Mad’ouk

Hiraeth

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It’s Morning in Syria

               The night is darkest just before dawn, when the sun has not yet woken, and the stars still dance with light. I sit on the roof of my house, or what was the third floor before the roof was blown off. The night sky is patchy, wispy cirrus clouds covering sections of the starlit void. The moon is a crescent, the perfect form for the Dreamworks fisher to sit on as I have seen in so many American movies. Before the war started, the light from my city outshined the stars above. Now they are visible, and serve as my only guide at night.                                                                                                 The sun’s arrival is announced before the sun shows its face. The eastern portion of the sky streaks with brilliant oranges, yellows, and pinks, and the cirrus clouds become orange paintbrush strokes on a nocturnal blue canvas. The air kisses my skin with the moisture of the morning and the light refracts through the dew on mother’s jasmine flowers. The sun finally shows its golden face and blesses the city with light.                                                                                                   The city is not beautiful.                                                                                                                                     Once smooth sandstone walls are now rough and punctured by a thousand bullets. Flat rooftops give way to jagged edges, rusted rebar shooting up into the sky – naked support where there was once concrete clothing. Houses with windows cracked into a million pieces and their insides stripped of life. Splintered wood, torn carpets, and burned curtains are the only decorations left. And yet the buildings stand in defiance with the people who inhabit them. In the basements, away from the prying eyes of a murderous dictator, families live. Below the surface of the city, life survives. Among the streets, life finds a way to live. Yes, the sun blessed my city with light, but my city is not beautiful. My city is strong, my city is cunning, my city is a survivor.  And so are my people.

 

Choppy Waters

               There are one hundred fifty two of us on a boat fit for fifty. The deck and the lower compartment are stuffed with humans, packed as though we are sardines. The stars above are blocked by low-lying clouds that rain on us; the ocean does not take kindly to being pelted by the sky. Waves roll the boat, washing over the deck, down into the lower compartment and soaking my ripped, three-sizes-too-large jeans in an itchy brine. Below deck, the water level rises ever higher, parents having to pick up their young ones for fear of drowning. Hassan, my five year old brother, grips his life jacket and stands on his tippy toes to breathe above the water. Another wave washes in and another wave of ear-piercing screams echoes off the compartment walls. The water is freezing and takes your breath away.                                                                                                                The smuggler captain pokes his head down the hatch to the cargo area where we stand and waves his hand, gesturing to the entry. It’s too loud to hear what he is saying, but his rapid movements and scrunched face convey importance. People begin rushing the exit, crawling over one another to get out. A child is trampled, his face shoved into the water, while his mother desperately grabs at his life jacket straps. Another wave crashes over the boat, pushing a few down the ladder. Mother grabs Hassan’s wrist and shoves her body between others, leaving me behind; I struggle to follow the path she made, a single tall shoulder slamming into my right eye as I push my way forward. Hassan and Mother climb out, both turning around to haul me above.                   The sea is angry, and swallows many people who haven’t already sacrificed themselves to it. Each wave sweeps more off the deck, a few losing their life jackets in the process. Uncle Abbas and my pregnant cousin Haifa are above deck and barely holding on. Mother yells at the pair, catching their attention, and the five of us jump into the turbulent waters below. Haifa struggles, being seven months pregnant, with battling the waves. Uncle Abbas removes his life jacket and places it around her midsection.                                                                                                                       The waves are high, and as we get farther away from the boat, we lose track of a direction to swim.                                                                                                                                                                   Uncle Abbas’ strokes are getting sloppier, his kicks less frequent.                                                           Another high wave turns to a white cap and splashes our faces. Haifa is dunked by the wave, too heavy to float over it.                                                                                                                                             I hand her a third life jacket. My life jacket.

Uncle Abbas floats on his back for a few moments.

A few moments turns to a few minutes.

The waves are taking him away from us. Mother is shouting in between waves.

The clouds block all light and we cannot see where he has gone. Hassan is scared.

My strokes are getting sloppier, my kicks less frequent. The waves are too high.

I have swallowed too much salt water. My eyes burn. My lungs burn.

A searchlight finds us first, and then a boat arrives. They find us and they save us.

They never find Uncle Abbas.

They never save him.

Swimming Lessons

The locker room is rambunctious, filled with laughs and pieces of gossip flying from mouth to ear. English largely floats over my head; lessons in Syria can’t prepare you. I lower my gym bag onto the bench and open it lethargically. I loathe gym class with a passion. My hijab is still wound around my head, though it has slouched as the school day lengthened. My shaky fingers reach to remove the silky blue material, taking it off in one fell swoop and placing it in the gym bag.

“We’ll be swimming next class,” the gym teacher had said, “so you can’t wear your hijab.”

My one-piece black swimsuit fits well enough, though I feel the need to constantly adjust it to cover more of my body than it can. Our feet slap the tile floor as we make our way over to the teacher. The room smells of chlorine, a stale bleach odor that reminds me of home. It’s not a good memory. Voices echo off the walls, making it difficult for whispers to be kept quiet. I can hear them talking about me, jokingly marvelling at the sight of the Syrian girl without her hijab. No, not the Syrian girl. The Arab girl, without a home, whose sole identity is encompassed in a scarf around her head and the religion she practices. The Arab girl, whose sole intent is to destroy the western world with her poisonous preachings. The Arab girl, who isn’t human.

“We’ll start out by testing you all in the shallow end,” the gym teacher begins.

The pool is large, olympic-sized. Lakeside High School can afford expensive sports facilities since the town has deep pockets. Twenty four students hop into the chlorinated blue pool water; I hesitate, being the twenty fifth student.

The gym teacher sighs. “Get in the pool, Isra.” He didn’t pronounce my name right. He didn’t roll the ‘r.’ The ‘i’ wasn’t a long vowel.

The water sloshes at the steps to enter the pool. My toes touch the water and I recoil before remembering my audience. My hands are clasped together in front of me, knuckles white with tension, to stop them from trembling. My heart pounds in my chest, struggling to keep up with the fear that courses through my veins. It’s a pool, not an ocean, I repeat to myself. The water is cold – not freezing – but cold. The water reaches my chest now, but that is as far as it goes. The rest of the class stares at me, some with indifference and others with careful curiosity.

“Right then. We’ll just be practicing some strokes back and forth from each side. This is to test how strong of a swimmer you are.”

I push off the wall with the others and break into a survival dash. The water is too familiar, I can hear Mother’s screams for Uncle Abbas. My legs are tired, but I must swim to catch Uncle before he floats away. My hand slams into the pool wall and I wince in pain. Reality sets in. Someone is clapping. It’s the teacher. The others haven’t reached the wall yet.

“That was incredibly fast, Isra! Have you considered joining the swim team?” He pronounced my name wrong again.

The class is divided into two groups. One for basic improvement and the other for advanced techniques. My brief relief after exiting the pool is dwarfed by the realization of the deep end. The water is a darker blue, more closely resembling the black waters of that night. The chlorine smell is stronger here. I can smell salt. We’ve been standing outside the water for too long and my body shivers from the cold. I do not want to get back in the water.

“Alright, everyone hop in the water.”

A chorus of splashes follows the command. I hear desperate cries of help, I taste the salt water in my mouth. But I don’t. I don’t hear cries of help. I don’t taste salt.

“Get in the pool, Isra.” He pronounces my name wrong again. His pen is tapping on the clipboard and his Adidas running shoes squeak from his shifting weight. “Just jump in, you don’t have to dive like David did. No need to show off,” the teacher sends David a pointed look, but it’s followed by a friendly smile. An inside joke, maybe.

David. He’s on the swim team. My eyes search for David’s and they’re a sharp green. Uncle Abba’s eyes were green. They are green. The boat never saved him, so I have to.

My feet touch the water’s surface before I realize what I’ve done. They seek purchase on solid pool floor, but there is nothing to support my weight. My mouth goes under, and I take a breath in. My eyes goes under, but I fail to close them. I go under, and I fail to find reality.

Someone is screaming. Uncle Abbas is floating away. Haifa is drowning with every wave. Hassan is crying. My eyes sting and my lung screams for air. My hands flail for a pool wall, but there are no pool walls in an ocean. My legs thrash in the pool, but the ocean current is too strong. Someone’s hands loop around my arms. Their eyes are green. It’s Uncle Abbas and he has saved me. I’m supposed to save him.

But the color of his hair is wrong; he’s a brunette not a blonde. He looks too young, where are the laugh lines and forehead wrinkles? Uncle’s eyes have brown specks, not golden ones. My mouth tastes of chlorine, not of salt. There is no screaming, but there is yelling. I see no orange lifejackets, but I see blue and black swimsuits. My legs don’t itch from soaked jeans, they are cold and exposed to the air.

The gym teacher leans into my vision, and I remember where I am. “Isra, are you alright?” He pronounces my name wrong again.

Jade Circles

There are children splashing in murky puddles as I pass by them. The water pipe had been damaged by a barrel bomb, but the water was momentarily purified by the chlorine the bomb contained. My throat constricts remembering the burning in my eyes and lungs and the fluid in my chest that almost killed me. I remember drowning without water. I remember the smell; it was a clean, bleach odor. I remember the mustard yellow air and then the stark white hospital tiles. They weren’t stark white. They were red with blood.

The children’s laughter is infectious and I find a smile evoked from me. Their faces are bright, almost like the stars at night. In my hand I carry a few rations from the small market: fours loaves of bread and a separate bag of canned vegetables. My city ran out of canned strawberry jam two weeks ago. Hunger is the price my city pays for freedom. Death is the debt collector.

The dirt crunches beneath my feet, dried by the summer sun. There are hardly any shadows as the sun lines up directly above my city. Today I’m supposed to go over and babysit my cousins while the men go off to the frontlines. I had asked to join them, to fight for my country, but my proposal was immediately shot down. “You fight the good fight at home, Isra. Keep everyone safe and stay strong when they are weak.”

The house where my extended family stays is up the hill and has a much better view of the city from the third floor. My family and I visit often, mostly to assure each other we are alive and well, and to find out who has died in the night. The homes up the hill are more intact, since the heart of the city has more people per block. Some of the homes have windows. If you’re smart, you break the window by yourself and sweep away the glass before a bomb makes them lethal. There are more shadows as I approach the climb to my family’s abode.

There is one shadow that inspires true fear, that every citizen of my city knows too well, and that many fall victim to. Sometimes you can hear the shadow before you see it. The buffeting of air above forces my eyes to the sky and lands them on the shape of a helicopter. Its shadow covers the sun; a chill runs down my spine. My feet pause, watching as it hovers there for an indefinite amount of time. Something drops from the underside, a long gray cannister, and cuts through the air. The helicopter hovers near me, but not close enough for an explosion to reach me. My family is too close.

But the cannister doesn’t explode. It’s…quiet, in a way only someone who’s heard an explosion would describe. It’s as though a finger tapped on the desk of the Earth; there is minimal dust kicked up. A few more canisters falls; more taps on the desk. The shadow moves away and I am once again bathed in sunlit warmth. There is no yellow gas, there is no explosion. I know the Assad regime does not drop care packages.

My legs carry me up the hill, the bag of vegetables ripping in the process and my rations rolling back down the road. The air tastes clear, feels clear, until it doesn’t.

It feels heavy. My eyes become irritated, and then sting, and then there’s a searing burn at the back of my eye sockets. I try to scream, or shriek, or say something; my voice does not allow it. I surge onward, knowing my family is in the basement. Something has poisoned the air. My leg muscles twitch as though they ignore my command and my hands can no longer hold onto the bag holding bread. I surge onward still.

There are bodies on the street, some spasming and some motionless. A morbid symphony of gasps and desperate attempts at life fill the street with noise. A waterfall of white froth lines faces, and soon the gasps turn to gurgles and gags. If not white froth, then vomit; most often, both. I can see the front door of my family’s home and stumble over to the door handle. I twist, but it does not open. I twist again, and it does not open. My grip is not strong enough to turn the handle and I sink the ground, unable to support my own weight.

A young boy, no older than five, lays beside me, his eyes managing to find mine.

He looks familiar – familiar enough draw attention. The air blocks my memory.

I am not sure if he can see me or not. His pupils are the size of needle points. His eyes are a brilliant jade, complete circles with a pinpoint black dot in the middle.

His right arm waves frantically, but not by his own will. His tiny hand is frozen with his palm out, as though he tried to protect himself from the canister. His chest heaves and his mouth froths; his gurgling signals the froth has reached his throat. His face is light blue. The ground surrounding his head is soaked in orange vomit–liquid, no chunks.

There’s not much to the contents of his stomach; we’re all starving.

I find myself following suit, my body unable to save itself. My own chest convulses and I both breathe in the tainted air and cannot get enough of it. My cheek becomes wet with the same froth the young boy has. My mind submits to a thoughtless void.

It is later in the hospital that I find out that young boy was Azad.

He is martyred on the bloody tile floor. His family is, too.

Free from the War

“He will grow to be strong and healthy, I can tell.” Uncle Hadid is sure of himself as he breaks off some bread and dips it into his soup. The family sits around a table. It’s early in the war, so we still have furniture. Wrapped in a light blue blanket is a small boy, a baby, the son of my cousin Rajiyah and her husband Aziz.

The boy is passed to Mother, who bounces him gently and pokes his nose. “What is his name, have you decided?”

Rajiyah and Aziz share a single look and smile back at her, then around the table. “We’ve decided on Azad. It means ‘free’ and all we hope for is for him to be free of this war.” We all nod, though some with a more distant look in their eyes. The conversation does not pick back up, but Azad is unafraid. His soft gurgles fill the silent home. As babies do, he vomits up onto Mother’s shirt. Father takes his napkin and wipes up the white vomit, a soft smile on his face. The two have the same stark green eyes.

Father would be a casualty of the war; Azad, too.

Azad grows up knowing nothing but war.

He dies knowing nothing but war.

Trojan Horse

“Can you describe the gassing incident to us?”

I do. My lungs burn with phantom feeling.

“Can you describe the man who tried to rape you in Turkey?”

I struggle. His eyes haunt me.

“Can you describe Abbas Khouri?”

My eyes threaten tears, but the interviewer watches me closely.

“Have you come here with ill intent, to spread extremism, or to practice it?”

I am offended. They don’t care.

“How many hours were you aboard the smuggler boat?”

Too many. Too many hours. And yet, not enough. Not enough for safety.

“Who is the father of Haifa’s child?”

A dead man, and a man not worthy of naming. Yet I say his name.

“Is Haifa at all indoctrinated into ISIS or follows the will of the child’s father.”

She is not indoctrinated. She is impregnated, unwilling.  

After too many questions and too many memories: “Welcome to America.”

Assimilation

Syria is not welcome in America.

I begin my life in America as a foreigner, and I remain a foreigner for life. No matter how I try, they know I’m not them.

I no longer wear my hijab; I no longer speak Arabic in public; I no longer roll the ‘r’ in my name; I no longer make the ‘i’ long; I no longer eat a Syrian breakfast; I no longer practice Islam.

I no longer feel like me.

A few weeks after arriving in the United States, we are finally given an duplex for ourselves. Haifa had her baby during asylum processing. Her baby has something wrong with it. It freezes three times a day, white foam gurgling in its mouth, muscles twitching. Haifa blames it on the sarin. I don’t like to look at the baby, it reminds me too much of Azad.

The elderly couple who shares our duplex invites us over for dinner. There is a tenderness in the way they handle Haifa’s baby. The wife says she can relate, her granddaughter has epilepsy, too. “What a tough life your baby has ahead of him,” they would frown as they helped clean the mess around the baby’s face. They’re a kind couple.

I hear them talk of banning refugees.

It’s Morning in America

“There was a chemical attack in Syria today.”

“Where?”

“Syria, you know, the whole ISIS slash Assad thing?”

“Oh right, that mess. What happened, I didn’t hear you the first time.”

“There was a chemical attack. Sarin, the news said.”

“Oh, that’s horrible. What’s sarin?”

“Illegal nerve agent or something.”

“So how many are dead.”

“At least 20 children.”

“Oh, we should do something, that’s horrific. Who could do such a thing?”

“Bashar Al-Assad, apparently.”

“Well, we should take him out.”

“Here’s the CNN article on the attack.”

“Oh, look at that little boy on the ground, he’s spasming. That’s disturbing.”

“Watch the video, that girl with the bread bag runs up to the door and tries to open it, then she falls unconscious at the door.”

“Is she alive?”

“I think so, not sure.”

“Well this is all very sad.”

“Yeah, I hope they’re all alive.”

“Me too. What’s for breakfast?”

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