Author: Saeed Al Batal
Photographer: Saeed Al Batal
That day, just after noon, as I was on my way to the cigarette stall (a small table, chairs, a few packs of cigarette of two or three brands, all of them open because they are sold singly) the heavens rang. It was the whistling again, the sound that had begun to play on my nerves, the huge hit of adrenalin freezing everything, even time. The sound of an aircraft, which you hear when you step outside, or more precisely, when you step outside and realize, instinctively, that you are directly inside the target zone.
In films, time stops at such moments and the hero sees his life flash before him. But in reality you don’t remember a thing, you just drink in your surroundings with your eyes. You drink in every detail of the place, details you would never have otherwise noticed, no matter how many times you have walked down the street.
“Shit! I won’t have time to light a cigarette!” The thought bounced round my head then the explosion rang out. I felt the pressure clamp down over my whole body. It lasted seconds, but seemed as though it went on for an eternity: the effect felt even after it was gone. In moments everything was calm again in the murk shrouded street. My ears would not stop ringing and the tobacco-seller who had run off towards where the bomb fell had left behind him what looked like the cigarette stall, its colors now swapped for grey. That was the first thing I noticed.
I reached the stall brushing down my clothes, wiping my face and searching my pockets. I picked out a long, red, dusty cigarette, tossed a one hundred lira note on the table, put the cigarette in my mouth, and lit it. A smile stole over my face.
I’m not without feelings, it’s just there aren’t many left, and what was taking place behind me—with its dust, its blood and its wails—had become a regular sight in this city. If anything sets man apart, it is the shabby art of accommodation.
For the past three or four years I have myself, if asked for any reason about any of the incidents I’ve experienced, had to think and ponder long and hard to be able to reach the sheltered spot that harbours the memory in question. And once there, it is like running into a thick and sticky and well-nigh impassable barrier. A defensive line erected by my mind to preserve me from madness? Perhaps.
Not too many days ago, my father asked me to make a record, no matter how basic, of the events I’d witnessed, explaining to me that one of the biggest mistakes his generation had made was that they had only recorded very few of their personal experiences. Had they done so, maybe they would have helped us to avoid many of our errors, our falling into the same traps. And if we kept a record, perhaps our children would be spared. “Writing is the solution,” is what he said.
But it’s not quite that simple. “Today, I completely understand why your generation didn’t write anything down,” I told him. I realize that the mind—or mine, at least—refuses to remember without resistance, particularly because what has taken place contains a vast quantity of silently repressed feelings. Denial is a way to preserve one’s equilibrium, writing is a direct confession, and memory is the hiding place of the soul, which only operates according to its own whims.
It has been more than five months since we last moved house because of the warplane’s visit. The apartment was unfit for habitation afterwards. I’d said, “Let’s go to grandfather’s apartment.” The apartment of my hardworking, self-made, Palestinian grandfather, who bought the place after years working and struggling out in the oilfields, whence he has returned after this house of his became unsafe, too. It had been his fate to face the same situation twice over, the first time on the outskirts of Haifa in Palestine when he was barely out of boyhood, and the second in Douma near Damascus in late middle-age.
Nearly a week went by after our move. Like the answer to all our prayers there was no bombardment of any kind. Even Storm Huda was a blessing, its raging blizzards covering everything with snow. Reuters’ description of one of the storm’s most violent days was almost celebratory: “A day without death”.
Of course, the first day of sunshine—January 15, 2014, to be exact—the jet we dubbed “Lovelorn” was back. Naturally, I had no interest in where the next strike would be, nor where the last one was. A kind of dismissiveness on my part and a refusal to countenance its objective of spreading terror. If you stopped work every time a plane went up or mortar rockets rained down on the camps, you’d spend most of your time down in the basement.
The day it returned I was visiting the offices of an emergency aid organization.
The third strike was very close by. It shredded the plastic sheeting over the bedroom windows, the sheeting that now replaced the glass in most, if not all, of Douma’s windows. The pressure wave that accompanied the barrel bomb scattered the documents across the desk and raised a flurry of abuse against Assad and his family—a habit we’d acquired: with every bombing run, rocket, and explosion a flood of inventive, complex and sick invective would pour forth.
When the fifth strike was over the phone rang. That’s right: the landline. We had managed to set up our own private landline network that connected a number of offices in the city, utilizing a small exchange and batteries. You can’t imagine the almost childlike joy that swept us the time the phone first rang, a couple of months ago, and how we warbled along with its sweet tone: the phone line, missing since liberation! The studio and the emergency aid organization were both on the network.
I lifted the receiver.
“Just reassuring you that nothing happened to us,” said Abd, a sound engineer from the studio. The studio is a basement room that we isolated with wooden boards and insulating materials about a year ago.
“Well, the strike was very close. I took the camera and went up and I just got back. You might have heard there’d been a strike or read about it online, so I thought I’d better reassure you.”
“I’d heard. Good thing you called: I was about to call you. Grab a piece of paper. I’ve got something very important I want you to write down for me.”
“In East Ghouta, 150 families are besieged in conditions of… Abd?... Has the plane come back?” (I could hear the whine as it dived: at least two strikes in the same place, as usual.)
“Look I can’t hear a…”
“Abd? You alright? Abd?” No answer. Two rockets hit the building and the apartment as well. The line was cut.
For a few seconds I sat slumped in the chair, then I got up to carry on with my daily routine: a set of movements and behaviors that you can carry out without needing to think and that gives you time to think. My routine is very simple. I take out the camera, press record and head for the car.
We arrived after the ambulance, which had taken the same road, the camera’s red record lamp lit up. The whole neighborhood was covered by a cloud of dust and phantom figures came and went through the murk. The rockets had hit the side of the building and peeled it, lending it the look of a plan in cross-section. From where I was I could see the kitchen, my grandfather’s kitchen, which now looked out onto the street.
At the time I had no idea why, but I found myself tumbling down into memory and I lowered the hand holding my camera. Step by step I climbed the stairs strewn with rubble and obstacles to find myself in an endless loop of déjà vu. My eyes swept the place. Here, I’d taken my first steps—just here, where the window had fallen in, on the first of my birthdays that I remember. It was here, or so my mother insists, that I stuttered out my first unintelligible words and it was here, down this passage, that I fled into my grandmother’s arms to hide from my mother’s anger and her punishment.
A surging flood of memories: a great storm of dust in which I could no longer distinguish reality from dream.
I was completely paralyzed and is was as though everything was happening in super slow motion. The sound of the plane returning for its sixth or seventh strike—I’d no idea which—brought everyone outside. Only I remained behind, with the sense that the plane was coming for my memories, not for the neighborhood, that it was targeting something beyond mere stone and bricks, something far more profound than that.
The camera was still in my hand. I considered that what I was feeling must be what everyone I had ever recorded and seen looking at their burnt-out, ruined homes had felt: the black hole in the center of their eyes, drinking everything in, was the same as the one in my eye. Previously, as I filmed them, I had been, and without knowing it, like a swing that had never swung.
The camera, as it films, mirrors the plane: its exact opposite. The camera strives to protect, clinging on to every reflected shaft of light in order to preserve it forever, while the plane seeks to obliterate everything, to wipe out every memory and the keys to that memory, even smell itself.
Ten days later, to mark the end of my twenty-eighth trip around the sun, the planes put on a kind of overdone celebration of their own: fifty-four strikes from eight in the morning to five in the evening. Fifty-four strikes on Douma.
From eight to nine I didn’t move from my bed. Between nine and eleven it started to get boring and I wandered around the house. At that point the planes had carried out twenty-six strikes.
With guided missiles, fired off from a distance without swooping in, all you hear is a whistling sound just seconds before they hit then two simultaneous detonations, because they always fire them in pairs.
With barrel bombs, you hear them swoop in but no explosion: you wait seven or eight seconds for the parachutes to float down then everything shakes.
Air-to-air missiles are only meant to be fired horizontally, so the pilots have to put their jets into a vertical dive to fire them at ground targets. You hear the whine of the dive followed by the howl of the missiles, then the explosion.
In my grandfather’s apartment all the plastic sheeting was shredded. Some of the doors and windows had come out of their frames. It’s strange how people can become so used to things, so indifferent. When you’re used to it, going up to the rooftop is nothing. It’s not frightening or even stupid. It’s a certain degree of acceptance that once achieved, allows you to laugh at a silly joke as you hear the planes come in, to drink a cup of tea or go to the bathroom, to celebrate your birthday, even to go out and buy cigarettes.
As evening fell, fires and the smell of dust were everywhere. Entire neighborhoods had been swept away and with them the last vestiges of our ability to care. I lit a cigarette in that dust-covered, murky street and went home to watch a virtual world full of images and clips of ISIS destroying museums and smashing statues, because ISIS was less ambiguous, as were its assaults on our collective memory.
My enemies now target only my memory and my ability to discuss it. Now, despite its obstacles and endless hidden chambers, its selectivity, it offers me a memory that seems like it comes from another lifetime: a banner I wrote and held aloft back in the village of “Madaya” in the first year of the revolution, following the first siege of the little mountain village: “Until your helicopters can hover in my dreams you shall never see my defeat.”
Here is the camera on the seat beside me. The camera that was my shield and my protection, now offers a protection far greater still. With its casing and its lens that ceaselessly drinks in light, it has become my very own anti-aircraft system.