Fairouz in Exile
How hellish could it be after the horrors of Syria? Until Ahmad got to Germany, he could never fathom the warnings from these lucky Syrians in Europe.
Fairouz is unstuck in time: one moment, a 1960s starlet in a silk scarf, a Spanish guitar in her hands; the next, a stately elder in a white dress, all regal poise and consoling gaze before an auditorium of fans. Seconds pass and she is Nouhad Haddad, a late-1940s teenager with puppy fat and frizzy schoolgirl hair, before the stage name, the stylist, the international fame.
“Just search ‘Fairouz morning songs,’” Ahmad told me.1 “There are hundreds of compilations.” This was one of the first I found. Like the images in the slide show, the songs move back and forth through time. The Arabic ensemble — strings, oud, and zither, braiding a single line over the clattering groove of percussion — is replaced now and then by bossa nova guitar or jazzy piano. Throughout it all, the voice is unmistakable. The same tender and maternal tone, alighting softly on consonants; the same clear, high notes and birdlike tumbles down the scale.
I write your name, my love, on the poplar tree
And you write my name, my love, in the sand of the street
My God, her voice is like honey, writes one commenter. This is an unusually civil corner of YouTube. Many just stop to say good morning, in the ornate way Arabic allows: morning of hope, morning of roses, morning of love. Others reminisce, and in this the Syrians outnumber any other nationality, even those from the diva’s native Lebanon. That morning sun, that smell of Damascene jasmine, and Fairouz filling every house. God, may those days return. One comment recurs like a mantra, repeated almost word for word under every compilation video like this: There is nothing sweeter than starting the day with a cup of coffee and the voice of Fairouz.
Tomorrow, when the rain falls on our broken stories
Your name will remain, my love, and mine will be erased
Ahmad told me his Fairouz ritual starts soon after 9 AM. He doesn’t need to set an alarm; by nine, enough of his seventeen roommates are up to make oversleeping impossible. He makes his bed, tidies the portion of the room he shares with two other Syrians, and brushes his teeth. He goes to the kitchen, one of two in the apartment, pulls up the YouTube compilation on his phone, and puts the kettle on.
Sometimes Ahmad enters the kitchen to find Edmund, from Ghana, at the table rolling his morning joint. Hassan, from the Congo, often sits by the windowsill, pouring sweet black tea from one glass to another until it has a head of silky foam — a habit he acquired in Mali, one of the longer stops on his ten-year journey to Europe. The Albanians listen to Albanian pop music on their phones, Edmund to dancehall, Hassan to Bob Marley. But when Ahmad has his morning coffee, everybody knows it’s time for Fairouz.
Within seconds of our first real conversation in six years, Ahmad was mocking me like in the old days. When we last spoke, I had been studying Arabic in Syria for more than two years and gained a limited, inelegant fluency in the Syrian dialect. He’d had fun with this, testing me with a barrage of ornate expressions straight out of a ’30s Damascene period drama or getting me to repeat rude or obscure Syrian insults. Five years in England with an Iraqi wife had left me with a mongrel accent, a Baghdad-Damascus-Hampshire cross that he now found hilarious. “Your Arabic is amazing,” he said, through wheezing laughter.
Between 2007 and 2009 I was a part-time English teacher at a language school in the center of Damascus. Ahmad, who was 20 at the time, helped run a nearby café. When I had morning classes, he gave me my first coffee of the day and often my first conversation.
It didn’t take long for me to update him on my own news. I got married, left teaching, went back to school, and started a job in mental health. I lived in Southampton, on the south coast of England. Southampton was nice, I said, but a little dull.
Ahmad’s news took longer. After March 2011, he threw himself into the protest movement in his home suburb of Moadamiya. He saw peaceful marches turn to bloodbaths, and after months of killing and mass arrests, saw the opposition in Moadamiya turn to violence. He lost his job when the café closed down in 2012. He saw the regime response in Moadamiya escalate to a full-blown siege, and the armed opposition there turn increasingly sectarian and Islamist.
He managed to flee to a safer suburb in 2013, leave Syria for Lebanon in 2014, and fly to Nepal, where a family friend had offered him a job in a Syrian restaurant in the tourist town of Pokhara. After a few months running the kitchen he fell out with the owner, lost his job, survived an earthquake, and spent the last of his meager savings. With the help of friends, he borrowed enough money to get a flight to Istanbul that stopped over in Serbia. He fled the airport during transit. From Serbia he began his long journey — by foot, by bus, by shared taxi — to Bielefeld, in northwest Germany. Bielefeld was nice, he said.
He listed his losses quickly, as if to skate over the full truth of them: an uncle beheaded by pro-regime shabiha in a mosque. Four cousins to shelling. Another cousin, taken at a checkpoint and tortured to death. An aunt, shot by an antitank round while driving her car. A close friend to a sniper, another to torture, two more to gunfire. All this, he said, was before the siege really began.
His parents and his siblings were OK. His mom and dad had fled to Lebanon along with two of his sisters and his younger brother. His parents were in poor health but lived in relative safety. His two other brothers, his sister, and their families were still living under siege in Moadamiya.
He didn’t want to stay in Germany for good, he said. But for now he wanted to make the most of it: master the language, get a job. And he wanted, more than anything, for some of his family to join him. The younger ones had missed out on years of schooling. If they made it to Germany, they could at least get an education.
We began to speak regularly over Skype, about Syria, about Germany. It was October 2015, and refugees were rarely away from the headlines: overloaded boats capsizing in the Mediterranean, vast columns of people walking down Greek highways. In the right-wing tabloids, there were tales of mass invasion and terrorist infiltration. In the liberal media, stories of individual quests: grueling journeys from horror toward safety. In most of them, the curtain fell on the moment of arrival, a safe haven and the tentative hope of a fresh start. I wanted to understand what life was like after the journey’s end.
Some days, Ahmad was cheerful, surprised at his own good fortune. He couldn’t complain about anything, he said. He had an apartment and €325 a month to live on, and if he was careful he could save a little. Soon he’d be able to start German lessons. For all the chaos and bustle of his apartment, he got on with his roommates. They called him habibi, “my love,” after the way he addressed everybody. He told me about the greetings — how far? — he’d learned from the West Africans, and the food — spicy meat stew with starchy cassava mash — they’d cooked for him.
There are no racists in Bielefeld, he proclaimed one evening, in an optimistic mood. Then he corrected himself: actually, there are at least seven. There had been an anti-refugee march in the center of town. A handful of protesters had shown up. The counter demonstration had drawn thousands, bearing Refugees Welcome banners and antifascist slogans. His very first impression of the people of Bielefeld came from Café Welcome, a small kiosk set up in the parking lot of the immigration office, where a team of volunteers gave out free coffee and biscuits to the refugees who came to register. Kris, the middle-aged woman who ran it, also ran a Facebook page that coordinated donations of furniture and clothing to new arrivals.
Other times, he was down, irritable, his outlook bleak. Nothing appealed to him here, he said. I could hear him pacing around the apartment as we talked. He would tell me about the strange ailments of exile: the sleeplessness, the headaches that lasted all day, the large lumps that appeared on his head not long after his arrival. He’d heard about friends of friends, young Syrian men in their twenties and thirties, who’d had heart attacks soon after arriving in Europe, which didn’t surprise him. One evening I asked him what kept him going. He bristled at the question, as if the very idea of keeping himself going was grotesque. “I don’t know,” he said. “We are a sick people, Matthew. We don’t know how to live.”
Before arriving in Germany, Ahmad frequently checked Karajat al Mushantateen, a Facebook group run by Syrians fleeing the war, whose name roughly translates to “the bus station of the dispossessed.” Some people post information about corrupt smugglers or updates about dangerous weather conditions in the Mediterranean. Others share photos of relatives they’ve lost or parentless children they’ve come across in hopes of finding leads.
But it was this question, and variations on it, that appeared most frequently: Hi everyone, how can I get from Syria to Europe these days? In among the advice, which grew increasingly convoluted as borders closed, a perennial argument would break out. Don’t come at all, someone would say. Better to stay in Syria. Some of the people who said this were stuck in refugee camps. But even those in Germany — commonly seen as one of the best places to end up — would warn people away. Everyone thinks it’s heaven here. But it’s only heaven till you arrive.
Someone living in Syria would then respond with sarcasm — Yeah, great idea, let’s stay here — and remind them of the excellent reasons for fleeing. You’ve forgotten how lucky you are, they’d suggest. How hellish could it be after the horrors of Syria? Until Ahmad got to Germany, he could never fathom the warnings from these lucky Syrians in Europe. It took only a few weeks in Bielefeld to understand.
Sometimes, he told me, he found himself thinking back to his journey to Europe with something like nostalgia. The beauty of Hungarian forests at dawn, the thrill of absconding from Belgrade airport, the tall tales he improvised for suspicious Nepalese airport officials scrutinizing his ticket to Istanbul (a rich dead relative in Turkey, a planned business venture back in Kathmandu). His voice brightened when he talked about these things. He hadn’t forgotten the dangers, he said, the exhaustion and uncertainty. But he missed the stark clarity of that time. Nothing else mattered but the next point on the map. Fear became action without the slightest thought.
When he arrived in Germany, the urgency of flight turned briefly to dreamlike elation, then sank into a kind of stasis. His days were long and formless: waiting for German lessons to start, for the paperwork that would give him refugee status. It was his phone, more than anything, that dictated his moods. His notifications — from the Facebook groups he followed, the family WhatsApp, the Viber messages from friends — made the difference between a decent day and a wretched one.
Often a single Facebook notification, nestled among banalities and birthday reminders, would turn the day upside down, prompting hours of frantic messaging, chain-smoking, and muttered prayers: #BREAKING #MOADAMIYA: Targeting of residential areas of Moadamiya with surface-to-surface missiles, heavy mortar, cannon fire. Buildings strafed with heavy machine gun fire. May God protect our people — Moadamiya Media Centre.
Some days would bring relief: a lull in bombing, talk of negotiations, a delivery of food. Other times he’d see the ways his family defied the siege. His sister in Moadamiya would update him on the vegetables she’d planted in the wasteland near her house. His 12-year-old nephew would tell him about the backyard refinery he’d built, a jerry-rigged contraption made of barrels and pipes that turned waste plastic into a crude form of benzene. Or there would be a WhatsApp voice message from his niece, fresh out of her volunteer-led English class in the makeshift home school, in which she proudly recited the new words she’d learned: mother, father, sister, brother.
It didn’t take bad news for violence to intrude. Many nights he had recurring dreams — he was trapped in a collapsing building, or arrested and tortured by shabiha — and woke with an aching jaw from grinding his teeth. Random reminders, like an image on Facebook or a certain name, would bring back the faces of the dead.
For every day he spent compulsively calling home, checking and rechecking his phone, Ahmad spent another day out of the house, stubbornly offline. He rarely bought data for his phone, so leaving his apartment meant leaving news of Moadamiya behind. He’d walk around the city, away from Wi-Fi, wandering around the shops or reading in the library. Whenever these days tipped into pleasure — sunny afternoons sitting with friends in the park by the lake — thoughts of his family cast a guilty shadow. The smallest happiness reminded him of everything they didn’t have.
His days followed his moods. Some days he went to the immigration office with a friend, chatted with the volunteers at Café Welcome, helped new arrivals with their paperwork. Other days he didn’t leave the house. Some days he barely ate, he said, and others he could barely stop. His morning coffee with Fairouz was the only constant, the single thread that connected one day to the next.
Before 2011, Moadamiya was blessed by its geography. A small town with a population of 90,000, it marked the point at which the urban sprawl of Damascus met the western countryside. Its edges were fringed with olive groves, fig trees, and farmlands. Many families, including Ahmad’s, had small plots of land that they farmed for food. A mountain overlooked Moadamiya. The scrubby foothills were dotted with trees, and bare rock rose toward the broad ridge of the summit. I asked Ahmad what they called the mountain before the war. He couldn’t recall. Now it only had one name: the Mountain of the Fourth Division.
After 2011, Moadamiya’s location became a curse. The army seized the farmlands around its edges, provoking protests that were met with gunfire. The Fourth Armored Division, the notorious regime force headed by the president’s brother Maher al-Assad, have their headquarters on the mountain. They played a central role in the bloody suppression of protests around the country, and their tanks and heavy artillery, cresting the ridges of the foothills, have a perfect view of Moadamiya’s streets. A mile or so east of Moadamiya lies the military airport, from which MiG jets and helicopters take off. It is also home to the Air Force Intelligence Directorate, a branch of the regime’s security apparatus, synonymous with death by torture. To the northwest are the officers’ quarters. To the south is Darayya, one of the first areas to rise up against the regime.
I asked Ahmad what Fairouz reminded him of. She reminded him, he said, of the microbus ride from Moadamiya to the center of Damascus, before the war: the city in the winter sun, the familiar strangers on his daily commute, her voice over the radio.
She reminded him of his first part-time job, at 13, waiting tables at the courtyard café of the National Museum of Damascus, where she serenaded the Saturday morning customers. He didn’t appreciate it enough at the time, he said, but there was no place in the world more beautiful in the morning. The tables looked out over the garden, where the stone ruins of ancient civilizations were dotted among the palm trees and weeping willows.
And she reminded him of Hala, a beautiful Iraqi girl he met at the café. They hung out sometimes after his shift and she would often play Fairouz songs on her phone. They remained friends for several years; he was besotted with her throughout. One day she disappeared and stopped returning his calls. She turned up years later on Facebook, he said, married to a banker.
These conversations with Ahmad encouraged me to resume my own Fairouz ritual. On weekends I pulled up a playlist as I made breakfast. I remembered Damascus and my neighbor Omar, who couldn’t stand Fairouz. He conceded that she had a pleasant voice and was probably a nice person, but he hated her totalitarian presence on the morning airwaves. The Rahbanis, the family of composers who wrote for her, were overrated charlatans. They stole half of their melodies — from Mozart, from Turkish and Russian folk songs — and presented themselves as great maestros. If you want to hear real Arabic music, he said, you should listen to the greats: Abdel Wahab, Sabah Fakhri, Umm Kulthum.
I couldn’t share Omar’s disdain for Fairouz. For one thing, she was a gateway drug; my Western ears were not yet prepared for the imperious voice and twenty-minute songs of Umm Kulthum. I liked the magpie approach of the Rahbanis, their gleeful riff-stealing and mixing of West and East. Original or not, Fairouz had the tunes. I loved the lush Technicolor yearning of “Addaish Kaan Fi Naas,” the lullaby sweetness of “Ba’dak ‘Ala Baali,” the hearty mountain sing-along of “Ahl al Dar.” Listening again, I even came to appreciate her later hits, produced and written by her son Ziad Rahbani, whose Western pop stylings had previously put me off. “Al Bosta,” an irreverent ode to rural public transport, opens with the kind of funk-rock strut that might soundtrack a car chase in a ’70s cop show.
In Damascus I’d picked up some of the lyrical tropes of Fairouz’s songs: the birds, the trees, the gossip of the village, the verb “to love,” always in the past tense. Her longing was vague enough to be all-purpose. Bring the loss — childhood, lover, motherland — and Fairouz will sing to it. Listening again, it struck me how many of her songs were about exile. The breeze touched us, coming down from the fork in the valley. Oh breeze, for the sake of love, take me to my country. Now the refugees haunting the comments sections of YouTube remembered a time when these songs of loss were the very definition of home.
At the beginning of December 2015, Ahmad’s 30-year-old brother stopped logging on to Viber or WhatsApp. Ahmad didn’t worry at first. Phone coverage in Moadamiya was poor; there was no electricity. But the creative adaptations of siege life had made it possible for people to check in at least two times a week. A week passed, and Ahmad’s other siblings, who lived in a different part of the besieged city, hadn’t heard from him either. The unread messages piled up. Where are you, Mohammed? Let us know you are OK.
Ahmad started calling friends, asking if they had seen him. Nothing. Frantic, he contacted friends of friends who lived in his neighborhood. Finally he spoke to a woman on Viber who had seen him. He’d approached her house the other day, she said, wandering alone down the street, and asked her if she had any medicine for fever — the whole family was sick. She apologized; she had nothing. He walked away.
Two days later, his brother logged on. There had been no fuel for the generator, no electricity, he said. But they were all right. Their fever was starting to lift.
By then Ahmad had started taking German classes. They soon became the highlight of his week, small islands of focus that freed him from the internet and news of the outside world. The teacher led the class of twenty — Greeks, Kosovars, Afghans, Iraqis, Syrians — and drilled phrases in unison. She would shout a singular noun, and the class would respond with the plural. He sometimes got distracted by worries, he said. But there was plenty to refocus on. Nothing mattered except the next conjugation of the verb, the gender of the next noun, the time till the next break, the conversation with his classmates over vending-machine coffee.
Ahmad didn’t have any favorite Fairouz songs, he said. Any one was as good as another, and though he knew them all by heart, he rarely tuned in to the words. “You’ve got the wrong idea,” he said. He didn’t sit there in a reverie each morning. For all the Fairouz memories he had, he didn’t listen to remember.
“You know how some people don’t like the taste of coffee without milk?” he said. “It’s like that for me. I don’t like the taste of coffee without the voice of Fairouz.”
There was something physical about it, too. When he heard her voice, his chest opened. He breathed deeper. He began to wake up. He could think more clearly about what he had to do that day.
Some nights Ahmad would unwind by walking through the streets of Bielefeld, listening to the Koran on his phone. His favorite reciter was Sheikh Mishary Alafasy, whom he liked for his resonant, gentle voice. It moved with a wavelike motion through the rhythm of each ayah, rising up the scale and then returning to the long rhyming vowels at the end of the lines.
When he listened to the Koran he felt like he was floating. It took some time to enter this state; the words — often arcane — demanded his full attention. The sense of mystery only deepened with familiarity. The passages moved around in time: Joseph and his brothers, the tribes of the Quraish, Moses, the people of the cave and their centuries of sleep. But they returned to the cadences of recurring phrases that ran through it like a mineral seam: those who believe and do righteous deeds . . . the gardens of Eden under which rivers flow . . .
When the regime first imposed the siege on Ahmad’s hometown in mid-2012, its first task was to obliterate routine. The town was encircled by checkpoints. No one was allowed to enter or leave. People who attempted to flee through the olive groves were shot by snipers. There was no commuting to the center to work or shop, no visiting family in other parts of town. The same checkpoints also prevented the delivery of food and medical supplies to Moadamiya. But before the hunger, the death from bombardment and preventable disease, the first plague of siege was boredom.
The regime imposed its own rhythms on these interminable days. Before the siege there were night raids, waves of killings and arrests. After the siege came the jackhammer pounding of the heavy-artillery guns, lighting up the night sky from their position on the mountain. The thudding of the approaching helicopter, the air-rending boom of the barrel bombs, which came in twos and threes, adding up to more than fifty on busy days. The rushing sound that followed the explosions, small hurricanes of flying dust and debris.
There is a paradox in this kind of asymmetrical war. It relies on brutality to induce a state of exhaustion, hopelessness, and atomized defeat in the populace, but this same brutality tends to be galvanizing. A besieged town is a hive of activity and invention: clearing streets, chopping trees for firewood, hunting songbirds for food, pumping water from wells, making natural gas from sewage. It is not enough to defeat the militias militarily; life in the besieged town must become unviable. The togetherness is the target. Any act of solidarity or cooperation must be punished.
Countless activist videos from around Syria chronicle this manufactured impotence: air strikes on breadlines, the double-tap attacks targeting first-responders at bomb sites. The YouTube accounts of opposition activists in Moadamiya have examples of their own: the doctor recounting the chaos in the wake of the sarin-gas attack, in which medical staff were incapacitated by the poison from patients’ lungs. The old woman lamenting her failure to carry her 5-year-old grandson out of the house to safety because the gas had weakened her body. The funeral party targeted by a helicopter gunship as they carried a body to be buried. “Don’t move!” shouts one man to the others, sheltering by a wall as the road is riddled with bullets. “No, run!” shouts another. “Leave the body and run.”
The most crucial rhythm imposed by the siege plays out over longer intervals. Search for “starvation, Moadamiya” on YouTube, and you can see it in the list of results. The videos of starving children come in clusters. The first appear in September 2013: Rana Al‘Abeed. More come in March 2015 — Abdul ‘Aleem al Khateeb — and again in January 2016: Khaled Fadelallah.
The first batch of videos includes international news reports and impassioned polemics from TV presenters; each has been watched thousands of times. By January 2016, many of the homemade videos had only a handful of views. The sight of these otherworldly children, only four miles away from five-star hotels, has become entirely unremarkable. The same scenes have played out in Yarmouk, Ghouta, Douma, Madaya. As of March 2015, according to the Syrian American Medical Society, 640,200 people in Syria were living under long-term siege.
The seasons play a role in the pattern of starvation. Most people die in the winter months, when the scant reserves of locally grown or foraged food run out. But it is, above all, man-made and tactical. The siege is a back-and-forth of strangulation and partial relief: a slow-motion, communal version of the torture that takes place in the nearby security buildings. Whole populations are tipped into extinction by degree, with no good reason to believe the regime will relent.
This collective punishment does not unify the city. Well-connected merchants profit from siege, managing to smuggle in food and sell at hugely inflated prices. Not everyone supports the armed groups, and there are demonstrations against them within the town — complaints about abuses, about hoarding resources and food.
There is also the forced dance of internal flight. Families flee one part of town to escape bombing, then move again when the bombs catch up to them. In October 2013, following months of siege and bombardment — including the sarin attack that killed eighty-five — thousands of civilians were allowed to leave for regime-controlled areas. Two months later, the same civilians were made to return as part of a truce. Within months, the siege was reimposed and the civilians were trapped again. Truces are agreed to and barrel bombings casually resume. Aid deliveries are promised and trucks are turned away. The only logic behind these moves, it seems, is in their arbitrariness and cruelty. It is a dance that leaves no doubt as to who is leading and who is being led.
Ahmad felt these rhythms even in Bielefeld. Beyond the daily lurch between dread and relief in the wake of each bombing, he felt the slow atrophy of bonds — a growing sense of the inadequacy of words and emoticons. He needed to hear his family’s voices, see them on the webcam, to know they were OK. But the second the relief wore off, the same voices and thinning faces were a reminder that they weren’t, and that he was powerless to help. “Conversations dry up quickly these days,” he told me toward the end of 2015. He asked the same questions each time: How are you? How are the kids? Is there food, water? Usually, there was the same rote reassurance in their answers: Alhamdulillah. Thank God.
He knew they kept things from him so he would not worry. He, too, didn’t tell them everything. It seemed insensitive to suggest that things were going too well in Germany — or worse, that he was, for all his good fortune, unhappy. So he was always OK. Alhamdulillah. Nothing new.
A note of resentment crept into their voices. When the blockade on food once again pushed the town toward starvation, his brother suggested the Germany-based Moadamiyans do a hunger strike, then dismissed it in the same breath. “There’s no point. If you’re really hungry, you can eat. We don’t have that choice.”
Some days Ahmad resented them, too, for not taking his advice and leaving Moadamiya when they’d had the chance. But anger quickly swung back to guilt. Amid the steady stream of queries on Karajat al Mushantateen from refugees leaving Syria were occasional questions from people heading against the flow: Hi everyone. Can people tell me the best way to get to Syria from Germany? There were times when Ahmad thought of returning. What use was he in Europe, anyway? On the grimmest days — when the voice of Fairouz gave no comfort, when the recitation of Sheikh Mishary Alafasy made him feel like he was suffocating — Ahmad called Tariq.
When Ahmad arrived in Germany, Tariq was the first person he called. He was in a forest near the southeast border, just off the Autobahn where the smugglers had dropped him off with five other refugees. It was an early morning in June 2015. Tariq told him to come to Essen, the city in the northwest where he lived.
Ahmad had known Tariq since seventh grade. They were part of the same group of friends. Throughout their teens and early twenties, they would sit around a water pipe outside their friend’s shop on weekday evenings, playing cards and listening to music. In Moadamiya, everyone used to tell Ahmad and Tariq that they looked alike: same height, same complexion, same brown eyes and dark curly hair. The resemblance did not extend to their personalities. While Ahmad was extroverted and eager to please, Tariq was quick-tempered and had a blunt way with words that often got him into trouble. Their friendship had survived many disagreements.
Once, at a demonstration in 2011, an undercover regime informer mistook Ahmad for Tariq. Tariq was at university in Tartous at the time, and Ahmad had been marching alongside Tariq’s father and brother. Ahmad and Tariq agreed about the tyranny of the regime, but Tariq didn’t have much hope for the protest movement. He’d wanted a quiet life: a degree, a job, a wife and a family. He couldn’t see the revolution ending well. Then he learned that, thanks to Ahmad, he was on a list of wanted opposition activists, liable to be dragged away at any checkpoint. He called Ahmad from Tartous, furious, and blamed him for ruining his life. But a few months later, Ahmad managed to persuade Tariq, now home for the holidays, to come to a demonstration. As security forces attacked the crowd, Tariq was among those caught and detained. He was held for thirty days. After he was released, he told Ahmad that he would always remember the face of his torturer. If he ever saw him again, he would kill him.
The war had taken them in different directions. Tariq left Syria for Egypt in 2013. He’d arrived in Germany a year before Ahmad after a perilous journey across the Mediterranean.
When Ahmad met Tariq at Essen station, no one could have mistaken one for the other. Ahmad was half Tariq’s size, bearded, skinny, and disheveled from the journey. Back in Tariq’s flat, he showered, ate, and slept for more than twenty hours. Over the next two weeks, Tariq taught Ahmad how to be a refugee in Germany: the basic expressions, how to apply for refugee status, how to use the buses and trains. Then Ahmad left, registered as a refugee, and spent a month in two refugee camps before being relocated to Bielefeld, an hour-and-a-half train journey east.
When he called Tariq now, they spoke about what was going on in Moadamiya, about their lives in Bielefeld and Essen. But it was the things they didn’t have to say that made these conversations important. Each knew how the other felt, Ahmad said, without needing to name it. They followed the same news, were shaken by the same rhythms of bombardment and siege, were both subject to the psychic contortions of life in exile. Ahmad knew that however bad he had it, Tariq had it worse. His whole family was in Moadamiya.
They laughed a lot, Ahmad said. He taught me an Arabic expression: Alshirr albaliya maa yadhak — “It’s the gravest evil that makes you laugh.” This phrase, he said, sums up a lot of their conversations. Just the other day they’d had a conversation that had them both in stitches. I asked him if he remembered the joke. He couldn’t remember the details, he said, but it was something about the amazing things German kids have for lunch, compared with the daily diet of their nieces and nephews in Moadamiya: a cupful of boiled bulgur.
Four Days in Bielefeld
In February 2016, I spent a long weekend in Bielefeld. Ahmad met me at the train station on Friday afternoon, and we walked around the corner to the school, where I sat in on his class. At 6:30, class ended. Ahmad told me we were going for dinner at his sisters’ place.
The Lebanon contingent of his siblings had arrived in Germany a few weeks before. At their flat, Ahmad introduced me to his 14-year-old brother, his two sisters — one with a baby, the other with two preschool-age children — and their husbands. They told me about their trip on an overcrowded boat from Turkey to Greece, a journey that usually took two hours but this time took more than five (broken engine, heavy seas). Ahmad was in Bielefeld with one of the husbands when they received a midnight voice message on WhatsApp — thirty seconds of chaos and screaming, “The boat is going down!” — followed by four long hours of silence. His sister called the next morning from a Greek beach. They had arrived.
Afterward, I walked to my hostel in the old industrial quarter. My only roommate was a German man in his late twenties who was already in his pajamas. I spoke no German and he spoke little English, but we had a stilted conversation using Google Translate. He was in Bielefeld for a badminton tournament and worked in a factory making licorice-based candy. I told him I was here visiting a friend from Syria. At the word refugee, his face fell. He said there was a large army barracks in his town that had been turned into a refugee camp. Refugees, he said, are a big problem for Germany. There are too many.
On Saturday, Ahmad showed me around the city center. It was a clear winter day, the sky a brilliant blue. We walked through the park, admired the grand concert hall, then sat by the lake. Since the events of Cologne, he said, he’d felt the atmosphere in Bielefeld change.
On January 2, around forty Syrians, mostly from Moadamiya, had gathered for a demonstration in Cologne. Ahmad was one of them. I found a video of it later: men, women, and a handful of children all wrapped up in scarves and hats for the gray winter weather. A man with a megaphone led the crowd in a call-and-response chant from the early days of revolution. A smiling girl in a pink-and-purple hat held a sign: Moadamiya is being strangled.
A few weeks before, the meager food supplies to Moadamiya had once again been completely cut off by regime forces. The deputy to Maher al-Assad, the commander of the Fourth Division, delivered an ultimatum to the town: either the rebels laid down their arms and let Assad’s forces retake Moadamiya, or it would be wiped out. There was no reason to doubt the seriousness of the threat. Moadamiyans in Germany started discussing on Facebook what they could do. They decided to come to Cologne — the major city most central to them — and protest.
On the train to Cologne, Ahmad had imagined having conversations in English with passersby about why they were there. He’d tell them that Bashar al-Assad was the reason for their presence in Germany, that refugees would keep coming as long as Assad was able to slaughter civilians with impunity. “Are you worried about the number of Syrian refugees here?” he’d say. “Us too. We never wanted to leave our homes.” As it happened, he didn’t get the chance to say much. Most pedestrians walked straight past them, studying the pavement intently. He felt deflated by their indifference, but not too surprised or bothered. Persuading Germans was not their primary aim.
What they wanted, he said, was to show their families back home that they’d traveled all that way to protest. Together in the square, with their arms linked and their voices joined, they were no less impotent than before. But being present in this way seemed better than nothing. The protest served its purpose: when the video was uploaded to the Moadamiya Facebook pages, the likes and comments from besieged Moadamiya rolled in.
Ahmad didn’t hear about the events of New Year’s Eve until he was back in Bielefeld. Two days before the protest, in that same square, Cologne’s usual New Year’s festivities had descended into chaos. There had been more than 600 reports of sexual assault and several rapes. Reports suggested that the victims, all female, had been forced to run a gauntlet through a crowd of groping, drunken Middle Eastern men. Ahmad was bewildered by the news. Was it a random group of idiots? An organized gang of criminals? Could anything have been more guaranteed to make Germans hate refugees? He thought back to the protest in the same square and saw the brisk walks and averted eyes of the locals in a new light.
There were other occasions when he felt like a menace in the eyes of others. Two days after the terrorist attack on the Bataclan in Paris, he’d gone to an opera with two other Syrian friends. They’d arrived in a good mood — their German teacher gave them free tickets, and they thought it’d be fun to get some culture. But entering the auditorium, they felt suddenly conspicuous: the entire audience of silver-haired Germans seemed to be looking at them. As they sat down, security guards hurried toward them and asked to search their bags. They didn’t enjoy the opera much, Ahmad said. They stuck it out for half an hour, then left. This was the mood of the streets, the aura of rising fear and bigotry. Occasionally a middle-aged man would shout at him in a supermarket: “Go home, you fucking Arab.” More often it was suspicious looks and silent unease.
On my last day, Ahmad took me to a camp for newly arrived refugees just outside the city center. The camp housed around 100 people in a former textile factory, a single hall transformed into individual sleeping spaces by room dividers. The previous year, unprecedented numbers of refugees had arrived in Germany, with 890,000 people applying for asylum. There were dozens of such camps around the country. We spoke to three women, two from Homs, one from Baghdad, who were sitting around a plastic table. “These conditions aren’t fit for animals,” one of them said. She visibly shook with anger as she gestured around her. Their kids sat at a nearby table, drawing with colored felt pens.
They told us that families were sometimes split up based on bizarre, arbitrary decisions. One man’s wife had been sent to a camp in a different city. Some rooms were shared between a family and unrelated young men. This was unacceptable in their culture, they said. When they complained about anything to the administration, they were all told the same thing: You are safe. You have food, water, shelter. A man who is offered water when he’s dying of thirst doesn’t complain that it’s lukewarm.
When you’re fed and sheltered but untethered from routine, denied purposeful activity, robbed of role and responsibility and choice, what is left of you?Tweet
I felt for them. The camp was a horrible place to live, and they had been cooped up there for weeks, waiting to be assigned more permanent accommodation. After a while, though, their complaints showed no sign of abating. It wasn’t that any one complaint was unjustified. It was just that their grief and grievances seemed bottomless, as if their accommodation at the camp was an act of aggression rather than a strained attempt at alleviating misery. The women complained about the acoustics of the hall — how the smallest sound echoed, how little privacy the fabric dividers afforded. When they started on the horrible taste of the German-style ready meals they were served, I felt my irritation rising. The word ungrateful popped into my head unbidden. How many Syrians are starving? How many are stuck at the Macedonian border? And your halal schnitzel isn’t good enough for you? Meanwhile, Ahmad spoke to them in the familiar Damascene singsong of well-wishing and consolation. “God give you patience. I was in a camp like this last year. I know it is difficult. But it will pass. I have my own place now. You will soon, God willing. Remember we are guests here.”
Minutes later, calmer now, the women told us what they would cook if they were allowed to. Kibbeh bi laban, said one — cracked-wheat dumplings filled with meat and spices, floating in a rich yogurt sauce. Maqluba, said another — an upturned pilaf-like crown of vegetables, meat, and rice. They’d pleaded with the administration to let them cook, they said, and there’s even a kitchen in the building. But health and safety regulations forbade it. I now began to understand. When you’re fed and sheltered but untethered from routine, denied purposeful activity, robbed of role and responsibility and choice, what is left of you?
Exile is a crisis of selfhood, a move from the only world you’ve ever known to one in which you have no status or, worse, are saddled with a predetermined role that bears scant relation to the self you knew before. An essay by the writer Aleksandar Hemon describes his parents’ habit in the years after their arrival in Canada of endlessly cataloging the differences between “us,” the Bosnians, and “them,” the Canadians. Many of these were culinary: their inferior sour cream, their love of deep-frying rather than simmering. All served to demonstrate the rightness of the Bosnian way and the wrongheadedness of the Canadian. In listing these differences, Hemon writes, his parents were constructing a stopgap self to help them brave the crisis — a kind of exoskeleton made up of all the things they weren’t. They took refuge in the familiar in order to navigate the new. The new world, in the meantime, was changing them. An unbridgeable gap was forming between who they were in Canada and who they had been back there.
The refugees I met in Bielefeld made similar comments: about the blandness of German fruit and vegetables, the bluntness of German social interactions, nostalgia for the Syrian way of doing things. But there was another kind of self-defining going on. Each refugee defined himself against the “bad” ones — an urgent task in the face of growing tensions and terrorism.
A young Iraqi told me that the government let far too many bad people into the country. He thought they should be more stringent about whom they allowed in, though by what criteria he couldn’t say. One Syrian said he made a point to mention that he was from Syria: a humanitarian refugee, not one of those Moroccans just here to sell drugs. I met a Yazidi from Iraq who said that it was the Muslims that caused all the problems, and was quick to tell Germans that despite his suspicious appearance and name, he wasn’t one of them. Ahmad, too, would bemoan those who gave Syrians a bad name: the intolerant, the arrogant, the chauvinist. I imagined the Brits who would embarrass me if a brutal civil war scattered us across Europe.
A few months before my visit, Ahmad was invited to speak to a class of thirty high school students. The students all saw Syrian refugees in the news and in the streets, said their teacher, but they rarely got a chance to meet them or have a conversation. The school had reached out to Ahmad through Kris, the woman who ran Café Welcome; her daughter was a student there.
Ahmad addressed the class in English. He was not experienced in public speaking, much less in a second language, but the students gave him a warm welcome, and asked questions in reassuringly simple sentences. He soon hit his stride. The majority of questions, he told me, were about ISIS. Who are ISIS? Who runs ISIS? What do they want? No one asked about Assad. Other questions were about terrorism and Islamization. “We’re afraid that you’ll change Germany to a Muslim country,” one student said.
Ahmad replied that this was an understandable fear. But they had to understand: Syrians were a people of culture. Before they were refugees, they were teachers, doctors, engineers, civil servants. They want to live, breathe, contribute. And German law is strong, he said. Millions of Turkish immigrant workers hadn’t changed it in the past forty years, and Syrian refugees won’t either. But we are scared, too, he said. We’re scared we’ll be rejected by German society. We’re also scared that we’ll lose everything that makes us Syrian. Both sides are nervous. We need to get to know one another.
He tried to tell them how alien and perverse ISIS was to the Syria and the Islam that he knew. He told his own story: the hope he invested in the peaceful uprising that collapsed into bloodshed and despair. How the conflict had become a war between foreign powers. How Gulf money and regime brutality pushed many opposition groups toward extremism. How Syria had been a place of coexistence long before the Assad regime.
The problem, he told me, was there was too much to say. Where do you start? Their questions had compelled him to reassure them, to correct misconceptions. But he didn’t want to talk about politics. He wanted to get across the feeling of living in Damascus before the war. There were certain things he liked to tell Germans about. That the first known alphabet and the first musical notation came from the ancient city of Ugarit in Syria. That in Maaloula, the monastery town considered holy by Muslims and Christians alike, the locals still speak Aramaic, the language of Christ.
He was mid flow, just getting to the empire of Queen Zenobia, when the teacher interrupted apologetically. They had run over — the students had another class to get to. She thanked him and the students gave a round of applause.
A year later, I reminded Ahmad of this episode. In the interim, terrorist attacks in Germany had further inflamed tensions between locals and refugees. There’d been a sharp rise in arson against refugee accommodation, and Alternative für Deutschland, the far-right party standing on an anti-refugee platform, had drawn a large crowd at its campaign event in Bielefeld. When he recalled his former zeal, Ahmad laughed. He mocked the clichés he’d proclaimed a hundred times: “Syria is the oldest civilization in the world!” He is calmer now, he said. Speaking German makes things easier. He is more patient with questions. But he still saw it as his job in Germany to tell these stories, to be a cultural ambassador for a ruined country.
Fairouz and Nation
Fairouz has always been the voice of the people, Ahmad told me. Many singers in the Arab world sing songs praising dictators and heads of state, but not Fairouz. She sang for cities, never for regimes. This was something I’d heard many times in Damascus. There were things about Fairouz that everybody seemed to know: how she was the young Christian girl who’d trained in Koranic recitation as part of her apprenticeship; how, aside from her long-standing support of the Palestinian cause, she avoided all political pronouncements; how she sang to Jerusalem, celebrated its mosques, churches, and synagogues; how she refused, throughout the long years of the Lebanese civil war, to perform in Beirut until the violence stopped.
When Fairouz’s son Ziad Rahbani claimed recently that his mother admired Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah and staunch ally of Bashar al-Assad, Lebanese commentators were outraged. How dare he drag Fairouz into politics this way, after her half-century of dignified silence? Fairouz had emerged, of course, from the context of Lebanese politics; the songs and plays the Rahbanis wrote for her helped forge an identity for a young and divided nation. But the vagueness of the idyll she evoked allowed her music to resonate. Almost anyone can claim her as an icon of their cause.
Once, when I was talking to Ahmad about his Fairouz memories over Skype, one of his Syrian roommates, Basim, interjected. He told us that he’d always loved Fairouz’s voice, but now she reminded him more than anything of his military service: early mornings out in the countryside, the mess hall full of teenage conscripts and officers, the miserable breakfast, Fairouz on the radio.
No one could tell me precisely when or why Fairouz obtained her monopoly over breakfast radio in Syria. It didn’t make sense. Surely there were other singers capable of bringing in the day. Did it grow out of a response to popular demand? Or was it a top-down decision, some kind of state-sanctioned ritual? I still don’t know.
In an opposition video on YouTube, a coffin is passed over the heads of a crowd of mourners. Fairouz’s voice sings on the soundtrack.
Tell me, tell me about my country
Oh breeze that blows through the trees before me
Tell me a story of my house, a story of my family
A story of my neighbor in my childhood street
A protester holds a banner with the chubby, smiling face of Hamza al-Khateeb, the 12-year-old from Dera’a who was arrested by security services at an early demonstration, and whose bruised, burned, and castrated body was returned weeks later to his family.
God damn Bashar, that son of a rat. His father wiped out a whole town. Now he is wiping out all of Syria, someone comments below the video.
It’s you, and people like you, who have destroyed this country, you son of a whore, someone else responds. Dr. Bashar is here to stay. And he will stamp on the throats of all you dogs.
I fuck your sister, comes the reply.
You promised you would tell me
how the olive tree was getting on
the boy and girl in the shade of the mill
the almond tree, the earth, our sky
how quickly those sweetest of days passed by
In 2008, it was announced that Fairouz would come to Damascus for her first Syrian appearance in thirty years. Damascus had been named UNHCR’s Arab Capital of Culture that year, and a series of concerts was planned in the city and beyond: Julio Iglesias, Tinariwen, Angélique Kidjo. But it was Fairouz whom everyone was talking about. Now in her seventies, Fairouz would star in a classic 1960s Rahbani play, Sah al Noum. In the international media, Lebanese writers condemned this move as a betrayal of everything Fairouz stood for. How could she perform in Syria, a dictatorship that still meddled shamelessly in Lebanese politics?
The play was staged at the Damascus opera house, an elegant modern building in the center of the city that bears the official title of the House of Assad for Art and Culture. I didn’t attend, but I read the reports of her glowing reception. Generations of Syrians joined together in tears and song. In photos, a striking human frailty showed through her usual iconic makeup. The sole disappointment amid the audience’s rapture was that Fairouz did not sing. She performed the speaking parts, but for the songs, her prerecorded voice was piped through the speakers as she mimed the words.
Five years later, Assad appeared on that same stage and delivered a defiant speech. It was January 2013 and Syria had descended into violence. Large numbers of conscripts had defected and formed Free Army militias. Thousands of civilians had been killed in government air attacks. But this speech was a doubling down, a refusal of compromise. There would be no peace negotiations that were not on his terms.
The speech was typical of Assad, full of the circuitous, technocratic rambling that gives his words an air of reasonableness. As though he has considered every angle and arrived at the only possible conclusion. And his conclusion is reasonable in the fantasy world he evokes. It is a world of heroes and traitors, proud patriots facing a united jihadi menace. A world without sect, without Shia militias drafted from Lebanon and Iran, without the rape and terror of the shabiha. There are no barrel bombs, no air strikes on breadlines, no people packed like cattle in windowless rooms, dying slowly of their torture wounds.
At the end of Assad’s speech, which is on YouTube, the crowd breaks out in a chant: several hundred men, punching the air in unison, shouting in a thundering staccato. And then a tide of men surges toward the front, all military brawn and buzz cuts, chanting as they press forward. They surround the president, reaching out to touch him. For a moment, he disappears into the throng. Then he emerges again, waving and smiling, and walks off the stage.
By 2016, Ahmad’s life in Germany had settled into a steadier rhythm. He saw his brother, his sisters, and their kids every few days. He ate with them, helped them with their paperwork, taught them phrases in German. It felt good to be a real-life brother and uncle again, he said. He’d left his crowded shared apartment and gotten a room of his own, around the corner from his family. Our conversations were increasingly peppered with German phrases he found satisfying. He had passed two levels of his German course and was approaching conversational fluency. He applied to volunteer for Amnesty International. He hoped that after completing his German-for-foreigners course he could study at the university.
In the first half of the year, Moadamiya had continued to lurch from crisis to relative calm. Informal agreements had been reached between the local council and the regime forces. Ahmad’s family told him of the loopholes that were beginning to emerge in the lockdown: the rare portals that could take them, momentarily, from the privations of siege to something almost resembling normality. When there was a wedding, for instance, the guards at the main checkpoint would allow for the mother of the bride-to-be to visit Damascus to buy clothes for the bride and family. She would be searched on return; nothing but clothing would be allowed in. Word had spread about this, and whenever a wedding was planned, the mother of the bride was flooded with requests for clothes. One such wedding coincided with the 9th birthday of Ahmad’s niece, Raghad. Ahmad and his sister in Bielefeld sent money to a friend in central Damascus and asked him to buy a present for her, which the mother of the bride could pick up on her shopping trip. They knew the operation had been a success when they saw Raghad on the webcam, all smiles, wearing the jeans and T-shirt they had bought — the first birthday present to arrive in four years of siege.
In June, Ahmad’s 18-year-old brother Youssef left Moadamiya for a day. Students from his high school were given permission to take their exams in the nearby regime-controlled suburbs of Jdeidat Artouz and Saboura. Buses arrived at the entrance to the town, near the spot where Ahmad used to take the microbus to Damascus. More than 300 students waited in line. Some were interviewed by the pro-government TV channels covering the occasion. Youssef laughed when he told Ahmad the words of the Fourth Division soldier who addressed them on the bus as they set off: “In this bus, no one can touch you. Not the Fourth Division, not the rebels, not even God!”
A few weeks later, Youssef messaged Ahmad on Facebook to say he got the marks he needed for university study. After congratulating him, Ahmad asked him how things were. There was food, he said. Things were pretty quiet for now. But it’s worse than ever in Darayya. He asked Ahmad to open Facebook video. Ahmad saw a blur of walls, the blue sky outside. Then a helicopter hovering over Darayya to the east, tumbling specks of barrel bombs, clouds of smoke rising from below.
The attacks that week were the beginning of the end. In June, 650 barrel bombs were dropped in 20 days. Over the coming months, the last agricultural land in Darayya was burned. Activists reported that Russian planes had destroyed the only remaining field hospital with napalm-like incendiary bombs.
In August, the rebels in Darayya surrendered. Several hundred fighters were evacuated to Idlib under the control of Jaish al-Fatah, a Saudi-funded Salafist alliance that includes the formerly al Qaeda–affiliated Jebhat al-Nusra. Eight thousand civilians were moved to regime-controlled suburbs. Once known for its nonviolent resistance, its self-rule and vibrant civil society, Darayya was now a ghost town. Moadamiya was left surrounded.
Two months later, the rebels in Moadamiya surrendered. Unlike Darayya, Moadamiya would be spared complete depopulation. Around 3,000 would leave for Idlib — mostly armed rebels and their families, as well as opposition activists and members of the town council. The remaining inhabitants, around 41,000, would stay. The regime promised reconstruction, the restoration of water and electricity. They refused, despite demands, to release any political prisoners.
Ahmad’s days in Bielefeld were less fraught. The scrolling updates from Moadamiya were a thing of the past. There were no more air strikes or barrel bombs. He was able to speak to his family more regularly. There was the prospect of schools reopening, of his nieces and nephews getting an education.
But it hit him hard. The Syrian revolution had been compromised, in his eyes, ever since it took up arms. But this was the end: decisive, irreversible. Thousands of people from Moadamiya dead, hundreds imprisoned, countless crippled, injured, widowed, only to let the regime back in, to return to prerevolution days. The same old fear and submission. The same caution in communication. The Moadamiya Facebook pages all stopped being updated: the administrators had either gone to Idlib or fallen silent.
Ahmad was most concerned about Youssef. As an 18-year-old, he was required to do military service. In the best-case scenario, he would gain a temporary deferment in order to study, get a place at Damascus University, and commute each day to the center. In the worst, he would be made to fight for the very forces that had besieged him since he was 15 years old.
The regime representatives had promised deferment, but months later, no one was approving applications. In the meantime, Youssef was wanted by the regime, along with all his male peers. Now Ahmad’s mother called him from Lebanon each day, asking what they should do. She wanted to get Youssef smuggled out of Syria, to join them in Lebanon. But this cost more money than they had.
Ahmad spoke to an old friend from Moadamiya, who told him the local checkpoints were now manned by the Popular Committees: new forces under regime command, composed in part of former rebels who handed over their arms rather than leaving for Idlib. The rebels who’d left, Ahmad explained to me, spoke optimistically of coming back triumphant when the regime was overthrown, but others had decided to stay. They figured it was better to follow the orders of the regime than have outsiders ruling Moadamiya’s streets. Besides, jobs were scarce and this offered a regular salary. It wasn’t the Fourth Division or Iranian militias that could pick up Youssef for military service — it was guys from the neighborhood. Youssef was keeping his head down, Ahmad said, and staying at home.
Moadamiya is not the first town to see former rebels absorbed into pro-regime forces. As besieged areas are starved and bombed into submission, the regime experiments with ways to manage life post-surrender. Reconciliation is the buzzword of the moment in pro-regime media coverage of these developments, celebrating the return of Syria’s restive towns to “the bosom of the motherland.”
One evening in late 2016, Ahmad got a text message from Tariq. Come to Essen, he said. I can’t do this anymore. Ahmad took the train the next day. When he arrived in the evening, he found Tariq’s door open and Tariq in bed. He told him to get up, to stop messing around. He didn’t move. I’m not good, he said.
Tariq had been working for a few weeks doing renovation: pulling down walls, clearing out rubble and old furniture. A week before, the job had come to an end. Since then, he said, his mood had gotten worse. He had no appetite, he had pains in his gut. He could hardly sleep but didn’t have the energy to get up. He told Ahmad that if he could just sleep, he’d be OK. He needed to see a doctor, get some sleeping pills.
Ahmad called a friend of Tariq’s who had a car. The friend turned up and took them to the emergency room. They told the receptionist that Tariq had stomach pain and couldn’t sleep. They were told to wait. Several hours passed. Finally, a Syrian doctor came to talk to them. Tariq told him about his problems. The doctor sat with them for half an hour, asking Tariq about his situation. Finally, he told him that there was nothing he could prescribe that would help. Every week, he said, I see a dozen people in the same state. Your problem is that you are Syrian and you are alone.
There is one thing, said the doctor. You could smoke weed. If anything is going to help you, that might. Tariq asked the doctor if he was joking. The doctor said he was dead serious.
Tariq, Ahmad, and their friend left the emergency room. Tariq and Ahmad were laughing. The doctor had unwittingly intervened in a long argument between the two of them. In Syria recreational drugs were rare, and Tariq prided himself on his clean living. He criticized Ahmad for smoking weed. Ahmad had smoked a lot in Nepal — too much. It took away his stress but robbed him of forward momentum. Still, he smoked from time to time to take the edge off. He’d always told Tariq that the occasional joint would do him a world of good. Now it was doctor’s orders. When they got home, they called Hassan, a friend of Tariq’s who smoked, and asked him to come around.
Hassan arrived a little later with two other Syrian friends. The six of them sat in a semicircle on the floor of Tariq’s living room. Tariq was still wary; he didn’t want to take a whole drag. But when the others exhaled, Tariq breathed in deeply. They stayed up watching YouTube videos hooked up to the TV: old Arabic pop songs, Syrian sitcoms from their youth.
They tidied up the next morning, coffee on the stove, Fairouz playing through a cell phone. Tariq decided it wasn’t a good idea to be in his apartment by himself. He needed a change of scene. He would stay with his cousin for a week. Then he’d stay with Mohammed. Then Waseem. Then he’d head for Bielefeld and stay with Ahmad for a few days.
Some names and details have been changed to protect the subjects’ identities. — Editors ↩