Time: Approximately one month before the massacres of al-Ajura and al-Qusur
Place: The city of Deir al-Zor
After the car that had taken Hatem Heddawi and his father far away from the ruins of the battle had left, he found himself at his destination, the absurd place he had arrived to.
He is a schoolboy who is not quite aware of what is going on in his country. This teenager probably lives out of time, beyond all designations and descriptions. He is in a rotten condition, poor and totally isolated, even from himself; split into two parts that do not match.
I was never sure whether I was dreaming, or to be more precise, whether I was in the middle of a damned nightmare in a place where absolute evil reigned. This whole catastrophe had changed everything. It all started by my father and me being in the house on the outskirts, far from the centre of Deir al-Zor, in the Ummal neighbourhood. It was our house, which we had taken over after moving from one leased apartment to another for years, like gypsies who only own the dawn and the bullets of betrayal.
I am Hatem Heddawi. My neck hurts from my head spinning. I am all the people I have seen in my nightmare. I am the family that used to dominate me, before the revolution came. I am the rebellion against the tribe, I am my brother who died a martyr, I am my father’s dream of a house that holds us all. I am the idiotic schoolboy we saw standing in front of the school, waiting for the big gate to open so he could enter and answer the questions in the class on nationalism. He was standing calmly in a street overlooked by a sniper’s nest.
This schoolboy for me sums up a range of unreal individuals who had become the same person, and maybe they only existed in my head. The teenager was standing there waiting for the school to open so he could get in. But we were so marked by the fighting that our fear made the teenager assume the shape of a monster who ate our reality with its empty hands. He was the perfect representation of the human block of ice that separates town and countryside.
I did not have to believe in what appeared to be his reality, because his time was so unlike mine, and in any case I am not him while I transgress my death. In any case, I thought about asking the driver to stop so I could get off and have a smoke. I wanted to take a couple of booklets out of my pocket, perfect for cheating at the exam, and then ask him to smuggle the correct answer to me given the chance. I imagined that I walked into the school with him. But my father interrupted me – interrupted my daydreams – and shouted at the teenager: “What are you doing here, boy?” The answer came, from deep down, well-like, and for me it was as if the voice came from inside of me. “There is exam in nationalism today” he said. “I am taking my high school diploma.” He was shaking his head quizzically.
“Nationalism, you dog? Come here!” my father shouted angrily. The emaciated boy came over to us. Perhaps he thought that my father was the principal of this school so full of ghosts from war and fighting. All the way over to the taxi. After he opened the door my father pulled him by the ear. “Get in the car you idiot,” he said to him. My own ear hurt a bit and I think it swelled lightly. The boy’s hard body stuck slightly to mine, as he sat down next to me on the passenger seat, and put an end to my reveries. I looked at him despondently, the idiot who had stopped me from smoking a cigarette after we had crossed two of the streets controlled by the Assad regime. We moved slowly towards the city centre.
The image of the teenager standing there waiting returns to me and crushes the violent memory that settled after the fighting. It turns into a hardened memory that almost completely dominates my personal recollection, which in essence is cut off from my recollection from the time before the revolution, almost cut in two after having been merged. The image of the teenager churned in my head like a wild, spirally thing gobbling up previous images, regurgitating them, swallowing them, pulling them back out, furiously maddening and frightening.
His breathing was almost imperceptible in the car. He was dead, crushed and broken. When we arrived at the city centre, he walked towards the school, which was open, and he entered to take his exam in nationalism. Hopefully he would pass it and hopefully I would fail it on this deadly, strange day.
Three people in a taxi, on their way towards the unknown, leaving the place surrounded by tanks and snipers. I am still in doubt whether I am having a drawn-out nightmare. Who is he, the driver that suddenly turned up on our doorstep after the battle? Precisely at six o’clock in the morning when my father and I were heading out after the past night’s siege, he was standing there waiting. “Is the bakery open,” was the stupid question he greeted us with, which bakery you devil, are you me? Have you entered this nightmare to rescue my father and me from Hell? Or are you just another fool who wants to buy bread in the Alley of Death? We would like a ride with you to town. I am the instructor and the actor, he who gazes from a dark tunnel into reality. I am the soul who controls other souls around me. I am the last person to come out of the massacre alive. Even the soldiers who attacked my father and me are a part of me, creatures that my body produces, that circle my neck, that walk back and forth in the darkness of the tunnel, the place where I am now. I laugh at naïve and immature sentences formulated by others, sentences that do not join the death journey I have escaped from just hour ago, when the Syrian army attacked our house and made it a fortification from which they could keep watch over the Free Syrian Army, which has risen up against the killing.
It could be that the exit is the shaken image of us. An image amongst thousands of images in motion that have been recorded in Syria, the image of us that has frozen in my mind and therefore remained still, and if it had not remained still we would have been killed and the image would have been torn. The image froze while we were still peacefully asleep the night before the battle that was fought in our home. We opened the door to the battle and it entered just like battles enter on dvds, the houses of other people on the other side of the planet where democracy causes waves and flooding, while here tyranny causes shelling, barrel bombs and collective destruction.
I had told my father several times that we ought to leave the damned apartment, because the mountain in front of us was plastered with military equipment, artillery and snipers. But he was worried about our unfortunate home, and therefore we had to stay under siege and open the door carefully and welcoming to a security officer who wanted to search our house. “Come inside my son, and search the house,” my father said to him. He searched the house and left again with his comrades. But from the window I could see the tank sitting in front of the house, the kind of tank that sits in front of every house in Syria. The tank that is needed to protect the image of the eternal leader and protect the honour of the homeland that has been lost to the merciless enemy and to terror groups nesting in Syria’s home. Terrorism is any citizen, cast in Assad’s universal molds in order to nurture the universe with blood and delicious meat prepared according to the recipe of the media.
The image I have in my head of my father and me bears no resemblance with real situations or our actual age. I recall the image of the teenage boy and I make my hand bleed every time I try to drag him away from the giant bullet, which is just about to hit his head, but actually I am not sure if he almost got killed. What I know for sure is that his hair is parted to the left, and evidently he has used a cheap hairspray called “Soft” to fix his hair, which tends to make people go bald. The hairspray is produced locally in Syria and it is terrific for shinning shoes. Because in Arab Syria there is no difference between the things you use to shine your shoes and your head; heads were there to be walked on by shoes, while shoes were walking heads with arrogance and wonder. What I also know for sure is that the teenager, whose presence in front of me I now doubt, had his face covered by a sandy wind stirred up by the taxi when my father told him to stop here. “Come over here, son of a dog, come over here and to hell with nationalism and those who invented it,” he shouted to him and grabbed him by his greasy hair in order to pull him inside the car. He squealed from the pain.
I am the only actor here, and it is so hard for me to be my father, my parent, and to be the tiny pea in my mother’s womb. I am a pea that the teenager maybe had kept in his pocket for a quiet moment when he was bored with the questions in the exam room. There will no doubt be one question, a very natural question, which decides whether or not he does well in his exam in nationalism. The comical question, formulated very precisely: “Do you love Bashar al-Assad?” And the clever student will write: “I love him like I love salt with my food.” In the middle of blood, destruction and meaninglessness, this teenager was a hungry body, a prisoner who for a decade or more had not left the prison. He was like a dead body, and he was me. He had the shape of my brother. I felt like throwing up over the teacher, the party representative, the president.
On my way there I had a surprise not unlike the surprise of meeting him. I was watching the outlines and shapes on the last stretch home. Our home was behind us. The driver stopped for the second time and asked us to say our prayers. When will this enormous theatric gleam come to an end? The driver informs us that the tank in front of us covers the whole broad avenue, and that it could fire a rocket at us at any time. I said my prayers in order to be covered if we were going to die. The idiotic driver, who had appeared out of the ground at the property where we were the only residents left said some strange things, something about wanting to cook breakfast with his wife, eat warm bread and drink sweet tea.
I don’t know why I was thinking about the letter Ludovic sent for fun to a girlfriend in a communist training camp, the one that got him expelled based on the allegation that he had Trotskyite tendencies. A short letter on which Kundera based a great novel. Philosophical meditations over human types, which makes fun of the Communist way, the single-minded way of thinking, and the dreadful seriousness – Kundera makes Ludovic interpret his whole life and doubt himself based on this letter. And what followed of accusations, revisionism, and refutation of his whole life, all became reasons for throwing him out of the party. The joke that he intended when he answered the letter, which had a different meaning than that of the letter. The teenager answered in form of the fantasies that emanated from his body and his words to Ludovic’s mad fantasies about not wanting to leave his first destiny, of keeping his faith in the party. The teenager was Ludovic, and I was also Ludovic, only I had been killed and tossed by the wayside while waiting for my father to avenge my death and for him to kill the teenager who is just waiting for his country’s defeat.
So what does the letter say? Let me remember, dad, and now please stop talking about repairing our home now that we’re about to leave it. The broken windows, the bricks strewn in the rooms. Nothing will be left, but the sentence will return. yes, Ludovic wrote: “Optimism is opium for the human race. The cured soul reeks of stupidity. Long live Trotsky. Ludovic.” How beautiful! He made fun of everything, broke with all literary conventions, even though he was no older than the teenager. But the Communist party and the people around him took it very seriously, and therefore he was excommunicated from the party and from his faith, while this teenager still thinks or doesn’t think that he will pass his exam in nationalism.
For four hours we were under siege together with the government soldiers in our apartment. The officers decided to take shelter in our home, which still had walls, while the other apartments were left only with their naked pillars. Clearly the regime army wanted to use us as human shields between them and the rebel forces. The iron door to the apartment had previously been broken when a grenade hit it. The free army managed to defeat the enemy who had settled in our home. Together with my father I sought shelter in our pink bathroom; I felt so romantic at that moment, dad. The officer who was in charge of the tank said to the guy who was our guest between the bricks: “Pull back, if you don’t pull back you may as well send the man and his son to Paradise.” He meant my father and I. Finally they pulled back and we were not sent to Paradise. I fetched a bucket of water and cleaned the hallway by the bathroom, rolled out a carpet and put two pillows on it. Then we lay down, my father and I, our heads facing each our way. I smoked a cigarette. I was his brother in arms. My father, in whose presence I would not normally smoke, did not protest my impudence, he let me do as I pleased.
At that moment I don’t know why, but I wished for Deir ez-Zor’s heavy whirlwind, called the Udjadj, to come, and soon after, the sandstorm began to cover us, after the artillery that had bombarded us from the mountain had again fallen silent. The sky turned orange. The only thing that the day had in store from the quiet night was the fact that the teenager was together with an illusion of a girlfriend, who in her failure to accept the joke resembled Marcita, whom Ludovic in his later life ignores. Perhaps the illusion will make him able to find a way to the school. I could suddenly feel that my chin had been shaven. I had shaven off my long beard because my father insisted that I do so. I had let it grown long with the aim of one day knitting socks to keep my sweetheart’s feet warm. How can I embrace my love with my long hair? I also shaved my head. All this I did for the regime army not to accuse me of terror when they come upon us in a surprise attack.
All right then, Ludovic. You have probably recovered from the immediate pain caused by your baffled state of being in love, because you managed to convince the teenager at the school to go inside, and in any case you now know a thing or two about the Assad regime and his awful soldiers.