(Tartus, Syria) Everything is different in Tartus now. The city that wakes up to the news of no less than ten “martyrs” every day has become a series of hung posters, along with its young men, a tragedy staring you in the face anywhere you look. There is not a single corner or street where photos of new “martyrs” are not found.
I had not roamed the streets of my city in a very long time, and when I finally did, shock and bewilderment were my fateful companions the entire way, from the suburbs to Eastern Ghamqa, Western Ghamqa, and al- ʿArid Street; everything was transformed. I had never noticed the amount of posters displayed on shop windows, building entrances, sidewalks, street signs and payphones, even on trees and park fences. There is no room to post an advertisement as it would soon disappear behind the pictures of “martyrs”.
I stopped to catch my breath and wondered: “When did all this happen? When did they hang all these pictures? How did the skies of the city turn into a horizon struck by ropes and ribbons linking one building to the other with suspended photos of ‘martyrs’?” A city veiled by the spirits of its sleeping men.
Suddenly, I began staring at their faces, looking for a friend, a colleague, a young man I used to know… This is the poster of an old classmate, and that, over there, is another familiar face. Was it the kaʿk seller who used to pass by my workplace every morning, or the guy from the pastries store, I could not remember.
I walked on, my head hammered, and I heard gunshots in the air. It was the funeral of a “martyr”, which meant that a new photo was to be added.
I went on, perplexed, and then I stopped by a sandwich seller and looked at a photo posted on his shop’s window. “He wanted to become a painter,” he suddenly said, “but fate beat him to the punch and drew him a different path.” The man disappeared into the darkness of the store before I could utter any words of condolence. I turned away and scurried off as if I was running from a fate that had clung to my city and started painting it.
The coffee seller whose stand had taken up a part of a crossroads was a chance for my soul to recover and my heartbeat to speed down. He was a cheerful man in his sixties who sensed my perplexity and offered me a chair. I sat down to pull myself together. A woman in her springtime was crossing the street toward me, dressed in black, looking distracted, her head lowered as if pulled down by gravity. She was heavily pushing a baby stroller, a young boy next to her of barely 14 years old. He held her back from crossing the street before a car flashed by. He then lifted the stroller onto the elevated step and took his mother by the hand to help her too. He glanced around and looked at her, reassuring the woman that he was right there next to her. They resumed their way, passing by the coffee seller, my eyes tracing them. I got up and walked on.
As I left the narrow and packed streets to the wider and tidier ones, headed home, the photos bearing the news of the death of all those people, including my own friends, slowly started to fade away. With its wide sidewalks and luxurious buildings, the al-Hamra’ Street was quiet, since its residents had found a different kind of haven for their children outside the country: one that would keep them alive at the expense of a possibly long stay abroad.
I closed the door and sat down. My phone beeped – a Facebook notification: the news of another istishhad (martyrdom). I realised then that my city had become a funeral tent, a young man confined in the frame of a picture, gunshots in the air announcing yet another body, women dressed in black, fatherless children, mothers planting flowers in their children’s shoes, a passport and a suitcase all ready to leave.