“Something unsettled in the atmosphere pronounces a moment arriving.”
An Excerpt from the Syrian Revolution novel
She paces the room telling stories to her son. He gurgles and stretches, opens and closes his puckering eyes. This is what she tells him:
Why does she love him? It puzzles her that she doesn’t know why. How much of this love is an accident, a fate provoked by a random arrangement of facts—that he was in the same year at college (though studying a different subject), or that he chose to speak to her that first day at a moment of dry thunder and then sudden rain which flooded the underpasses and tore illegal housing from the slopes? Meteorological fate, it felt like. How to interpret it? How much religion is justified in these situations? She doesn’t know the answers.
But she asks herself for the proofs, and of course she’s able to generate answers. She loves him for his arms, for a start, which are elegant and manly at once. For his dogged determination to play the guitar, to be a romantic, despite his obvious lack of aptitude. For the way he listens when she speaks, as if she’s at the center of an arena, on a platform. His clean dark eyes. The way he kisses her.
But none of these are reasons. Her love is self-subsisting. She loves him. That’s all.
He comes into view, Hassan, returned from the bathroom. She stands and takes his hand.
“Shall we pay?” she says.
“I already have.”
“Let’s walk then.”
They walk through friendly architecture. The upper storeys of the houses reach to each other over the alleyways, and the windows almost touch. Jasmine coils on whitewashed walls.
They walk on cobbles, along newly prosperous streets of boutique restaurants, bars, and cafés—places which have history for them, which contain bright moments—turning left and right, sometimes trying narrower, more shaded, less familiar paths, clinging to doorways when the occasional car pushes through, and heading generally east, towards Bab Tuma. Gates open or ajar offer hints of courtyards and perfume: lemons, attar of roses, the tang of olives.
They walk with their little fingers linked. They swing and bump shoulders. To strangers, their smiles must look complacent. What they really are is brimming, overflowing. Their lips are pursed to hold in the flow.
They arrive in a square of shade from the springtime sun. There are no windows on this empty alleyway. So Zubaida turns him to her and wraps her arms around his waist. In turn, he wraps his around her shoulders, his hands meeting on the small of her back, covering her completely, protecting her from fate, religion, politics, time—from any threat at all. She concentrates on his eyes. “When I smell jasmine,” she says, “I smell you.”
“I smell of jasmine?” His nose twitches.
“No, but you’re as close to my heart as jasmine is.”
He inclines his head and kisses her slowly. Then looks at her carefully. Then the moment fades into the next.
“You saw the party in Cairo?” They’ve resumed their walk.
“I saw,” she says. “Wasn’t it the best thing you’ve ever seen? I want to be Egyptian. Everyone wants to be Egyptian again.”
“It’s like the fifties and sixties.” She sings a burst of Oum Kalthoum. “You are my moon…”
“Strange,” says Hassan, “that they put al-Jazeera’s stream on our TV.”
Zubaida restrains the skip in her step. Her voice quietens and her face becomes serious. “Not strange, my love. They’re just showing they’re not scared.”
“I don’t know.” He rolls his head to indicate open possibilities. “Perhaps it means they understand the moment. Perhaps things will improve here.”
Zubaida raises an eyebrow. An unintentionally arch smile. “Do you think so?”
Suddenly he kisses her. For a moment he doesn’t care who sees, who talks. He grips her ears and cheeks between both hands and presses her lips with his. How thoroughly sexy she is. Every part of his body stirs. Life dissolves his social fears. Electricity tingles in his fingertips.
She is all he wants. The smell of her. Her perfume and skin, and the depths beneath. The taste of her. The cool of her saliva. All put together, it makes him want to praise God wildly—not the God of mosques, not the stern God of rules, but his own version of the concept, which is a grand energy inspiring the universe, linking events and people together, connecting Hassan to Zubaida by coincidental fate, surging through Hassan’s body towards Zubaida, and through Zubaida’s body towards him. At the present moment, this force is all that matters.
In summary, she makes him want to fall to his knees and wail in praise.
Four million sets of eyes. So much humanity. So many hearts and brains. A sea of hormones. A storm of urges and desires. A threat to be watched and subdued.
Torture offers deep lessons in humanity. It’s not a pleasant means of instruction, true, but since this is his job he’d better learn from it. Other people watch films or read novels; he gets the experience direct.
That’s what Tarafa told himself when he first joined up, over forty years ago, and although he does more complex work now he still likes to be reminded of it. It’s one reason why he’s come to this security branch today, to keep himself in touch, for the work conducted here is the base on which he and his peers stand, the coal face on which their empire is built.
He’s drunk tea in the office with his subordinates. He’s flicked through the register of detained criminals and suspects and scanned the hand-scrawled maps of their connections. He’s walked through a long dark corridor of hanging bodies and passed through a thick metal door to a concrete interrogation chamber. He’s spent five minutes here so far, observing a session. He stands in a corner, silent, arms folded. He doesn’t speak or participate in any way, except to the extent of being present—which will have an effect, however small, on the subject’s mood and memory of events. Each detail has an effect.
The subject is blindfolded, naked, tied at the ankles and wrists. Chunks of flesh and crusted blood overlap the blindfold’s edges, suggesting he’s been blindfolded for a while.
Three men are working on him. One man holds his arms above his head, another has a boot on his ankles, and a third whips his torso with a cable. There are welts all over, and bigger than welts, red holes, gaps. The subject is smeared in a film of his own fluids. There’s blood and saliva and piss and shit all mixed up, but most of it is clear or yellowish—puss from previous wounds, and whatever clear liquid a shocked body leaks. A doctor would tell you what it is.
Hard to imagine what’s going on in his mind, what it feels like. Hard to get in there with him. But it’s something extreme. Something surprising.
The subject is leaking and the three workers are sweating. He is making a gurgling noise; they are panting. The air in Tarafa’s nostrils is musky and damp.
The lesson is here. It’s in the intimacy, the hard physicality. The torturers sweat and pant as they probe the torturee’s vulnerabilities. Without enthusiasm, you cannot do the job. Not without a sense of drama (because even if it’s a case with limits you must persuade the torturee there are none). The torturee has enthusiasm in proportion to his terror, and the torturer too. One partner provokes extremes of emotion from the other, and is provoked by these extremes to continue, to explore further.
It’s beyond all limits, entirely lawless. Tarafa can’t put the lesson into words, but he recognizes it’s there. And he is honest enough, self-aware enough, to recognize the base pleasure in it. In this activity is something deeply true and human.
There’s nothing more erotic, nothing more exciting—he can admit this to himself—than breaking someone, cracking them apart, body and heart, until something new breaks forth from within. The point at which, for example, they’ll eat shit and no longer vomit. A deeper spirit announces itself, weeping, screaming, nodding like a dog. An animal unleashed. A jinn summoned. It’s almost mystical work. Through the body you arrive at the soul.
And then going deeper still, to where they’ll get with this one after a few more days, after teaching him a more specific lesson in the diversity of terror, the range his mind will stretch to—to somewhere lower than animal or jinn. The crazed, gazing eyes of a torturee near death, a person with even larger gaps in their torso, with nose and lips and ears sliced off. The special silence that surrounds them. The point at which they can’t eat anything, not shit, not the finest restaurant food. They have gone beyond pain and fear. They are in a new dimension. You have taken them there. And their journey makes possible one outside; whispered knowledge of a prisoner’s fate transports society as a whole into the realm of obedience, which means social peace. Even in the so-called democratic countries, this is what it comes down to; rooms like these, just the possibility of rooms like these, and the silent awareness of them outside, these are the building blocks of state, the base carrying the whole superstructure.
There’s nothing queer about Tarafa. He’s a gifted but ordinary man. As ordinary as these men in the chamber doing the brute work he used to do. They all know what any man who does this work knows, and all understand how sneers and laughter are necessary to cloak the eroticism and the shame. The dialogue that must unfold:
“Freedom, eh? Tell me what freedom means.”
“Does it mean this?”
“Is this what it means?”
(a raking scream)
“Or this? Or this? Tell me, I want to understand…”
Perhaps it keeps him civilized, doing this. Without this, perhaps he’d have to hurt his wife when he fucks her, as some men do, or beat his children. In fact, he’s a reasonably gentle father, a much better father than his father was to him, perhaps because of this.
Back through the fetid corridor and up a flight of stairs. He shakes hands, from the most senior hand to the least. He walks alone from the building, across the forecourt, and through the gate. He’s instructed the driver to wait outside.
He walks a few paces along the grey street. He notices a smear of yellowish fluid on his shoe and scrapes it on a broken curbstone.
Now he feels eyes on his back, and he turns. There’s a small crowd of men at a sweet and cigarette stall. They have their backs to him. There’s a conservatively dressed woman, leading a little boy, behind him. Her eyes are on the ground. The boy is watching him, but innocently. The grey street brims with dusty glare.
Of course, if he chose to, if he deemed the threat sufficient, Tarafa could have the street closed down and everyone in it taken in for interrogation. He can be as thorough as he likes. There are many perks of his position which he could take advantage of if he wished—the power to shut down streets, to enjoy free cab rides and meals, discounts in the shops, enforced deference in public and private settings—but these he seldom exploits. Simple knowledge of his power is enough. It rescues him from self-loathing and the resentment of others, which are two of the most tiring emotions. Those members of the public who don’t recognize him will regret it when they’re told. Anyone wronging him in word or deed will suffer a punishment of fear when they realize, for the day or week or two until they relax, believing at last that no, Tarafa’s men will not be picking them up. Thank you, absent Tarafa. Thank you, sir, for your dignity.
Magnanimity is always the better course. Mild forbearance. Restraint. Those with real power don’t need to make a show of exercising it. Power exercises itself. That’s how it’s worked up to now.
But somebody is watching him with malignant purpose. He can feel it. Who? He shades his eyes with a hand and scans the covered balconies.
Not everyone has tongues but they all have eyes. These people who were obedient but now are not. These unwitting people who are consigning us all to hell. Suddenly, abruptly. Something is rotting.
Now he finds and meets the eye of hatred. It stares from the only unveiled balcony. A face like a fist, not old but grizzled. Did he nod? A double take. No, not nodding, but not breaking his gaze. What’s this?
Tarafa glances down at his white-clad chest. He’s not in uniform.
Immediately he looks up again, realizing before he finds the eyes that he has lost the contest. He clicks his heels together. He wipes his face, considering sending a man after this brave one. But no. He walks on.
Hearts and Minds
Miss Raghad is reciting a line by a poet called Mahmoud Darwish. “Record! I am an Arab! And my identity card is number 50,000!” The line is already written on the blackboard, and the children have already copied it into their copybooks.
Miss Raghad is a nice teacher. Her breath forms clouds that shift about her head.
“What does this line tell us?” she asks.
The response is silence, as is meant, because the question is purely rhetorical—the answer has not yet been given.
The children sit at wooden desks, girls on one side, boys on the other. A paraffin stove splutters at the back of the class but its heat fails to influence the heavy, hanging cold. The children wear gloves and coats over their blue uniforms. The freezing late winter persists so long that it’s impossible to remember the summer. The joints in Muhammad’s fingers are numb.
“The line warns the enemy that there are many Arabs.” Miss Raghad speaks slowly and evenly, at the pace at which she scratches the words on the board. “So if the Arabs unify they will destroy the enemy. It also informs the enemy that the Arab individual is more than just a number. As he writes in the next verse…but first, write this down!”
The children write, pushing the pencils with wooden hands. When they’ve finished, Miss Raghad rubs the words into a chalky cloud.
“Now, how does Mahmoud Darwish’s poem open?”
The girls and boys fling their hands to the ceiling, and even that motion creates an icy wind. “Miss! Miss!”
“Miss, ‘Record! I am an Arab! And my identity card is number 50,000!’”
“Very good, Muhammad. And what does it mean?”
“Miss. It warns the enemy that there are many Arabs.”
“Very good. And what else?”
“That the Arab individual is more than just a number.”
“Very good,” Miss Raghad repeats, when the door rushes open, pushing before it an even colder wave of air.
Mr. Sultan arrives, his mustache arriving before him. A shiver grips the class, which sits up higher, tightening its mouth. Then the call and response start up again, as the school day started, as it starts every day.
“Our aim?” shouts Mr. Sultan.
“Unity! Freedom! Socialism!”
And so on, until Mr. Sultan leans backwards on the teacher’s desk, his hands splayed behind him, and smiles a warm smile. He’s a thin man but his mustache is very bushy.
“I want to have a little conversation, just you and me. Tell me, which TV channels do your parents watch at home?”
Here the class divides into sheep and goats. Only half express the usual desire to be chosen.
“Maysa?” He chooses a little girl with curly blonde hair, one who hasn’t put her hand up.
“The Syrian channel, teacher!”
“Very good.” Mr. Sultan nods. The smile he put on has not yet broken. “Our Syrian channel tells the truth.”
“Now then. Does anyone watch al-Jazeera?”
Muhammad takes a furtive peek, right and left, to see if anyone’s falling into the trap. But no-one is. Mr. Sultan’s overly eager show of innocent enthusiasm has signaled the danger. There’s a notebook in his pocket which isn’t for recording academic marks.
“Good,” he nods. “Good,” and at last he lets the smile dissolve. He begins a discourse. The children slump a little, and Miss Raghad sits neatly in the plastic chair behind the desk. Mr. Sultan tells them they all have to be careful because the police have heard that foreign infiltrators will soon be sent into Syria from enemy countries. These foreigners have guns which the Israelis have given them. And America. America is a bad country which nobody likes. It kills people everywhere. It is friends with the Israelis. And the problem is, most of the TV channels are telling lies about what’s happening. Al-Jazeera, for instance. If any child’s parents watch al-Jazeera, the child must tell them to stop, and if they don’t stop they must tell Mr. Sultan so he can explain to their parents that what they are doing is wrong.
Muʿtasim shares a desk with Muhammad. As Mr. Sultan speaks on in his singsong voice (it goes up and down like a song, but there’s an angry edge beneath), Muʿtasim’s head turns diagonally, and he frowns.
Mr. Sultan, though he seemed to be gazing only at the stove, thinking only of the progress of his words, notices Muʿtasim’s frown.
“What’s your name?”
Muʿtasim stands up, the desk at his chest and the bench at the back of his thighs. “Muʿtasim, teacher!”
“Yes, that’s right. What is it, Muʿtasim?”
Muʿtasim hesitates. He wants to say nothing, but his gaze is captured by Mr. Sultan’s and though he knows he’s about to say something wrong, he knows he must tell the truth.
“Teacher, there was a revolution in Egypt, and on that day we were watching the Syrian channel, and the Syrian channel showed al-Jazeera.” Tears are peering through his voice from a distance, approaching and almost arrived. “So, al-Jazeera must be good.”
The last statement sounds like a question. All the children turn to watch him quake. Beside him, Muhammad watches the clouds unfurling fast from his nostrils. And Mr. Sultan frowns deeply, in deep disappointment.
“Come with me.” He lunges for the boy, smacks the side of his head hard, grabs an ear, pulls him out of the room, ordering Miss Raghad to take over as he goes.
So Miss Raghad takes over. She says it’s true al-Jazeera used to be good but recently the Americans paid its owner a lot of money in exchange for it telling lies. Some people will do anything for money, she says.
Muhammad chews his cold pencil top. He can hear Muʿtasim out in the corridor, gasping as the stick strikes.
Damascus. Sham. Dimashq.
Every name means something here, but some names are so old they’ve forgotten their meanings. In Aramaic, Dimashq may mean “red earth.” For the Greeks and Romans, it might have meant “wineskin.” One derivation given locally is from dum al-shaqeeq, the blood of the brother, because Cain murdered Abel somewhere nearby. Abel’s shrine is in the hills to the west, and the tomb inside is giant-sized, because the men of those days were giants indeed. And ʿashq means love of the overpowering kind, so there’s another potential etymology—“the blood of love.”
The city is cupped in a bowl at the foot of the mountains, and it’s stretching over the plain, and creeping up the slopes, a great mass of habitation, brown and grey and white towers, low-rise and high-rise. Marble-fronting and domes and red roof tiles. Pigeons flocking and skirting and swooping to their lofts.
Shuttered alleyways, labyrinths, high walls of car noise hover above these walls and look down.
Colored lights arrowing the way to turning meat; TV screens blinking through open windows, in the office, in the shop, or out on the pavement when the weather’s warm; the screens of a million mobile phones (all owned by the same man), moving at head height, at lap height, in bed; and satellite dishes; and internet cafés.
Ice cream parlors, public parks, decent fat families grazing on seeds. Banks, bureaux de change, import-export offices. Taxis and microbuses. Men in uniform. Men smoking cigarettes.
Lovers, married couples; a stern knot of nuns in a flower shop which serves surreally sized bouquets; a bastirma merchant’s hole-in-the-wall; a coffee bean merchant in proper establishment, plus grinder, plus coffee dust; and a row of clothes shops, all girly, all neon, blue, pink, and sequined, American RnB pumping outside on the pavement, “Do Me You Do Me You Can Do Me”; child-hassled women in hijabs and raincoats passing underneath the speakers, past a proprietor with slicked-back hair in his CD shop behind smoked glass; then the shoe shop men with teapots and smiles, a row of them door after door, walls of shoeboxes towered up, between the walls of which: labyrinths.
The central square. Brothel-hostels, Gypsy dancers, the last of the Iraqi trade. Bedouins nursing glasses of tea, some still wearing plaited hair, crevasses wind-gouged into their cheeks. Walls of cages in the bird market, and between the walls: labyrinths.
Pay attention, too, to what isn’t, or not yet. Holes unfilled, structures unbuilt, half-forgotten pipe ways, gaps. Unconsidered demolitions, unplanned constructions, breezeblock homes that do not exist, and others absent but existing on paper. Bullet holes with bullets uncollected by the French. A river becomes a concrete walkway, a tunnel, and a stinking pool. Orchards chopped up, smothered, enwalled.
A thousand million plastic bags.
Boys with tattoos, hairy-armed men, orange feet waggling up beside each other in the prayer line at a corner mosque.
The new boutique hotels in the Old City, the palaces and caravanserais, the restaurants: some of the finest dining in the Middle East, in the world.
The crowd. Merging and parting, swarming and dispersing. On a wheel.
Young people starting their lives, suffering, carrying books, falling in love, feeling trapped, screwing their eyes to see a way to make some money. The middle-aged, harried by ambition and failure, and those crushed by shame, also screwing their eyes to see a way to make some money. The old in mourning, or despairing, or accepting, or hoping, still screwing their eyes to see a way for their sons or grandsons to make some money. The old who are satisfied to be old. The praying old.
In the crowd, a woman is biting her lip even till it bleeds to keep herself from screaming.
The odor of sex. The odor of jasmine and diesel and dust.
The odor of baking bread. Hot circles of bread piled up outside the bakeries, or gathered in transparent plastic and built into walls, and between the walls: labyrinths.
The Sham Palace and the Four Seasons. The cinemas and the cultural centers. The sports stadiums and the swimming pools. The towers which are prisons. The minarets and spires.
The Shia quarter and the Christian quarter. The Palestinian camps. The Druze neighbourhood. The Kurds piled on the hill of their name since Salahudeen al-Ayyubi.
The Alawi enclaves—or exclaves—on the approaches to the city.
A tourist, oblivious to present tensions, marching purposefully through the Alley of the Jews.
Mountains bleached by the sun, faded by the harsh winds, crumbled by pelting rains, embittered by repeated snows, most recently calcified by four decades of inertia.
The colors on the mountain subject to cloud and contour, the time of day, the position of the sun. Pink, orange, red, white, black. Polluted brown overhanging, but only visible at a distance. Then, rarefied air in every direction, over the mountains and the plateau and the desert plain, air, thin and dry, the element of angels.
Something unsettled in the atmosphere pronounces a moment arriving. A moment which will stick.
Beneath the sky, above Damascus: the Fourth Division, partially hidden. Artillery in revetments. Big guns dug into the mountain. Israeli forces are on top of Jebel al-Shaikh, whose snow-capped peak is in seeing distance. And four million Syrians are in the city below.
All artwork is courtesy of Eman Osama.