiling. That’s when my spirit began to heal… with a look from my neighbour here, a change in the seasons there. Meanwhile, my glasses got thicker with every doctor’s appointment.
My last appointment was a few days ago when I turned eighteen. My eyesight was 1/10 in my right eye and 2/10 in my left and then I found out I had joined the army. I took my ID card and medical papers to the recruitment office and gave them to a woman—an army captain—who was nursing her son behind a big desk.
‘Excuse me, is there any chance I could be exempted from the army because of my medical papers?’ I asked.
‘Get your face away from the glass. Take your papers, they won’t make a difference. You need to report to Damascus tomorrow with your ID card,’ was her reply.
I had never been to Damascus. The years of my life had passed slowly, with nothing to make me look forward to the next one or in a rush to leave the current one behind. In Damascus, they put me on a bus that sped towards Idlib, and in Idlib they put me in an army truck that sped towards the villages. The villages weren’t green anymore. They issued me with a new gun and left me at a checkpoint, wishing me luck against the rebels. I didn’t have time to feel hungry or cold—it was only two days before the rebels made an appearance. I couldn’t work out where the bullets were coming from, didn’t know I was supposed to keep my index finger on the trigger or how to aim. I lifted my left hand as I had a thousand times before, to push my glasses back up my big nose, but they weren’t there. I don’t know when they could have fallen from the only place they’re needed, or how they could have been so disloyal. Maybe a nasty piece of shrapnel pushed them off my face. Without them, in front and behind are the same, sunlight and smoke are the same, hot air and fire are the same.
And now my hand is burning on this gun and I can’t take it off. I’m not sure if I’ve fired once, five times or more; not sure if my finger has even pulled the trigger. All I know is I am miserable and in pain and alone, and that I’ve ended up here without saying goodbye to Ummi, to Abbi, to my four clever brothers, to the walls of the school where I never set foot because I couldn’t bear hearing ‘Jam-Jar Glasses’ one more time. I didn’t even say goodbye to the place I loved more than I hated my glasses. I don’t know whether this searing pain in my hand is from my comrades at the checkpoint or the enemy.
I think of what I was told at the recruitment office. ‘Blind or not, we all belong to this country.’ My hand is burning in its honour, the red stain on my chest is a sacrifice for Umm al-Zaytun. Here at this checkpoint in Idlib, my country has spared me from the torture of Jam-Jar Glasses, from waiting for the day the vineyard girl smiles at me, from my eyesight that mistakes my comrades for enemies.
Hey, you. Yes, you, comrade, standing next to me. Can you help me find my glasses? If we find them, I’ll lift them to my eyes and tell them I’m sorry. I’ll look at the sky and at the family photograph I keep in my army shirt pocket, wet with my own blood. Then I’ll leave in peace, with my burnt hand, for a long sleep with the pigeons by the chimney.
— – — – —
Marianna’s father works as a labourer for fourteen liras a month.
And until he can save enough for a cochlear implant, Marianna will travel to the city every day, to the school for disabled children. Her hearing aid helps transport the violin’s vibrations to her in music class and the birdsong at breaktime in the garden.
A hearing aid from China costs 17,000 Syrian liras; one from Japan can be anything up to 30,000, not to mention the price of the battery. The hearing aid is supposed to stay in her ears while she sleeps, coaxing her congenital deafness into full hearing.
But to save on the huge cost of the batteries, her mother disconnects the hearing aid at night, while Marianna sleeps her dreamless sleep. Waiting for those 20,000-dollar implants.
Marianna’s nine years of life shine like stars in the sky. She has been gifted with a face that glows like the full moon, a laugh like a summer’s morning, eyes that sparkle, and a rare intelligence. Her brother, two years younger, was born with the same fate. His hearing doesn’t come for free, either.
Marianna has bad luck, too. She came into this world in a sick country that has no regard for its children, whether or not they are disabled.
Quiet and feeble, the mother stands with her right arm around her seven-year-old son and her nine-year-old daughter.
A young man is standing opposite her. This is the first time they have met, here in this tiny room. He hands her a wad of money from his sister, who has moved to Australia. It is a gift from the sister overseas to the feeble mother. She doesn’t know the mother. She’s just heard about this woman whose home has no breadwinner, who dotes on her two children, who takes them every day from their faraway village to the school for disabled children so they can learn how to speak and read and write.
At first, the children’s eyes glitter excitedly at the strangeness of it all. Then the girl starts tracing signs in the air, quickly, persistently, signs only her mother understands. The mother translates the signs for the young stranger: he’s got to send a photo of his sister so I can look at it, so I can send the foreign lady a letter and draw her picture on it, with my colours, to say thank you very much.
The boy does not really understand what’s happening. When his mother starts crying, he finds himself doing the same. She is overwhelmed by this tremendous wad of money, she could never have even dreamed of something like it, and so she cups it in her hands carefully as if it were oil that she fears might trickle away. She had never even dreamed of this amount when she was plunging quickly into debt, piling it on from month to month, to ensure her children had nice clothes, and things for school, and bus fare to go from their faraway village to the scary city. As the months passed, the debt kept growing and growing relentlessly, because the children would never have all five senses and it was taking them so long to learn. A new word, a new maths equation, a new song about the sounds of a bird, an animal, a human.
Meanwhile, in her Australian exile, the sister feels her conscience start to ease. She has repaid some of her debt to the country she’s left behind, a country that will never set her free. It remains attached to her by a sharp, invisible thread, pricking her constantly, a thread she’s been trying to untie so that she can enjoy her life in this new country with fewer tears than usual, even if only for a day.
Today, her mind will truly be soothed. Without needing to take aspirin.
— – — – —
Snow is not musical in the way that rain is. It has no sound, no smell, no promise.
There’s no solace in this snow, its pale precipitation fails to warm the heart. I never realised, not even from the stories I’d read, how snow could scare me. This whiteness is traitorous. Misery, though, is faithful.
No electricity. No fuel. From the window, we can see no tracks, no human prints, no foxes, not even the tracks of a snow plough coming to clear the road. The only living things in sight are the flowers on this balcony, all suffocated by white. A few delicate bulbs have survived, crying for help. I can’t reach them.
A cold as fierce as war. All that remains of us are the smoky wisps of our feeble breath.
When I realised how long it had been since I’d listened to music, I decided to leave Sa’doun playing on my old tape recorder.
Oh, how I used to fear winter…
The music, Sa’doun’s husky voice, those words coming from a time that seems so distant… I carry tears for them all like a burden. They force their way past the prison bars of my eyes, kicking aside the piles of hope—the liar—that I dared keep alive for myself and for my country.
— – — – —
As we stood by the bus, I told my husband: ‘The only people who go to Damascus these days are either stubborn students, terribly ill, or scared of losing their job.’
‘There’s one more group,’ he added. ‘Crazy people like you, going just because you miss it.’
Damascus—under brutal siege—is a hundred kilometres away from Sweida, which is noticeably safer in that regard. Before the war, it took about an hour to get to Damascus by car or bus. After the checkpoints were put in place, this single hour stretched to several. There are official army checkpoints, National Defence Force checkpoints, and Lijan militia checkpoints, each one belonging to an infallible authority that refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of those who control the checkpoint before or after its own. Identity cards are scrutinised (the identity checks are never-ending) and suitcases and handbags are searched before the driver is allowed to continue.
My husband’s comment hit home after the fourth or fifth checkpoint, when two soldiers appeared suddenly, just like that, as if from the bowels of the earth, their machine guns trained on the bus—on us, the passengers, already terrified even before they showed up. Behind them were two more soldiers making threatening hand gestures and ordering the driver to stop. We weren’t in a conflict zone, or one of the ‘liberated’ zones controlled by Daesh warlords or Jabhat al-Nusra or their newer Syrian peers. We were still within Sweida city limits, an area completely under the control of the Assad regime. Who would dare target us here, in our own safe territory? More than a minute passed. The soldiers kept their guns trained on us but did not shoot. Then a car with tinted windows appeared—an officer’s car. It simply cut across the road, from one side to the other.
At that moment, the road was as it usually is. Almost empty. The traffic was sparse, the vehicles seeming almost lonely. The officer only had to wait thirty seconds for the bus to pass, and then he could have driven across safely. But he didn’t have to wait because he was scaring us with his soldiers and their guns; after all, they were only here to keep us, the pampered minority, safe.
But the slogans at the checkpoints, shoddily spray-painted in terrible handwriting, suggested an answer. Heartfelt messages like Assad or we’ll burn this country down! appeared at each one, next to a magnificent picture of the leader. Above, below, and around the picture were the words We love you and We’re all on your side. Then another picture, bigger and more splendid, with You’ve got this, boss written underneath. We also saw You are safe. The Syrian army is here and We are looking after your safety. There was one I didn’t understand: Syria is men with missiles! And on one small, modest checkpoint, somebody had written Our homeland is our honour! My God, how I loved that last one.
We were held at the next checkpoint for more than a quarter of an hour. An officer with two stars stitched onto his shoulder parked his car in the middle of the road, blocking both the public lane with its permanent bad luck and the military lane that is usually luckier. This was where he chose to have the suitcase in the boot of his car inspected. We watched from behind our driver as the officer folded each item of clothing and replaced it in the suitcase as carefully as if he were in his own bedroom, gazing at each item as though recalling a fond memory about this white shirt, that green sock. We looked on from our seats behind the bus driver, baffled by his elegant packing.
After our bags had been checked at the last checkpoint before Damascus, we couldn’t continue our journey. A fancy car parked in front of the bus left no space to pass through the barrier. An overweight man with a regal air, a Syrian citizen from the Lijan, was standing in front of the car. He was wearing a black suit and dark sunglasses, his moustache was shaved but he had a long beard, and he had a large revolver poking out of his belt. The checkpoint officer got up to greet him as soon as he pulled up. They embraced each other very warmly, and had a long discussion that must have been about the country’s problems. The passengers aboard the bus were careful to show their respect for their country’s etiquette by patiently waiting for the pair to reach an effective solution.
What do these checkpoints look like? Apart from the sand-stained, thirsty oleander bushes along the roadside, the checkpoints afford a demonstration of recycling techniques as far as the eye can see. Nature’s waste is transformed into walls and a roof where the soldiers can shelter: tall, sun-baked barriers of sand, the grains melting under the sun, are reinforced with patched-up rubber tyres, rusty metal panels from the bodies of damaged cars or oil cans, and crumbling concrete blocks from demolished, evacuated buildings. When the soldiers get bored standing around, they entertain themselves with rocks of all sizes, moving them around, arranging them in horizontal and vertical lines, or creating slalom courses like the ones in driving schools. They might move the checkpoint a hundred metres forwards or back, or widen the military lane to wave through pretty girls, who soften the soldiers’ hearts with a laugh or a whiff of perfume.
Most of the soldiers we saw hadn’t visited their families in more than a year, and most should have completed their military service long before that. Most hadn’t eaten food fit for a soldier—or had their fill of the terrible food they did have—even once. They hadn’t bathed in warm water for a lifetime. They could not have been more than twenty years old. They should have been in their early years of university, studying and dating and brimming with hope. As they searched our luggage and inspected us, it seemed as though their exhaustion reached their souls. They all asked for water to drink.
One of them stepped up to the driver’s window. ‘On the way back, please bring me a cold bottle of water… It has to be water from Sweida!’ he begged.
On my next journey, I’ll bring eight bottles of cold water. One for each spray-painted checkpoint on the road to Damascus.