Abeer Asber is a writer and a filmmaker. Born in 1974 in Damascus, Syria she has worked as a literary critic, wrote three books as well as multiple short films, and directed TV series. She now lives in Montreal. This is her story.
I was born with an ill immune system. The illness weakening my immune system was not savage enough to have earned a name of it’s own, like Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, say, or Leukemia, but it remained debilitating in its own way. Beset by seemingly unrelated symptoms — maybe just a bad cold. However, very quickly, my red blood cells began to fail.
My anemia was alarming. It would cause me to be bedridden due to a mysterious ache that began in my eyelashes and the roots of my hair.
I learned to live with my delicate immune system. I had an adolescence similar to that of everyone else: I fumed over my teacher, my parents, God, fashion which left me lagging behind. I resented almost everything. I wanted a solution for my weak immune system as it was my most harmful enemy. I could not lie from my immune system, nor could I escape it. I was told there was no way out of my suffering; the pains had to be endured. Even my grandmother, Rahma, regularly insisted that I take the state of my immune system seriously: at all costs I must avoid worsening my state, I must not do but the bare minimum. As she chased after me with a small pot of grape molasses, she said that I should be careful to not provoke an attack. No more late nights for me. I had to eat more, breathe oxygen at higher altitudes to help increase my red blood cell production, and, most importantly, follow the “Qabbani way” of the Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani and never be unhappy. I failed miserably at this and remained on the outer limits of recovery.
Recently, some people have made mocking presumptions about me while I was not there.We are often surprised by how others see us. My friend stepped in to defend my absent self. Knowing that in mockery there is a grain of truth, I insisted to know what had been said, that I may know myself the words of gossip and understand how my image was perceived in the eyes of the gossipers. Only then, would I either laugh or fume. However, when I learned about how I was perceived by my slanderer, I was disappointed. The scrupulous account of what was said revealed that the distorted image of myself was neither funny, nor was it harmful. The account was simply daft, naïve, and frankly, not intelligent. This seditious stranger was satisfied with the bare minimum of a distorted sense of reality, the bare minimum of mockery.
A time ago, I lived in Damascus, a city with a particular aura that pushes the damascenes in their prejudice that it is the centre of the universe. An ego that was highlighted by the way the media spoke of the city — always in a way that seemed to forget the present and content itself with the way the city was in the past. In these messages, the chaos of the modern Damascus was forgotten. No one spoke of the open sewers, and the ugliness of the modern buildings. All of the universities, bridges, hospitals, cultural centres, were built with security norms in mind, and a fear of attack, and because of that these buildings stand as dusty cement blocks without individuality. A city that showed no consideration for its current buildings that did not incorporate any aesthetic in order to concentrate on the practical efficiency. There is an obsession with convenience that leaves beauty to lag behind at a ‘natural’ bare minimum.
Yet, when overcome with longing and love, you remember Damascus with affection. The distance has a bizarre effect on people. You forget the violence consuming the city, you forget a little the anger, the boastful television series, and you forget the honor moustaches kneaded into the circumcision rituals. In your affectionate reflection you allow yourself to forget all these things. You surprise yourself as you find yourself defending a city you spent so much of your life criticizing. You swear that you know it well, that it’s ‘not like that’; that the severed heads on the smirking screens are ‘not like that’, and that the boots stamping onto heads are only a passing shadow in the history of the country.
And you talk about and for it: Damascus is the city of the night; it is the city of late nights returning home from cafés, from the homes of friends, the alleys, and from Abu-George’s bar, where the only free table is for an expected meeting. In Damascus, you live in the streets until surprised by dawn. Hungry, you appease your excesses in Bab Touma Square with dishes of ‘foul’ and ‘fatteh’, and the call to prayers from a nearby mosque.
But all these thoughts are in your head. After being drunk with longing you wake up to brutal reality. You unwillingly stop and deliberate. You think back, and images hit you with the precision of a professional’s lens. You are free in Damascus, but you wonder how far you can go. Can you go beyond your dreams and push the limits of freedom? Freedom is more than staying out late, drinking yourself silly, smoking hash with a passing acquaintance — that is the bare minimum.
Confound it! I’ve done it again. I swore to forget that country, I swore to hate it and let it hate me in return. I swore never to speak about it. But I don’t seem to be able to do that.
To use a very Syrian expression, “pass, but repeating.” In the general secondary school one can pass with a very low grade, a ‘pass’ that will close the door of education in your face and stop you from even getting into one of those many dreary institutes offering a low-leveled teaching. The Ministry of Education will then award you a certificate to prove your failure: a “pass, but repeating.”
You repeat your life in a country that is content with very little, with the bare minimum of everything: of life, of art, of sports, of politics, tourism. Content with the bare minimum of dignity, of love, of ideas, of beauty. Yet it managed to live to the maximum in its shoddiness.
The country only came alive in war.
In the war, we had bursts of shameless liveliness: we expressed our violence, our sectarianism, our hatred of friends. We became divided over their blood and their tales. We became radicalised to the extreme. We drank, but could not drink enough in the cafés of other cities, shouting insults on the pavements of those other cities, about a country we had all left, replete with drunkenness, and prayers, and depression, paralysed by sadness, crowned with timidity, and the shame of a freedom we never had. Those of us who protested, and those loyalists; those who turned a blind eye, and those who said nothing; those who benefited, and those who went hungry, and refrained from stealing out of fear, not honour. And when the country was desecrated with our failures, and the limits of our desires were broken down, as were our dreams and our hopes for the city, for the country, for us, we ask: “Who remains there, who remains in Damascus to fight for it?” The bare minimum of people.
At the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), as you wait — a long detestable wait that drives you to madness — you ask yourself, why are they checking your bag for sharp objects, some tweezers, or a pocket mirror? Do they fear for your life or theirs?
I continue to wait, entertaining myself with questions. “Who is that woman who is shouting in my face because I took her turn?” The man who ceded his turn to me tells her, “no problem.” And the woman scream, “Yes, there is a problem!”
I’ve never yet cried in public, and I’m thinking perhaps it’s time for me to test this. I hide my soul, I bury it far away, in the rubble ahead of me, in the colour of their clothes, in the tears they did not shed, in the anger that will explode, full of their stories, in their memories of blood and of death, of the dissolution of their loved ones in the salt of the sea. But I do not cry.
I look at the advertisements on the television screen in front of me. A film for refugees is playing, infused with Kurdish music. The camera on the screen follows a group of human beings jumping out of houses of grinding poverty. All sorts of human beings: uncovered long-haired girls, other girls wearing veils, children – oh how strange – in trainers, and an old man with a crutch – the components of the Syrian population meet over a football match. They play on hills and land that have been temporarily transformed for the unifying game. Turning the channel, another film is playing and the old Damascene chant comes from the television, “he with a tongue cannot get lost.” But you realize that only he with a tongue is the one lost.
The woman screams at me again, the UNHCR employee shouts, a child who dislikes me shouts, my whole world shouts. I do not cry. Yes, I’m a refugee. Yes, seeking asylum is a cheap price for war. But truthfully, this is only the natural bare minimum of all the losses. So why complain?
Translated from Arabic by Nouha Homad, Chelsea Hawkins, Andrea Roulet