As the narrow long road shot straight into the horizon, Hadeer looked at it with wide eyes oblivious of her companion on this drive. The Prado sped on the unrelenting road ploughing through the desert. Deceptively immutable dunes were displaced by the desert storms. Having nothing to hold on to in the desert, a sand dune here today, was gone tomorrow– into another to coalesce. Not even the strong hardened mountainous terrains they passed by could prevent that. Hadeer let out a heave like the sound of the passing over dune forced by the storm.
With a fleshy well defined face of a typical Syrian beauty, at fourteen the baby fat still hung on to Hadeer’s milky white cheeks. She looked like a soft sculpted marble. Her eyes, like placid pools stared into the unknown, reflecting her black curved eyelashes giving her a surreal beauty. Her lips burst forth with freshness of her new youth. Half child, half woman. The playful childhood was now shrouded into the garb of a married woman. Her husband Sheikh Abdullah placed his heavy hand on her lap to make sure this was not a mirage he was looking at. She gently pushed it away. He looked at his new bride and smiled “mashaallah”. He had kept “ejaculating “Subhanalla” and ‘Alhamdulillah’-thanking god for his luck in this bargain.
Their first stopover was Crown Plaza, Maan in Jordan. From the time they left Zaatari, her interim home, her groom Sheikh Abdullah, kept on talking to her persistently even when his new bride refused to say a single word. By the end of the second day he continued with his eternal monologue, by now quite used to her silence. He didn’t know how long this might last. He had called his family back home in Riyadh and informed his brother who relayed on the message to his three wives that a new room be arranged for the “al arooz a Jadida”, (the new bride).
Flashes of Aleppo replaced the passing images of the speeding sand dunes and the hard terrain they were passing by. She recalled her home surrounded by the soft dunes. The sand dunes undulated as the gentle breeze followed them, caressing them and lending new forms– ever changing, ever shifting, camouflaged. Pictures of her father Ahmed, smoking the ‘nargileh’ in the courtyard of their sprawling home in Aleppo. Her younger brother and sisters running around the alabaster fountain in the centre of the courtyard created a din when she herself sat basking in the warm evening sun in the corner of the garden on a stone with a book in her hand.
The page was turned to Yeats’ “The Second Coming”. “…….and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned”. It didn’t make much sense to her then as it did now. She recalled how her mother held the huge tray of fresh ‘knaffeh’(a Syrian sweet) upon which the playing kids stopped their activity and attacked the eats. The mother handed over the bready sweet to the outstretched hands. The kids devoured the eats in a hurry and went back to play, she saved some on the plate for Hadeer who was watching the whole scene without budging from her perch.
“Someday you will starve with that attitude” she chided, handing her the sweets.
“You would be there to feed me my mama” she got up and followed her mother into the house.
These days her mother had this constantly worried expression stamped on her face. Her husband, a physician in the government hospital whispered stories of unheard misery, death and despair every night he returned from the hospital. He left at dawn to return only late at night.There was no salary. He worked overtime as he had to replace his dead colleagues. They were brutally killed for helping the wounded people crying out in pain at the thresh hold of death. Dr. Ahmed did the same. How could he not?
The ‘blood dimmed tide had loosed’ upon his friends and colleagues too. With a heavy heart he continued their unaccomplished mission. He was one of the 20 doctors alive in Aleppo that prided itself with thousands of doctors in the past. They were caught in the triangle of rebels, insurgents and the government. He was torn between the merchants of death and the alms for relief. Every night he returned home to hopelessness.
The unrest and the violence in the city had cast its shadow on Ahmed’s family. One morning as the sky was overcast with misty smoke his eldest daughter Ayat arrived distraught from Damascus. A bomb had hit their building killing her husband and five children while she was out with buying groceries with the youngest child in her arms. Like the walking dead she had managed to reach her father’s house the next day.
Shocked and tired from their mourning the family went defeated into the silence of the night. Her mother was singing the “anasheed”( Islamic song sung during funerals).
As if fate had followed her in the middle of their slumber, a bomb landed in the neighborhood destroying their house. Only a part of the house remained where Hadeer and Ayat and her baby slept. All around she heard the strangest of noises of distant howling and the crumbling of the falling debris. No sound from within. All were instantly killed and buried in their shelled graves. Ayat grabbed the baby and pulled Hadeer with her. She looked at the pieces of flesh thrown around and cried.
The smell death floated from the ashes and stuffed her heart and being.
“Baaaba! Maama, Hamoodiiii, Saaabah, Mooona, Haala, Saaarahhhhhh, Maaaama” Hadeer lamented.
Sheikh Abdullah stopped the car with a screech and asked “Shu haada”? keif? Why are you crying Hayati”?
Then he just let her be.
The sheikh got out of the car and started puffing away at his cigarettes– untill Hadeer’s heaving heart seemed emptied of the deep sorrow.
He started the car. He stopped by at a petrol station, took her to the food court where they both had their lunch silently–she with her eyes lowered and he, stealing glances at the precious treasure that was to be his.
Continuing their journey to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Abdulla smiled comforted with the idea that his bride was finally going to get some rest. He had never seen her resting throughout their journey. Her eyelids covered a book of wide open memory that took her back to their exodus from Aleppo to the refugee camp where she became the “al aroos a Jadida” overnight.
The journey from Aleppo was dangerous, as dangerous as it could get to any 14 year old girl and a young woman with a child. On their way, they had seen horrible sights of despair and the horrific sight of a man being shot right through his back when running away from the rebels.
Finally when they actually were pulled up into a truck it seemed like there was no place for even an olive to be wedged in between. Human will to live found not only Hadeer and her sister but also twenty more people in the truck which did not seem to have place for even a single person when they had got in. Though people sat with their arms and legs tucked in Hadeer had the foreboding feeling that it was also the end of her privacy. The recent events had shocked her into numbness even to react with any protest to an unseen hand that sent shivers of disgust into her spine.
The tears rolled down her eyes. Like all others who lost their something or someone in their lives also had mist in their eyes and saw nothing of the water in others. They travelled for four days, mostly travelling by night finding refuge in the crevices of hills to hide by day to avoid being hit by fighter jets that hovered their cruel eyes on the escaping Syrians.
Three months at the camp Zataari, in Jordan, both the sisters had lived a life time. At first waiting their turn for bread and milk they went hungry for days reluctant to extend their hands for food. Nursing their battered hearts and bodies, shivering in the cold, they had learnt to stretch their hands for bread and other things doled out to the refugees. Over a few days Ayat had managed to volunteer to take care of little children, mostly orphans. Ayat was killing two birds in one stone; Looking after her own child while earning their livelihood. While she went out Hadeer stayed in the small tent huddled up with other women.
One morning she and two other young girls went to the public toilet nearby. It had vanished! Someone had taken parts of it to make a private one closer to their own tents to give their own women some privacy!
There were little wars for privacy, boundaries, ownerships, and appeasements of frustrations thrown by unexpected eventualities. The conflict to survive was seen everywhere. What had started off as a refugee camp for 100 families had now crawled into a humungous city moving its slow thighs, trying to contain more and more people who joined the existing shattered lives into it. They would have loved to return. They knew not where. But they also wanted to live. Despite the fear of the pitiless sun, despite the fear of impending snow in the merciless winter.
On a Friday afternoon the pitiless sun heated up the tent. Hadeer lay resting against a weathered clothes bag. She tried to recall Yeats’ poem she was reading that afternoon. Things had fallen apart; the falcon could not hear the falconer. Desert birds at the mercy of the preying hawks, Anarchy, blood-dimmed tide, ….waste of desert sand….
“The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity……”
Her reverie was broken by Ayat who came home earlier than usual and happily excited.
She pulled Hadeer by her hand and announced.
“Hadeer’s is getting married tomorrow!”.
The ululations in the tent filled Hadeer’s heart with dread!
She looked for her sister! Ayat was gone.
The tent transformed instantly into a marriage home. As the other occupants of the tent scampered around to decorate and help make preparations, for the impending ceremony someone ran to get an ‘Imam’ (the priest).
Hadeer met her sister outside the tent and cried “No!”.
Ayat ran her hand on her sister’s head and only said “This is the only way out”. And left.
She had met a middle aged Saudi Sheikh who had come ‘looking’ for a bride, among the desert birds in the refugee camp at the mercy of the preying hawks.
The next day Saturday was the ‘Zawaaj’, the wedding.
Hadeer missed her mother who would have sang the ‘ataaba”(song of lament) or at least the “Anasheed”. Her sister cried as she hugged and kissed her goodbye.
Hadeer was helped from the tent into the black Prado.
Sheikh Abdullah had got the best bargain this “Friday”.
As the wheels started rolling Ayat wiped her eyes and opened her purse.
For Hadeer, things had fallen apart; the centre could not hold. The pitiless desert storm spinned her towards the beast with its thighs moving slowly….or she towards it…..
Hadeer looked straight into the horizon as the car sped through the unrelenting road ploughing through the desert into the gyrating unknown future.