It’s a good thing I didn’t because here it is, over three months later and about 10,000 dead people, and nobody has thought of anything yet. I hope everyone gets what they want in the end, but I am afraid they will get what they deserve, and that won’t be pretty. I have seen this happen too often to get too emotionally invested, so all I want to know is this: Is my little buddy Mohamad Housaini alive?
Anyone reading my articles for any length of time knows that my husband, Lütfü, and I will use any excuse for a trip. Two years ago, when Mr. Ahmet Davutoğlu’s “Zero problems with neighbors” policy was really looking promising, visa requirements between Turkey and Syria were dropped. That meant we could just grab our passports and go; it was a good enough reason to take off and see our first Arab country. We flew to Hatay and took the regular bus to Aleppo in March, 2010, exactly one year before the first peaceful demonstrations. Now, Turkey has closed the border crossing we used, and there are refugee tent camps everywhere. It was all so peaceful there back then, hard to believe the hell that has gone on since we made our excited first (and maybe last) trip to Syria.
The Syrian countryside we passed, including remnants of the Silk Road, was well kept and cheerful, with clean clothes hanging on lines strung in the most imaginative places. I’ll never forget the severely disabled man who sat by the side of the road, waiting to greet his friend, our otherwise inscrutable bus driver, who had a little present for him. Helmeted Europeans on bicycles shared the road with our bus as we passed signs with big pictures of a jovial President Bashar al-Assad waving hello. Aleppo was a dream city, with its Ulu Cami, grand souk, incredible citadel and the late 19th-century Hotel Baron. The atmospheric Baron has been managed for decades by a tiny woman who began her 50-year career there as a maid. You can have a drink in the hotel bar where T.E. Lawrence and later Charles de Gaulle may have spent some time while they were guests of the Armenian family who built the hotel. The Aleppo people stay off the streets for the most part until the evening, and then they come out in force; Aleppo is a city of night people.
But this isn’t a travel story; I am just lingering over some fond memories of the time that led up to our meeting the boy Mohamad Housaini.
We traveled to Damascus from Aleppo, and while Aleppo is somewhat larger than Damascus, the latter has much more of a big-city feel to it; at least it did two years ago. There were more people out and about during the daytime, the cars drove faster and there seemed to be more tall buildings. As usual, though, we stuck to the old parts of the city; we are always more comfortable there. In the course of things we visited the Umayyad Mosque, with the finest mosaics I have ever seen in situ, the putative head of John the Baptist in its shrine, the Isa Minaret (it is believed by many that when Jesus returns, it will be at this mosque), the tombs of the Prophet’s (PBUH) martyred grandson Hussein and Hussein’s little martyred daughter and the burial site of Salahadin, the sultan hero of the Crusades. There, in this fourth holiest place in Islam, we were approached by a young lad in a red sweatshirt, sand-blasted jeans and a droopy backpack. He asked if he could walk around with us and practice his English. I thought he was adorable and wanted to take him home, like a puppy, but my İstanbul-wise husband just humored him for a while then basically gave him the boot; although the boy hadn’t tried to sell us a carpet, Lute had just been waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Later, outside the mosque, we saw him again, smiling at us timidly, trying to hang out with two uncomfortable-looking Western women tourists. Now Lute took pity on the kid, so he rescued him and the women from their mutual discomfort and took Mohamad -- for it was he -- under his big Turkish wing. The boy threw a shy wave to the ladies, who appeared surprised that the boy had Western friends, and the boy was thrilled with this minor but public acknowledgement. What followed was one of those wonderful days of new friendship, with laughing and ice cream, poking around in obscure places and lots of English practice. Mohamad was 18, although he seemed much younger; he was tall, but rather delicate and child-like, although his English was really quite good. Lute became the rough older brother, making Mohamad go into stores and bargain like a man. I fussed over him and praised his English, naturally mothering a willing child. He told us he lived with his parents in a nice neighborhood near downtown Damascus; his father owned and operated a local restaurant. He told us how to make Syrian hummus (add yogurt). He hated politics; they gave him a headache. He had to call his mom every 20 minutes or so because she worried, and she hated it when he went out like this. Every Sunday Mohamad put on his best clothes and came to the Umayyad to hit on English-speaking tourists, much as he had us, although usually not so successfully. He was determined to go to England, to go to university and get his degree in “Eng-leesh lit-ter-a-toor.” I tried to engage him in a little discussion of same, but it appeared he hadn’t actually read any English literature, but for some reason it had stuck in his little head that that was what he wanted out of life, and I thought that was great; English lit is good stuff, and this kid would go for it in a big way, once he had the chance. And, of course, a visa.
We got together once more with Mohamad on our last night in Damascus. He had told us about his best friend, a boy who worked in a shop that sold frames and prints; I’ve forgotten his name. The friend came with Mohamad, and he, Mohamad, was in heaven; his pal was impressed that he knew Americans, and we (of course) were impressed that Mohamad had such a serious, intelligent friend. The friend had brought us a lovely print of a watercolor of the Umayyad Mosque, which is now a treasured memento in our home. We had a long, lively evening together in an outdoor café, drinking Coca-Cola and eating huge, cold fava beans dipped in salt and ground oregano. We said goodbye. I emailed Mohamad a couple of times but never heard from him again; we had told him (truthfully) that he could come visit us whenever he wanted, but he said his mother would miss him too much. My recent emails are returned undelivered.
So we wonder about our little friend now. Just because he is our friend doesn’t make him any more important than anyone else, but he is our friend, and so we grieve. I torture myself with thinking of how terrified he would be if the good guys or the bad guys came to his neighborhood in a house-to-house shoot-out. For people like Mohamad, young people with dreams and curiosity and love for human beings, it doesn’t matter how many angels can dance on the head of a pin or what faction is shelling the neighborhood this week; all they feel is the confusion, the terror and the pain. When all this is over, we’ll go back as soon as we can, and go to the Umayyad Mosque on a Sunday, if it is still standing, and we will look for Mohamad. We pray every day that he is alive.
*Elsie Alan lives in Gebze with her husband.