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.

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