Author: Saeed Al Batal
DOUMA—We have lost sight of the outside world, a gift that other people take for granted. Our universe has become so small and shattered. "The universe starts in Al-Mleiha and ends in Douma," Abo Mahmoud told me one night, referring to two of the suburbs in our besieged world of East Ghouta, a conurbation just outside Damascus. Time slipped by as we sat his dim room, illuminated only by a tiny battery-powered bulb. Abo Mahmoud is only forty but he looks like an elderly man. I remember how he was back in 2011, when the demonstrations began: young in spirit and powerful enough to carry me on his shoulders for an hour or two, as if I weighed nothing.
“Remember when we used to dream of traveling by bicycle in a world without borders?” he asked wistfully, breaking the silence.I could hardly see his face but I thought I saw a tear. "Abo Mahmoud, are you crying? " I asked in awe. He took a big sip of his tea. It had already gone cold. It would take so long to gather enough wood to fire up the tiny aluminum stove, that it wasn’t worth going through the trouble again.
Abo Mahmoud craned his neck back to look up at the skylight, punched through the roof by an artillery round a year or so ago. No point in fixing it: too expensive to find the rare materials and futile, too, given the daily bombardments. "Seeing the stars at night is the only thing that make me wonder if there still is life out there—not just this shithole we live in. Does anyone out there realize we share the same sky? How did we get to this point? How did we end up feeling so alone?”
He continued: “I remember I used to feel that I had the strength of a thousand men and more… Are we to blame for dreaming? Or did I ask for too much when I demanded my own voice?”
Autism is a mental illness that shuts out the outside world and severs the normal lines of communication. I used not to understand this illness, but now I do—not as an individual, but as a member of a community living cut off from the outside world. East Ghouta has been subject to a total military blockade for more than a year and a half. No food, medicine or supplies (such as gasoline) can enter this area, which is home to some 1.5 million people. No one can enter or leave, and there is the additional danger of clashes around the perimeter. Last winter, people resorted to eating bread made from cow feed. Some people do take the risk, but escape attempts are dangerous and uncommon.
You are left with a psyche that unconsciously pushes the outside world away. We imprison ourselves in a paradox, trapped within our liberated area—and we don’t even realize it. I learned the hard way that hunger brings out what is ugliest in people. People eat out of the garbage. Someone can pull a gun in a fight over a couple of measly cigarettes. Before the siege, bread was only fifteen Syrian pounds—now it costs over a thousand. All these things have pushed us to the point where even animals seem like upstanding citizens by comparison.
"If it weren’t for the sound of airstrikes and the artillery, I would think I’m living in the sixteenth century ," my friend Rami joked, but the joke hit a nerve. "I envy you,” he said to me: “You still have ways of communicating with an outside world that’s forgotten all about us. You still write articles, correct?” "Yeah, from time to time," I answered.
Rami gave a wry grin: "Great, then tell that world from my lips: You can ignore us but nothing comes without a price. One day you'll cry out for help and don’t ask why when no one shows up."
This island we live on has become so intimate: each residential block is like a living organism, dependent on the others to stay alive. There is no state and all the utilities that come with it—from the water company to the electricity department—are gone: all those things that are necessary for everyday life.
Instead, people band together. Someone takes care of the well and makes sure the water reaches every building. Others work on generators and link up the wires. People with prior experience as doctors or electricians are now experts, having learned on the job in the hardest school there is.
We’ve become resourceful. Did you know that if you mix just the right proportions of fuel and gasoline you can power a generator for double the time and half the price? The ultimate irony is the prices we pay for the worst service. Subsisting here costs more than a life of luxury in Geneva. “A normal painter like me drops as much cash in a week as an engineer, or even sometimes what dentist might spend in New York!” said Rami. In the end, they are learning without noticing–or so it seems to me–how to depend on themselves, and at the same time how to trust one another. And this is what brings hope.
For a society that has broken off from the world and forced to fend for itself, there is no going back. "Give up? What there is to give anyway?” Rami demanded. He’s seen his house destroyed in the same air strike that killed his mother and younger sister. His older brother was shot in the head two years ago by a sniper, back when Douma was still occupied by the regime. And his love left with her family for Turkey.
“Now you ask me if I would give up? Give me something to give up for... I have realised that I’m completely free now, with a single goal: to see those who caused all this pain to get punished by my own two hands… and to see those little kids growing up with dignity in a secure home."
He flashed a confident smile. Hours still lay ahead and many more thoughts and stories, shared to kill the long night.
This piece was written exclusively for Bidayyat.