Stuck in Syria

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(c) photo by khulud khamis. Occupied Golan Heights, 2014.

Revisiting some pieces that may have the potential to develop into short stories, and which are based on our absurd, often Kafkaesque reality, here’s a piece that was initially part of Haifa Fragments, but which was ultimately edited out. I mourned the cutting out of this specific story, but I trusted my editor. I put the piece aside, knowing that it might develop into something on its own one day. The story, fictitious in its characters, is based on a true incident that appeared in the media in 2010, about a number of Druze from the Golan Heights who were given permission to travel to Syria, but who were then denied re-entry back to Israel, and were stuck in Syria for more than six weeks. You can read the news article that appeared in Ha’aretz, under the title: Israel Refuses Re-entry to 5 Druze Who Made Condolence Call in Syria
Golan Heights residents stuck in Syria for more than six weeks after visiting family members in Suwara.

For those who read Haifa Fragments, this was initially a piece written when Ziyad first comes to Maisoon’s apartment, and she tries to explain to him what she had meant by “this insane reality.” For those of you who haven’t read Haifa Fragments, the piece is self-contained.

Maisoon racked her brains for some version of an insane reality she would feel safe sharing with this stranger, something that didn’t threaten her personally, something she could detach herself from in a not too messy way. Then she remembered the two Druze women from the Golan Heights, stuck in Syria. “You know, the things that happen in this place everyday…” she started, faltered, reached for a cigarette.

Ziyad’s interest seemed to fade in its intensity. She inhaled the smoke of the cigarette and was filled with a silent rage at this indifference. The indifference of all those around her was somehow reflected in his eyes. When she spoke again, her eyes twinkled with fierce energy. “I’m sick to my white bones with this coldness. It’s not really ignorance; it’s that nobody cares anymore. I will tell you a story of two women, such an outrageous story that you will wonder how come nobody is talking about it, how come it’s not on the front page of all newspapers,” now she had his full sharp attention. “I actually only stumbled on it by chance. It wasn’t even on the homepage of the newspapers. I can’t remember now what I was looking for, and then this article popped up. It was about these Druze women and men from the Golan Heights, who received a special permit from the Ministry of Interior to make a condolence visit to their families in Syria. They had a two-week permit. Anyway, the absurdity in this is that after five days, the Ministry demanded their immediate return. The men somehow managed to come back that same day, but two of the women only reached the border the next day. Just think about it for a moment. They had crossed the border into Syria; it probably took them some hours to reach the village of their family in the mountainous terrain of Southern Syria. Communication is probably not that good. Maybe they didn’t get the message on that same day, maybe there was no car to take them back to the border immediately, maybe there was but they couldn’t make it because it was getting dark… I mean, twenty sevenreasons for not making it back on time. On time – ya’ani immediately. So they arrive at the border the next day, and what do you think happens? The border is closed! They were actually denied re-entry into their own country.”

“Aywa. But they were of course allowed to enter after the thing was sorted out with the Army and security wu all that, no?” Ziyad didn’t grasp why she was so tense about this; these things probably happened all the time, what with security clearance and the delicately tight political situation between Israel and Syria. “No, no. You’re not listening to what I’m talking about,” Maisoon was becoming agitated. “This is exactly what I mean. What you just said is that insane reality I mean. Shuf, I’ll try to explain. What makes me angrier is the reaction to these things rather than the event itself. But let’s go about it shwai shwai. Now forget the Druze women… Imagine your mother. Making her way through the mountains of her childhood, maybe for the first time in years. She is feeling the earth beneath her, transported so many memories back in time. She feels exhilarated at going to see her family – not some distant cousins or uncles – but her immediate family. Maybe her sister or a loved cousin she grew up with. Now with this unearthly happiness, there comes a mourning – for she isn’t allowed to go visit them whenever she wants to. Only when disaster strikes; death. Maybe it’s her brother. Maybe her mother. She’s thinking about these things – how to hide her happiness and cloth it in grief. How will she greet her loved ones? With tears of what – bliss or sorrow?”

Ziyad was beginning to feel uncomfortable at this all too emotional scene, but was trying to feel the words, painting the scene in his mind. Maisoon was beginning to make him aware of his insensitivity, though he couldn’t yet identify it as such. “Ma’alesh, I don’t know what exactly happened there, but this is just one possible scene. Anyway, after she settles in a room modestly prepared especially for her, and after the initial days of awkwardness where she had to show her grief in the face of death, she begins weaving plans for the remaining week and a half. She wants to visit childhood friends. Because she doesn’t know if she’ll ever get another permission anytime soon.  Maybe the next death will not be for years to come. And then, just when she is about to leave the house and start visiting friends, a cousin arrives with the news. She has to immediately head back to the border. Ministry orders. Of course, the law-abiding citizen she is, she sadly gathers her things, kisses her relatives goodbye and is ready to head back through the mountains to the border. But the cousin tells her that it’s getting dark and they won’t make it on time; the journey takes four hours by car. So she waits till the morning. She is happy at the delay, for she has just enough time to run and see her childhood best friend. But she’s also anxious, knowing how strict the Ministry can be. But she pushes the thought into the back of her mind and enjoys a night full of old memories with her best friend. The next morning her cousin takes her back to the border. The border remains closed. She is told that she arrived a day late, and therefore can’t pass through into Israel. That’s all the soldiers tell her. There is no one from the Ministry to talk to. She goes back. Stuck in Syria – denied re-entry into her own country.”

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