“Papa. I’m scared.” Sami whispered.
“Ssshhh,” his Papa whispered back. “There is no reason to be scared. We will be going soon. Where we will be safe.”
They whispered in the dark. In the cold. Their breath creating misty clouds.
Once upon a time Papa was a baker. He owned a little shop on Nile Street, just down from the Alforat traffic circle. For years, Papa’s kollaj and zarda fed the masses. Lines at Rifat’s were not uncommon. They came for his halva and stayed for his awameh. They took home Rifat’s baloza. And in the darkness of an Aleppo night, they shared it with their families, their friends, their neighbors.
Whether Alawi or Sunni or Shia. Druze or Christian. Sect didn’t matter. Religion was what one did in one’s home. In one’s mosque or church. This was Aleppo after all.
They came for his pastries and his treats.
Until they didn’t.
* * * * *
Refugees from Syria over 10k plus more coming. Lots young males, poorly vetted. @RealDonaldTrump
* * * * *
At first Rifat thought that maybe it was just one of those swings. Sometimes things slowed. Sometimes things picked up. In moments, he wondered if he might make it. In others, he thought he might need to hire help. That he surely needed to keep the lines moving faster. Those other times — when the line formed early in the morning with workers, replaced later by government clerks, and then filled in by the women of the neighborhood who wanted a treat for the table– were more than they weren’t. Rifat was successful. He dreamed of an education for his little Sami. Maybe of a little house in the wooded hills of his childhood, where he could return in his final days.
Then there was a bomb. An explosion. Just down the street. Past Alforat, but close enough that he felt the shock. The windows of his little bakery shook. Flour dust rose and then settled again. And for a moment Rifat worried about his family. About his wife, Rima, and the little one, Haya. And Sami, his son. His legacy. The little boy who laughed in the light and trembled in the dark. Rifat could tell the explosion was not near his home, but still. An explosion in Aleppo. The rebels. The fight. He supported it. He wanted it. An end to Assad and his treachery. His brutality.
But he was a simple baker who wanted nothing more than to make a living, love his family, and see the next day. And dream his dreams.
He ran to the door. To the street. To Alforat. He saw clouds of dust thrown into the cloudless sky. Heard the wailing sirens ululating and echoing down the cement corridors. He ran no further. He had seen enough.
Rifat closed his bakery for the day. He returned home and held Rima and told her it was temporary. That Assad would soon be gone and life would be better. He quieted Sami and Haya. He heard the stories later of the dozens killed. One day he walked past the rubble. Little did he know that day that the rubble would remain for years to come.
In the morning, before the sun rose, he returned to the bakery. He kneaded the dough. Mixed the spices. Opened his doors. And the line wasn’t there. Instead, somebody on a motorcycle sped by and a man on the back threw a brick through his window.
* * * * *
If I had a bowl of Skittles and I told you just three would kill you. Would you take a handful? That’s our Syrian refugee problem. #MakeAmericaGreatAgain
* * * * *
Rifat closed early. Boarded the window and prayed that it would be all. He had seen the stories of Tunis and of Tahrir. He knew of the treachery of his own government in years and decades past. Of chemical weapons and of villages leveled. He wanted a change, but his bakery was his everything. He prayed that the revolution would come but that its damage would pass him by. Stay in Damascus. Or in the hills and villages. Aleppo was a cosmopolitan city of tolerant people. A boarded window was nothing, he knew. He hoped. He prayed.
Soon though Rifat’s business changed. As the fighting grew closer, as lines were drawn, Rifat did what he could. Instead of the pastries and treats he had been known for, he began to make pita by the basket and handed it to those who stumbled by his shop. Far too many of them were children, coated in dust, shell-shocked expressions on their faces.
The bombs fell more frequently. The sirens wailed all too often. Chlorine gas that left so many choking and gasping. Families wiped out. Children orphaned. Those that remained knew nothing other than hunger and fear and despair. The least he could do was turn his dwindling supplies and what he could gather from the bakery’s back door in the dark hours of the morning into bread to feed the hunger.
* * * * *
Just tried watching Saturday Night Live – unwatchable! Totally biased, not funny and the Baldwin impersonation just can’t get any worse. Sad @RealDonaldTrump
* * * * *
Haya was the first. The dark days of a cold winter, while the war raged in other places but Aleppo lay in mutual states of siege. Rebels on one side of the line, the government on the other. Nothing got in. Nobody got out. More days when he had nothing to bake with than those when he could.
When his little girl began coughing and burning hot, Rifat searched for medicine. He begged at the makeshift clinics, where the wind whistled through tarps that covered the holes in the walls, and nobody was warm. Rifat offered bribes to doctors who looked at him out of haggard faces, their eyes sad. All he got was a shake of the head and little Haya coughed some more. Wheezing and rattling, the skin around her rib cage sucking in when she tried to take a breath. Her eyes sinking into dark circles.
Rima pleaded with Rifat, “You must do something.” He could only beg some more. His baking could not heal Haya.
And so she died one cold, dark night, bundled between Rifat and Rima. Her breathing labored, her eyes rolled back into her head. Sami slept nearby. In the morning they bundled her up. Sami sobbing. Rima in a quiet daze. Rifat stone-faced. They took her to the hospital where they said she was dead. There was nothing they could do for her. “But we will take her body for you.”
Haya’s body was taken to the basement where it was left with the others. Rima sat in a corner of their home where she could look out the window. It seemed she never blinked. It seemed she didn’t see a thing. Rifat didn’t know how to reach her. He could only walk through the room, slowing as he went, thinking of something to say. But no words came. He moved through to the kitchen.
* * * * *
Has anyone looked at the really poor numbers of @VanityFair Magazine. Way down, big trouble, dead! Graydon Carter, no talent, will be out! #RealDonaldTrump
* * * * *
Rifat returned to his bakery, making pita when he could. When he had the ingredients for it. When he didn’t, he sat at his counter and counted the hours. The minutes. The seconds. What was once a busy street now stood mostly empty. People rushed from corner to corner, huddling in doorways, looking to the sky. Sure, the men gathered in his bakery and sometimes he closed his door and walked down to Akram’s grocery where the men huddled amidst the empty shelves and the coolers that no longer had power to keep their empty spaces cold.
They talked of Assad and the rebels. Akram’s son had joined the Islamic State and was in Raqqa. Majd’s was with the Nusra Front. His brother-in-law was on the other side of the line, fighting for Assad. Fathi’s son was dead. As was Tarek’s. And Marwan’s. Ali’s.
They talked of escaping, but they heard the stories of those who had tried. Camps where refugees gathered and stayed hungry and cold, if they were able to survive the gauntlet of Hezbollah fighters, government troops, of bombs and land mines. Besides, Aleppo was home.
They remained and grew hungrier and sicker and more and more dead every day. Rifat could do nothing more than trudge from his home to his bakery and back. To speak tonelessly with the men who gathered. Stare while Sami played. Look at Rima from a distance and wonder if she would ever smile again. Would he?
The streets grew more desolate. The buildings, one after another, were turned into rubble. First it was buildings, then it was blocks. Neighborhoods laid in ruins.
Their home was safe. Or so it seemed.
When the helicopters came and the barrel bombs were pushed out their doorways, Sami was with Rifat at the bakery, playing with a ball of dough. Flour on his nose and in his hair. For a moment, a strange noise rose from Rifat’s belly. He laughed. And then he heard the booms and the ground shook and the noises came from the wrong direction. He picked his little boy up and he ran, holding his breath. Around the corner, down the street.
All he found was an arm, with the tattered sleeve of the thawb he had seen her wearing when he left the house that morning.
* * * * *
Reports by @CNN that I will be working on The Apprentice during my Presidency, even part time, are ridiculous & untrue – FAKE NEWS!
* * * * *
A year passed. Truces came. Truces went. When the Russians arrived, it only got worse. Promises made. Promises broken. The bombs grew bigger, the destruction greater. They got hungrier and sicker and colder and more and more dead. The rebels and civilians who occupied their little corner of Aleppo were broken. Only they didn’t know it yet.
Sami had shrunk. Instead of growing as little boys are supposed to, his growth had stopped. He rarely played anymore. He mostly sat on Rifat’s lap, where they could keep each other warm. To Rifat, his little boy felt as light as a bag of twigs. He feared he would lose Sami too.
The men began to talk of a new agreement. The rebels would be allowed to leave. Assad would retake their corner of Aleppo. Civilians could decide to stay or to go.
Rifat had no delusions about what would happen to the civilians who stayed. After years of bombings and snipers and thousands of civilians dying in the streets of Aleppo, he had no doubt what the Assad government thought of the civilians. He would never feel safe under Assad’s thumb.
He agreed to leave Aleppo. To re-settle somewhere else. For Sami. For himself. He needed to dream again.
In the quiet, Rifat hushed Sami. He tried not to shiver. But the morning was cold as the sun rose to chase the dark away. There were buses lined up to take them and others out of Aleppo. To one of the camps the men used to talk about.
Soon he was in a line at one of the buses. And then they were in the bus and they were leaving Aleppo. It was only thirty minutes before the bombs began to fall. All along the row of buses, snaking through the hills to a camp. Rifat saw flames shooting out of other buses and then the bus they were in was struck and the flames engulfed him. He didn’t know whether it was Hezbollah or the Syrian Army or the Russians. But for a second or two, he knew he would never be cold again. That he would never be afraid again. That he would never dream again.
* * * * *
“@TigerWoods: Can’t wait to get back out there and mix it up with the boys. –TW #heroworldchallenge” Great to have you back Tiger – Special! @RealDonaldTrump
* * * END * * *
To the people of Aleppo, the rest of Syria, and all of the other places where humans slaughter each other while the rest of the world does nothing, my humblest apologies at this ridiculously feeble attempt to write a story that expresses my rage at your suffering. No words I can put together, no story I might weave can possibly portray accurately the horrors of your lives.
But I needed to write this. For much of the last few years, I have turned a numb, blind eye towards Syria. My youthful idealism and belief that “something must be done” in situations like this has been replaced by the exhausted belief of an older man who recognizes that we can’t right every wrong or protect every innocent against evil. As I’ve come to this realization, my frustration at the many brutalities humans inflict on each other has been replaced by numbness. There is nothing I can do. I will live my own life and do what I can to raise my kids right and love those around me. And not do harm to others.
But something happened over the course of the last year. It was the picture of the little boy covered with debris and blood, sitting in a chair. It was other pictures. And finally a post a friend put up on Facebook where she essentially screamed at the heavens about this outrage. And I felt it again.
What bothered me the most, beyond the needless death and destruction, the human brutality, was this. That our next President has been remarkably silent about this tragedy. With all of his tweeting and everything else, I cannot find any reference to him commenting on Aleppo other than in one of the debates when he said something along the lines that “Aleppo was lost.” As though it’s nothing more than a country on a Risk board.
Sorry, Donald, but it’s not whether Aleppo is lost or not. The people of Aleppo are not like the little plastic pieces in a game of Risk — and they aren’t Skittles either. It’s whether the Syrian government is committing war crimes and destroying a people. And more importantly for you, Donald, it is whether they are doing that with aid and resources and support from Russia. It’s a question of why you remain silent about this, while commenting on everything else under the sun.
All of the tweets included in this story are from Donald Trump, except for one. The tweet comparing Syrians to Skittles apparently is from one of his sons.
If you want some real reporting on the recent tragedy in Syria in which Aleppo residents accuse the Syrian government going in and executing civilians, go here.
If you’ve got this far. Thank you for reading.
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So sad…and even though the posts have faded from FaceBook, and the media is silent…we know the tragedy continues. And few seem to care. Very well written. I could easily imagine the spirit of a man being burned to cinders. His dreams fading to dust.
Thank you. And that is one of the other parts of this tragedy. The killing and destruction go on and on and on.
Writing is a good outlet for the frustration of powerlessness. I think a lot of us are going to be writing from that point of view for a while …
Beautiful work, Mark. Thanks for bringing it to us.
I agree, super. Loved the juxtaposition with the tweets, wondered if that photo you posted inspired this, then saw in your ‘outro’ it did, in part. Keep it up, brings the human POV to this which yes, has been reduced to game pieces and candy references.
It’s a challenge to know what to say in response to such an emotional and provoking story. I almost said “ripped from the headlines,” but that’s not really true. Sadly, and to your point, the occasional photo that filters to the television or newspaper pulls at our hearts and brings temporary tears, and then the American response moves on to whatever is a lot easier to digest or mobilize around. Aleppo is an “occasional headline,” and there is temporary outrage. I really admire the way you’ve captured that feeing in the unique construction of this writing. I agree with pinklightsabre and found the juxtaposition of the “tweets” highly effective. I was very moved.
Thank you. This is a rare piece of fiction for me. Written for political purposes to produce an emotional reaction from the reader. Hopefully a reaction of pain, sympathy, and outrage. It was something I felt I had to write because I am powerless to do anything else about the tragedy there and the seeming nonchalance in this country. Thank you for reading and for your thoughts. They mean a lot to me.
It truly is powerful writing. You’re doing something when you write, and that’s to be admired. I honestly don’t understand how we can be unaffected after we’ve seen even a few of the photos. I’ll look forward to reading more of your writing.