Gone Astray

The interior conflict that anguishes the conscience of a Syrian woman living abroad and her decision to return to Damascus. 

(Photo: Umayyad Mosque - Damascus - 12-9-2013 [Ali as-Samadi/Wikimedia via CC-BY SA 3.0])

I carried my heart in the palm of my hand and left.

I never felt it beating while I was away.

Back in Damascus, there’s home, or at least that’s what I thought.

I returned to my city passing through the ad-Dabbusiyyah crossing at the Syrian-Lebanese border. I returned to the city that had given me my colour and my dialect and filled my lungs with its dry desert breeze. I returned to the city that had forged my atheism, my strengths, my weaknesses and my contradictions. The city that had taught me to love another city… Damascus.

For three years I did not dare to go back home. I was afraid, afraid of being arrested.

The shadow of Basil Shahadah would not leave me. He would haunt me in the streets of those magnificent European cities, saying: “I refused my scholarship to study abroad. What would I tell my children when I grow old, that I left my country seeking a better future? As for you, you come up with a different excuse every time not to go back. You’re just trying to convince yourself that whatever you’re doing here in this cold city is important.”

But it was anger and anger alone that unchained me from my fears, not Basil’s ghost.

“Death is different when you’re the one living it. Opinions do not matter, nor does any position whatsoever. All you can feel is guilt and insomnia.”

I was angry at everything, even at those who organise meetings about the current situation in my country. I was angry at all those sympathising with our cause and at those opposing it. I was angry at the culture of all cities beyond the destruction of my own country, angry at their heritage, their politicians, their clergy, their food and their language.

Death is different when you’re the one living it. Opinions do not matter, nor does any position whatsoever. All you can feel is guilt and insomnia.

Keep quiet, young lady.

Enough chants glorifying the revolutions of the world. Keep quiet, young lady.

Take another look at those people in the streets, the dead and alive. Take a look at all those men who became posters on the walls of their cities. Take a look at the black-blue sky.

They write about the country. Some stand with people, others with stones, but they seem to forget – or dismiss – that little something between the two.

I miss the blackberry tree in front of our house where I grew up. I found love in its shadows, hid between its branches and threw stones at it to eat the fallen berries. My grandmother once told me that this big tree had been shadowing our front yard since she was born.

They cut down the tree, and they cut off all my memories along with it.

I recognise this imperceptible feature in every demolished house, in the details of its loss. I see it moving from the surviving olive jar and the clothesline to the crooked ceiling, like an intermittent laugh. I see it in every shattered memory, in every child whose fate was to witness his country being divided into colours, in every child who is ashamed of belonging to this land that only reminds him of tents and blood.

I went to Damascus, to the Umayyad Mosque, my guide and my identity. I lay my hand on its stones on the outside like a child stretching out his hand to hug his mother, seeking the safety of her breast after having wandered away for days. I fear for it.

I sit inside. You are no longer allowed to sit in its courtyard. Children and families are no longer allowed to sit in its hallways.

I am afraid. I close my eyes: I see Aleppo. I open and close them again: I see the bridge of Dayr az-Zawr. I open and close them once more: I see Tadmur. I open my eyes. I do not want to see Damascus.

I want to stay here in this corner, curled up like a baby in a womb. I just want to stay here.