An old wound in Syria

Orient Net - New York Times | 2016-03-07 16:37 Damascuss

An old wound in Syria
Normally on Land Day, I would not have gone to school. In Syria, where I grew up, they usually let Syrian-Palestinians march to remember the day, March 30, 1976, when Israeli forces killed six Palestinians and wounded at least 100 who had been protesting Israel’s expropriation of Palestinian land. But when I was 15, the government banned the commemoration.

Twelve of us lived in my family’s three-bedroom house in Yarmouk, a Palestinian neighborhood in Damascus that began as a camp for refugees. (My parents fled to Lebanon in 1948, then fled to Syria 10 years later.) I slept on a mattress near the kitchen with three older brothers. We got up at 7 a.m. to eat breakfast — yogurt, halloumi, Arabic pita bread and sweet tea — before my father and older siblings went to work or university. Then I headed to school in my khaki uniform, down our street, which was scented and soundtracked by a big, raucous market. All the houses had gardens out front. Ours had lemon and loquat trees.

As it turned out, our teachers decided to end classes early that day and send us home. Some Syrian-Palestinians were defying the ban, and some students had joined in. Guns were going off, and tires were burning. Security forces showed up. Students threw stones at them. There was a lot of shouting and fighting as people were arrested. But I was a shy, skinny boy who stayed away from politics and protests. I just wanted to go home.

The youth wing of the Baathist party, led by  Hafez al-Assad, had many offices in our neighborhood. I saw a young man standing in the doorway of one. He was a couple of years older than I was and looked a little like one of my brothers: chubby, with fair skin, a light beard and curly brown hair. I knew who he was; his name was Kamal. He was holding a gun.

I walked faster through the rush of people. He can see I’m just carrying my books, I told myself. He can see I don’t want to protest. But Kamal looked right at me, aimed his gun in my direction and shot.

As I ran, my left calf began to burn. I staggered into my yard and bled on the lemon and loquat trees. Once inside I saw a big chunk of my flesh was missing. The bone was exposed. But I was relieved.

My family said not to report the shooting. One of my sisters was a nurse and treated my wound. The next day, she took me to the hospital for an X-ray to make sure the bone wasn’t fractured. We said I fell down the stairs. When school reopened two days later, I returned in my khaki uniform. I tried not to limp. I never told my classmates what happened.

I saw Kamal every day. When we passed each other, he looked at me with a blank stare. He didn’t seem to know he had shot me. I went on to graduate, go to college, get a job in sales, marry and start raising three wonderful children.

One afternoon, I was buying fish from a chubby, bearded man nicknamed Abu al-Bara’. He looked familiar. We knew many of the same people. We went to the same school. I don’t remember you, he said, shaking his head.

Abu al-Bara’ was friendly, and he happened to live on the same floor of our building. Sometimes he sent us fresh fish or squid, and I would reciprocate with a tub of homemade tarator, a tahini, garlic and parsley sauce that goes really well with fried seafood. Then one day, I found out his formal name: Kamal.

I hadn’t thought about my scar in years. When I realized I had been buying fish from him, the scar — now a wafer-size crater — throbbed. Everything came back to me: how he shot me as I carried my books, how I bled on the lemon and loquat trees.

After that, I stopped buying fish from him. I refused his offerings. He drank a lot. One winter day, his wife knocked hard on our door. ‘‘My husband has fallen,’’ she said. I called an ambulance right away.

I went inside Kamal’s home and saw him slumped on the floor, white foam coming out of his mouth. He was gasping and smelled heavily of alcohol. The paramedics gave him an injection. I sensed they wanted money, so I gave them everything in my pocket, about 400 Syrian pounds.

Kamal survived that day. After a few months, we moved to another neighborhood. The war separated my family, and now I’m in Germany. (I applied for asylum two years ago but haven’t received an answer.) I wear shorts in the summer, something I never did in Syria. Sometimes people ask about the scar. I usually say I fell down the stairs. It’s a long story to tell in German, which I’m struggling to learn.

I don’t know if Kamal is alive or died of alcoholism or died in the siege of Yarmouk, when so many people starved. We all lost our homes and livelihoods in the war. We lost family and friends. Yarmouk is gone, and we are all refugees now.

As told by Joanna Kakissis