Journey from Exile

Translated by: Tharaa Alhosain

[Original Text in Arabic]

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There is a chance that this text will be published, perhaps on a website that is followed by Syrians every day, which I consider to be an achievement in itself., Perhaps one day I can write an article in a physical newspaper, before that medium is extinct. Perhaps  Britain’s Independent was hasty in issuing its final edition – perhaps it will regret that. In the event that newspapers survive,  I would be fortunate to be able to achieve this little dream.

A dream 

In elementary school, I dreamed of carrying a rifle and heading to liberate Palestine; I did not like the idea of an explosive belt. I would rather die of a bullet. But I was under the age of 18, which obstructed this dream, as it was difficult to access Lebanon without parental authorization.

In elementary school, I was constantly careful to emphasize that I had not forgotten my oaths before my friends. If I were called for a commando operation in the heart of Tel Aviv, even if it were my wedding night, I would not hesitate!

New dreams started to loom on the horizon: students in the school began to share a dream of enrolling in Civil Aviation in Jordan. I joined my friend Waseem in that dream before he withdrew from the one of Tel Aviv.

Today, Waseem works as a doctor and writes poetry as well, but I wonder what common dreams we would share now. I’m afraid that after all this time, he has decided to follow a different. I’m afraid he writes poems for the leader of the resistance ¹. What is your stance on all of this today, Waseem?!

My father, who knew only about the Aviation dream, began to complain that the price would be too great and it would depend on my grades in mathematics and physics. However, the aviation dream faded away as the twin towers collapsed.  At that time, a “confused” communist friend told me that some Japanese Red Army (JRA) pilots were responsible for the attack. That day we were at a protest in front of the High Commission of the United Nations in Abu Rummaneh neighbourhood in Damascus. There was a hunger strike in front of the headquarters, where people were sitting on the stairs for days.

I spent a reasonable part of my pocket money in book stores, not to buy any books, but to make copies and buy black or red Keffiyehs, cardboard, Palestinian flags, or- in case I could not find them- Baath Party flags, cloth and blue paint.

Later I would use the money to buy a virtual space on an American server to publish some reproduced photos and news about the Palestinian uprising and its martyrs.

“Zahrat Almadaen,”² a song by Fairouz³ was sung repeatedly on the radio during that period, whenever Palestine happened to be mentioned. That led me to own the first and the last cassette collection, to show them off before my cousins, who reside in in the United States, on one of their visits to Syria.

Now I Have a Rifle

But my rifle was somewhat different from the one I wanted during my school days, or when I was a participant in the Syrian Communist Party’s activities, or even during the time of the war in Iraq. I had obtained a driver’s license and begun to drive our car. The model was Peugeot 504, which was inseparable from the Syrian security authorities.

My father had bought it from an auction of government vehicles, and I did not hesitate to stick the Syrian president Assad’s photo on its rear windscreen, which I kept tinted (fumé). I felt just as if I were inside an armoured tank while driving it in the streets of Damascus.

 Country Roads 

At that stage, one of the most important activities and hobbies I had was burning the Israeli flag, which used to fill me with a strange sense of courage.  One day, after the authorities suppressed the strike in front of the United Nations Headquarters, I found a leaflett written in the form of a poem. It was a mockery of our demonstrations and chants, and a denigration of all Arab governments.  As I remember, its title was something like: “You are ridiculous … your marches and your chants are ridiculous.”  That discovery shocked me and pushed me into reality.

Later, I became deeply frustrated. No flags burning opportunities in the middle of the street, no further activities that contained such excitement.  Moreover, the incident of September 11th began to raise a tremendous number of questions.

I felt totally lost, as if those scenes had only just ended, as if they were from a film in the cinema.  The state security authorities ended the strike. People left and Abu Rummana Street went back to normal, just like any other day.

That strike was not the last. It was in this period that I started to notice new characteristics to the movements in the streets.For the strike not exiting  from government gates, nor from schools, and to not be scrutinized at roll call was a tempting and exciting concept.

The strike was suppressed violently. I carried the handbill and promised my Communist friend to be entirely responsible if he would allow me to make copies of that paper and distribute it in the streets.  I consider the consequences for me to have been lucky. I faced only a few slaps and kicks, as one of my relatives knows the brigadier-general, so I was released a few hours later.

My Communist friend communicated with me only after he was sure I fulfilled my promise. This took him several months.  He took the same time years later to verify the pictures and videos taken and recorded in Daraa4.

Damascus- Jableh

 Rami, my first friend at Tishreen University, and I were standing at the gate of the university after a long day of lectures, some of which we had decided to ditch and have a cup of coffee in the cafeteria instead.  He invited me with a group of friends to his home in the city of Jableh. We all welcomed that kind invitation, but Rami, taking my hand and walking me far from the others, whispered to me, “Ahmed! You know that I am Alawite, don’t you?”  I answered him laughing, “I could have guessed.”  Rami was slightly confused, but continued with a soothing tone, “Does that mean you have no problem entering my home? I am not joking with you! I have no idea about Damascenes and I have never been to Damascus. But frankly, what I do know is that for a Sunni from Damascus to enter an Alawi’s house is absolutely not normal!’’

Rami was not naive, however, he might have been overly blunt to clarify his vision of reality in such a way for someon as naive as me.

In the academic training camp5, our refuge behind the dormitory was discovered during an impromptu (roll call). The first question was to Rami: “Where did you come from?” The second was also directed to Rami. There was no need for lieutenant to explain further for Rami to answer straight away, “Khiatian”*. Before that, I had no idea that Rami’s answer meant to clarify his affiliation with one of the largest Alawite clans in Syria.

The confident accent of his reply and its impact on the lieutenant’s face appeared to me as though he had raised a security ID card, giving Rami grounds to transfer the lieutenant to a disciplinary committee or to deprive him of any military upgrade in the future.

I was very confused. Both Rami and the lieutenant’s sharpness had not helped me to prepare my answer. “I am from Syria.”  I could not predict the required answer as Rami had.  My answer caused the heaviest and deepest outbursts of anger from the lieutenant, and led to a military slap on my cheek, followed by a military punishment worthy of all of us, as the lieutenant would declare.

Today, Rami works in Dubai. I do not know whether he would contact me in case he decides to visit Paris one day, as he used to do without hesitation every time he wanted to visit me in Damascus.

  Exile

You may be one of the followers of this website, a Syrian living in Syria or abroad. I may also have the fortune of publishing this article at the moment of receiving good news, such as real humanitarian aid entering Daraya, the town besieged for three years, or perhaps there will be no massacre.

Perhaps I digress. I received an email I sent to my friend Omar with a file attached: a draft of this article.  I open the email, then the file, and I see red lines, question marks and notes. I laugh.  I imagine him sitting before his small screen, puffing his cigarette and pulling his hair before he begins writing his notes. He likes mastering things; this is why I ask his opinion in every detail.  Our friendship started in prison five years ago and here in exile it is thriving. Today, he works as a professor of Arabic language in one of the high schools in Paris.

Paris … maybe you’re in Paris now, Syrian or French. There are many possibilities of who you may be. However, allow me to cast you as a hero of one of the following situations:

You may now be sitting either in the subway or in the bus, or probably you are waiting for hours for some number to appear next to some city, on that screen which mediates a large hall in a large train station. Perhaps you are sitting now waiting for hours also, sitting cross-legged on a small mattress in a small room in exile, or in your country.

There is an old cafe at a corner in a neighbourhood in Paris, or at that station. I may pass it by while you are sitting in that café. I ask you about an address; you probably answer my question, or you interrupt me to apologize because I have not used any French words in my request, so you could not understand anything, or because you had thought I wanted to solicit a cigarette or lighter or some pennies, or because you are used to apologizing as soon as you see someone approach you out of the blue.

Probably we have met on one of the streets of this city. I was waiting for someone while you were there to buy a small piece of weed. For some reason, you thought I might be the seller, so you asked me. Perhaps I apologized, or I just walked away, bailing on my appointment to go cry my eyes out somewhere.

Probably I appeared in front of you abruptly, impeding your way on the left side of the escalator in one of the stations. It could be me, also, who sat next to you a while ago in one of the metro cars, speaking to my neighbour in a local dialect from somewhere in southern Africa. Filling the metro with our laughs and incomprehensible language, gossiping about our husbands, perhaps you looked at me deprecatingly, and probably you just laughed and laughed.

Let’s forget about possibilities; surely a fly has entered my small room. Usually, I do not leave the window open before June, because, as our friend Bashir had told us, Paris does not know seasons. Bashir had said he had been thinking of returning to his homeland for more than twenty years. He was able to do so after his passing.

I hate flies, big (as they call it Faras6 where I came from) or small, blue or black, insect or larva, with its benefits or its harms: it makes no difference to me. I feel chills whenever it approaches me. I imagine, as soon as I hear its buzz, a big piece of shit, some of it carried in its pockets.

 Shit

When a teacher in a school, an officer in military recruitment centres, or sometimes clerks in some of the official state departments were struck by anger, “shit” was the common expression towards a general category of people: Students, workers, employees, people visiting government departments for some requirements, and also those who went to one of those visits, but never returned.

The day of return 

It was not Thursday, but even so, I understood that we were to go to my grandfather’s house. This time, it was not to play with my cousins, but to see one of our distant relatives whose name is identical to mine. The instructions were to not ask any kind of question, and to just say, “Thank God for your safety.” Why? Briefly, the answer was, “He is sick and was imprisoned unjustly for more than ten years, and just a few days ago, he was released from Tadmur prison.”

We entered Alzalamlik7, where for the first time,I watched my grandfather cry, and the old man as well, who were sitting next to a bald ghost and some relatives. The ghost was looking at the floor as we approached him. He raised his head, smiling as if it were his last smile, and we exchanged greetings: “God bless you.’’

I do not remember anything else about that day, except observing him, and busying myself, trying to understand what was going on.  How was it possible for a human being to stay in prison all that time? What was he doing there? Why is everything related to the Muslim Brotherhood? Why is everyone fearfully pronouncing it? Are we not all Muslims? I watched the men cry in silence, which was sometimes broken by someone uttering words like “Oh God!”

I had many questions I wanted to ask, not the least of which was whether the bald man’s hair had grown in prison or not, or whether he was watching cartoons at the moment he was arrested.

Signal Booster

One of the memories I recall from time to time is spending hours every summer on the roof of the building fixing the booster’s antenna. the antenna turned the gloomy TV screen in our house into a window, taking us around the world through the Lebanese Future TV channel, rather than  covering the beloved leader Hafez al-Assad’s visits, or his burial protocols, and, before that, the farewell of his son Bassel al- Assad. The most important thing was the punctuality of the children’s programs. Sometimes the booster did not work, transforming summer holidays into a nightmare, during which we would do anything to ease the burning summer and its disturbing flies.

I had been committing collective massacres against the flies when I was younger, using environmentally friendly chemical weapons, such as Pif Paf, or sometimes electric detonators, but I always felt remorse after each crime. And if a fly was still breathing, but dying, I hurried to hasten its salvation by squashing it under my shoes or with a thick napkin so as not to pollute my hands.

All that was before I started to restrain my innate reactions. Later, I tried to become indifferent to any fly as long as there was no food on the table.

Exile Again

I reconsidered once again my attitude towards the fly. I was sitting in that café, thinking if I could be published in a French newspaper. I would write “Zobaba,” just as I say “fly” in Arabic. Zobaba! Its name in Arabic has a special impact, which leads me to think of flies hovering at this moment over the corpse of a cow in southern India, or those hovering over someone’s corpse somewhere in Syria, someone who also hated flies. But a plane, looking like a fly, dropped explosive barrels onto that someone’s house and he died. Yet somehow another fly survived, as it flew far from civilian targets.

Such flies have been attacking vital targets for six years, since back when the food cycle was not much different. The research centre there has been busy with other projects, and that did not help to produce national pesticides that could compete with foreign ones.

On a certain day, a number of young people organized a voluntary campaign to clean up an ancient river praised by poets in the country.  Fairouz sang for its sweet breezes.  That was before someone turned it into a swamp into which sewage pours from every direction, transforming it into a fertile environment for flies.

However, Fairouz’s singing roar continued to be heard from loudspeakers in the squares for years. Sometimes, the speakers would break down to transform the tunes of the violins and the other sounds to something of a fly’s buzz, probably of a big one.

The young volunteers were arrested by the state intelligence service.  They had probably tried, but did not get a security permit for cleaning the river, so the intelligence took them somewhere underground, perhaps even somewhere that flies could not reach.

You may ask me why I talked at length about Syria and not about South India, and I ask you to tell me about your experience with flies. Perhaps now, in the end, you ask me, “so what then?” Or perhaps you will never ask me.


leader of resistance: Hassan Nasrallah, who is called the leader of resistance by his supporters such the Syrian and the Iranian regime. The third Secretary General of the Lebanese political and paramilitary party Hezbollah.

2-3  Fairuoz:  a Lebanese singer, her songs are constantly heard throughout the region, Syrian regime loudspeakers used to air her patriotic songs. “Zahrat Almadaen” is one of those songs.

Daraa: the Syrian revolution city 2011.

5 Academic training camps:  an obligatory military training during summer just for male students of Syria in the first two years of university.

6 Faras: dam .mare

7 Alzalamlik: traditionally, in old Damascene houses, Alzalamlik is the room where to greet only male guests.

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Ahmed Naji

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