x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Second place: The Turning Point by Mays Albaik

Mays Albaik is a 22-year-old Palestinian-Syrian Architecture student. Her story takes place through a telephone conversation between two brothers, one in the Syrian army and the other in Abu Dhabi.

I was up on the freezing roof, and it was the stupidest thing I had ever done.

I walked towards the parched water tank and leaned against it, taking my phone out of my pocket.

21 January 2014, 15.21 blinked on the screen.

My head turned up to the Syrian winter sky. It was a grey day, and the air was thick with the smell of dust and muddy snow — a dirty white blanket covering the short and decrepit buildings of Al-Dablan Street. My eyes travelled across broken windows and looted shops, places I remembered from childhood visits, when my parents had brought my brother and me to Homs. My memories of those trips were hazy, but the images I had of this street were nothing like the abandoned zombie-land it was now. It had been a bustling market place, loud with the cries of bargaining merchants and crowded with fruit vendors, hidden behind carts sagging with mounds of watermelons and peaches and pomegranates. As I stood here on this cold afternoon, looking at the remnants of this city’s liveliest street, I could almost smell the fruit, could taste the grease of the shawarma and the feel the sticky sweetness of the mushabbak on my fingers.

I heaved a great sigh and looked at my phone again, then I dialled a number I knew by heart; I had been staring at it scribbled on a piece of paper for four years.

I didn’t lift the phone up to my ear, but stared at the screen. After a few seconds, the call screen disappeared. I realised I was holding my breath and let it out. Frowning, I dialled again, wondering if he had changed his number. I held the phone to my ear and realised that I still couldn’t get a signal. I rolled my eyes, and held the phone as high as my arm would stretch. A small part of my brain warned me that this could cost me that arm, but I ignored it as the icon on the screen gained another bar. Throwing all caution to the wind, I straightened and walked to the edge of the rooftop, dialled the number and put the phone against my ear. I had already made the decision to call my brother, and my habit of second-guessing myself had always angered me.

Static silence, and then the phone started ringing.

“Allo Marhaba?[1]”

 “Iyad?” My voice was hoarse, and I cleared my throat. “Keefak?[2]”

“Fady?” Shock was evident in his voice. The familiar cadence made me forget the last four years, and I rolled my eyes in exasperation.

“No, Iyad, it’s Aunt Zbeideh. Of course it’s Fady, ya hmar[3].”

There was a pause. Then Iyad’s voice replied, “Elhamdella[4], I’m OK–”

“I’m good, yeah, thanks,” I replied before realising he hadn’t even asked. Grimacing at my blunder, I pushed on. “Happy birthday, Akhi. May you have a hundred more.”

“Oh! Thanks Fady.” Iyad gave a small chuckle.

“What’re you doing for your birthday? The weather is nice, isn’t it? Are you having a barbecue?”

“I think I’m just staying home actually. I have work early tomorrow.”

I tried a different tactic. “Well, even if you go out, it’ll never be as great as your 17th birthday.”

I heard him laugh in surprise. “I completely forgot about that! Oh wow. That had been something, hadn’t it? Father, Allah yerhamo[5], wouldn’t look at us for a month.”

“The car had been brand new, so I can’t say I blame him. But man, it was worth it wasn’t it?”

“It definitely ruined my first month as a 17-year-old. Not allowed to go anywhere after 5pm.”

“Yalla[6], admit it. You had fun.”

Iyad laughed again. “I did, I did.”

There was a pause again, then Iyad asked, “How are you doing? Is it cold?”

“Freezing. I’m surprised you can hear me through all the wind that’s blowing around me.”

Nervous and unable to stay still, I paced the edge of the roof, my eyes following my booted feet and my mind a decade away. I looked up and found that, in the distance, I could see purple electricity zigzagging down to earth. No thunder reached me.

“Looks like a storm’s gonna hit in a while, too,” I continued, “but we’re warm indoors. The government made sure the electricity is working where the troops are stationed.”

“I guess that’s better than nothing. Is it bad where you are?”

“It’s not the best place to be right now,” I admitted somewhat reluctantly. I was perpetually afraid these days, as I had been stationed in one of the more tense towns in Syria, where rebel troops had control and the government was trying to reclaim the city. I hadn’t told anyone, however, of the gnawing fear I carried in my stomach. I started my two-year mandatory service four years ago, not knowing that in two years, nobody was being released from service.

“Are you near uncle Hekmat’s farm?”

“Close. It’s OK. We’re not on offensive or anything, just lookouts. We keep our heads down and don’t do anything stupid, so we’re OK.”

Another pause. I leaned on the high parapet of the roof. I had been scared to come up here, but I couldn’t catch a signal inside the building, and I told myself the storm would force any gunmen indoors.

“How’s your job?” I asked.

“It’s OK. I got a promotion a month ago.”

“Oh, you did?” I knew he was a cashier at a supermarket in Abu Dhabi, and I didn’t know he could get promoted. “Mabrook[7],” I continued, “Father and mother would’ve been proud.”

This time, the silence was louder than the thunder moving towards me.

***

I was almost 18 years old when it happened. At home and playing Counter-Strike on Iyad’s computer, I heard a crash from the kitchen. I ignored it; my mother’s shaky hands caused many broken pots in our households.

Then I heard her scream.

Bolting out of the chair and into the hallway, my eyes fell on mother’s form, chest heaving as she drew out long shrieks. Beside her, lying on the floor was my father, eyes wide and fingers scratching at his chest.

“Baba!” My shout brought Iyad running into the hallway, as I threw myself on the floor and tried to stop my father from clawing his throat open. I heard Iyad yell at our mother to call an ambulance, saw him kneel down on, his eyes wide and his face ashen. Holding my father’s struggling fingers in my trembling ones, I looked up.

“What do we do? Iyad, what do we do?” I asked as the phone crashed to the floor of the living room, accompanied by a wail from my mother. My vision blurred, as I shook his father’s shoulders. I blinked and saw the white of his eyes. Someone was screaming at the immobile body to wake up, to respond, to say something, to do anything. It was only later, as I became conscious of my raw throat that I realised the screams were mine.

***

I watched by as Iyad quit his last year of business school, and became an accountant in an apartment-turned-office company. For three months, he only went through the motions, taking it one day at a time. Every morning I’d open my eyes as his alarm went off. I could read him clearly, and I knew he was going through the motions. I knew that every morning he would wake up and focus only on getting to work. He’d get to work and focus on getting to his smoking break. He’d come back and focus on the time he’d leave to go home. And once home, he’d sit in front of the television, thinking of nothing, focusing on nothing but getting to bed, through the night, and onto the next day.

He once told me about his nightmares, dreams where he was a disappointment, dreams of sick mothers, dead fathers and starving brothers. All I told him was to read Al-Mo’awethat[8] and go back to sleep.

I could pinpoint the last straw that pushed him away.

I had been in my mother’s room, feeding her mushroom soup, when she asked,

 “Where’s your brother, Fady?”

“He’s at work, mama.”

“Always away from home, I never see him anymore. When’s he coming back?”

“Whenever he comes back, mama, I don’t know. Do you need me to do something?”

“If only all sons were like you. Allah ykhaleeli yak[9], always obedient, always here to help me …” I looked up, smiling at my mother’s praise, to see my brother silently backing out of the bedroom door, out of the house, and away from my mother’s tremorous voice.

***

“Iyad, look — ” I started not knowing what I was about to say. Merely thinking of my parents brought acid to my stomach. I hadn’t forgiven Iyad, I couldn’t do it. Bitterness was not the only thing that filled me. Beneath that, there was something else, a slimy black feeling that slithered in my veins; I envied him. I had to take care of a sick mother that couldn’t walk to the bathroom, while he was away, independent and free of responsibility. It seemed to me that the money he sent us was a cheap price to pay for his freedom. 

And then my mother passed away, a mere two months after he left us. And for almost four years, I convinced myself it was Iyad’s fault. It was not possible for me to take care of her alone; it was too much for one person.

 “You should come to Abu Dhabi.”

“I — what?” The absurd statement took me unawares.

“Come to Abu Dhabi, Fady. My apartment isn’t big but you can have the living room, and –”

 “Come to Abu Dhabi? Are you serious?”

“Why not, Fady? I know someone –”

“Runaway like you, Iyad? No. I’m not coming to Abu Dhabi, I won’t run because something went against my plans.”

“You don’t even care for the government! You’re being stubborn and it’s only gonna get you —”

Lightning flashed around me. A second later, a deafening clap made my ribs reverberate, and I watched as a cable pole on the edge of the block leaned dangerously to the side.

I looked at the phone. The call had been cut off. I felt as if I just ran a marathon; out of breath, disappointed, angry and scared. I stared at the screen, wondering if he’ll try to call back. I realised I was hoping he would. The screen read 15.40.

I looked up, resigned to go back inside. I put the phone in my pocket, and as I was turning around, a flash of lightening illuminated the rooftop across the street from me.

I froze, as I registered a rifle, a scope, and a man behind it.

The hair on my arms and the back of my neck was standing, my nostrils flared and my eyes wide. For a moment, everything was quiet, nothing was moving, my heart wasn’t beating, and the sky was holding its breath.

The phone rang.

And then, as if from underwater, I heard the gunfire.

 

***

[1] Allo Marhaba: Hello.

[2] Keefak: How are you?

[3] Ya hmar: You donkey.

[4] Elhamdella: Thanks to Allah, sometimes used as a response to the greeting “How are you.”

[5] Allah yerhamo: God’s mercy upon him, said when speaking of the deceased.

[6] Yalla: Come on.

[7] Mabrook: Congratulations.

[8] Al-Mo’awethat: Three short Surahs from the Quran read before bed.

[9] Allah ykhaleek: May god keep you (here for me).

Mays Albaik, 22, is a Palestinian-Syrian architecture student at American University of Sharjah