Fear of the Unknown
Before the trip, as a young wife three years into her marriage, she anxiously inquires of her in-laws what to expect—mainly, will people in Syria speak English? Although fluent in English and Spanish, she knows only a handful of words of Arabic: tayira-plane, sayara-car, jibne-cheese, tayeb-good, shukran-thank you, halal-lawful, haram-forbidden. “Oh yeah,” her brother-in-law casually assures her. “Don’t worry—everyone there knows English as well as Arabic.” Ok, phew. Good to know.
Fear of Being Rude
After landing on the runway, they descend from the plane, squinting in the sun, and cross the tarmac to go through customs at the Damascus airport. There, they find a group of relatives waiting eagerly for them. In the general flurry of greetings and hugs and back slaps, she receives introductory kisses from the women and handshakes from the men. Anxious to fit in, to do the right thing, she approaches a middle-aged man she spots hovering at the periphery of the cluster of happy and excited family, dressed—contrasting with the elegant sportswear worn by the rest of the group—in basic gray cotton, his hands worrying a string of plain wooden prayer beads.
Hand outstretched, she smiles, awkwardly offering a mumbled “pleased to meet you”. Rather than reciprocate her gesture, he only nods his acknowledgement while expertly avoiding contact by swiftly moving his arms behind his back. Confused and embarrassed, she drops her hand, smile fading. Later someone tells her that this uncle belongs to an Islamic sect whose male members do not touch women on any pretext at any time, except mothers, wives, and daughters. Thanks a lot, she thinks. You could have warned me.
Fear of Big Brother
Starting with the taxi ride from the airport to the Sheraton Damascus, she sees images of Assad Sr. everywhere. He seems to look out from every surface, hanging from rear-view mirrors, plastered on huge billboards, painted as state-sponsored murals, perched on the roofs of taxis, displayed prominently in flocked black velvet on the interior walls of private homes. His face is ubiquitous, ever watching, like Orwell’s Big Brother or the bespectacled eyes of Fitzgerald’s Doctor T.J. Eckleburg. She also notices posters, sprinkled here and there, of the eldest son and heir—the one once destined to inherit the presidential throne, the one now dead in a car crash involving 150 miles per hour in a Maserati—smiling in flashy aviator glasses and a military jacket. It’s as if, people say, the father wants to pretend he’s still alive.
When she innocently asks from the back seat of the taxi if women routinely vote in this country, her mother-in-law shushes her, finger on lips, casting an anxious glance to the front of the car before whispering, “Don’t talk out loud about politics here—you never know who is working for the government.” Startled, she stares at the graying head of the mild-mannered driver.
After the taxi deposits them at the hotel, she and her husband settle in their room, luxurious in its décor of brass lamps, walnut furniture inlaid with mother-of-pearl, and wall panels with carved configurations traced in silver and sage. She soon discovers that through room service she can order mahalabia, the delicious custard her father-in-law makes regularly at home. As the cool pudding, subtly sweet with milk and sugar and rose water, lingers on her tongue before sliding refreshingly down her throat, she gazes out the large picture window from the settee where she sits, and sees the presidential palace situated high up on the arid brown mountain opposite the hotel, a marble fortress really, a massive monument to totalitarian power that seems positioned for maximum intimidation to overlook the population below. The imposing structure dominating the broad plateau on Mount Mezzeh is huge, a white block radiating menacingly in the glare of the sun, protected from enemies by slabs of concrete, high security walls, and tinted windows that look like black eyes surveying the city with cold dispassion.
Fear of Being Left Out
She sits on a low, wide sofa. Thick velvet drapes muffle the honking of cars and the calls of street vendors while shielding the room from the heat of the summer sun. Silk Persian rugs cover the floor, wall-to-wall, soft under bare feet. The family has gathered at an aunt’s house for lunch in the late afternoon. After eating, they sit in the salon, sipping, from small delicate glasses, hot black tea over-sweetened with heaping spoonfuls of sugar. All around her are the sounds of Arabic, harsh and melodic at the same time, as completely unintelligible to her as the crashing of ocean waves. Unable to understand what is being said, full to the brim with rice and meat and pine nuts, chickpeas and eggplant and baklava, still jet-lagged from their long and tiring journey to the Middle East, she finds herself unbearably sleepy. Her eyes close, yearning to stay that way; her head nods as her body drifts drowsily into unconsciousness. Oh my God. I have to stay awake! She bites her cheek and blinks her eyes and gives herself a series of small shakes to try to counteract the overwhelming soporific of the foreign language that surrounds her, murmurings like white noise that are only punctuated now and then by laughter and the musical clink of tiny silver teaspoons. Finally, the kindly voice of their hostess inquires something of her in the Arabic she finds utterly incomprehensible. Her husband has to translate: “Would you like to lie down in the guest room to rest?” She attempts to resist their concern, to deny her sleepiness, but cannot. In the end, mortified, she is forced to exchange the animation of the salon for the hushed isolation of an empty bedroom.
Fear of Military Presence
Returning one afternoon from a country estate an hour from the city center, they are stopped at a checkpoint by soldiers wearing khaki uniforms and bearing large automatic rifles. Their host, a twenty-something cousin, pulls the car over and opens his window. From the back seat where she sits with her husband, she tries to figure out what is happening. The cousin argues with the military guard. Their tones escalate. The cousin, the person responsible for delivering them safely back to their hotel, is getting angry, seemingly outraged at the way the soldier is treating him in front of guests.
“What’s going on?” she asks her husband in a low voice. He ignores her, stroking his upper lip with his index finger, a habit she knows he unconsciously indulges in when stressed. The placating voice of the cousin’s wife in the front passenger seat seems to plead with her defiant husband to calm down, to take it easy, to let it go. He ignores her. A second soldier joins the first and barks at their host. She watches as he reluctantly steps out of the car. “What the hell is happening?” she demands a second time. Again, she is ignored. She continues to watch, seething with anger and frustration as well as worry and fear, as men with machine guns force the young man into the dark interior of a taupe canvas tent set up by the side of the highway. The host’s wife and her own husband confer over the car seat in rapid Arabic. Furious, she jabs her husband with her elbow until he deigns to tell her that he’s not sure what’s going on but that he will translate later when things quiet down. Finally, the young man returns. As he enters the car, the soldiers who have accompanied him back seem to give him a parting warning. Ignoring them, he slams the door shut and turns the key in the ignition.
All is quiet as they shoot down the endless concrete strip bordered by farmed fields, olive tree groves, and distant brown hills. She waits in silence for her husband to talk to her, to explain what happened and why, to assuage her anxiety with translation and facts. But he never does. Why doesn’t he realize how upset I am? Can’t he figure out how scary it is to be left out? How would he feel if he couldn’t understand a thing that serious, heavily armed soldiers were saying?
Fear of Breaking Down
Later that night, dressed for dinner and sitting at an elegant table in the Sheraton courtyard, listening to her in-laws converse with close friends who have joined them at the outdoor restaurant, hearing but unable to absorb the soothing sounds from the stone fountain, she struggles to hold it together. Earlier, back in their hotel room, she and her husband fought viciously. All her frustration at her inability to understand Arabic, to know what was being said and discussed by those around her, rose to the surface and found a vent in blaming her husband. He seemed unable to understand her position, however, the stress and anxiety of not knowing. They had finished their fight unresolved, both left with the unease of mutual misunderstanding.
Hours later at the restaurant, once again surrounded by the language that acted as a wall rather than a door, a barrier rather than a bridge, she blinks rapidly and bites her cheek, pinching her wrist under a napkin to keep from breaking down. Finally she can pretend no longer and flees the table. In the restaurant’s sleek marbled bathroom, she cries and cries, leaning against the sink, periodically plucking fresh tissues from a handy container and throwing the wet crumpled ones into the bin. She begins to worry about herself, when will she stop?
Tears keep flowing and she is obliged to blow her nose over and over as she recalls sitting in the hot car at the checkpoint earlier that day, trying to decipher what was happening by reading the body language, the changing facial expressions, the shifting tones of voice of the various actors in the tense drama unfolding before her. The guns, the military tent, the uniforms, the tightly laced combat boots had triggered her imagination and she had envisioned, in a kind of quiet panic, violence and humiliation, bruises and blood, arrest and disappearance. She remembered hearing the rumors: You know, Syrian prisons are supposed to be even worse than Israeli ones.
Her face is still damp and her mascara has smudged under her eyes as she attempts to make herself presentable when the mother of the family dining with them enters the bathroom. She is classy, inside and out. She wears hijab, covering her hair with a kind of elegant European style turban, her thin, kind face made up discreetly. This family friend, until this evening a stranger to her, does not ask her to explain or to say what’s wrong but comforts her with her presence and small talk, deliberately distracting her as she helps pat her face dry with yet another tissue before hugging her close.
Fear of Failure
Back home, it occurs to her that her in-laws have tested her, not deliberately, but as surely as if they had handed her a blue book and asked her to write a five paragraph essay on their homeland, so different from mainstream America with its orderly airports and enforced driving laws, endless efficient highways and towering billboards, no-smoking areas and recycling campaigns. She realizes that she has passed this test by taking certain aspects of Damascene culture—the dusty heat and the late nights, the women in shapeless trench coats and severe headscarves, the inescapable image of an autocratic dictator and the need to censor one’s conversation, the lack of seat belts in taxis and the lack of toilet paper in non-Western restrooms—in stride. Yet she knows, in her heart, that they are the ones who have failed a test. By failing to adequately prepare her, despite her many queries before they left the States, for what she would encounter after clearing customs. By failing to recognize her need for assurance. By failing to respect her need to know. By failing to translate. They have failed a test she didn’t even know that they would be taking or that she would be judging.
Fear of the Future
She couldn’t know it then, but she should have feared the future. She should have feared the ransacking of Iraq and the rise of ISIS, Syria’s failed Arab Spring and Assad Jr.’s brutal repression of his own people. She should have feared the over 500,000 dead and the 13 million fled. She should have feared the largest refugee population in human history. She should have feared the bombing of Palmyra, the stunning golden-red remains of a major cultural center of the ancient world, where she and her husband took turns taking photos of magnificent ruins, worthy of Olympia, among endless sand dunes. She should have feared the empty streets, dirty and desolate, where once she strolled in the balmy evenings scented with jasmine, contently licking her pistachio booza, the Syrian ice cream made elastic and sticky with milk, salep, mastic, and sugar. She should have feared the abandoned apartments once inhabited by loving and prosperous families, where she had visited, sitting under large and ornate crystal chandeliers at tables covered with intricately embroidered cloth and laden with plate upon plate of hummus and kibeh, ful and fattoush, maqlube and mahalabia. She should have feared not being able to take her own children to Damascus—her sons are half Syrian—to experience for themselves the vibrant hub of their father’s heritage and their own birthright, the legacy of generations extending back over centuries.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Yazan Badran