Monday, July 04, 2011

A Syrian Short Story

He opened his eyes. The first thing that came to his mind was that he had to pee, and urgently. Clambering clumsily out of bed he rushed off to the bathroom, annoyed that he had to wear those clunky plastic slippers before going into the dimly lit, Arabic style toilet. He was always afraid that he might slip and fall into it one day if he was not careful. Having carefully aimed to the centre of the hole and not splashing anything onto the tiled, orange-coloured, floor, he took one end of the water pipe dangling from the tap and splashed water around the area to wash away any traces of urine, just like his father had shown him. Ever since his fifth birthday Samer was very proud of the fact that he didn’t need anybody to go in to the toilet with him. But his father had brought him a little wooden frame to sit on if he needed to do a number two. That was still tricky to manage with this style of toilet, especially when he had to use the pipe to wash up afterwards. He wished they had a toilet more like the one he remembered at his auntie’s house, but they had stopped going there after his mother died last year. His aunt used to give him sweets and let him watch cartoons on their TV. Their TV had channels that showed cartoons all day and night, not like the one they had in the old living room. That one only showed cartoons in the afternoon, and the rest of the time it was all boring grown-up stuff. Samer closed the bathroom door behind him and took off the red plastic slippers, resting them up against the wall, and then walked barefoot to his father’s bedroom. It was Saturday.

The bed was still made up, and his father was nowhere to be seen. Samer frowned at this, and remembered how he had stayed up till it got dark, when he had promised his father he would go to bed. He didn’t really want to go to bed last night, but he felt that if he did this on his own, without being told to, then he’d show how big he was getting. To be honest, there wasn’t much to do once the sun set anyway. The door was closed and Samer had been too afraid to go outside. It seemed that he wasn’t that big yet. The clock ticked silently on the wall as Samer stood at the doorway to his father’s room. Even though his father wasn’t there, it was somehow comforting to just be there. Everything there reminded him of Baba, the shirts hanging from the wall, the comb on the desk of drawers, his father’s prayer mat rolled up at the foot of the bed. On the wall above the bed there was a picture of his parents together. They were smiling down at him from the wall, his father had his arm around his mother and his hair was a lot blacker and thicker than it had become recently. His father’s moustache was also black in the picture, even though Samer knew that now it was mostly grey.

At that moment, a growl from his stomach reminded him that he was feeling hungry. The absence of Samer’s father would have to be thought of later, preferably after eating something. He went off to the living room to open the fridge and see what was inside. Luckily for him their fridge was quite small, and he could see the round plastic container on the middle shelf. He took it out, along with the bed of flat Arabic bread and began scooping the yoghurt with bits of bread that he tore off. Usually his father would have put the yoghurt in a plate, put some of that green stuff on top, mint, that was it, and then some olive oil on top. Everything his dad did was always so nice, but his father had not come back since going out to the mosque the day before. That was very strange indeed, and a horrible thought occurred to Samer at that moment. The night before he had taken sweets from the cupboard, whilst his father had been out of the room, and he had eaten two of them. His father always told him to never eat more than one sweet, otherwise his teeth would go black and fall out. Maybe the bird had told his father about this and now his father was upset and had left him. He pushed the bad thought out of his mind. He didn’t want to start crying now that he was trying so hard to be a big boy. Still, the fear lingered in his mind and his little heart had beat a little bit faster whenever he wandered too close to it. Soon his father will be back and everything will be alright. 

Before sitting down to eat, he decided to turn on their TV from the button. He didn’t know how to use the control, the buttons confused him and when he played with it once before the television gave off a horribly loud noise and the screen would go white. Only his father knew how to fix it when that happened. No, it was far safer to turn it on from the button on the front. The TV always came on properly when he did it that way. As it slowly came to life, he went back to the sofa and began to eat bits of bread. There were no cartoons yet, only some bald man with a moustache talking about something for grown-ups. It all seemed incredibly boring, sometimes a song would play and there were always pictures of the Syrian flag. He knew it was the Syrian flag because his father told him, but he had no idea what a flag was supposed to be or why it was important. His father once said that this flag was for all of us, that we were all Syrians and our flag was the most important thing. At the time, Samer didn’t really understand or pay much attention, it all seemed silly, but since he was now trying to be a grown up, he decided that he must start paying attention and do more grown up things. He decided to start practicing from now, and stared at the screen with the same look his father did. It made him feel like such a big boy! But he still didn’t know what all the fuss was about. The man was saying something about how everything was fine, but that there were terrororists (difficult word, he decided to ask his father about it when he was back) who came from outside, and that they were doing bad things. The TV showed a lot of police men carrying big boxes with that same Syrian flag on it, and people were throwing rice on them. One of the poor police men couldn’t keep his eyes open and Samer wondered for a second whether the man might trip and they’d all drop the box. That didn’t happen, and the bald man with a moustache came back on to talk some more. He said that we were all OK because the president would look after us. Samer chewed the bread intently whilst watching, but he dripped a bit of yoghurt on his shirt and had to turn to get a Kleenex. He wiped it deliberately and carefully, feeling embarrassed that he couldn’t even eat without making a mess, let alone watch television like an adult.  As he turned back to the television he could see the president with some older children, and they were giving him flowers. The president looked like a very nice man, and he was tall with a warm smile. He seemed happy to be with the children, and Samer wondered what it would be like to meet him. That would be so exciting! Just then he felt comfortable, knowing that the president would protect them from these terrerorists or whatever you call them. Maybe if the president knew that Samer was a big boy, he might let him help him with the grown up things that presidents do. Then his father would be really proud of him.

His father! Where was he? Samer looked at the door, and the empty living room around him. He remembered the sweets and began to feel frightened again. Maybe his father really was angry, he had never left him alone before. At that moment a coldness gripped his chest, and he dropped the peace of bread that he had been about to eat. Tears began to well from his eyes and a slow cry came out of his mouth. He was going to live in this house all alone, his father had left him and his mother had died in that accident a year ago. He turned to the side of the couch and buried his face in the pillow, crying. He must have fallen asleep at some point because the knock on the door woke him with a start. Maybe baba was back? Samer jumped up, but decided against opening the door because he was never supposed to open it to strangers. He waited for what seemed ages, staring at the big blue metal portal. There was another knock. Then a voice, female, called out. ‘Samer? Samer open the door darling, it’s me, you’re Auntie, please open.” Samer paused for another moment, then clicked the door lock with his thumb. It creaked open slowly and his aunt appeared. As soon as she saw him she burst into tears, hugging and kissing him. He stood there motionless, not quite sure what to do. Her warm tears were on his cheeks and he felt her hands touching his face and going through his hair. “Samer habibi you’ll be coming with me alright?” “But baba will be worried about me!” he cried nervously. His aunt muttered something to herself and then began crying even harder. “Don’t worry my darling, baba had to go for a long journey and he asked that you stay with us till he gets back. You'd like to come and play with Yosra and Abd wouldnt' you?….Yallah habibi, you’re Uncle Shafik is waiting for us in the car". The door closed behind them. 

That night the house was dark. The only thing that could be heard was the ticking of the wall clock in the bedroom. In a picture hanging on the wall a handsome young couple smiled out into empty space.

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