Monday, October 22, 2012

Monday, October 22, 2012 - No comments

Stupid, stupid war.

Last night I had a dream about Syria.

I was in a house in the south of Turkey, maybe 70 km from the border.  A bunch of my cousins and I were sitting around chatting and eating popcorn.  I don’t suppose in reality this would be possible, but out the window in the distance we could see a Syrian jet strafing a town below.  It was pitch black out, but we could make out the lights of the plane and the flash every time they fired at the people below.  Back and forth it flew, mercilessly, never ceasing.

I can still feel the sick feeling that settled in the pit of my stomach.  It wasn’t that I feared for our own safety - though recent events have proven that a political border is not a guarantee that stray missiles or hatred won’t spill over.  It was more the fact that this event I was watching from a safe distance was bringing death and grief to the town below, and there was nothing I could do about it.

This war has really affected me.  It feels different than Iraq or Afghanistan to me.  Maybe it’s because it’s just a few hours away.  Maybe it’s because I’ve been there.  Or maybe it’s simply the fact that innocent people have been killed every day for the past year.  Probably all three.

Every night on the news, I see the pictures and the videos of the violence and destruction, the bodies of children being pulled from the rubble, the women wailing.  I feel sad and angry and, well, helpless.  In the country next door, over seventy people were killed today.  And I can’t help feeling like, for lack of a better way of putting it, all I can do is sit in my comfy living room eating popcorn and watching it all from a safe distance.

Back in the days of living here on three-month tourist visas, “visa runs” were a fun excuse to see some of the countries we share borders with.  I spent my 26th birthday in Rhodes and Christmas Day that same year in Bulgaria.  Then in June 2007, when I was up for a renewal, a few friends and I joined a Turkish tour group and spent a day seeing Aleppo.

I have distinct memories of the bus ride down.  We set off from Antakya at dawn and reached the border around breakfast time.  One particular woman was passing out bread, cheese and cucumbers “because you can’t trust the food down there” while others took it upon themselves to entertain us by singing into the tour guide’s microphone.  

We crossed the border at Bab Al-Hawa.  I bought M&Ms at the duty free shop.  I had trouble renewing my Turkish visa when I was crossing back over that night, and when, after some smooth talking by our tour guide, they finally gave me back my stamped passport, all the Turks on our tour bus greeted me with relief and hugs as if I were one of their own instead of someone they’d only met that morning.  

The curious thing about Aleppo was the way every building - from houses to mosques to the 2000-year-old citadel - was made from the same pale yellow stone.  Our guide told us it’s local stone and it is literally illegal to build using anything else.  Fortunately it was gorgeous.  It gave the city a truly ancient, elegant look and turned all golden and honey-coloured in the evening sunlight.

Last week, CNN showed footage of the bomb damage in the Aleppo souk (medieval market).  When we were there, it was everything I’d imagined a Middle Eastern souk would be - a colourful, living jumble of spice bins, shopping bags, shouts in Arabic, swaths of silk, the scent of dark coffee and the swish of the tea trays deftly carried from stall to stall by boys no more than twelve.  

I remember wishing I’d worn full-length sleeves, feeling horribly inappropriate in a T-shirt amongst all the fully covered women around me.  I guess I’d just expected it to feel like Turkey - a mix of covered and not.  (Ironically, when we went to the Christian quarter in the evening, I was pretty much the only one not wearing a tank top!)    

Many of the men wore the jellaba - a long robe that must be nice and breezy in the summer.  One of my friends bought one, and the man who sold it to him made us a pot of tea.  It was a single pot, unlike the double one used here, and yellower and much sweeter than our Turkish çay.  He served it to us in squat water glasses and I wondered if his wife had more delicate glasses at home or if that was how all Syrians drank their tea.  It was probably more a thing of him being a guy and not fussing about proper tea culture at work.  

I ate the best hotdog I’d had all year that day.  (In hindsight, I’m guessing the cafe was in the Christian quarter, which would explain why it tasted better than anything I’d had in Turkey...)  Supper proved a little more difficult because we couldn’t read the Arabic on the menu.  After much gesturing on our part, and much blank staring on the part of our waiter, we were about to resort to the “point-and-hope-it’s-good” method when I had a flash of divine inspiration and asked if our waiter spoke French.  We might have had something more interesting and local to eat if I could remember more than a few words, but the “pommes frites” and “poulet” were definitely satisfactory, if only for the fact that ordering them felt like some colossal traveler’s victory.

Plastered all around town were posters of a thin man with smiling eyes and a small moustache.  When we asked a shopkeeper about him, he told us that he was their recently re-elected president.  I asked if he’d voted for Assad and he shrugged and said, “Everyone did.  There was no other candidate.”  

When I watch the news, I think about the refugees that have poured through the Bab Al-Hawa crossing by the thousands to reach the tent camps in Reyhanlı on the Turkish side.  I hope none of them got hassled on their way through.  The least we can do is give them a safe place to sleep.  I think about the kid who served us our pommes frites and I wonder if he’s sleeping in one of those tents tonight, and whether or not he's cold.  I wonder if all those hundreds-of-years-old houses in the old quarter around the souk are still standing or if the narrow, winding streets are now choked with their honey-coloured rubble.  I wonder if that jellaba-seller is still measuring inseams and pouring tea for customers, or if he’s been forced to close up shop in order to man a rocket launcher in a bullet riddled apartment building.  And I pray his jellaba isn’t one of the ones we see sticking out from under a bloody sheet on CNN.