Ruled by Numbers

In wartime, the daily lives of Syrian people are controlled by numbers.

ruled-by-numbers
(A group of fishermen - Southern Corniche - Latakia - 29/06/2013 [Ahmad.aea.99/CC BY-SA 3]). (A group of fishermen - Southern Corniche - Latakia - 29/06/2013 [Ahmad.aea.99/CC BY-SA 3]).

(Latakia, Syria) While you are sitting in a café, trying to write or study or do anything that would distract you from slow death in a country that has deprived you of every reason to be happy, a poor and miserable man selling lottery tickets passes by and you think to yourself: “How could this miserable man sell me any hope? But what’s the harm? I’ll give it a shot and buy a lottery ticket. Maybe I’ll win the first prize and buy a house and a car and open up a small business for me and my friends.”

However, just as you call out to the seller holding in his hands what could be the key to making all your dreams come true, you remember that you have been sitting at that café for two hours and have already had two cups of coffee, 175 SYP (less than half a US dollar on the black market) each, and all you have is 1,000 SYP (2.5 USD). Your heart shatters and you apologise to the lottery seller. You try to hold back your tears as you watch him walk out the door with a few papers whose numbers had become a space for your imagination and dreams. You start to envy those numbers: how could they possibly determine your future?

You log into Facebook and try your best to skip the news pages because your mental state today simply does not allow you to read any news about the numbers of dead children or civilians, or how many war aircrafts took part in the raids. “What’s on your mind?” Facebook asks, and you type: “1,000 SYP”. Of course, no one would understand what you mean by that, but you sit back and count the “likes” you get anyway. Suddenly, an old friend of yours crosses your mind. For some reason you had always imagined he lived in the other half of the globe, while he was only in Aleppo, a three-hour drive away from Latakia. You send him a message, saying hi and asking how he has been. “I’m afraid I might stain your phone if I text you. I haven’t showered in 15 days,” he said. You are struck by bewilderment. You, who had just dreamt of a house and a car and a small business, have been sitting at a café since morning, hitting on girls, sipping coffee and smoking cigarettes, while your friend who refused to leave Aleppo, and who stays up to the sound of barrel bombs and explosions at night, is dreaming of a mere bath, no difference whether it’s hot or cold. 15 days, here come the numbers again. You are too ashamed to continue talking to him. You close your laptop and reassure yourself: “It’s okay. I’ll apologise later and tell him that the internet was cut off.”

“You never approach her because you know she likes you back, but you do not have the means to start a relationship with her. You remember the lottery seller and the 1,000 SYP. You hear your mother talking on the phone: ʻ100,000 (250 USD) per month aren’t enough anymore.ʼ She has the curse of numbers as well.”

You try to overcome the shocks you have faced since morning by eavesdropping on the conversations of other people at the café. A guy is holding a girl’s hand, staring into her eyes. “A little romance can turn up the mood,” you think. You prick your ears up and hear the young man say: “All I have is 1,800 USD. I’ll do my best to get to Germany with it.” Then the girl starts crying and says: “Damn this war and military service. Damn this country.” The guy holds her in an attempt to hide his tears, and you regret having overheard this conversation. You stare back into your reflection on the dirty laptop screen and recall how you bade your friends goodbye, one after the other. “Damn Germany!” you utter.

No matter where you go the curse of numbers seems to catch up. At the other table, two young men are discussing the increasing dollar value and the Syrian pound, and their impact on the price of a cup of coffee.

Finally, you give up and go home. No electricity there, rationing hours within rationing hours. Then you remember it is almost 4 pm and your fair lady neighbour will soon come back from university. You stand at the balcony smoking in victory as she walks by. You never approach her because you know she likes you back, but you do not have the means to start a relationship with her. You remember the lottery seller and the 1,000 SYP. You hear your mother talking on the phone: “100,000 (250 USD) per month aren’t enough anymore.” She has the curse of numbers as well.

You try to sleep but too many figures are crossing your mind: the numbers of deaths and injuries, the numbers of shells that hit nearby neighbourhoods, the numbers of emigrants. You grab a pen and draw a cage on the wall. Whenever the numbers tighten their grip on you, you release a dream from the cage.