Dismembered children, orphaned toddlers, lifeless mothers, hopeless fathers, green army tanks circumventing pits of fire that have burned for days, and troops of gunmen firing in the open streets, have gained a perpetual presence on our televisions for the last seven months. I mute the television and fire up the tea-kettle on the stove. A corner of our grocery store is equipped with a butane stove, a black iron kettle and a score of glasses.
It has been a month since I have stopped going to school after men in black itchy looking caps shelled the building into a pile of debris. Since then, Abba has trusted me with the store and signed up as a labourer in the city about thirty miles from here, for clearing the roads from the remains of fallen buildings. It pays him some extra money which he has resolved to save for Ammi’s labour. She is eight months pregnant.
When the tea swells up to the brim, I pour it into an array of glasses on a tray and head for the shops across the street. Three times a day, I visit all the stores across the street selling tea at dry-fruit stores, garment showrooms, grocery stores and stationery shops. It is that time of the day when the frowning businessmen take a break from their evaluation of losses. They shift their weight on their chairs, press their backs hard against the cushion and sip cardamom tea; their eyes angled towards the corners of their stores where war pours out of their televisions.
“Ay Jamal! When will you buy the socks?” Galel, Mr Ahmed’s only son, asks from behind the counter of their automobile spare parts store when I place the last glass of tea on Mr Ahmed’s table. Galel, my only friend, my Yaara.
“Come with me now? I’ll collect the empty glasses before we visit the store.”
It is afternoon. Chilly winds pipe in from the north and chestnut trees ruffle against the backdrop of a sandalwood Syrian sky where distant patches of faint black smoke merge with the clouds.
At Mr Tarek’s garment store, I purchase a pair of socks for the little one who is just a month away. Mr Tarek wishes for the well-being of my mother, thanks me for being his first customer in the last two days and offers a discount of five bucks. I reciprocate, and carefully stuff the socks into my pocket. On the way back home Galel admits it was wise of me to buy a pair of socks, given that we still have not an inkling of who waits in Ammi’s womb. A sister, I secretly hope.
In the evening when the shutters are pulled down, Abba returns home. He sinks into the chair and I bring him a glass of water which he gently refuses. He tells me of the corpses he has pulled from underneath demolished buildings; children pierced in their tender chests with construction rods, some dead in the embrace of their bloodied mothers.
I ask him to help Ammi in the kitchen upstairs, and that I will clean the store and wash the tea glasses before dinner. Abba rises from his chair, holds my face between his rugged palms and pecks me on my forehead, “You are my Jaan, Jamal. I am proud of you.”
A faint smell of melted butter wafts from the kitchen. It has been months, there are no more lambs to cook, no kebabs to grill. We make do with bread with mashed potatoes for all our meals.
I wash the glasses, arrange some groceries on the shelves and step outside to pull the shutter down. But then…
Smoke. I see it everywhere, as I force my eyes open against the weight of blood on my eyelids. They hurt in the glaring daylight. My head aches with tearing intensity and my ears whistle with a deafening shrillness. The air smells of burning tyres and diesel. Someone lifts me up, puts me down against the pavement and hurries away. There are cries in the air, shrieks of people hollering the name of God immediately followed by echoes of persistent gunshots at a distance.
The roof of my home has caved in, its walls mercilessly perforated with bullets. It takes me some time to feel my legs before I lift myself up and limp closer to the pieces of my home. I think of Abba. I picture Ammi and her belly crushed under the weight of concrete. It scares me, the realisation that I have begun to miss them.
There are people I know who now lie on the street, barely moving their limbs. I walk. Breathlessly. I think of Galel, my Yaara.
I cross the street and stagger towards Galel’s home which is now a pile of bricks, beds, fans and blue curtains. The only trace of a structure not in pieces is a flight of stairs which led upstairs to their door, now leads to a stone-grey sky. More gunshots. I drop myself onto the ground and crawl beneath the stairway, and there… right there, I witness something that I least expected.
(Read Part 2 here)
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