Three months of intensive training, twelve hours a day, seven days a week, and still, your right shoulder cramps now under the weight of the backpack. You had been far too nervous to remember to rub in some pain relief ointment there this morning. You could use some of its heat in the below-zero cold of the Syrian winter morning. Your abaya’s thin syn-thetic silk offers little insulation against the frosty wind that licks your exposed face. Shaking your head, you look around in an effort to remind yourself of why you are here. Your sheila, fastened around your face with four safety pins, doesn’t budge. The street is completely deserted – devoid even of the cars of the few residents who continue to live here. They know better than to park here now, but not enough to leave Damascus altogether, as so many have done. You admire them for staying, for their small but ultimately futile act of resistance. You know what you are doing is more powerful. Walking onwards, you spot a small roadside restaurant, its shutters half open. You make your way there, looking forward to the cup of coffee that will warm your hands.
To your right is Bab el Saghir, the ancient ceme-tery where the wives and companions of the Prophet are buried. In the light of the morning sun, the grey tombstones look white and chalky. Up close, you know they are anything but that now. You’ve been here once before, five years ago, on a field trip in the ninth grade. Back then, it was a well-tended area, as one of the holiest sites in Islam was meant to be, with plants and flowers growing between the graves, and the mausoleum domes shining a striking emerald. Now, domes have dulled, with patches of paint scraped off, their copper minarets removed and likely traded for gains. The smell of jasmine, once prevalent and the flower Damascus is named after, is gone – there’s no sign of any foliage at all, just dirt the color of moth wings.
The field trip was part of an Islamic history class and Mrs. Fayrouz, with her squeaky voice and bad eyesight, hadn’t noticed when you and Nasir, your best friend, snuck away from the group. The two of you had a mission; or, at least, you did. Nasir had just gone along with your plan out of sheer boredom, anything to keep from listening to yet another high-pitched sermon from The Blind Mouse, as poor Mrs. Fayrouz was called amongst her students. He had always been an important accomplice in your nonsensical teenage pursuits. A mutual motivation to get away from home drove the two of you to explore Damascus. There wasn’t much you cared for as a gangly fifteen-year-old girl, except poetry, particularly the romantic verses of Nizar Qabbani. Your father, a court clerk whose literary ambitions never materialized beyond a single poem published in a women’s weekly cooking digest under the pseud-onym of Umm Maytham, recited Qabbani’s verses to you as lullabies, soothing you into slumber with couplets about unrequited love to the extent that you had almost all of the poet’s works memorized by the time you were thirteen. You thought you knew all there was to know about love. That’s when you fell hard for Salman, the local barber’s young son who looked at you with his honey-brown eyes, as he shyly swept away your father’s hair trimmings every Thursday afternoon. You had looked right back, of course, feeling brazen and adventurous, carefully maintaining eye contact only when you were sure your father was not watching you. It was during that summer of silent infatuation when you truly realized what Qabbani meant when he wrote:
I said nothing
to the one I loved
love's adjectives into a suitcase
and fled from all languages.
Salman, with his golden hair and eyes the color of baklava, made your mouth dry. You were a chatty girl, but when he was around, you clammed up. That didn’t stop you from coming up with all sorts of ways to get his attention: from furtively following him to Bab Sharqi where he met friends every Friday afternoon to smoke shisha, to folding up notes with your MSN ID on it and throwing them in through the barbershop window. But nothing had worked. You decided that going on the field trip would help. You were determined to find a way to talk to Sal-man and concluded that visiting Nizar Qabbani’s tombstone was the only way you would know how to successfully express your love. Your father had told you Bab el Saghir is where the great poet was buried and although he’d never visited the site him-self, he relayed to you a tale about the tombstone: its engraved words would allegedly change, depending on who was reading them. The tombstone would only reveal a Qabbani couplet, with a cure to their hearts’ predicaments, to visitors who had poetry in their souls. After your unsuccessful clandestine attempts to initiate communication with Salman, you were convinced that the message on Qabbani’s tombstone would show you the true path to his heart. Upon your insistence, Nasir, whose interest in notions of poetry and love ranged from a shrug to an eye roll, managed to find a website that had a map outlining exactly where in the cemetery Qabbani was laid to rest.
Despite your hour-long search for Qabbani’s tombstone, you had returned dusty and sweaty with a skulking Nasir in tow, back to The Blind Mouse’s group moments before they boarded the van back to school. You remember now how disappointed you’d been, lamenting aloud to Nasir on the ride back.
“What a waste, Nas! I am so utterly sad!” you said, flailing dramatically against the back of your seat.
"Mmm, yes, me too. Utterly sad,” Nasir replied.
He was sitting next to you, staring evenly out the window, oblivious to your glare.
“You don’t even care, do you? My heart hurts and the man I love has no idea.” When in doubt, become accusatory – that had been your MO back then.
“That’s right, I am just so utterly uncaring.”
“No, don’t! Don’t be mean to me right now. I am in too much pain.” You slid down your seat then, trying to control your tears.
“Hey, isn’t this what Qabbani is always going on about anyways? Love is pain?” Nasir had turned his head towards you, and given you a lazy, con-spiratorial smile.
“Go ahead, laugh at my pain. You have no idea what this feels like. My life is over!”
Recalling how dramatic you’d been, you still feel a tinge of resentment at Nasir’s nonchalance. His unperturbed reaction had driven you to an anger that you took out on your father, accusing him of lying about the tombstone. In return, you got a hard slap and a jaw that ached for a month. Now, as you finish your second cup of coffee, you rub a hand against your jaw, remembering the tingling redness of that slap. Your father may have been a sucker for a good stanza, but he sure did have a strong wrist, a fact he made certain you were aware of regularly until the day he died in his sleep one year later, at seventy-four years old leaving you behind as a sixteen-year-old orphan with no money to pay for school, electricity, or food.
Looking down at your own wrist now, you evaluate when you need to be at the bus stop in Al Midan. It is 9:30 am, which gives you an hour to kill. The shopkeeper, a stocky man whose dark beard tickles his chest, clears away your cup quietly. He knows not to say anything as you exit; from someone like you, even just a gesture of thanks is payment enough.
You cross the road and head into the cemetery. You haven’t thought about Qabbani in years. Once you joined the cause, the potency of the written word paled in comparison to the power of action. But now that you’re here, you can’t help but think this may be your very last chance to finally solve the mystery of Qabbani’s tombstone. The simplistic, childhood version of you whose only purpose in life was to go to school, pass exams, and read poetry no longer exists. Who you are now is someone with a purpose far greater than the lilting words of a dead poet. Who you are now is a revolutionary, a soldier, a fighter, a history maker. Who you are now is a woman on a real mission, not some flimsy teenage escapade with Nasir.
You wonder where Nasir is now. Last you heard, his father had died in the siege at Homs and the rest of the family had fled to Germany, seeking asylum. Whether they made it there or not was as good a mystery as the one you were trying to solve now. You are certain though that Nasir hasn’t joined the struggle; he had not been much of a patriotic Syrian. When you rambled on about improving healthcare and education for the masses, he shrugged or stayed mute. It had maddened you then and even now, as you cross old tombstones, how he could be so unfeeling towards his own land. He had been a good friend though, that Nasir. The two of you grew up next door to each other and fell into a comfortable friendship where it didn’t matter that he was a boy and you were a girl. Although you lost touch after moving to Yarmouk, you thought of him every now and then, especially when you smoked the occasional joint with the other soldiers. He had been a pothead, somehow managing to source it even when harsh curfews were imposed. When it came to getting high, he was sharper than the dagger you hide in your left boot.
You make your way towards the tomb of Mu’awiyah. The structure, though tall, looks unimposing. Its surface, once draped with a forest green shroud, is bare, and its decrepit beige walls, a popular spot for vindictive urination, are marked with dark brown stains. Mu’awiyah was the third Caliphate, a founder of the Ummayyad dynasty. You can almost recall the exact words The Blind Mouse used without pausing for breath: “There are three things that make Mu’awiyah great number one he was one of the great companions of the Prophet peace be upon him number two he was a caliph who made peace with Imam Ali and number three he was a writer of the Quran yes that’s right the holy word the revelation he wrote it.” Her sentences ran into each other without rhythm, forming wild monologues devoid of reason or adjectives other than “great”. You know now that none of what she said was true. Mu’awiyah was neither a great leader nor a great companion – he was a deceitful tyrant who killed innocent Muslims and ruled only for material gain.
You remember precisely when your opinion shifted. It was at one of Leader Ali’s thinking sessions. Held outdoors for the youth at Yarmouk, they were open to everyone between the ages of fifteen and twenty-two and featured him delivering an hour-long sermon on key topics around Islam. His disciples served hot tea and slices of bread, which was the main reason why half the kids showed up at all. In one of these sessions, he had haughtily questioned, “If Mu’awiyah was such a great caliph, why isn’t he one of the Khulafa-e-Rashideen?”
You’d been stunned. Your knowledge of Islamic history wasn’t perfect but this rationale struck a chord – why indeed was he not mentioned as one of the four rightly guided caliphs? Everyday there were more and more questions sprouting in your mind. The only legitimate answers, the ones that made the most sense, came from Leader Ali. His words weren’t just feelings; his words were demonstrated through actions. The soldiers took you in at Yarmouk and treated you, and the other girls who joined their cause, like a sister. You were grateful, because you knew there were other camps in other parts of Syria where girls were not respected. You had heard the horror stories: dozens stuffed in one tent, each taken out periodically for the purposes of pleasuring the male soldiers, in any way. But here in Yarmouk, things were different for girls. Once you joined the cause, you were given a new name, Shayma, after the foster-sister of the Prophet, whose agreeable disposition they said reminded them of yours. Everyday, there was something new to un-learn and learn anew, another side of the story to dive deeper into, skills you were expected to pick up fast and well. You never imagined you’d be so quick at assembling a gun. You felt useful, at last. With the tomb now behind you, you head to-wards the main mosque at the center of the cemetery. From the little you remember of your last fruitless hunt with Nasir, the two of you had spent most of that hour in this vicinity. Between the dead leaves and broken bits of branches, the already narrow space between graves is now even harder to navigate. You imagine someone watching you from a distance. What an odd sight you must be! A small woman dressed in a too-long black abaya, one hand holding up its lifted hemline so as not to fall, the other reaching out to wipe the dust off from old gravestones on her path. On the fourteenth grave-stone, you pause, your breath catching. There it is.
Nizar Tawfiq Qabbani. 21 March 1923 – 30 April 1998.
You were only six when he died. Kneeling down, you use your abaya sleeve to brush away the dirt gathered on the stone. You should be more careful; your appearance is not meant to cause any raised eyebrows. You stand up, and step back to read the complete engraving on Qabbani’s gravestone:
O Angel of Sham, carry me into the disorder of death.
I am your mad poet, I am a Damascene.
No chaos can surpass the glory of God.
I have lived the enchanting insanity of this City of Jasmine.
I am ready.
You blink once and re-read the script. You stare so hard at the words, you feel like they are no longer etched into the stone but standing out, in front of you, moving closer. At the word “Damascene,” you feel a surge of energy and love for this city. At “glory of God,” you are moved to look up at the sky in gratitude. This city was Qabbani’s first, and your only, real love. You think about Salman, how foolish you had been at fifteen to mistake any of those feelings of affection with the strong, overwhelming love you feel now for this city and its ails. In your sepia-tinted life, Salman was nothing but an illusory speck of color, fleeting, never really there. Damascus was the big picture. Nothing else could ever come close. You read the words again, lifting your wrist up to check the time. You need to go. You kiss your fingers of your right hand, tasting dirt, and place it on Qabbani’s gravestone. Had you found this inscription when you first came looking for it, you would’ve scoffed and declared it a waste of time. You feel so strongly that you were meant to find it now, at this moment, on this day. These words, the tribute to Damascus, the acceptance of what is next, this is exactly what you needed to read today. To anyone else, this would seem like a fantastical coincidence, but you know better. This is the glory of God.
Exiting the cemetery, you head towards the Bab Musla Square. The roundabout, its once tall gur-gling fountain now dry with discolored tiles, has a few cars around it. You check your watch: 10:30 a.m. Hastening your steps, you keep your gaze down as you cross the road towards Al Midan Street, one of the busiest areas of Old Damascus, and part of its southern walled gate. To your left is a small butchery, with skinned lamb legs, pink and fleshy, hanging off from small hooks in the shop’s ceiling. Around each leg is a swirling wall of buzz, flies and mosquitoes that a weary looking man is swatting at half-heartedly with a bloody rag. Even as you hurry, you can’t help but wonder at the physics of this display – how does the meat stay so perfectly taza, so fresh hanging like that? Who hangs all those pieces of meat up there? Are the hooks ever cleaned? You marvel at the trajectory of your thoughts. Just yesterday, Leader Ali had remarked at the detailed methodology of your thinking – this was why, he said, you were the ideal candidate for this mission. You had nodded, kept your face blank and gaze lowered, though your insides had turned liquid. You knew it was because of the way Leader Ali spoke to you, like you were the only person that mattered.
Up ahead, a small crowd gathers around a store-front. From the strong scent of roasted nuts, you know it is the Daoud Brothers Sweet Shop, a fixture of Old Damascus for over sixty years, renowned for its baklava. Every morning, its bakers step out with four trays, as big as car doors, heaped with freshly baked baklava, so that those who cannot afford to buy the sweet treats still have a way to enjoy them. You’ve been in that crowd before, the week after you first moved to Yarmouk. With no food, no father, no friends, the only way to eat was to spend every morning going to as many bakeries as possible. It was a competition, between you and the rest of Damascus, which was going hungry. Run by families that had long ago made their riches and left the shops to second and third generations, most of the bakeries took it upon themselves to do what the defunct government failed to do: provide for the community.
You remember now the taste of the soft, buttery pastry, how bits of its pistachio cream center would stick in your teeth so that even when you flicked your tongue there hours later, you could taste the sweetness. You are craving it now, but a swift look at your watch turns the longing into nausea. As you cross the road over to the bus stop, you gulp hard, your heart like a hummingbird’s. Its beats reverberate in your ears so loudly, you are sure everyone on the street can hear them. Breathe, breathe, breathe. You’re just a girl in Damascus waiting for the bus, you tell yourself. There’s a couple standing next to you: the girl, who looks about your age, is wearing a magenta scarf which she has looped around her head fashionably like a turban. You’ve always want-ed to be able to do that, but the best you could do is a traditional hijab, shabby and disheveled, and which you keep pulling at. The man she’s with is about a head taller than you. From the way he speaks to her, you can tell he is smiling warmly. You watch the girl as intently as you can, looking sideways at her as she laughs huskily, her teeth a row of sparkling white, like the tombstones in Bab el Saghir reflecting the bright sunlight. She looks happy, young and fresh, everything you haven’t been in years. Her tummy must feel like liquid all the time, you think. Closing your eyes, you try to remember what Leader Ali said to you last night after your very last training session.
“Shayma, you must do this for Sham. Can I trust you?” Leader Ali had asked, his deep voice barely above a whisper.
“Yes, yes you can. I’m ready for anything you ask.” The fervor in your response had startled you.
“When you first joined us, I knew then that you would do something special. Shayma, do you know why we gave you this name?”
You had turned your head towards him and shaken it ever so slightly. You knew the answer already, but you wanted to hear it from him. You wanted the conversation to never end; his low voice washed over you, assuaging the fears you could not verbalize. In him, you saw everything that Syria was meant to be: true, kind, powerful, and dynamic.
“It is because you are so good-natured, so understanding. That is what Shayma means. So really, it is not us who gave you that name, but your own being. It is who you are. And now, Shayma, you are the only one I trust with this mission. This is for Damascus. It’s our city, our love.”
At the word love, you had looked into his eyes. They were brown and pleading, and you saw your-self reflected in them. You watched yourself nod in determination. When you reassured him that you would do exactly what was needed, you caught a flicker of something indecipherable on his face. You chose to interpret it as a moment of trust, and pride, and vowed in your heart you wouldn’t let him down.
A loud honk startles you out of your reverie. The bus is here, and the couple that was next to you have already boarded. It’s your turn. Stepping up, your right foot slips a little and your arms swing out to grab the railing. A wrinkled hand grabs your left arm, pulling you up. Stunned at having been touched by a man you don’t know and cannot look at, you murmur a quiet thank you and head to the backside of the bus where all the women are seated. You don’t know what would have happened had you fallen backwards, onto the backpack. Saying a prayer of thanks in your head, you sit down shakily.
“Shu la ween raiha el yoom?” asks the woman next to you, her eyebrows raised.
You look her over discreetly. She is not wearing an abaya. Her eyes are kind, hidden behind frame-less glasses, just like the ones Mrs. Fayrouz used to wear. You are prepared for this question and have an answer rehearsed for a moment exactly like this one. It was all too expected that a young girl in Damascus couldn’t go from one place to another without an inquisitive older woman asking where she was going.
“A’a melek Ellah,” you reply.
She smiles at your response and turns back to the magazine in her hand. You know she’s heard it before. It’s a standard reply: to God’s Land, which could basically mean anywhere and also nowhere in particular. It is unspecific and vague, an acceptable answer in most social situations between strangers. You’re pleased with it yourself; after all, it is not too far off from the truth.
As the bus begins to slow down for its next stop, you look around. You’re in the neighborhood of Al Hakleh now. This is when you need to start prepar-ing. Glancing around with as minimal movement as possible, you check whether anyone is looking at you. Recently, there have been harsh calls for residents of Damascus to be on high alert; on the nightly news, old beloved anchors admonish viewers to watch for any suspicious activity in public areas. They don’t shy away from specificity, and emphasize, with great dramatics and exaggerated facial expressions, the importance of catching would-be terrorists red-handed. You’ve scoffed at their words, rolled your eyes at their theatrics – you know nothing can stop the cause. For every one man caught, there are five more to take his place. That is a soldier’s duty.
Today, you are one of those soldiers too. That is why, when Leader Ali decided that a woman must perform the next attack, because sending lone men out to scout and execute is becoming too risky, you were recruited. This is your calling, your purpose. You believe in it more than you had once believed in Qabbani’s words; he was a mad poet and some may call you a mad woman but at the end of it all, it is for Damascus, the “enchanting insanity” of it. Whatever you can do to ensure it remains, you will. Slowly looping one arm and then the other out of your bag, you sit forwards in your seat, so that the bag rests behind you. This next part is tricky. You were supposed to have a mobile phone to make it all inconspicuous, but the soldiers didn’t have enough time to activate one into a remote control and although your heart had raced when they told you, you reassured them that you could manage without this specific mechanism. You tried to recall that feeling now, an attempt to turn feigned confidence into actual machismo.
Reaching back with your right arm, you run your hand across the bag’s side and into its front pocket. You’re trying your best to face straight ahead, but the odd feeling of being watched makes you turn your head and look back. Two seats behind you, there is a toddler, a little girl with rosy cheeks on otherwise porcelain skin, her ginger hair tied up into two ponytails. She’s watching you eagerly, and as you look at her, she blinks her big, blue eyes twice and flashes you a toothy grin. One hand still in the bag’s front pocket, you freeze. You are not sure how to respond, none of your rehearsals and run-throughs ever involved potential interactions with children. Your lips feel foreign as you smile back at her. That is what any other person would do. You try to think quickly, what else would amuse a child? You open your eyes wide and stick out your tongue, hoping to look comical. You blink dramatically and raise your eyebrows, deliberately causing your nostrils to flare. Your trembling hands steady, and your heart feels lighter. The toddler giggles and turns to look out the window. Your gaze follows hers, and you realize your stop is nearly here.
Closing your fist around the trigger device, you dig your hand back out from the bag’s front pocket, and place it on your lap. The trigger device is slim, and small, like a flattened kibbeh, and you can feel the raised nodule of the button against the fingertip of your middle finger. As the bus slows to a stop, another one pulls up beside it. It’s bigger than the one you’re in, navy blue, and used for transporting police personnel. You watch as police officers in riot gear board the bus; a few of them laugh as they take their seats, and you feel overcome with anger, your heart fluttering hard and fast again. With all the injustice and propaganda used by the government to turn one sect against the other, you are appalled that these men, these government workers, have the audacity to laugh right now. You know where they are being dispatched to, the biggest anti-government protest in the country, led by Leader Ali. You’re going to stop them from getting there.
As your bus slowly begins to move forward, so does the police vehicle. You stand up and, with the trigger device clasped firmly, take a few steps for-ward towards the front of the bus. You hear the magazine woman behind you asking you what’s wrong. You don’t respond. The men you pass on your way to the front turn and give you strange looks; it’s not common for women to stand in a moving bus. You look out the window on your left. The police bus is still alongside yours but it won’t be for long. This is your moment. Turning around quickly to face the passengers, you look them over. The little pony-tailed girl is looking at you again, with the same toothy smile and blue eyes.
Raising the hand that’s holding the device, you look up. You remember Qabbani’s words, you think of his gravestone, his sacrifice, and you think about the satisfaction on Leader Ali’s face when you agreed to do this. You are a Dimashqene. This is for Damascus.
You look up and yell, “ANA DIMASHQENE! ANA DIMASHQENE! HATHA LI DIMASHQ!”