Something Having to Do with Syria
By Lindsey Clark
Lindsey Clark’s writing has previously been published in magazines such as Thin Air, The Elevation Review, Barely South Review, and The Shanghai Literary Review, as well as the Africa anthology Memories of Sun. She is also the author of a travel memoir, Land of Dark and Sun.
I feel slow to meet this sunny, early-winter Thursday. My morning dream has left a discomforting hangover: I was wearing a new yellow dress that made me feel like sunshine, but at the end of the day when I took it off and opened the closet, I discovered I already had a yellow dress and felt a shameful sense of gluttony upon realizing I owned two yellow dresses. Waking, it does not help to remember that in reality I own zero yellow dresses. I still feel vaguely terrible. Do other people have dream hangovers? I wonder, as I cross from the bathroom to the kitchen, pack my little red Bialetti with coffee grounds, and set it on the stove’s stark coil. The vastness of all I do not know about other people sometimes makes me feel agoraphobic.
I will be more specific, because it feels like this matters: it is Thanksgiving. I have spent many Thanksgivings far from family, on other continents, among strangers or new friends or convenient acquaintances. This is the first time, however, that I have been in the States on Thanksgiving and chosen not to spend the holiday with family. Instead, I am by myself in an Airbnb on the South Carolina coast. Booking it earlier in the month, I worried I would feel sad and regretful to be needlessly alone on this particular day. Is there a connection between a dream of hogging yellow dresses and being electively solitary on a holiday honoring togetherness? Maybe. But honestly, I am happy to be by my introverted self. Five minutes’ walk takes me to a broad and glimmering beach; three flavors of tea wait for me stove-side when returning, windblown, from barefoot strolls on the firm, cold sand; and I have online work, knitting projects, and endless streaming content to keep me company. I have been looking forward to this quiet time and feeling curious about what might arise for me today in this space, with this time.
The Bialetti gurgles and the burner dial makes a satisfying snap as I twist it to its off position. The glowing coil subsides into blackness but would still sear the soft skin of a fingertip if touched. Standing over the sink, I pour the coffee into a mug and then add enough oat milk to take the edge off the acidity as well as the heat. Sometimes I realize I love the idea of coffee more than I love drinking it. Either way, I am grateful for the simple happiness of slippered feet and sinking into the too-soft couch with warm beverage in hand. I eye the book I started yesterday: The Beekeeper of Aleppo. From the first page, reading of the devastation of the Syrian civil war and the plight of so many refugee immigrants filled me with an insolvable sadness, the kind that makes me wonder why any of us choose to continue living. When I set the book down yesterday, I was not sure I would continue reading. But now I reach for it and willingly reenter its world.
After about ten minutes, a strange but familiar energy concentrates around the top of my head. Likely due to the title of the book, this time it feels as if tiny bees are darting in a weird dance with each other through my unbrushed, slowly-graying hair. I have been hoping for—even courting—this visit, and yet: along with some excitement I feel reluctance. This buzzing energy is, I know, something having to do with inspiration. Whenever it arises, I have a choice to make. I can push it away and carry on with my day as planned, hoping that tomorrow, or next week, when it is more convenient, I will corral the idea bees onto the page and write what they were asking. But inevitably, when I stall them, they leave me—along with the seed of idea that I thought was mine but learned was theirs for the taking.
Alternately, I can abandon all other intention and try to follow them. This requires giving my heart over, open and raw, to this ill-defined adventure, wherever they lead. In this case, one of two things will happen, and I can never know in advance which it will be. If I am lucky—and this is relatively rare—I will emerge from my surrender with a finished piece that I swear simply wrote itself, using my hands on the keyboard for its own purpose. The time I spent writing will have been pure flow state, and stepping out of the flow when finished will feel like coming down from a psychedelic trip: the world looks slightly different, makes a little more sense, and I fit better into it. A few rounds of revisions, and done.
Much more often, unfortunately, I drop everything and follow the buzzing deep into a mental and emotional maze, only to have inspiration flit off in a different direction without me. I am left with a few pages, or maybe only a paragraph or two (or sometimes simply a sentence) that feels vitally important and true but sits marooned in a sea of blank white screen, disconnected from me and from anything else. Sometimes I will try to rescue these relics, mixing them into another half-baked story or poem, hoping some special glue will bind and strengthen them both. Once or twice it has worked. But most often, I will sink hours and hours into the effort and get nowhere. Each abandoned bit of memory and partly told story scratches at me. Not only are they unactualized, but they represent hours I did not spend exercising or sleeping or cooking or reading or working for money or interacting or contributing something that might have meant something.
It has been six months since my head last buzzed like this. The poem I wrote then still sits, unpublished, in the inboxes of a couple dozen nearly-unknown literary journals and has been passed over by a dozen more. Even the pieces I have published: So what? Did they make a lasting impression on anyone’s life? I have no idea. These days, they do not even usually exist on a printed page in a book or magazine that I can put on a shelf and look at from time to time and think: There, that mattered enough to require ink, and pulp, and machinery. Instead, the completed stories and poems half-exist on-line, in an overwhelming endlessness of content, until the struggling journal that published them ceases to be, the link no longer works, and they once again exist nowhere but in my mind and on my hard drive. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. It is hard not to wonder if there is a point to any of this effort.
Stubbornly, I try to keep reading. Images and ideas begin darting more boldly through my mind unbidden and not entirely graspable. Taunting me. I could push them away, but I do not. This is a small bit of comforting proof that the part of me that is tired and cynical is not quite as powerful as the part of me that wonders what might happen if I try. So I let the thoughts come.
They gather into the shape of a boy, a particular boy.
I do not remember his name. It was more than twenty years ago, two weeks after the fall of the Twin Towers. I was on the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt, waiting for a ferry back to Jordan, where a college friend who was a Peace Corps Volunteer near Amman was expecting my return to her village after my solo jaunt across the Red Sea. I did not want to miss this ferry because I very much wanted to see the desert at Wadi Rum before I was due back to Amman. I arrived early at the port and sat on a bit of concrete where I thought I could wait in peace. Soon a young man—though of course I was just as young at the time—approached and asked if he could sit with me. Another backpacker. He sounded American, looked Latino. My typical, defensive stance against any male attention while traveling solo seemed unnecessary from the moment of his first, tentative smile. I thought he was cute, and I felt habitually self-conscious and hyper-critical of my own body, and both those things hammered in my head as we talked. He wanted to know where I was coming from and where I was going and why I was in this part of the world, alone, no less. We were both already traveling deep in the Muslim world when 9/11 happened. The collective consciousness of our home country had changed permanently, but we were too far away to have any sense of that. He asked if I felt safe here, or if I felt scared. We agreed: neither of us had experienced anything but kindness, compassion, and uniform condemnation of the attacks as un-Islamic.
He did not yet have a ticket for the ferry, so when we saw the ticket office open, he took off his leather pants belt to show me how it had multiple secret pockets on the inside where he had hidden several $100-bills. He removed one of them and replaced his belt, explaining he had similar secret pockets in the leather boots he was wearing. He showed me both of his passports: he was a dual citizen of Mexico and the U.S. who had grown up partly in San Diego and now lived there. Maybe because he was so handsome, and so kind, I found this slightly dorky show-and-tell endearing. I did, though, feel confused about why he wanted to talk with me. I assumed he knew as well as I did how much more interesting, and more attractive, he was than I. All the same, when the ferry arrived and he asked if he could continue sitting with me onboard, I said yes. For two hours, as the boat chugged across the Red Sea toward Aqaba, we chatted. I told him about my plan to stay for a night in Wadi Rum before returning to my friend’s village near Amman. But I felt more comfortable when he was the one talking. My fear was: if I said too much he would suddenly realize I was not thin, and not pretty, and he would get a distant and dismissive look in his eyes, or maybe just go sit somewhere else.
So I asked him questions, and he shared openly and easily. He radiated genuineness and gentle self-confidence. He loved travel as much as I did. He was transiting through Jordan to Syria. This was ten years before the Arab Spring and Syria’s descent into civil war, before entire families were obliterated in questionably strategic American drone strikes. On this day in the fall of 2001, traveling to Syria was akin to visiting Israel, Jordan, or Egypt. He had heard glowing accounts of Syria’s beauty, could not wait to see it for himself: the temples of Damascus, the mosques of Aleppo, the mountains cascading into the Mediterranean. Was I going to Syria, he wanted to know? I really should, he urged. I did not know much about Syria beyond that the name itself was romantic, my tongue undulating to pronounce it. But I had a flight home to the States from Amman in three days. My parents were already insane with worry that I was traveling in the Arab world when they, and so many others in their circles, felt so vividly that Arabs wanted us dead. They were furious with me for not taking the first plane home after the attacks. I did not agree with them, but I did not want to hurt them further. Changing my ticket home to stay longer in the Middle East was not an option in my mind.
When the ferry reached the Jordanian coast and we disembarked into a loud and chaotic scene of taxis and minibuses and touts and hustlers, the boy and I said goodbye and were swept our separate ways by the crowd. There was a sad relief in the inevitability of that.
I take a deep breath and last sip of my coffee, noticing a tiny bit of the dregs running down the inside of the mug. I have thought about the boy who was going to Syria, and the few hours I spent with him, many times over the years. But it has never found its way into anything I have written and I have come to believe it never will. This book is just stirring it up with Syrian refugees and bees.
I try to just keep reading. But the sense of buzzing over my head is insistent. I give up, get up, and make myself some breakfast. Thinly sliced zucchini hits hot olive oil. I salt it as small spots of crispy brown start to appear on the white flesh. Then I crack two eggs, let them plop into the pan, and break their strong orange yolks with the satisfying edge of a spatula. My thoughts are percolating. I try to focus on the sound of sizzling as the egg white goes opaque and solidifies. It clings to the zucchini slices so that soon I can flip the entire contents of the pan like a pancake. When I am done, there are tiny freckles of oil everywhere on the range top and adjacent Formica counter. I wipe at them with a paper towel that does not absorb the oil so much as smear it around. That is a problem for later, I decide, taking my breakfast plate back to the couch. I focus on my food, not even trying to pick up my book again because the buzzing is too distracting. It settles on the coda to my story with the boy who was on his way to Syria, wanting that part of the story to be told, too.
Less than five minutes after our goodbye at the end of the boat ramp in Aqaba, I had found my way to the group taxis bound for Rashidiyah. The bad luck of having just missed out on the last seat in the full taxi that was departing as I approached the correct cluster of cars was balanced by the good fortune of therefore getting the front seat in the next taxi. I might have a long wait until this taxi filled and departed, but at least I did not have to face an hour-long ride squashed painfully into the backseat with three or four curious Jordanian men.
With nothing to do but keep my seat and wait, I zoned out, staring through the cracked windshield of the old sedan and mentally replaying my conversations with the boy from the ferry. I struggled to integrate his persistence in talking with me and my total conviction that because I liked him, he must have considered me chubby and dull, nothing more than a convenient distraction. Already, in my memory, he was too kind and appealing to believe. What if I was a different, more carefree, spontaneous, fun, fearless person, the kind who would have met a handsome stranger and changed her plans to casually follow him to somewhere like Syria?
Come with me.
I heard the sentence clearly, turned my head to the open window, and there he was.
What? I asked, confused and disbelieving.
Come with me to Syria, he urged me.
I was speechless. His face was open. Vulnerable. Hopeful. It gave me cognitive dissonance. He had the look of a nervous boy asking a girl on a date. But I was as yet incapable of seeing myself as a girl that a cute boy might genuinely like. I felt longing and confusion and impossibility.
I can’t, I told him. I’m so sorry. I have to fly home in three days. I just can’t.
Okay, travel safely, he said, giving me a kind smile before quickly turning his head as his expression morphed into—was it, really?—disappointment. He walked away into the crowd and I never saw him again.
The moment haunts me still. It haunts me that I was so attached to my plan and my family’s expectations that I did not even seriously consider his invitation. It haunts me that I missed a chance to see Syria when it was still whole and relatively safe. It haunts me that I might have hurt him when the truth is I thought I was not good enough for him. I did not even ask him to delay his trip to Syria by a couple of days and come to Wadi Rum with me. That haunts me.
I do not enjoy remembering this. Probably I have never written about this story because there is no happy ending, no positive moral, and no uplifting lesson learned. It just makes me sad. I experience the sadness as pain in my chest and start to feel impatient, uncomfortably restless, and have to get up from the couch again. When I dump my breakfast plate into the sink, it clinks against my coffee mug with enough force that I am lucky neither of them break. I am actually annoyed. The urge to start writing is even stronger now. But what would I be writing about? Something having to do with regret, with self-indulgent nostalgia for my youth? Something having to do with grief for the people of Aleppo and their destroyed city, and then also selfishly for my own lost chance to see what the city once was, and knowing with certainty that now I never can? Something having to do with romanticism? But regret of youthful choices is no original revelation. There is no point to a vague account of my very obvious sadness for what has happened in Syria over the last decade. What does this memory want from me? Why does it persist?
Maybe if I just start writing, I will find the answer, but the thought exhausts me. Today I intended to take a long walk on the beach and make calls to catch up with dear friends. I was going to start knitting a sweater while binging Cheers on Hulu. I was going to rest and do exactly whatever I pleased. So I stall, starting a load of laundry. As I screw the cap of the liquid detergent back onto the bottle, I get some of the sticky, viscous soap on my fingers and cringe at the chemicals on my skin, so thick that even after I rub my fingers together under warm water in the sink for a full minute, I have the feeling I have not rinsed it all away. Plus now I have wasted all that water. And the globe is warming. And American democracy is disintegrating. A sense of doom rushes at me. I try to push it back by forcing myself to stand at the window and look outward, the sun on my face. There are people walking around outside this vacation apartment complex, parents watching kids on a playground in the courtyard, human beings acting normal and happy on this beautiful day of Thanksgiving. I should go outside into the world, too. I should breathe and participate.
But I can also feel a weird knowing coalescing from within the buzzing: that it is time to give shape to something having to do with all this in writing, that the opportunity is there if I am willing to grab it. Am I finally willing to let go of my plans for the day and run off to Syria with a Mexican-American boy who keeps hundred-dollar bills in his leather boots? I want to, I do. I just cannot quite see it yet. It is not a story until I know why I cannot let it go.
I decide to wash the dishes and turn on a podcast, hitting play on the first show in the line-up. It happens to be an episode of This American Life featuring Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a Mauritanian who was held and tortured at Guantanamo Bay for fourteen years as a suspected Al Qaeda recruiter and player in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Mohamedou talks over Zoom about his imprisonment with one of his Guantanamo guards, who chats him up like an old friend in a way that makes me cringe. My hands soap and rinse the dishes while my mind roams to that prison and the events that led to Mohamedou’s story. Everything, now, pushes me toward thinking about that September, twenty years ago.
I flew to Jordan on September 9th, 2001, after spending three days with a friend in Brooklyn. One afternoon, we had taken a walk along the Brooklyn Heights Promenade and stopped to admire the skyline of Manhattan across the river. I remember gazing at the Towers, their crazy tallness among so many tall buildings. My flight back to JFK three weeks later was a return to a different city. The immigration officer who thunked an arrival stamp into my passport looked directly into my eyes as he handed it back to me and said, with gravity, “Welcome home.” Tears blurred my eyes as I fumbled toward the luggage carousels. Instead of heading straight to my friend in Brooklyn, I took the subway to lower Manhattan, wanting to see it for myself, even as I knew that “it” was an absence rather than a sight. New Yorkers in business suits scurried along the sidewalk with their heads down and shoulders hunched, some with dust masks pressed to their mouths. We were herded through scaffolding lined with plastic along one street after another. The city sounded strangely quiet. I heard taxis and buses and trains and machinery, but something was missing. Eventually I realized: no human voices. No one spoke as they endured their new reality. No shouting, no laughter. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.
With my breakfast dishes washed and quietly dripping onto the drying rack, I try once more to pick up The Beekeeper of Aleppo. But I read only a page or two before the character of Nuri describes the rubble and dust of buildings destroyed by violence and my mind is now too full of tangential thoughts and outright connections and wanting to make sense of the senseless to be able to read another word. I set the book on the coffee table and lay on the couch with my eyes closed, trying to see how it all fits together.
Why can I not remember the name of the boy who was headed to Syria? He deserves at least that. I want to turn back the clock and say yes to that boy. In my mid-forties, never married, I have let go of any conviction that I will find someone to take on the world with me. More than once I have felt a spark—sometimes even gotten involved—with men who eventually, faux-casually, steered the conversation to their desire to settle down and be fathers. Those conversations were endings rather than beginnings. I never wanted someone to sweep me off my feet, down the aisle, and into our own little self-contained world of house and kids and Sundays with the TV tuned to football. I grew up in that world and it left me cold, empty, and dreading. It was only when I started to travel that I began to feel truly alive. I have roamed the planet from Arctic to Antarctic, from Colorado mountaintop to boat bobbing off the coast of New Zealand, from Beijing to Zanzibar. My life has been rich to bursting with adventure. The loudest lesson I have learned is that my life cannot possibly be long enough for everything there is to experience.
What I did not realize was: the invitation from the boy on the ferry was unique. All the years since, I have longed for someone to grab my hand and run with me out into the geographic unknown, to invite me to share in the beauty and dust and intensity and sadness and fear and peace, from the top of the Eiffel Tower to the rubble of once-glorious Aleppo. Instead I took my own hand. I ran myself out into the world. My greatest love affair has been with the planet itself. And until I put them in writing, I share many of my memories with no one. There is some beauty in that, but also some pain. I put it all in writing, I realize, so that I can more fully belong with, and to, everyone.
With that, I am finally ready. Maybe I will end up frustrated, the buzzing receding before I can effectively capture what compelled me. Or maybe I will spend the entire day writing feverishly, time ceasing to exist, and eventually go to sleep without ever even changing out of my pajamas. If that happens, maybe I will understand something about life and about myself that I did not understand before. Something having to do with connectivity, with universality. Something having to do with the futility and the piquant joy of mentally peering down a road not taken. Something having to do with getting to live only one life when we can imagine such an endless number of other possibilities, narrowly missed, actively rejected, or simply out of reach. Something having to do with feeling alone, and the impossibility of being alone on this planet.
I open the lid of my laptop, call a blank document to the screen, and begin to type.