The churning of the sea made me queasy. All I saw was the mud and dirt smeared onto the face of a petrified girl who was sat right in front of me, and wild bunches of dark, gritty hair swinging as choppy waves slammed into the flimsy wooden boat’s body. Everyone was silent, awaiting their fate. The cold February seawater that sprayed onto the boat with each sway, combining with the plump raindrops falling from above, sent shivers down my spine as I trembled: my lips were mauve and my wet hair was dripping onto my face. My ragged clothes were filthy. About two hundred of us, men, women and children, were crushed together on this raft, no centimetre was spared. The families who had managed to stay together were gripping each other while sobbing, many of us had lost our relatives, either in the attacks and bombings, or in the scramble to reach a suitable ship. Mothers were clutching their children. Children were hanging on to whatever they could. I’ll never forget the howls of agony and tortured shrieks of the grieving mother, who was cradling her dead baby. My parents were killed, my brothers and sisters slaughtered, my wife raped prior to being murdered, uncles and aunts disappeared. I was alone.
The window was slightly misty, it was raining outside. In the corridor, two men were arguing in what I thought was German; I could not quite decipher was the matter was. Warm water was flowing from the tap, through my fingers and onto the dirty dishes below. I let the tap run. The voices faded. The heat of the water was soothing, as I looked outside. Children were jumping into muddy puddles, and running and sliding across the waterlogged grass, as their parents looked on from the shelter of their umbrellas. The park looked as beautiful as ever under the pouring rain.
The sun was shining. As I was walking through the city, the church bells began chiming. I stopped and listened. The market was full of people. Elderly men and women could be seen strolling by all day, visiting multiple stands, talking to the vendors. Children would nag their parents for a trip to the candy stand. I walked by dozens and dozens of stands before finally reaching Lukas’ one. I asked him for the same as usual, a salted pretzel, my favourite. All the food in the market, the smells and scents, reminded me of home. The fragrant aromas roamed through the streets. The vendors were shouting to passersby, in search of more clients. Street stands were swarmed by people, and the busy merchants were speeding through each buyer’s demands. Spices and herbs were piled in crates on the side of the road, letting off a pleasant smell through the crowd. Ka’ak was sold by the thousands each day, the moist bread sprinkled with white and black sesame seeds was a national favourite. Women were preparing shawarmas for busy workers who had come to collect food for their colleagues. Delicious and aromatic meat was shaved off a roasting skewer before being stuffed into a pocket of Arabic bread alongside salad and hummus. I used to pass by Hassan’s stand on my morning commute to work and buy a falafel. His cooking skills were exceptional. The fried balls of mushy chickpeas combined beautifully with the shatteh, the pickles, the sliced vegetables and the hummus to create a vast array of flavours which earned him the rank of the best falafel stand in the city. His food was even renowned in nearby communities and attracted countless consumers from the surrounding region. He was a well appreciated man, who earned the respect of the city. Hassan was shot and killed when the Islamic State’s combattants arrived. His five children were burnt alive on the public square in the Old City. His wife was raped by eight of these men, then shot too.
As I walked past the orthodox church, people hustled and bumped into my shoulders. Others cast murky and almost hostile looks upon me. The overcast sky darkened the city’s houses and avenues. Everyone was moving quickly around me, the world was disorienting. The constant shuffling of vests and coats blended with the crunch of shoes and the thud of boots on the cold harsh pavement. I didn’t blend into the crowd very well; my skin was a different colour, my hair was a different thickness, my beard made people uncomfortable and the way I dress looked different.
The busy streets were rumbling with cars. The constant honking was overwhelming and deafening. I used to walk down the long avenues by myself, yet I never felt alone. I would often cross the old Ammar, who could always be seen sitting on the same bench every afternoon under the palm trees that were planted along the asphalt. Fadwa was always out, taking walks with her children. Yahya would be pushing his cart around, selling small statuettes and wooden tokens to onlookers. I would admire the ornate oriental buildings and enjoy the city as I wandered. I relished going to the Bab Antakya and Al Mutanabbi Street intersection, where a street band would often be playing. The arghul's oriental whistle, rhythmed by the towla’s cough would combine with the tarabuka’s dry beat, accompanied by the Qanun’s melodic strum. Once in a while, I would go back to the Al Shuhada neighbourhood’s park, to remind me of Bushra. We met one searing summer evening under the trees in the park. I was roaming about as usual, and as I entered the park, I saw her sitting on a bench by herself, reading a Samar Yazbek book; I decided to approach her. I snapped back to reality. I was sitting alone, on my dusty worn-down sofa, and I began to cry.