“It’s the little things, like when you reach for something to read and you realize your books aren’t there,” my friend said as she tried to describe what it’s like to live in limbo.
She’s an Armenian Syrian living in Beirut with her parents for the indefinite future.
In Damascus, they had a home and a factory that they’d built over the past 30 years. The girls went to school and danced to Armenian and Arabic music. When I stayed with them several years ago, they had ice cream delivered for dinner because we were too tired from a day of fun to eat another big meal. Their lives were different then.
I had visited Syria just a week before the presidential election, when Assad’s portrait dominated the landscape. There were so many posters of his face plastered in every window and on every wall that it was hard for me to keep a straight face, but I knew that I should. Someone I met whispered a joke to me: “We have many candidates for president. They just all look alike.”
I didn’t know anyone in Damascus on my first day, so I went to see a movie in the evening. It was a U.S.-made movie with Arabic subtitles. They assigned seats in the theater and the side sections remained empty, while everyone was packed into the center rows, and me into the center of the center.
During the movie I went to use the restroom or get a snack, I can’t remember which, and when I returned I decided to just sit in a side section instead of walking in front of a whole row of people watching the movie. The usher waved his flashlight, trying to insist that I return to my assigned seat.
Maybe it was hospitality on his part, maybe he didn’t want me to be alone, maybe it’s just the way things are done. But I resist most attempts to put me in some arbitrary place, theater seat or otherwise, no matter the good intentions. As a foreigner you sometimes can get away with little things, so I waved off his offer saying that the side section would be just fine.
This past summer I was in the region for work to visit our partner organization in Tripoli, Lebanon. A torture rehabilitation center, many of the people they serve are highly traumatized Syrians who have crossed the border to find safety. These days one can’t talk about Syria without talking about Lebanon and Jordan and Turkey.
I’d watched my dad swallow his anxiety whole, a visible lump in his throat, when I said I was going. In his mind, I was returning to a land of nearly endless violence. In my mind, I was returning to a land of nearly endless eating.
Of course, he had a point. There had been a car bomb a few days before I arrived and there was an assassination a few days into my stay.
“What happens in Beirut, stays in Beirut,” the locals said of incidents that happen in other parts of the country. Until it doesn’t, I thought to myself.
It was Ramadan then, so I spent several nights eating my way through grand Iftaar meals, wondering if they would ever stop bringing courses. Children were out until midnight playing games and lighting small firecrackers. Couples walked along the seaside and drank freshly squeezed juice and ate cotton candy. Others relaxed and smoked nargile. A taxi driver gave me and a colleague a free ride.
There were explosions during the day and at night. To the untrained ear, celebratory fireworks and gunfire sound much the same. But natives of the region know the difference.
I met the Armenian-Syrian family again while I was in Lebanon and a new family member was with them this time: a little boy with outrageously curly dark hair, blissfully unaware of why he and his extended family live in a different country now.
My friend Kim does an exercise with students and adults in the U.S. to teach them about the challenges of refugees. She tells them to imagine they’re forced to flee their homes overnight and can only take three things with them. “What would those three things be?” she asks.
This is a painful exercise for someone as nostalgic as me, someone who loves her conveniences, someone who believes that family, friends, and health are the most important things, but for whom both sentimentality and materialism still reign in weak moments.
A new life—which is not actually a new life at all but a suspended one—demands important paperwork if you can find it, cash if the bank will let you take it out, and clothes if you can carry them. You’ll go back for more, maybe, but you’ll never be able to pack up your life as it once was. And you wouldn’t do so even if you could, because every day you’ll wonder how or whether you will return, desperate to know how the story ends, desperate for some ink to write your own ending.