My Coming of Age – Prologue

April 26, 2011 by syrianexile

The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature’s Priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.
~ William Wordsworth

What can an exiled son do for his
Starving people, and of what value
Unto them is the lamentation of an
Absent poet?
~ Khalil Gibran

One Hot Day in Damascus – 1

April 26, 2011 by syrianexile

It is a hot, almost oppressive summer afternoon in Damascus. These are the days when the air doesn’t move, no one wants to move, and it feels like an inhuman effort to simply breathe in the dry, hot air. This is a day when an afternoon nap in the cool, dark quiet is as necessary as a cold drink.

I feel a touch on the arm and I open my eyes.

“Mamdour is here to see you,” says my sister Zaynab.

She has tiptoed into my room to wake me, So sweet, innocent, just twelve years old. I adore her, but at fifteen, I am a world apart from Zaynab’s schoolgirl life of friends, studies, and child’s games.

Mamdour is one of my friends from school. The fact that his birthday is in two days – he will be 16 – flashes through my mind, and I wonder if he is planning a last-minute party to celebrate, and is here to invite me.

Zaynab skips off. I shuffle into my slippers, and walk through the quiet house. Everyone else must still be sleeping – it is so hot. I go through the garden in front of our house.

My house in Damascus is arranged in a style common to my city. You don’t see houses open to the street, or open yards as in Europe or America. Here, the high front gate and walls fully enclose our garden area, and within the garden is my house. It’s a calm, safe place — my home and garden – and to me, it’s an oasis.

I open the door, expecting to see the smirking face of my school friend.

But it is not Mamdour standing there.

Instead, there are two unfamiliar men in suits, standing ramrod straight. Behind them in the street stand three other men. They wear suits, and carry machine guns. The guns are not aimed at me…yet.

In the second or two that my mind wraps around the situation, it is as if hours of deliberation have passed. There is shock, fear, and, strangely, a sense that all along, I have known this moment was coming, and I actually expected it.

“Are you Mohammed?” asks a mustachioed, tall man – an agent for the government, I assume.

Out of my mouth, suddenly dry, I hear myself saying yes.

“Someone who says he’s your brother is down at our station; he’s got problems. Could you come down?”

The agent is being formal and polite, but there is an undercurrent to his tone that I can’t quite identify. His demeanor establishes him as the lead. The other agent just stands there nodding.

“That’s impossible,” I say. “I’m the oldest. And my brothers and sisters are all in the house.”

“Really?” he says. He crosses his arms, and looks at me squarely. “We’d like you to come down to the station anyway.”

I knew what kind of station he was talking about. In Damascus, no one shows up at your door on a hot summer afternoon to take 15 year olds to the police station.

“Why would I need to…”

“Stop stalling, you bastard,” he interrupts. The polite chit-chat is over. “You’re coming with us.”

Zaynab has quietly snuck up to stand behind me, and she starts crying when she hears the tone of the agent.

“Shut up,” the agent barks at her. She runs back to the house.

“Who are you?” I ask, stalling. I need time, I have to get my thoughts together, I have to figure out what to say, what to do. I need time.

He thrusts a security card toward me, but when I reach for it, he holds it firmly, and won’t let me touch it. So I stare at it as long as I can, trying to memorize it, but I can’t read. I struggle to focus but I can’t. Everything is swimming in front of my eyes.

“Where do you want me to go?”

“To the station; I’ve told you.”

“But why?” I ask. I am stalling for time.

The agent grabs my arm. I am wearing pyjamas.

“I can’t go like this,” I say. “Let me change my clothes, at least.”

“They don’t care what you look like down there,” he says.

Both men laugh, nastily, as they size me up. To them, I’m a punk teenager, and I have no right to ask questions.

My sister must have gone to get my father, because he comes up to us. He looks shocked. He also looks as if he is going to cry. My father doesn’t cry.

“What do you want with my son?” he asks the men.

“It’s none of your business.” The lead agent looks at my father — my strong, authoritative, commanding father — contemptuously.

Doesn’t he know that this is my father? No one speaks to my father like this.

“I won’t let you,” my father says.

“You won’t let us?” Both agents exchange a laugh.

“Wait, I’d like to make a phone call first,” says my father.

I’m clinging to his words. He is my father. Maybe he can stop this. Maybe he knows what to do, what to say. He is my father.

“You’re wasting your time, but phone if you want to,” the agent says.

“But there isn’t a phone in the house,” my father says. “I’ll have to go out.”

Good, I think, he will leave and bring back help. I won’t have to go.

But I am wrong.

“No. If you have a phone in the house you could make a call, but since you haven’t, no.”

I see my father’s face fall.

“I have to take him in,” the agent says. “Now enough. Don’t say any more. You see those men back there? They’re mine, and they have orders — no one goes out…no one. I don’t want anyone to get hurt.”

I hear every word, and as the words reach my brain, and my brain processes them, and then finally, understands them, I realize that my father will not be able to help me.

“Don’t take him like that, at least,” my father says. He has a pleading tone in his voice. “Let him put on his clothes.”

He is almost crying now.

Tears well in my own eyes. Not because I am afraid – even though I am – but I am causing my father such pain. I do not like having the power to make my father cry.

The agents looked at each other, and the lead agent nods his head. “We’ll come with him.”


some twenty other chapters follow this one; horrendous !