Syria Diary: Going home

The writer is a recent graduate of the University of Damascus from a well-to-do family belonging to a Syrian minority. For security reasons, he prefers to stay anonymous. In this third diary entry, he describes his return to Damascus after spending 10 months in exile in Lebanon.

At the end of July 2013, after 10 months in Lebanon, I had mixed feelings about returning to Syria. I was happy I would finally be back in the place I love more than anything, but sad at the same time that I had spent almost a year in Lebanon doing nothing but surviving, gaining nothing professionally or financially. I packed only a backpack; I left most of my things in Lebanon, for I intended to be back to apply for another visa soon.

Going back to a war zone may sound crazy. It is. But we come back because we love this place. That’s all I can say, really. We know our country well, and we adopt certain tactics to reduce the risks - choosing particular roads, clearing our cell phone memory cards. Still, at any moment, you could find yourself in a life-or-death situation: a car bomb, a misaimed shell, a fire fight. To live or die is all about luck, but we take the risk anyway.

I don’t want to explain how I got back into the country because it could put people’s lives at risk. But once inside, I could breathe easily when crossing normal checkpoints: my ID lists my birthplace as a city inhabited only by minorities. Still, I avoided the Damascus-Beirut Highway, taking instead a longer, smaller mountain road to Damascus. I wanted to avoid a checkpoint where I knew officials verify IDs on a computer; I figured they would detect that I had not entered the country legally. The detour added two hours to what had once been a one-hour trip, that now, with checkpoints, would normally be a three-hour trip.

As I began seeing bits of the city in the distance, the anticipation alone drew a goofy smile on face. Damascus has a strange ability to turn men into kids in an instant. It emits the scent of a mother. That’s why I refer to “her” with the female pronoun. As we drew closer to the city, I could see plumes of smoke rising from parts of it. Seeing that familiar scene was not as you might imagine it from watching the news. For me, it was like watching your mother being beaten by a step-father or landlord. No, only a complete stranger - a thief - could shell Damascus this way. I had seen my country burning before, but having been absent made it pull at my heart once more.

I arrived at home broken and sad, but seeing my family and having a home-cooked Syrian lunch of ‘shakrieh’ (lamb in a yogurt sauce) cheered me up. Amid the daily sounds of bombing, life went on. My parents went to their civilian government jobs, and I saw the few of my friends left in Syria.

Unaccustomed to having free time, I took part in an initiative called Down with Hunger, launched by the Syrian NGO Help. It was the holy month of Ramadan; we prepared and delivered meals to those who could not afford a proper ‘iftar’ to break their fast. Mostly, the initiative reached internally displaced people in shelters in safe areas, but a small portion was delivered to “hot” - meaning unsafe, conflict-torn - neighbourhoods. I knew those towns and neighbourhoods very well; I used to work and have friends there. Today, these areas are smashed down. I saw people living in tents over their wrecked homes and huge numbers of people living in the few buildings left standing.

At first I thought I was being proactive and trying to do something to help, but after seeing all that, I felt selfish. It was as if I was trying to make myself feel better by offering someone who lost everything a worthless meal as compensation. It was the first time in my life that I felt ashamed of being alive and living well.

The changes Damascus has experienced are more subtle than elsewhere in the country, but they can be hard-hitting nonetheless. It is rare to see the marks of a gun fight, for example. Within the capital, the state fixes everything immediately to maintain the appearance of normality. But I could see a lot more people who looked like they had not had a proper bath in days, people walking around with dirty or un-ironed clothes. I realized they must be the people staying in the over-crowded houses in Damascus that host displaced people. I had heard about a 100-square-meter apartment with 60 people living in it.

But then, there are the good moments. On one hot summer afternoon, I boarded a bus as part of my work with the Down with Hunger campaign. The bus was unusually empty. All the seats were taken, but there weren’t many people standing in the aisles. All of a sudden, someone sitting in a solo seat with his back against the window started playing a guitar and singing. His voice was not made for singing, but I felt hope emanating from his vocal cords. He sang a song by Dalida, an Egyptian-born singer, called in Arabic ‘Helwa ya Balady’ - My country, you are beautiful.

At first, people on the bus were surprised, but gradually we all started singing along with him, keeping our voices as low as possible to listen to his soft tune. No one seemed embarrassed. On the contrary, everyone was so happy to take a few minutes’ break from the war. I even saw a few tears rolling down people’s cheeks. The song ended and, without a word, without looking anyone in the eyes - as if not wanting to receive any gratitude for what he gave us - the man packed up his guitar, stood up and got off the bus.

I scrambled down after him to ask about his motivation. I had heard about similar encounters in Damascus. He said he was part of a movement called Project Flash. He didn’t say more, and I didn’t ask. But afterward I searched online, and found a video of one of the movement’s most elaborate schemes, in which a handful of fine young Syrian musicians and singers gathered in an emptier-than-usual market to sing for others and “flash” them with a small amount of much-needed hope.

Previous entries:
Syria Diary: Leaving Damascus
Syria Diary: Life in exile

Next entry:
Syria Diary: In limbo