Youssef Was Here (Excerpts from a work in progress)
Mohammad al-Attar is a Syrian playwright and dramaturge. His plays Intimacy, Could you Please Look into the Camera?, Look at the Street … this is what Hope Looks Like, and Withdrawal, along with others, were adapted for performances on international stages. He is a practitioner of Theatre of the Oppressed and regularly publishes articles in international magazines and newspapers.
September 2, 2013
On the Syrian side of the Bab al-Hawa crossing at the Turkish–Syrian border.
A few dozen meters away from the checkpoint.
Mahmoud stands next to a white Hyundai to meet Fares, who is wearing a huge backpack. From about 100 meters away, to deep inside the Syrian lands, a huge area is covered with refugee tents, known as the Bab al-Hawa camp.
Mahmoud (while opening the trunk of his car): Good, you arrived safely. Did the Turks say anything?
Fares: Not at all.
Mahmoud: Well, nothing’s easier than getting in. They just let you come and don’t ask anything. For the Turks, it’s a pleasure to have one refugee less. Did “The Wall” bring you to the Turkish checkpoint?
Fares: “The Wall” was very helpful. But, hell, why do you call him that?
I was embarrassed to ask him.
Mahmoud: Actually it’s a long story. To make it short, he loves to debate. And he’s super stubborn. That’s how he got his name, “The Wall.” Did he give you a headache with all his talk?
Fares: On the contrary, he barely said anything. I guess he didn’t like me.
Mahmoud: No, no, that’s just how he is. He needs time to get comfortable with new people. He’s a Wall!
Mahmoud offers Fares a cigarette.
Fares: No, thanks. I don’t smoke.
Mahmoud: Good for you. Shall we go?
Fares: What’s that over there?
Mahmoud: That’s the Bab al-Hawa camp. It’s relatively new.
Fares: But it’s so close to the border, why don’t the people just cross?
Mahmoud: Some are staying, some come and then go back to their villages, depending on where there’s less bombing. Some came to actually cross, but then things took longer than expected and they decided to stay. Some people went to Turkey and then came back.
Fares: And how is the situation there?
Mahmoud: It’s shit. A dog’s life.
Fares: Could we stop there a little bit?
Mahmoud: I don’t want to be late. How long have you been abroad?
Fares: A bit more than three years.
Mahmoud: That’s a long time! So you left before the revolution!
Fares: I’ve been living in Dubai for the past five years. The last time I came to Damascus was some months before the revolution.
Mahmoud: So now you want to bow down, kiss the ground and pick up a handful of soil?
Fares: Yeah, probably …
Mahmoud: Have you ever been here before?
Fares: No, I never came in from the Turkish side.
Mahmoud: Then here you go, this will be the most beautiful sightseeing trip of your life. But first we’ve got to beg your pardon cuz; the first thing you see of Free Syria is a shitty refugee camp. But what comes after will be even shittier! I mean er … hopefully nicer. Get in! (Makes a gesture for Fares to get into the car)
Fares: You said I can’t stay and look at the camp a bit, right?
Mahmoud: Get in bro’. The camps won’t run away, and we’re late now.
September 3, 2013
I’ve finally got internet, and the first thing I do is write to you. The way here was much easier than I had imagined. Actually, it was a very weird feeling when I crossed the border. I still feel like I’m on some holiday trip. During the day it’s been a bit too hot, but at night the weather is really beautiful. The house I’m staying in is at the margins of Kafranbel. A magical place. As far as I can see there are olive trees and the good smell of soil. The sky is clear and very close, as if I could reach up and touch it. That’s of course because the electricity is off in the whole area. The blackouts last up to 20 hours per day, so once it’s finally back on I have to seize the chance and charge my phone and laptop. I forgot to charge them when I arrived, so pretty soon everything will be dead.
A little while ago I heard the sound of constant bombings from far away.
I saw red lights in the sky, like meteorites falling. It turned out to be from rocket-launchers. Still I couldn’t help enjoying watching these red flashes in the sky. But then I felt like it’s not right to be enjoying the view like that.
I’ve got to remind myself that there are people somewhere out there and that those rockets will fall down on them. Before you get scared: the bombing is very, very far away. I’ve been told that the village has been pretty calm for a while. Once in a while there is bombing around it, especially on the military camps that the rebels have surrounded.
The weirdest thing is that I’m actually sleeping on the same mattress where Youssef slept. I have the strong feeling that I will get to see him soon.
My laptop is dying.
September 10, 2013
At the front line of al-Kalasa district in Aleppo, inside one of the old houses that are typical in the poor neighborhoods. In the interior of a large room that was previously a bedroom there are a huge old-fashioned bed and a wooden wardrobe with open doors. Inside the wardrobe there are some leftover food, teabags, sugar, many tactical vests, and other objects. On the wall next to the wardrobe there are a few sniper rifles hanging. All the windows of the room are closed up with concrete building blocks, but two sniper-holes remain in them where the snipers position themselves. The light leaking in through these two holes is the only light illuminating the dark room, even in daytime. Fares is with Jalal, a fighter with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) from Boustan al-Qasr. Abou Omar, in his early thirties, is the commander of a local battalion. Abdulhay is a sniper, in his early twenties. Holding his rifle, he is standing in front of one of the sniper-holes, almost without moving, and not saying a word throughout the scene.
Jalal (holding one of the rifles and checking it): So you think we should ask the Air Force intelligence?
Abou Omar: We’ll try. I’ll also try to see my contact from the Islamic Legitimate Body in order to get the thing with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) confirmed. If anyone can get information from ISIS, it’s him.
Fares: Thank you so much Abou Omar. From what Jalal said I understood that Youssef came here a lot?
Abou Omar: I’ve taken him with me to the front a few times, to take pictures.
He was here twice, too.
Jalal takes the rifle in a fast movement and raises it.
Fares: Is it loaded?
Jalal: Of course! Did you think it was a toy? (He lifts it up and puts it on his shoulder, and then he makes a full turn toward the sniper-hole, so that the muzzle passes near Fares’ head, who takes a step back) What’s your problem? We told you, don’t be afraid!
Fares: Tell me, what’s the difference between that, and a toy, professor Jalal?
Sometimes they’re exactly the same.
Jalal: This one’s heavier.
Fares: Who’s been living here before, Abou Omar? What happened to them?
Abou Omar: Everyone who lived in this neighborhood left when the liberation began, because the whole area turned into part of the front line.
Civilians, on both sides, left their houses.
Fares: Did they never come back? When I came in I saw household stuff and clothes lying all over the place, as if the residents had left the place five minutes ago.
Abou Omar: They came back several times to take some of their things, and left what they couldn’t carry. Our boys would never touch a straw of the stuff they left here.
Jalal: Come, let me show you where the regime-sniper is. That tall building over there. Not the first one. The one next to it with the stone facade. You see the last floor there, there is a curtain and under it there are sandbags. This, of course, is only one of the snipers. There are two or three others in the row of buildings in front of us. Wanna try?
Fares: No, thanks. But if all the snipers know where you are, how come you guys stay in the same place?
Abou Omar: It’s extremely hard to hit a sniper, even when you know where he is. The real purpose is to prevent someone from sneaking around on the ground. Snipers shoot at each other just to piss each other off. Sometimes when they get bored, they play games with each other. But if a sniper gets distracted for a moment, or if he makes one wrong move, he’ll be finished in less than a second. About a month ago Abdulhay hit one next to the TV-building. Part of his head was sticking out for, like, thirty seconds, maybe he forgot … and—BOOM!—Abdulhay hit him. How long are you planning to stay in Aleppo?
Fares: I was actually planning on leaving tomorrow, but I’ll postpone it. And if we hear anything about Youssef, I’ll stay longer.
Suddenly the sound of two shots in quick succession, and Jalal shouts
“I hit the motherfucker! I hit him!” Then we hear several shots in a row as if they were coming from the middle of the room. Fares steps back scared, bumps into the bed, and then falls on it. Jalal turns around, sees him, and bursts out laughing.
Jalal: Look how scared he is! Come on, get up! Nothing happened, we’re just joking! We shot at the guy and he turned out to have manners so he’s greeting us back!
Abou Omar: Damn you and your sense of humor, will you put it down now?
(Walks towards Jalal to take his rifle. Fares gets up from the bed)
And take the man with you. It’s not the type of place for him.
September 11, 2013
Aleppo, Boustan al-Qasr. At the entrance to Ziad’s house. Fares and Ziad stand, covered in dust, next to the tap which sticks out about 50 centimeters from the ground. They have just returned from a nearby street where a MiG-jet bombed a building. Ziad takes off his shirt, inclines his body to squat, and begins to wash his face and clean the dust off his body.
Ziad: This is the first time you’ve seen corpses pulled out of the rubble, right?
Fares: True. Until today I’ve only seen it on TV.
Ziad: I’m sorry for you. I felt like I shouldn’t have brought you there. This is not going to work out. Let me go and get a bowl. Be right back.
Ziad goes upstairs. An old man wearing a grey djellaba comes in, carrying a midsize metal water bucket, mumbling, “And we thought that after bombing us they might bring the water back …”
Fares steps back a bit from the tap, leaving the old man enough space to put his bucket under it. The old man greets him, and then waits while his bucket fills up. A young boy, probably not more than seven years’ old, comes downstairs carrying a plastic bucket.
He also approaches the tap.
The three are waiting in silence until the old man’s bucket is full. Ziad comes back down the stairs, a plastic bowl in his hand.
Ziad (to the old man): Let me help you. (He carries the bucket and walks away quickly)
Old man: May God help you, my son.
Fares gives the young boy a sign to put his bucket under the tap. He does so and squats down next to Fares. We hear the sound of several mortar grenades being fired, one after the other.
Young boy: It’s a mortar shell, but it’s coming from our side.
Fares: Yeah I know. That’s why I didn’t get scared. But what if it did fall on us, what would we do then? Aren’t you afraid?
The young boy shakes his head in denial, then he nods in agreement, then he makes a gesture meaning that he doesn’t know. The boy’s bucket is full.
Fares: Can you carry it yourself?
Young boy: Yes.
The young boy walks slowly toward the stairs carrying the bucket. He begins to walk upstairs, spilling water here and there.
Ziad: We won’t get anywhere if we wait for all the people here to fill their buckets. Come, take the bowl and wash yourself a bit, in the meantime I’m going to block the entrance so no one else can get in.
Fares: Here? How am I going to wash my body here?
Ziad: There is nothing to it. Just strip down to your underwear, and pour two bowls of water over yourself. God knows when the water will come back to our place upstairs.
Fares: Tonight I’ll go to Jalal’s place and take a shower there.
Ziad: You’re all covered in dust! What are you thinking? Where will you go like that? Tonight? Are you ashamed or what?
Fares: What if someone comes in?
Ziad: No one will come, I’ll stand at the door and tell them there are women bathing. Seriously, half the guys in the neighborhood shower here!
Ziad goes out. Fares takes off his shirt and lays it at the edge of the stairs. He hesitates a bit, then takes off his trousers, folds them and puts them next to the shirt. He fills up a bowl with water, lifts it up and pours it gently over his body. He pauses, and then fills the bowl up again. This time he pours the water slowly over his face. He lets the water flow over his body, repeating the same thing a few times, then he leans his head against the wall …
He is crying.
Ziad’s voice from outside: Is it working out, Fares?
Ziad again: Hey, how is it going?
Fares: Yes, it’s working.
September 12, 2013
On the road from Aleppo to Raqqa. Fares is asleep on the back seat of a minibus, with only the driver and one other passenger in it. There’s a checkpoint, manned by an Islamist battalion, located at a crossroads. Behind it one can see the Euphrates River. The minibus stops at the checkpoint. An armed man comes closer and begins a routine search. There are no other vehicles at the checkpoint. The armed man takes a quick look at the minibus, Fares is still asleep.
Armed man (talking to the bus driver, having taken and quickly checked all the ID cards): The guy sleeping there, where is he heading to?
Bus driver: To Raqqa. From Aleppo to Raqqa. I can wake him up, if you want.
Armed man: No, no. Everything’s fine. Drive safely.
The driver puts the minibus back into gear. At this moment, Fares wakes up, looks out of the window, and sees the checkpoint and the river.
Fares: What’s that? The Euphrates?
Other passenger: Yeah, that’s the Euphrates.
Fares: Stop! Let me get down! Stop!
The driver stops the bus, frightened, and Fares jumps out quickly.
Fares: Oh my God that’s the Euphrates! Why didn’t you wake me up? Man, this is the Euphrates! It’s the first time I have seen it!
Oh my goodness, how beautiful!
(He notices the armed man at the checkpoint, who is walking towards him, so he shouts out):
You’re the best! Long live the Free Syrian Army!
Other passenger (scared, with an almost inaudible voice):
Man, that’s not the FSA!
Bus driver (turning back to the passenger): What’s wrong with him?
Did he go crazy?
Other passenger: Looks like it. We’re in a big mess now.
Armed man (now close to Fares): Is everything ok?
Fares: Hello, my friend! This is the Euphrates, it’s the first time I’ve seen it.
Other passenger: He’s from Damascus, he’s happy to see the Euphrates.
Armed man: The Euphrates will be on your side all the way to Raqqa, it won’t disappear.
Bus driver: Let’s go, my friend. We’ll show you around the Euphrates when we arrive in Raqqa. Let’s go now ’cause we don’t want to be late.
Armed man: Come on, get going.
Fares goes back to the minibus.
Fares (as he re-boards he turns back to the armed man and makes a V-sign):
Long live the Free Syrian Army!
Barrels of Death
September 13, 2013
Of course, I wasn’t able to watch the link you sent me. The internet is just too bad here. At the place where I sleep there is no internet. I go to a cafe to get online, but it’s very slow. What should I say about Raqqa? The city seems pretty calm, compared to Aleppo and all the other places that I’ve visited. To the point that yesterday the silence here made me worry and I couldn’t sleep! Of course it’s impossible that this calm could last, so this morning I woke up to the sound of bombing from a MiG-jet. I can confirm now that it’s much better to experience bombing when you’re awake. Because if you wake up from the sound of shelling, when it’s very close, for the first few seconds you don’t know whether you’re still alive or whether you have moved on to another life already. The bombing only lasts for half a minute, but it takes you ages to realize that you’re still where you are.
At noon, it was time for the bombing with TNT barrels; it’s almost a routine in Raqqa. The barrels are stupid. The wind influences their direction, and it takes about ten seconds until they hit the ground. But the MiG missile, you only feel it, after it hits. It’s for exactly that reason that they are so stupid; the barrel is the pinnacle of absurd ways to die. The guy who drops it already knows that it will come down totally randomly because it’s impossible to control it. For that reason people here respect the MiGs more, because at least with the MiGs they don’t have to watch death falling on them so stupidly from the sky. The moment you hear the sound of a MiG, it has already flown by, dropped its bomb and left, all that in a few seconds. While the barrel, you can see it coming down, and either you manage to run away fast enough or you don’t. And if you’re far away, you watch it and feel safe, but at the same time you know that it’s going to kill someone else. And this is exactly what happened to me today. There’s this guy I met the day I arrived in Raqqa. He worked in an internet cafe. I sat with him for about an hour. He was super shy and barely spoke. He was 28 years old, and he got married just one month ago.
Today he was killed by a barrel. He and his wife were visiting her parents’ place. They all died. This is the third person I’ve met who was blown up.
Now death has taken on a specific form. People I was hanging out with, talked to, and all of a sudden they’re gone. Being here makes me understand that the people who are dying aren’t just names. No, they have special features that are totally unique to them. I’m understanding more now, how huge such a loss can be. It leaves a mark that won’t wash out. Despite all this I’m still unable to think that anything bad could have happened to Youssef.
Even though I haven’t been able, so far, to find out anything new about him here. Half of the city knows him, and they treat me super friendly when they hear that I’m his friend. Good people, completely abandoned to their fate. A city, liberated for a couple of months, and still there is not even one opposition group that made an alternative administration here. No one comes here, except for some visitors like me. The competition for who will rule the city is going on between the militants. Half the armed groups you can see walking around masked on the streets, and then there are those cars without license-plates. But there are also the people who started the revolution, who insist on carrying on. A guy told me today: “Now the first revolution is over, but there are still about ten other revolutions ahead of us.” He was smoking shisha and laughing. When I sit with them I feel ashamed.
The most important thing, though, is that I made it to the Euphrates today.
At sunset the boys took me along with them, what an amazing view.
I came to the conviction that cities where there’s a river flowing through them are the most beautiful. Especially if it’s the Euphrates, it’s just magical.
I wish you had been there with me.
I miss you a lot
September 14, 2013
On the road from Raqqa to Manbij, shortly after the Baath Dam. The minibus transporting Fares and others stands on the roadside, which is higher than the water reservoir behind the dam. The other side is covered in wheat fields that stretch far into the distance.
Fares stands together with another passenger, a young man named Amer.
They look out over the water and Amer smokes a cigarette.
Fares: Did you see the checkpoint we drove past? They say it has a prison to it.
Amer: Not a prison, it’s the dam building. But yeah, the ISIS are using it as a prison.
Fares: The guy who stopped us was Syrian, right?
Amer: Yeah, from his accent I’d say he’s from this area.
Fares: I’ve got a friend who might be in that prison. What would you do if you were in my shoes?
Amer: Are you sure?
Amer: Anyway, you can’t do anything.
Fares: It’s been almost a month since he disappeared. It’s bizarre that I might be standing here, next to him, but still I don’t know the truth.
Amer: Even if you went there to ask, which, in my opinion, would be a crazy thing to do … do you think that the guy standing at the checkpoint knows anything?
Are you gonna tell him, “I want to visit the prison!”.
Fares: I’ve come from the end of the world to find out where he is …. How bizarre would it be if, right now, I stood a few meters from him and couldn’t see him!
Amer: Everything happening to us these days is bizarre.
Fares: The view here is amazingly beautiful.
Amer (finishes his cigarette and throws it away): You’re here for the first time, aren’t you?
Fares: Yes. And of course you know the way well?
Amer: I’ve lived here all my life.
Fares: And has it ceased to be a beautiful view for you?
Amer: On the contrary, I’m already afraid of the coming nostalgia.
Fares: Are you about to travel?
Amer: Yes. To Turkey. And from there to any place in the world.
They both fall silent for a moment and look down at the water.
Amer: Let’s go.
Fares: Yeah. I’m coming.
Fares stays standing, looking at the water.
Translated from the Arabic by Sandra Hetzl