Monday, October 17, 2016

One Day In Damascus Airport

I remember arriving with my mother and brothers at Damascus airport sometime in the early nineties. It was a horribly depressing place. My mother was dealing with some paper work so I sat on our luggage, staring at people as they went by. There was a boy who spoke English with an American accent. I think his parents were dealing with paperwork too. We love paperwork in Syria. Without it, things would simply work, and that wouldn't do. No, paperwork kept the illusion of order, and discipline.

The boy was running around behind the columns playing some sort of game. Then he turned and yelled to his parents. They looked back to see what the matter was, and he was pointing at the floor and laughing. "There's kaka. There's kaka on the floor" he said. "Well leave it alone and come here" they replied.

He was right. Earlier, I'd noticed as we passed that there was a piece of shit behind one of the pillars. I suppose it's something strange when I think about it today, but that's one of the things you got used to seeing in Syria back then. 

There was also an Indian woman with her two children who was trying to find her way through the bureaucracy. She asked a porter for directions but he continually ignored her and walked on. "Excuse me," she insisted, "Hello? Could you tell me..." 

"Sorry!" he finally bellowed at her in his Syrian accented English. People turned to look for a fraction of a second and then everybody went about their business. The woman stood there with a stunned look on her face. He said it like it was the only word he knew, and it probably was. I couldn't help but feel sorry for the poor woman, for how embarrassed, shocked, and sad she must have felt to be yelled at like that in front of her two children. This was supposed to be an international airport. I was half tempted to get up and apologise to her, but when you're a kid you just stare dumbly at things that are happening because you're not sure about what you've just seen. 

We got the paperwork sorted and left, and that was our first day in Syria for the summer holidays. There was "kaka" behind a pillar and a poor Indian woman being yelled at by a porter who couldn't speak English. 

Sunday, October 02, 2016

The Most Beautiful City I'll Never See

Once, before the bad days, I had the chance to visit Aleppo and I never took it, something that I now bitterly regret. Perhaps one day, when this is all past us, and by some miraculous coincidence, I may walk through its narrow streets and think back to these days. But it wouldn't be the same city. The stones might get put back together again in a bastardised version of what it once was, but I'll always know this isn't the same place. There'll be a spiritual scar that will take a long time to heal. One day there will be a generation of people who will have forgotten about all this, about us, and about what we saw and felt, and the suffering of this time will simply be a paragraph in a book. Something that happened a long time ago, but faded from the collective memory because the present pushes with it a thousand little problems that are more important than the memory of a time from before their grandparents - from our present. 

I know that what's in the past will stay in the past, but as I sat on a train today thousands of miles away I thought of this city, of the space it occupies in my mind, and of chances not taken. I felt myself taken back to that internal world where people who are long gone still live. That place I can only visit unexpectedly. When I sit with a group of people my mind sometimes drifts far away. It doesn't take much. A word, a smell, a phrase, and I'm transported there, to that place nobody can reach. I call it the Dream Place. And while everyone carries on talking, I nod and politely pretend to listen to them, while my feet wander through the streets of a far away city. I'm on the train, and now I'm in the Dream Place. Things were easier back then, before the bad times, when I could get on a big bus, not like the "microbuses" in Damascus, and put my headphones on to listen to music as the driver hurtles dangerously through the traffic. I close my eyes and try to ignore the uncomfortable seats and the dryness of my throat from the air conditioning. Every now and then, I would look out of the window and see the landscape slowly change from city to suburb and then to the odd village or town. They flash by in a series of images as we move from the familiar to the unfamiliar. I close my eyes again. The journey goes by mercifully fast. I'm in Aleppo now and my cousin greets me. I know that I am still in Syria but it is both familiar and alien to me. The delicate Aleppine accent, so strange to me and yet so exotic, fills my ears. It is as if the people of this city want to make a statement. We are here, they say, and this is our city and it has always been here and always will be. 

I'm tired but I hunger for more and the city beckons. The sun is setting and I lose myself in the narrow streets of the old town. I enter the covered bazaar and the lights are on for all the shops now. Their owners welcome me, spreading their arms over a thousand and one containers of brightly coloured spices and herbs and grains. In other stores, roll upon roll of delicate fabrics fit for a princess are spread out for all to see. Copper pots, pans and plates hang from the walls as a man taps delicate words of magic into yet another addition to his stock. The smell of cardamom and freshly ground coffee fills my nostrils. I breathe in the air of the market, drinking it into my soul. It is the scent of life, of a city that has seen a thousand generations wander through these same streets. Near an overflowing green bin the bored street cats yawn and stretch idly, hoping to catch scraps from the food hawkers and passers-by.

Other shops have sweets on display, baklawa and mabroomeh and countless pistachioed delights that I can't even begin to name, all arranged in rows and circles and spirals. Packaged and ready for all occasions in gold and silver ribboned boxes. Sacks of purple skinned Aleppo pistachios are laid out before me as I walk on. I love all this, the city's wonder, it's confidence, the warmth of the people. My long gone relative insists we go to the citadel, and I stare at the narrow path leading to its gate. From the ramparts, I feel the gentle breeze of the land and I know what it is as I did when it sighed in my face once in Antakia, in another life and another place, and it's the smell of home and love and gentle long nights pining for someone who will never know. Of the ache of love for the sake of love. And it's where I want to be and where I am right now, in this dream place, real even though I know it's not because it's in my heart. 

The city lights twinkle amber and green all around me from the dark, and a call to prayer echoes across the night. I think of all the people who have stood on these walls over the centuries, right at this spot, and I feel a connection with them. Did their heart flutter in their chests in the same way? We wander through the winding streets again, leaving the citadel behind. The city sleeps now and I walk alone. Even the street cats have disappeared. Then, out of the corner of my eye, there is a movement. An Aleppine princess, combing her long red hair in front of a mirror, sits delicately by an open window. She doesn't know that I'm watching, and I don't know how, but I know it's a beautiful ivory comb she holds in her delicate white hands, with mother of pearl on the handle. I stand in the gloom, afraid to breathe for fear it would startle her, afraid, perhaps, to wake up from my Dream Place and leave this wonderful daydream. My eyes burn with anguish and longing. Wishing I could be part of this picture, part of this world. To not be a stranger anymore, always looking in from the outside, cursed to forever watch from afar. The princess gets up and walks away from the window and the lights go out. I stand alone again, bathed in the orange street light, and the moment has passed, forever a secret known only to me. 

The sound of loud thuds hurts my ears and the ground shakes beneath my feet, but there's nowhere for me to hide. I see images of the same market I'd passed through earlier, but it is a ruin, smouldering, burnt by some unseen calamity. The citadel's lights are off and it's walls stare down menacingly over us all. I look around but there is nobody about, and in the sky thunder claps loudly though there are no clouds. The street cats hiss at me from a corner, driven mad by fear, and a stench of dust and decay fills the once fragrant air. There is no breeze here, no happiness or welcome, only a dead, stale nothing. Terrified, I look up to the window again, looking for my Aleppine princess, but the window frame is hanging loosely by one flimsy hinge, its glass broken, and I can tell, again without knowing why, that the house is now empty.


Monday, August 01, 2016


Sometimes I feel ragged and used up, like yesterday's newspaper. It's Monday. The time is 18:43. I'm sitting in a cafe because I can't sit at home and listen to the quiet. I can't watch a movie like I do every night and escape from it all. I can't sit and listen to the crushing silence. I look at the last five years, the last seven years, the last ten years, and think to myself, "My God, has it been that long? Where did all that time go?" It didn't go anywhere. It sticks with me, time. It's right here. I can feel the clock hands ticking, and I might think things are moving, but really it's always been just me and the thoughts in my head.

This weekend I took the Yorkshire Three Peak challenge. It's a twenty four mile march across three mountain peaks that has to be done in under twelve hours. I did it, and it was hard. When I finished I was shaking all over, and my body felt broken, but inside I felt good. For a day I was able to switch off the thoughts in my head and to move on. To let things go and focus on the moment I am in. There was no mobile signal, no news for me to follow. It is as if there was no revolution or war or suffering anywhere in the world, and in the moments where I paused to catch my breath, I looked around me and there was nobody for as far as my eyes could see.

For the first time in years I was surrounded by total silence. There was no bird song, no wind blowing, and it was as if I was all alone in the universe. Such a simple act, a simple journey, that took me farther away from myself, and yet closer to who I am, than anything I'd felt before. I was so happy, I hunger for it still, as I type this. I sit and think about that real world, about that place where it is just you, stripped of everything that isn't important, and the path ahead, and I look forward to walking it again.


Tuesday, July 12, 2016


I've had this blog for ten years. TEN years. People have lived and died in this time, and whole countries born or erased forever. I suppose I should use this time to reflect over who I've become, and how I've changed. I know I have, I need only leaf through the pages of the early years, when I would vent and attack and rant for causes that are long dead, people that were never that important, and problems that existed only in my head.

 It's funny, now that I think about it, how much this blog shaped my life. It went from something I doodled amateurish scribbles on into my sanctuary from the world. Hidden between its pages are countless loves, disappointments, and heartbreaks. I wanted it to be some kind of online political hotspot, to be a place where my analysis of the world could finally be appreciated. I think it did the opposite. With every word I typed, it seeped a little of my confidence in what I was saying until the certainty drained out of it. But perhaps the biggest change was the terrible blow of losing a home. I still can't accept that, or grasp the enormity of the past five years.

Inside me, there is a part that has never moved on, that still expects everything to go back exactly as it was before. I think it will never leave me, and I will carry it with me always. I might have children one day, and they'll ask me things, but how can I tell them about people that have long vanished, and a life that is so alien to them? It is as if one person was with me in a room, and then they walked out, and someone else walks in and asks me what happened and who had been in the room before them.

They both inhabit the same space, but are destined never to meet. This strikes me as something sad. My mind is filled with sights and sounds and colours and experiences. Countless memories and thoughts swim through it of this first time, the "before". And yet, for those who will walk into this room later, I have only words. I can try to explain to them, to paint a picture as best as I can, but the dead and absent cannot speak through me, they stay silent.

It's a little bit like love. The faces change over the years, and sometimes they ask me about who came before. I lie and say no one, and my lips brush her's. My hand runs a stray lock of hair behind her ear, and we laugh because she doesn't believe me and I know that. And I look at her face and I marvel, memorizing the lines and each birthmark, and the way her hair is brushed, and what her eyes are like up close. Then the room is empty again, but a little bit of them remains in your head, and it's not something you can ever share or bring out again. You just carry it around with you like so much extra luggage.


Monday, July 11, 2016

Baby Steps

I've forgotten what it's like to blog. The clue should have come to me from the  name, a blog is a "weblog", and it's supposed to be a place where I ponder my thoughts about what's going on. At some point I lost sight of that, and the resulting paralysis has gone from weeks to months to years. I'll have to take baby steps again, to relearn things that I once knew and start applying them again. In a way, that's a bit like Syria. Sure, we like to pretend we have a five thousand or ten thousand year old civilization and culture, but really we're infants on the global stage. None of us has a clue what we're doing so we just stumble about and feel our way through the darkness, looking for a light switch.


Saturday, May 07, 2016

Uncomfortably Numb...

Last week a Russian orchestra was playing a concert in Palmyra. In a grotesque pantomime, Putin sent his forces into Syria to prop up a clown against the enemy he helped to create. Celebrating a victory against a foe they didn't even fight, the Russians celebrated with pomp and fanfare. There, amidst the ancient ruins, notes of classical music rang out triumphantly. It was meant to symbolize the victory of civilization over barbarism, of light over darkness, and yet across large parts of Syria, especially in those that the Russian planes dropped their bombs, darkness reigns.

Men in white helmets are obliterated as they desperately try to save the people the Russians are "saving" from barbarism. The helmet doesn't mean anything, really. It's a symbol, like a uniform. It's a comforting illusion in times of stability, to think that the person represents something. But in Syria it becomes tragic in its futility. There is no infrastructure behind the men wearing white helmets, no vengeful government that can protect them from abuse. They're like ancient tribesmen who enter a battle against modern armies wearing only magical amulets, thinking they will be protected. It's all very depressing when you think about it.

Being Syrian is like being an unwilling actor in a play that repeats forever. You think you are going somewhere for a quiet coffee, and as soon as people realize where you are from, a reaction is inevitable. "Oh, I'm so sorry" they'd say. Or there is always the, "I can't imagine how you feel". And I just want to reply, "Actually I feel perfectly fine". But that won't do.

Instead I nod my head in a move that's been rehearsed a thousand times. Sometimes I shrug my shoulder for variety. I give out a sigh and say stoically, "What can you do?", but inside, I'm just screaming for the conversation to move on. I don't want to talk about it. I don't want to keep saying the same things over and over. I've said everything I have to say, I don't have anything more to give you. There is no inside story, no more tragedy that can be spoken about. My bank of emotion is spent and it's not giving out any overdrafts.


Wednesday, April 20, 2016


As my plane flew to Syria, I remember that I was looking out of the window and saw the sky turning from blue to a reddish haze, before melding into the purple of early night. The plane's wings glinted golden from the sun behind us. I was reading the autobiography of Carl Gustav Jung. I remember that I enjoyed it, and was glad to have it distract me from thinking about the reason for this trip.

Three years later, I am on a microbus in no-man's land. This is the first time I am going to set foot in the country since it all started. For some reason I start to cough continually. My throat feels like a sandpit and I have trouble swallowing. I look out the window and I see the dusty red earth of Turkey and northern Syria melding, black stones scattered across. There is a deserted farm house in the land between the borders. Its roof is long gone, the stone walls bare and falling apart. I try hard to suppress the cough but it's no use. My friend pats me on the back, hoping it'd help. It doesn't. I feel better when we get out and walk to the checkpoint. 

There are several men with machine guns at the checkpoint, and a man in a black mask checks my friend's rucksack. The man in the mask is very polite, explaining calmly that they need to make sure nobody smuggles weapons across the border. They find nothing and wave us through, thanking us for our cooperation. There is a boy sitting on the back of a pick-up truck with a bored expression on his face. He's smoking and on his lap lies a machine gun.

Decades before, I am on the balcony of my grandfather's villa. The sun is setting and I see the golden orb start dipping below the horizon. For the first time in my life I see an enormous flock of birds in the sky. I'd never seen so many before. They move as if animated by one will, like the bee swarms I saw in cartoons. They fly as if into the sunset. 

I remember having a crush on a girl in Damascus. It is one of those hopeless infatuations you have when you are still thirteen. It was the first time of many more to come that I would stay up all night thinking of somebody, wondering if she thought of me, reading into every gesture, every look, every word her lips pronounced. My mind's eye would replay our brief encounter, and think of all the things I could have or should have said. The days and months are measured by the number of mentions I'd hear of her name. When I left Syria, I was still young enough to dream of coming back to Damascus one day, of opening a computer shop, marrying her, and living happily ever after.

There is a smell to Damascus that I would recognise anywhere. It is a smell of old stone, earth, and humidity, with undertones of garbage. Even human bodies smell different there: a muskier scent mixed with the sourness of sweat. These are strange things to remember. The city has a lot of cats. I remember a yellow cat with one eye. A pigeon with a gnarled, stubby foot.

In another memory, I am in a taxi. I look out of the window, and I see an old woman in traditional garb hobbling towards the street, looking towards the oncoming traffic. She's just lifted her face veil to get a good look at something, and I'm shocked at what I see. Her jaw hangs like a bag of skin, an elongated gaping mouth dangles. In an instant we have moved on and she vanishes in the distance.

Strange, silly memories flash in my mind from a vanished life. Hovering around me like friendly ghosts.