Perhaps I smell the dust brought in whirlwinds by the breeze that makes me shiver. I might hear the clamour of the city, see passing shadows or the seemingly familiar faces of the neighbourhood’s souls. Yet, I do not feel a thing.
My little brother Martin is with me this time, along with another friend. I am so happy I can finally introduce them to Bakdash. We are hurrying through the covered streets of the souk. Our quest is a soft ice cream from the restaurant, wrapped in a thick pistachio coat. “The iron roof seems to have been pierced by bullets,” I had thought when I first visited the souk. “It turns the sun’s rays into a myriad of stars, that give the goods an enchanted appearance.” We turn left, then right, climb down stairs, pass past empty stalls or fountains. In a patchwork of badly-edited memories, time, place and people suddenly change. It is still dawn, but the breeze is cooler and people around us wear thick woollen clothes. The quest for ice cream is gone, and we now roam the streets for its winter alter ego: “Sorry Miss, we have run out of sahlab, come back tomorrow. We have some hot Milo instead, would you care to try it?” Fades out.
Another day. The sun is at its zenith now, and like a cat I bask in its warm embrace. My smile exudes the contentment and serenity of being home. As I walk down the narrow alleyways that wrinkle Mount Qassioun, my smile grows bigger and deeper. At last, I am back. This time I managed to get into Syria by crawling underneath a fence. The month before, I had sneaked in under the border control officer’s nose. Again and again I found myself unexpectedly in Damascus, like a stage character whose scene is about to begin. Set and…action.
Such is the power of dreams.
For I have dreamed of Damascus, once a week or so, for the past nine years. Endlessly, my mind has returned to the country where my body may no longer go. In the same way fingers can trace the face of a lost lover in the dark, I have wandered into the streets of my beloved city. I have even mapped my own version of it. And in this safe place in my mind, I can relive those golden times.
Sometimes, in my dreams, friends and family who did not have the chance to visit me when I lived there will join me. Finally, I can show them the side of me they know very little of. Can we forget the city of our student days? As time goes by it, becomes an idealised reconstruction of our youth. The playground for our adult self.
Damascus, you are the city of my frustration and my guilt.
I barely come back to the places I lived in: my flat perched in the mountains like a bird’s nest, my school buried in the trees of Abu Rummaneh, my office by the Autostrad, my friends’ flats scattered around the city, my driving school on the road to the airport, the Rawda café where we watched the Euro Cup next to Parliament, the new and old cities clubs… No. The places I come back to are the figments of my imagination, loosely based on the city’s topography. I twist them at my leisure, drag them from scene to scene, dream after dream. I never know where I will stand, or how things will be when I start dreaming, but Damascus is always reassuring. Sometimes there are tensions lurking in the background, but for the most part the landscape is quiet, and subdued in this faded light.
At times the dreams become less frequent, but they always come back. In my dreams, Damascus is the city of my youth, the capital of exile. It is the agony of a love affair cut short at the height of its passion.
Would I have grown so attached to Damascus, had I been able to return? Probably. But in a more mature way, after experiencing both highs and lows together. Damascus, I would have loved you through thick and thin. But I only lived the “thick” with you.
Damascus, you are the city of my frustration and my guilt. Frustration for not being able to go where my fancy takes me, a relatively privileged European passport holder who can roam most of the world freely if I decide to. Even if I beg, cry, ask nicely, threaten, plead. Even if I really, really want to. Frustration in the face of an arbitrary travel ban I cannot know the reason of and challenge the legitimacy. Guilt for not honouring the promises I made to my long-term and day-long friends to come back. “You see, another foreigner who had a great time in Syria and left to continue her life back where she came from, her photo albums filled with people she will not deign give copies to, let alone meet with again?” Guilt for being so helpless in the face of the tears and blood that have been pouring like a bursting dam over these sun-drenched lands. Guilt at last for suffering from such a benign ordeal when so many have lost far more than a young woman’s city crush.
Damascus, it has been nine years and you are still haunting me.