At night when the winds came, the sand covered everything. It blew into the tents. It found its way into the water, the food. It ground teeth down to nothing and, in the dust, they chafed as they sat. Row on row of tents bleached in the angry sun, with flapping canvas for doors, whipping in the breeze like tanned flags of surrender. Behind every flap, the descendants of kings sat frightened and humiliated with wide eyes and empty stomachs. Doctors, lawyers, trashmen, and businessmen alike yearned merely for medicine and bread. In the darkness of the night, the wails of hungry children drowned out the wind. Men and women who’d known only oppression yearned for the tight fist of a dictator, because at least beneath his vengeful knuckles there was bread.
Though he found it harder to remember with each passing day, there was a time, not long ago, when Nizar had worn a suit and carried a briefcase. He sipped on lattes at sidewalk cafes in the sunny streets of Damascus and discussed the finer points of international finance while tapping his fine leather shoes on the ancient cobblestones and checking the time on his gold watch – the one that glinted and burned in the desert sun. He’d been well-heeled with a fashionable haircut and a well-trimmed beard. He’d driven a BMW and his children had worn smiles over their school clothes each morning before they left for the best education anyone’s money could buy. That was before the troubles, when Damascus still had sidewalk cafes…and cobblestones…when he still had money.
Now, things were different. When the shooting started, he’d packed his family into the BMW and they fled like Bedouins into the desert night. They’d carried only what they could pack in a hurry; he’d left the suits behind, afraid that some of the men in the desert with Russian rifles might shoot him just for wearing it. “Ba’ath!” they’d shout and then he would be dead, his family following him soon after. He was no longer a well-heeled man. He was a beggar, as were all the others who had ran. Some had refused to run, but they were all dead. His family might be starving and afraid, but they were alive.
The car ran out of gas not far from the border. The line at the last petrol station had been too long. They had driven for days, the BMW caked in the grit of the desert, joining with the other myriad vehicles surging north toward refuge. The color of the desert floor blended the cars together, transforming them into one great herd of wheeled animals caught in a stampede, fleeing the poachers. Near the border, as his car choked on the last of its fumes, they’d dragged the remnants of their lives from the trunk and continued on foot. A desert man, robed and covered in sand, had bought the car for the barest fraction of what it was worth. Only months earlier, Nizar would have felt insulted. A few days in the desert and already he was learning to look past shame for the sake of survival.
At the border, the guards had glared at them from beneath their berets and heavy eyebrows. They grabbed them angrily, shouted in broken Arabic and their boorish, foreign tongue, asked humiliating questions, insulted them, and pointed guns at his children. Nizar had kept his head down, afraid to make eye contact. They’d been herded like animals into the village of burlap and hunger in which they now lived, given empty pots that hungered for rice, empty bowls that yearned to be filled. The sun burned their faces and bleached their burlap walls. The desert nipped at their heels. The guards still glared – with their tidy uniforms that seemed to defy the sand, their berets, and their carefully-trimmed moustaches. They stalked about the compound like hungry lions, rifles in hand, brandishing them at will. Now and then, small, bespectacled men in suits would visit to tell them, with guns everywhere, that they were not prisoners.
And the small men in suits said he and his family were safe, as they stood flanked by tall African soldiers with sky-blue helmets and Finnish rifles. They said they were among friends, through an interpreter. They said they would be treated with dignity and respect, as they sat speaking in the one and only room he had, the one with burlap walls and empty pots. They said there would be medicine and food. They would need to be patient. They had to wait.
They had said that for months, and they waited still.
On one cold and windy night like every other, as they days and nights had blurred and time had lost meaning, Nizar had decided this was the last night. He would not hear his children cry from hunger another day. He would not be kept in this filthy tent like an animal, while foreigners stared daggers at him down the barrels of their guns. Here, there was no food, no dignity, no future, no hope. His children deserved to know more than fear and deprivation. Tomorrow would be different. Tomorrow, life would improve.
It was dark and bitter cold when they reached the shore. For days they had travelled in secret, ducked fearfully in the backs of trucks, bouncing like rubber balls over sodden dirt roads. Nizar had sold everything but the clothes off his back – even their sad, empty pots. From town to town they had been squeezed into cargo spaces, shoehorned in as though luggage. Their passage was bought with wads of banknotes passed to grimy hands under the watch of furtive, foreign eyes. They huddled in cold and quiet, splinters in their backs as tarps hushed their shallow breaths. Now, at last, with the ocean breeze in their matted hair and the taste of salt on their lips, freedom seemed to beckon to them from across the great sea.
Everything they owned now fit into three backpacks and Nizar carried them all. The sand underfoot felt somehow softer now. The darkness of night had lightened to dull gray, signalling the approach of dawn. There were more people than he’d been told. His guide had deceived him. At least thirty people now stood huddled before a boat that could carry no more than fifteen. They stood, freezing as the wind ripped at their ragged clothes, holding tarps and battered coats over their heads as bulwarks against the cold while they shouted recriminations in Arabic and the guide shouted back in Turkish. There wasn’t enough room and there was nothing he could do to change that. He might make it back to this spot, but the authorities might find him first. Those who stayed behind would wait in the cold and sand forever for a boat that would never return. The authorities might come and haul them off to prison. Worse, they might send them back to the camp, or even worse send them to the forests of rubble that were once home.
The news was delivered coldly and met with outrage; more shouting, waving, pointing and cursing. Many of the men gathered were impolite by nature and they now took to threatening the boatman – as though one who smuggled women and children could be bullied. The boatman sneered at their empty threats; how else would they make it to freedom? Every moment they lingered freezing on the beach brought them closer to discovery and prison. At last, a deal was struck. Those who had paid could send along three at the most, but any others would stay behind. The boat might come back. They could wait. What choice did they have? Nizar had come so far. He had given everything – his suits, his watch, his car. This was the end of the line. He hadn’t come all this way to abandon his mission now. With the strength he had left, he turned to his wife, his beloved Nour, and it was decided.
The children wailed and screamed as the boat pushed off, but Nour held them fast. Their little arms reached out for him from dingy life vests and he tried as hard as he could to smile as he reassured them, choking back his own tears. The boat drifted away onto the vast sea, bound for a land of freedom. There would be more foreigners there. There would be fences and uniforms and guns – but there would be sympathy, and freedom, dignity and bread. And they would learn to live in that strange place. They would learn those foreign tongues and foreign customs, eat foreign food and go to foreign schools. And, in time, they would not be so foreign. In time, his children would be as alien to their homeland as this nation was to him. In time, he wouldn’t even recognize them. If he even saw them again…
It didn’t matter, he decided. They were safe now. They had escaped. They were free. They would lead a good life. They would live and thrive. He told himself this as the sand soaked through his shoes, as his fingers went numb, as he stood in the cold and gray morning with the wind tearing angrily at his clothes as tears stung his face at last. With these thoughts he sought comfort, and the boat slipped out of view, lost in the distant haze.