The Syrian Experience
By Hibbah Jarmankani
Excerpt feat. in Fools Vol. 5
After eight long years of being away from my country, I could step foot on its soil once more only to see it has changed. Buildings that once stood tall and proud now lay in ruins littered with bullet holes of various sizes. In peering through some of these holes I could see whole dining rooms tattered with destruction, toys haphazardly thrown around, shattered picture frames capturing memories that families had been forced to leave behind. Roads we once sped down were now covered in rubble with indentations left behind by the catastrophic impact of a bomb. Two hour journeys turned into six. Every few miles stopping at a checkpoint and desperately trying to bribe soldiers to shorten our journey, only to be left with frustration and anger at our futile attempt. I remind myself that these young men spend all hours of the day in the sun and are only trying to survive something I could never imagine. I remind myself that I knew things would be different.
I've followed every headline for the past eight years. I've seen every picture. I’ve come to expect the worst. But to expect it is different than to drive down a street soaked in water and blood. I watch the asphalt absorb the mixture; the road thirstily welcoming any release in the heat of the summer. It’s different when pixelated images of shelled buildings, featured in just about every news article, materialize before my eyes, and I can’t help but envision the families that once occupied their spaces. Perhaps they were having breakfast together or perhaps the women were drinking mate and eating sunflower seeds while the mother yelled at her daughter to stop chasing after her little brother before one of them got hurt. It's different when I see the belongings of those who lost their homes being sold by street vendors. Again, I become angry. How could one person’s loss be used for another to profit off of? Desperation to survive in this war torn place had taken something from everyone. Who was I to judge the morality of others? The lines of morality seem to blur to oblivion, leaving even esteemed ethicists scratching their heads in frustration. In a state of war, there is chaos, desperation, and unimaginable loss. And there is survival.
These thoughts run through my mind as I wait for some sort of familiarity and childhood nostalgia. When I reach my destination, I release the breath I didn't realize I was holding in. I start seeing familiar faces, my whole family lined up to greet me. My cousin's kids who were born in my absence embrace me as if they've known me their whole lives. I breathe in the familiar smells of the olive and peach trees mixed in with the scent of a recently lit cigarette. For a moment, I forget everything I just saw and revel in the memories I have here. All the times I waited for my mother to be distracted with guests so I could escape for a night stroll on one of my cousin's motorcycles. The long walks I took with my cousins, only stopping at the street vendors to buy all the shawarma and fatayer I could possibly fit in my stomach. Our conversations during our walks ranged anywhere from political debates, me teaching them curse words in English, or them posing the inevitable question of “Which do you like more, Syria or America?” I recall the early mornings sitting with my grandmother, adorning her footah and refusing to start her day without her self-made eyeliner. I remember the way it felt when my grandfather gripped my hand in his firm grasp; every so often he would squeeze it to remind me that I am always safe in his arms. I carry with me the precious moments of playing with my cousins’ kids in the street and having them fight over which of their homes I was to visit next. With every home I entered, I knew copious amounts of mate and sunflower seeds would be waiting because what's mate without sunflower seeds?
For my two weeks, I spent much of my time reliving these old memories and building new ones. I was finally home, but even home had changed. I could not ignore the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees tarp protecting my cousins’ shop from the wind, nor the humanitarian aid boxes labeled “feed Syria,” found on the doorstep of every home. The news channel became the background noise of every household on the street, often drowned out by lively conversation. That is until the solemn voice of a newscaster with apparent frown lines would ring through the speakers of the TV signaling the all too familiar chime of a breaking news alert. Everyone’s attention would suddenly be redirected toward the screen in an attempt to predict the words the broadcaster was forming, hoping that his lips were not assembling the name of a loved one. They observe with bated breath the images of those kidnapped by ISIS flashing upon the screen hoping they do not see a familiar face. They don’t this time and resume their conversations, only to repeat the cycle the next time a nearby village is attacked. I noticed that life had gone on but not without leaving its scars. Everyone had suffered a loss. I had this delusion that my family would come out of this unscathed; I was wrong. The war would leave its mark on the hearts and minds of everyone. Whether that be the brother of my cousin’s wife who was sniped down and killed or the next door neighbor who had been orphaned by the war. Two instances of many outlining the pain endured before I even touched my shoes in the bloodied soil of home.
One night I beared witness to this horror. My family and I began to hear gunshots just outside the gate to my grandparents’ house. As they went off, no one panicked. No one even flinched. It was almost as if nothing happened until later we heard the news. A young man had died en route to the hospital because the hospital closest to him no longer had any doctors. The next day they held his funeral. Everyone had their clothes ready for wear as if they had done this hundreds of times before. Because they had. Death was everywhere. Sometimes it was blatant, found in the images hung up high upon the light posts in every town of young men who had lost their lives fighting for their country. Everytime I looked up towards the sky I would be reminded that my pain was but a grain of sand in a sea of suffering. Their faces were constant reminders that no small village, city, or capital was spared in the carnage. It is as if they were speaking to you to say that wherever you go, there is a mother that weeps over the loss of her child as she pulls their lifeless body into her chest, a father that embraces his wife as they both cry together, kneeling in the rubble of their home. A brother or sister that have seen more death in their lifetime than comprehensible to the point where death seems to be the only escape. The images of the fallen remind you of the overwhelming number of cemeteries in each town where you will find headstones that carry 40 of the same family name. Headstones that remain nameless in reflection of the empty grave that sits below, wherein those that died for their land are even deprived in death of rejoining with it. Death permeated the very elements needed for life. It was in the air when you looked up at those images. It was in the soil for which life was suppose to be grown from. It was in steady streams of tears and blood. Death was so prominent that the hearts left beating were hemorrhaging in despair. This, this is what I saw and experienced in two weeks. Two weeks in a war about to reach its three hundred and ninety-second.