Black

On the way to the barbershop in the bright Gaziantep sun, Adnan asks how many wives a man is allowed in Canada.

Just one.

“Ah. So like Turkey.”

A begging pause.

And how many in Syria?

“Four.”

The barber is used to communicating through body language with his Turkish customers.

The young men queued smile through the mirrors, hair over-gelled, their first moustaches lined up precisely. One sits in a mud mask.

“Is he from Germany?” the barber asks. “How does he want his hair cut?”

Tell him I trust him.

After clipping, cutting, shaving, shampooing, blow-drying, after-shaving, powdering, and gelling, the man refuses twenty lira.

He had taken his time with the straight blade, massaging in the cream twice at first and reapplying liberally. No stubble. No cuts.

“He will always refuse the first time. You must insist.”

He accepts fifteen.

“Lots of Syrians in this neighbourhood.” 

Evening

 

The ignition on, the car in park, Adnan makes a few more calls. It’s half past eight.

“So many calls,” he sighs, “for just one story.”

Tonight is five months work in the making for him.

Climbing into the city’s densest neighbourhood, a large, pristine mosque, flood-lit, is surrounded by apartments six to sixteen stories high, as dictated by the gradient.

Wading through traffic, the tailor pulls up at a lightless, signless intersection to shake hands through the driver-side window.

Assalamu alaikum

The usual after dark sense data.

A ‘park’ with a triangle of grass and seven ATM pods. A disarranged taxi stand. Watermelons for sale. The street lit without streetlights. Everything perfumed by köfte.

Led into a dusty alleyway, Adnan hesitates parking.

“I don’t like this neighbourhood.”

Tonight’s host Mahmoud appears.

The tailor’s hand scribbles through the air.

“He says you will need to write very fast tonight.”

Mahmoud nods, pushing a heavy bolt up into the brick doorframe.

“She has a lot to say.”

Musty. Up four flights, attention attracted. Going up looking down through indoor windows half-draped with fabric, mattresses and blankets on concrete, side by side by side by side.

Shoes off; Mahmoud invites his guests to a blue pallor couch. Opposite, between an arabic calendar and a tiny framed print of flowers, black hands are pinned on a white face. Quarter to nine.

Ponytailed Layla comes close, in a hot pink jacket and a white dress splashed with green, blue, and orange flowers. She is seven.

She kisses the back of Adnan’s hand, wraps his wrist in her fingers. Eye contact. She pulls his hand to meet her forehead, transferring her kiss.

Two more: cheek to cheek and cheek to cheek.

But absent momentum in the subsequent lull her boldness shies and her eyes avert.

“Baba!”

And giggling she runs to take her father’s phone.

A hefty baby appears, thrust into the stranger’s arms.

She bounces happily — for a spell — but prefers her father.

“This is Aisha,” Mahmoud says proudly.

The Arabic fog thickens — one of Adnan’s mobile phones is on speaker, passed amongst the three men.

“We have a friend who is trying to get from Syria to Turkey,” Adnan explains. “But legally.”

“It is a bit complicated. He didn’t get the exit stamp when he left.”

Eight-year old Alia hauls a four litre jug of water into the corner with her father’s help. She tips it steadily, Layla holding a glass.

Water is presented. After a few sips, Layla revokes the glass assertively, returns to the jug for a refill, and presents the same glass to the next guest.

“We are just talking about how corrupt it is,” Adnan explains parenthetically, “inside Syria.”

“Some Syrians, they bring their corruption here with them.”

Tongues wetted, cigarettes lit, ashtrays are balanced on thin upholstery. The man on the phone called from Istanbul — having waited three months for the Turkish-Syrian border to reopen, he gave up and paid a smuggler.

Mahmoud’s wife Fatima enters the room to place a small table with glasses of Pepsi before the guests. Layla is charged with the two litre bottle and refills. Quarter to nine.

idlibcountryside

Idlib countryside

Night

The mother of Shahid enters.

She does not meet anyone’s eyes. She wears black.

Hobbled she shows herself to the floor, grasping the long pillow under the window, her back to the wall.

She weeps.

“There is a comedy movie,” Mahmoud looks at Adnan.

“A Canadian man, he comes to Damascus and tells the Syrians that he will take them to Canada. So then they all come and pay him a lot of money.

He has this big school bus that the Syrians get on. And he drives them east and let’s them off in the Syrian desert.

And the Syrians get off the bus and say ‘Yes! We are in Canada.’

And then Assad’s army comes by and says ‘You stupid motherfuckers are still here.’”

She looks to the ceiling, she looks to her feet.

There is silence. She sobs, mutters, prays.

I am the mother of eight girls and one son. I am from a village between Aleppo and A’zaz — Tell Rifaat .

I am living here with a son, thirteen, of the other wife of my husband. I have lost one of every person you can have — sister, brother, aunt, uncle, mother, niece, nephew, cousin —

The story of my son, it was 2013.

There was a place for scientific research, doing tests for different things, on the road to Aleppo ’s international airport. Where my daughter used to live, it was near this research centre. And they attacked it. My daughter’s building was hit. Under the building, she took refuge with the other neighbours and called me.

My son must go to check on my daughter, to find her. My daughter called to say she was trapped and cannot go out, the plane is in the sky, ‘Please open a way to take me out of this place.’

The husband of my daughter, he was imprisoned by the regime at the time. So my son was the only one to rescue her. And he went to this place and brought her out, even though it was difficult.

He saw all of these people killed on the way. He saw pieces of people everywhere along the road. After he saw all of these people dying and in pieces on the ground, he decided to go to the Free Syrian Army.

I told him ‘Please, don’t go.’

And he said ‘After all these horrible things I saw, I will go and I will fight.’

He went to jihad and was hurt three times.

In the village we are from, we always have a gun. But he had not been in the army before, so he didn’t have a lot of experience with this. But he improved himself. He had some fighting experience and became a soldier.

At that time there was fighting between the Free Syrian Army and Daesh. Behind the Dushka, on the first line vehicle, they put him. They should be the first ones attacking.

And I insisted until the last second, ‘Don’t go to fight, you are fourteen years old and I have your sisters here. Who will take care for them if something happens to you?’

And he said ‘No, I have to fight. I have to bring back the rights to the Syrian people.’

I would go to the front lines a lot to see my son. I would go to a lot of the places where he was fighting. He always refused to return.

They even attacked me once, to get rid of me.

“Can we record audio?” Adnan asks, prompted.

No — it is forbidden.

She points with her thumbs.

… is he a Muslim?

“It is not my business,” Adnan says, his line well-practiced.

“She has lost a lot of people,” he explains. “She doesn’t want to sit with foreigners or someone she doesn’t know.”

Thirteen days before, I sat with my son and his friend.

I was talking with him and I said, ‘Please go back to the house. Now we have eight women and your father lost his job, because someone said that his son was working with the FSA. And they also wrote on the report that your father was moving weapons for the FSA. Now you are our only chance to be supported.’

And my son told me that they had attacked him six or seven times and he didn’t die, because God wouldn’t accept him. He had made some mistakes in his life and he could not be allowed into heaven yet. He said he thought he should continue fighting, so that God will accept him.

We promised that we would meet again, at Eid. But I had a feeling that it would be the last time. So when I was with him, I moved behind him, and I waved my hand to his back, because I thought it was the last time I would see him.

And they were on the frontline, the hotline. Thirteen days later his friend was killed by a sniper.

My son went to check on his friend’s location and the same sniper killed my son.

After one or two days they told my husband. He didn’t let me know. But I had a feeling that something was wrong. I had a feeling from the face of my husband.

Eventually they told me. And after, they showed me a video of my son taken one day before his death. In the video he asked his cousin in Turkey to take care of his mother and to make sure she does not want anything, that she has all she needs.

He knew that he would not see me again.

Layla refills the glasses. Quarter to nine.

My husband is in the Shamarin camp, شمارين. All of my family is in this camp, inside Syria.

One of my daughter’s husband, he was killed as well. Now I am taking care of my daughter, his widow.

Another daughter, her husband was from Mare’ , مارع. And my daughter was at the camp, nine months pregnant. He went to his village to get a generator, because there was not electricity at the camp.

He went by motorcycle with his cousin. On his way to the village there was a Free Syrian Army mine. They were both killed. His child was eight days old at that time — and this is why he wanted to bring electricity, to maybe power some fan for his new son.

Then they named her son after her husband, the same name.

Her husband had given three grams of gold and some money to my daughter the day before. He said ‘This is a gift for you.’ And then he went and died going to fetch the generator.

One of his relatives went to tell my daughter saying ‘your husband is hurt.’

And she said, ‘Don’t say that he is hurt when he has died.’ She knew.

The child, he is two years and four months old now. He is in Syria with the rest of my family.

Mahmoud, the tailor, and Adnan tsk together. And they tsk often.

Mahmoud smokes continuously. He sits still now — no longer with elbows supporting his weight on one armrest, no longer bouncing on the ankle tucked underneath him — distracting humour lapsed from his mind.

Another one of my daughters, her husband was fighting for the Free Syrian Army. Once he was driving and had the FSA flag secured to his car.

He drove into this town, but he did not know that the town had been taken by Daesh a few hours before. They stopped him and took him and his four cousins out of the car. They took them to a prison.

Her thumb crosses her throat.

The next day they beheaded them.

tsk tsk tsk

There are long silences. The tailor hardly speaks. She prays, rocking against the long throw pillow.

She mentions certain hadiths, to the room’s agreement.

All of these things have been mentioned in the hadiths by the prophet Muhammed. You can look them up. That there would be this kind of fighting in this area, and all kinds of people coming from around the world to fight — and to do terrible things.

“And this is true,” says Adnan. “I can show you these hadiths if you want.”


The baby asleep, Mahmoud’s wife serves çay and sits with her daughters.

She wears fitted navy to her ankles, large ribboning sewn under her right clavicle, headscarf zebraic in shimmering silver and black.

Eight now sit, four elevated, four on the floor. The rug covers two thirds of the concrete.

The mother of Shahid had a nephew, son of her sister, in the regime army, killed near Damascus . His brother, living near A’zaz , was called to retrieve the body. Nine months after, a third brother, a civilian, was killed by Russian air strikes in FSA territory. The same brother had to make another journey.

Adnan takes another phone call. The mother of Shahid, palms facing one another, measures a foot in distance vertically.

You can write this size book and my story will not end.

What made you come to Turkey?

The area around Mare’ (also Marea) مارع, was controlled by the FSA, including my town, Tell Rifaat تل رفعت. But one day a huge number of Daesh forces attacked. And Daesh would, the FSA thought, take the women — as their own — like prisoners.

Maybe eight or ten members of the Free Syrian Army mixed themselves with the Daesh fighters and blew up their bodies. This would give us a few more hours. Daesh would take the area anyways, they knew that, but they gave the others a chance.

They called the Kurdish area and asked ‘Open the way for us, there are women and children who need to escape.’ The PKK said ‘You can go out this way if you give us the right to control the village of Shaykh Isa, شيخ عيسى .’

See they do not have good relation, the FSA and the PKK . The FSA agreed to this and everyone in the village escaped into Kurdish territory.

This area north of Aleppo has been and is so hotly contested that a line ten kilometres long can be drawn from Mare’ , just east of Tell Rifaat , that south by southwest, as of June 10th, 2016, crosses into territory controlled by each of the YPG, the Free Syrian Army, Daesh (ISIS), and the Assad regime.

The FSA fired guns throughout the village to signal that Daesh was coming. And when people heard the voice of the guns, most of the village fled and escaped. I cannot walk because of my knee. And because I could not walk, I stayed.

Daesh was coming and there was the sound of guns everywhere. Four men would not be able to sleep in this situation — I couldn’t walk with my two children. Four men would not sleep. I was so scared, but I slept.

My brother’s wife, she has three children. She ran with other people from the village. It was night, hours before dawn. One of the children can walk better than the others. So she carried two in her arms, one in either arm.

And the other was running behind her. She was escaping with the other people and she forgot her third child was running behind her. And suddenly she turned her head and she didn’t see him.

She cried and hated herself.

‘What did I do?’

She had lost him in the night.

A prayer rug is produced for Adnan.

Tall Rifat today

Tall Rifat at the time

The mother of Shahid continues to speak without translation. The tailor and Mahmoud tsk. She forms guns with her hands, makes gunshot noises. She draws her thumb across her wrists. Quarter to nine.

Two of my sister’s children were fighting on the first line, for the FSA also. And their leader left them there, alone, on the first line. They were abandoned and killed.

I am trying to just give a summary, you can write more than 150 chapters if I describe.

Layla has headphones on, playing with the phone. Alia works in a notebook. They are both learning English. Both can count to seven.

So we are displaced. I am living here — we are still struggling here.

My husband is living with one of my daughters in the Syrian camp, Shamarin, شمارين. If I want to bring, I can bring my husband and my child, but I cannot bring the child of my daughter. It doesn’t make sense to bring only my husband. She does not have income, she will have no one to take care of her. None of them have income so there is no real chance for us to be reunited right now.

Another of my daughters is in Adıyaman , another is in Kilis , and another is in Maraş .

Another daughter married a Turkish man here — he was not so good to her. She escaped him and came here, to this house. And he followed with some mafia, to this house as well. Mahmoud called the police and told the true story. The police kicked him out and they were divorced.

The mother of Shahid has had difficulty getting a kimlik, the Turkish government’s identification card for Syrians staying in Turkey. In theory, the kimlik (which translates to “ID” directly from Turkish) comes with certain entitlements, to health insurance for example. But she says she must wait six months, until November 29th, to apply.

I have to wait just to apply for this shitty care. You have to know someone in Turkey just to get this.

The Turkish police stopped my husband’s son a few days ago. He is thirteen years old and he doesn’t even have his Syrian ID. And no kimlik. They hit him and told him that he should have this. They hit him!

Syrian coffee appears.

17238231_742606145915366_1340287908_n

She rests her coffee saucer on the pillow but thinks better of it. She says she hasn’t received any NGO-assistance since her arrival. In her living space on the building’s first floor, an element is built into a clammy counter, a fridge is shared with another large family. Her family’s space is one room. Mould is a large issue. So is privacy.

We didn’t see the olive oil since we came to Turkey. I break the bread hard for the children.

And my house here is a stable, like for the animals.

“My salary is 250 Turkish Lira a week, it is not enough,” Mahmoud adds. “There are NGOs going to other neighbourhood where there is not so much need. And in Europe they are getting 500 EUR a month and staying in the hotel. They are given everything and don’t have to work.”

“Here if you don’t work you will die from starvation.”

Last week I went to the bus without money. And the driver asked me to pay with the card.

And I said ‘I have no card and I have no money.’

And he says, ‘Well go and get a card.’

‘But,’ I said, ‘I have no money.’

‘Go out. Go out and get a card.’

‘What will you lose if you take me there?’

‘Go out and get a card.’

And I said ‘What fucking card?!’

The girls and their mother burst into laughter.

I took five liras out of my pocket to give to his hand.

The tailor suggests there is a camera, that they can check each passenger.

He should make it easy for me and just let me go. He didn’t regard me as a human.

I don’t have any other money. I told him I wanted to buy bread with this five lira.

He said, ‘Okay, it is not my problem.’

The Turkish people, they don’t know anything but working and eating.

They don’t know anything different. They don’t even know how to pray.

Mahmoud and Adnan speak across a conversation between the mother of Shahid, Fatima, and the tailor.

“What are you writing?” Mahmoud stops. “When Adnan has not been speaking any English!”

“And Adnan — today you bring me a Canadian and tomorrow will you bring me an American?”

“Today you brought me a blond and tomorrow, please, bring a black one.”

If you want to listen to the whole Syrian story, you need a factory of books.

Imagine at the same time, we learned my son died and it was the wedding of my sister. During the wedding they were all crying. They should be happy in this time. They were wearing their wedding clothes, but they were all crying.

“Are you writing a series for television?” Mahmoud asks, bouncing once again in his chair. “Because you are writing down every letter.”

“If you are writing a book, you should be finished it by now!”

“You keep making notes — you look like a director. Tomorrow we will see Adnan on the television in a cameo and the credits will say the tailor is assistant producer!”

“He can write 150 episodes with these notes! Tomorrow we will see our story on the television, but he will find actors to play us.”

Who do you want to play you?

“I will play myself. So you will have the real Mahmoud!”

The mother of Shahid says her brother’s son, a newlywed, almost lost his arm in a barrel bomb attack. Calling for his wife at the hospital, she arrived and promptly fainted seeing his state.

The husband said, ‘Please, bring my brother, because my wife cannot control herself.’

And the staff at the hospital smiled.

‘Even now your brother is hurt and staying in a different hospital in Syria.’

Her brother’s son and his wife, once he was sufficiently mobile, raised money from friends and family to leave Syria. They collected 10,000 Syrian pounds, the equivalent of 150 USD at the time. The taxi driver to the border was asking for 35,000. The wife asked for help from her brother in Kayseri, Turkey , who sent 500 Turkish Lira, then ~230 USD. The couple got to the border with their two boys and one girl. They planned to cross in an ambulance.

Usually, that was the only way they could come here to the Turkish side — and you are allowed to bring an assistant and an infant. This family they are five members. With wife, husband, two boys, and one girl. The staff asked to choose just one. So he took his wife as his assistant and she took the infant boy.

Then there were the last two children. The four year old child, he whispered in his mother’s ear, ‘I can fit myself in this space, in this bag. Just open a small space to take the air.’

So one of the boys is in the bag. His mom just left it open a little by the zipper, so he can have some air. And they left the daughter.

The girl is still crying until now.

I have a record of her on the phone and she says, ‘Dad do you still love me or did you die?’

Now he is in the hospital in Kilis and his wife is in the camp in Kayseri with the infant and the boy.

And the daughter is still in Syria. And she keeps sending recorded messages to the mother — ‘Mother where are you?’

This is a symbol of our life. This fire didn’t let anyone escape without burning a piece of them.

And we have been conquered by everybody.

“They made a lot of money because of the Syrians here,” Mahmoud adds. “The police, the NGOs, the hospitals. Especially on the border — the smugglers.”

Our story makes the stone cry.

The stone cries for us, but not the humans. Whoever has a strong heart will cry for the Syrian mothers. One of my neighbours in Syria has children this age [pointing to the girls] and they have hair like my father’s because they are scared all of the time.

“I think you should learn Arabic,” Mahmoud interrupts again.

Tamam.

“This is Turkish!”

There is nothing in the whole history of the world that happened like in Syria in this time.

Once the plane attacked our neighbourhood while we slept and my daughter was shaking for one hour. She couldn’t talk. And still now if there is any plane in the area in Turkey, she goes back to that way, to shaking. She wakes up in the night, once every week like this. It has planted terror in our hearts.

“Are we really just seven or eight million who has come out of Syria?” Mahmoud wonders.

He lifts up an ashtray from the arm of his chair to goggle at the empty space underneath it, his head taken aback.

“If you look under a rock in Germany, or the UK, or America, or Canada — if you look under a rock in any of these places — Surprise! — out come a Syrian!”

An invisible dam has burst. The tailor can’t stop laughing. The girls giggle at their father. And the eyes of Fatima admire him.

“Did you know there are Syrian refugees on Mars? The Russians once went to Mars and they found Syrians there. They were disputing cash assistance!”

“And the Turkish people wonder where Syrians keep coming from — so many keep dying there, but Turkey has more every time!”

“We should prepare to go,” Adnan whispers. “It is late.”

This is just a summary. If I described it, you will not leave the house for three days.

Don’t write my name. You can write that I am the mother of Shahid.

Layla’s head rests on her mother’s knee. She is fast asleep. Quarter to nine.

Thank you for listening.

I feel there is mercy in your heart.

Suhoor

 

“When she started crying” Adnan explains later, “he tried to interrupt us with jokes. He whispered ‘forgive me.’ He just was trying to make it easy for her.”

Two men march the sidestreets of residential Gaziantep , one beating a drum that booms throughout the neighbourhood. It is the first day of Ramadan.

“I will film it for my family.”
Adnan reviews the transcription, directs searches on google maps, suggests spellings.

The drumming achieves some degree of omnipresence.

“I think the people who are not fasting will not be happy.”

He lies down on the couch.

“Can you wake me in fifteen minutes? I can start cooking when I wake up.”

It’s half past two.

in vain

Gusting and grey today.

Yesterday tutoring English I invoked in vain the phraseI’ve heard multiple Syrians use it fluently. Turns out they have an equivalent in Arabic.

So something that might be a bit high level for a native English speaker, or even arcane, is a natural fit for an Arabic speaker coming to English. I suppose not unlike edifice for a Spanish speaker (edificio) or capricious for an Italian (capriccioso). These are words many English speakers don’t use.

I think I was trying to make a point about how in English there will be multiple solutions to a writing problem, but I won’t always know the one most intuitive or straightforward one to an Arabic-first-language eye. The invocation itself may have been in vain

 

The phrase also well describes my efforts at writing in this space. And of course it comes up all the time in discussing Syria and people’s efforts to help Syrians.

Ice

That’s what the hotelier told me first thing this morning — “Ice! Pure ice.”

Sultanahmet is beautiful right now and there aren’t that many tourists out. So I’m going to see if I can sneak into Hagia Sofia (Ayasofia in Turkish) after posting this.

I was supposed to give a workshop today on English CV-writing, for an NGO I’ve been doing some English proofreading for called Afkar. Unfortunately it was postponed because of the snow.

The organisation is expanding. Yesterday I checked out the space they’ve leased in Fatiah, a central district of Istanbul.  They are planning and running various classes — I am hoping to attend beginner’s Arabic at some point in the future.

dsc_0050

We had Syrian for dinner afterwards. Why ever go back to normal rice?

img-20170106-wa0015

If you click on this link it should send you to a video news report on Afkar’s most well known work, an orphanage in Eastern Aleppo (they evacuated the children to Idlib province recently).

For dessert we had probably my favourite Syrian food, Halawet El-Jibn, حلاوة الجبن. White cheese pastry rolls with pistachio and sugar drizzle. My new friends let me have the lion’s share of what is pictured. I didn’t hesitate too much.

dsc_0052

 

 

Freekeh

On the bus from Taksim towards Ataturk airport I watched a seaplane take off from the golden horn as sun backlit the pillars of the Valens Aqueduct. In an underground bus stop further on there were 1000’s of bicycles hanging from the ceiling for sale. Two boys practiced flipping a water bottle, one third full, to land upright on various surfaces while they waited for a different bus. I was first on mine, window seat, and the middle-aged man in the aisle slept, releasing both of us from the duty to give ours up to an elderly. In Turkey this is otherwise strictly enforced.

One man I saw on one sidewalk was selling four lighters, a sleeve of biscuits, three boxes of toothpaste, and a nazar boncuğu, organised on a square towel. No one looked at him as they passed and the sidewalk wasn’t well pedestrianised.  Still, the vulturenosed man in the puffy black jacket checked his back jeans pocket to make sure his wallet was still there. Nearby cafes had 1453 in their name to mark the fall of Constantinople, then the bus passed perfunctory through that city’s walls.

As we found ourself parallel with the metrobus line a wailing ambulance passed us, took to the curb, then waded into sludge parting traffic.

I arrived. It was the first time I came to my friend’s house and his wife prepared a surplus of food.

At one point in the evening he said:

“Now in Syria there is no meaning of ‘human beings.’ The stone has more value than the human.”

Hail

Since I posted Snow the weather in Gaziantep has continued in a spirit of wretchedness. I stayed up late last night, woke at ten, and took two hours to rise. Though in bed this morning I did read this well-written piece about the Mosul dam‘s impending collapse, the humans (American, Kurdish, and Iraqi bureaucracies, Italian engineers) pouring sludgegap measures, and the mass, preventable casualties that will ensue if nothing proper is done soon. Sometimes, when David Remnick is not scribbling divisive reactionary panic about Trump, the New Yorker is worth reading.

It began hailing as soon as I stepped outside. I was envying women in headscarves as I wrapped mine (of the neck variety) around my ears (two appendages particularly vulnerable to hail, turns out).

Yesterday evening I exchanged Arabic for English with a friend over the meal pictured below. The çorba (soup) costs money, but those plates between are gratuitous. The pink/purple is radish, the soup is lentil, and the four meatspice pieces on top of the green are called çig kofte (with lemon, which is leimun in Arabic, near as I can tell, they were the best part of the meal).

dsc_0028

Twelve Acts of Provocative Solidarity

Six figures wrap themselves under one sheet, drifting not solemnly exactly, but unnaturally — hanging together. There would be no dialogue, just music, in the opening act, which screamed “this is tragic and important and meaningful.” Obvious symbolism and hackneyed themes were en route — that was the betting favourite. But concurrent events in Aleppo, and the audience’s all too awareness of them, meant gravitas was welcome.

15591165_1837028756546031_2386534708395058630_o

They swayed, dark lighting, somber music. Mood set, fade to black.

Lights: six young barefoots, all jeans and white tees, sitting on armless chairs, staring out towards the audience. They snicker, point, and laugh. They look away, sneak a look back, unsuccessfully stifling laughter. They become maniacal. What they see is hilarious. They are menacing. At first I was smiling, chuckling. But it went on. And on. And then it was uncomfortable. They fell off their chairs laughing, spasming on the ground. Writhing. My mind leapt to the six innocents killed in a gas attack in Idlib near Sarmin last year (March 2015).

The next scene. Same chairs. Our six players, three women, three men, try to regain their seating, failing, flailing. Some get so close, but an invisible force dislodges them, tosses them back to prostration. The writhing, this time, has no shades of comedy.

The players have now won our trust. We are not expecting to be suddenly ham-handed something cliche. A lot is possible once the guard of cynicism is lowered.

Lights: three women stand shoulder to shoulder, facing out in a triangle. Two men antagonise them on either side, juking and weaving as imps. The third man sits with his back to the audience. The imps throw black strips of fabric at the women from either side. Though they begin the scene proud, they get worn down.

The most complex scene had only four actors. Three women, each in one corner of the stage, battle one wiry man, who pursues a wheelchair. Whichever woman possess the wheelchair, he approaches. And as he does, she launches it across the stage to another, just out of his reach. The man throws his denier to the ground (and she gets to her feet defiant). The pursuit begins again — it always ends in vain and in violence. A wheelchair out of reach.

Eventually the man is beleaguered and the limp we hardly noticed at the beginning dominates his gait. Now one woman resists his throw, he ends up on the ground. Each woman takes her turn throwing him down. Eventually, with his final energy, he reaches his hand out to each of them and is refused. He collapses. They cart his limp body away, face down in the wheelchair’s seat, ankles dragging.

Who was the villain? Who had power? Both sides committed violence. When he needed the wheelchair he was denied and lashed out. He got assistance once he was a casualty, but not before.

The twelve scenes without a word (to the benefit of the Arabic non-fluent), just light, music, props, and action, did not fall into anything trite, nor did they go over the top — two marks of good artistic provocation. The person whom invited me mentioned the scenes were very gendered. But then again, they were dealing with a gendered conflict and a gendered culture, so maybe this appropriately reflected reality. Without revealing the contents of the whole performance, themes of gossip, news media, displacement, solidarity, gender, and violence, among others, were treated in mature provocation. With striking physicality, it was an admirable performance by CUT, whose facebook page is here (and whose pictures I have used in this post without permission).

On the night, the Gaziantep Theatre for Performing Arts (maybe a bad translation from Gaziantep Devlet Tiyatrosu) was a bit of a who’s who (I mean, I was asking who was who) of those keeping in solidarity with Syria from Gaziantep (some had come from as far as Istanbul to see the performance). Because it was hosted by the city some suits took to the stage with microphones as the players (pictured below) were taking their final bow.

15003474_1814607608788146_5331735001478075682_o

One Turkish politician said something to the effect of everyone forgetting about Syrians — but not he, not Erdogan, and not Turkey — that they remember them and acknowledge them and had Aleppo in their thoughts. A low bar, that.

A period of Aleppo’s history ended. Russia’s ambassador was assassinated at an art gallery on live television. I watched six young Syrians pantomime in Gaziantep’s city theatre. The first twenty-four hours back in Turkey.

A young Spaniard queue-jumped me at Sabiha-Gokçen by chatting a pair of Parisian Lebanese women into submission, then, some hours later, tells me on the tarmac bus to the midnight flight to Gaziantep he just “wants to help, to get medicine to people from Aleppo.” You’ll have plenty of work. He doesn’t speak Arabic or Turkish and he “doesn’t really have connections.” He was thinking Kilis. While I was thinking of Ben Taub and Homage to Catalonia (maybe the cap), I should have been searching myself.

A Turk saw me traipsing through the crisp night and offered a ride I declined. At two in the morning I knocked a door opened. Adnan, beardthicker, heated up the lahmacun. Same shit, different dates, the update.

The pieces that were here before, those seven first-person testimonies, will remain here. More is coming and the plan is often.