“They washed their faces, and dried them, but the dust did not go away.” — The Shell by Mustafa Khalifa

Musa, a Syrian in Paris, resolves to return home and direct films. A beautiful woman, Suzanne, urges him not to go.

But his “isn’t just empty romanticism, it’s a genuine feeling.” Arrested at the airport, he spends the majority of a fourteen year detention in the Assad regime’s Desert Prison — Tadmur or Palmyra. The narration that follows is admirably empty of both romance and sentiment. Sentiment tempts writers, but here presumes the reader needs instruction on reacting to cruel and unusual punishments, summary executions, controlled starvations, and eight gallows, repeatedly used.

An inscription, “In retaliation there is life for you, men possessed of minds!” (Qur’an 2:179) meets Musa at Tadmur’s gates. The full passage argues (dictates) that life, granted with guarantee of death, Allah’s design of existence whole, motivates god-fearing in men of understanding. Understanding, not surrendering critical faculties, will become righteousness.

Musa never touches the latter. Instead, confession of his Christian atheism during torture, then to another inmate, more than in vain, costs him “several years of total isolation, and treatment like that accorded to insects, if not worse!”

During this ostracization within captivity, our narrator peers into the prison yard — under a blanket, his shell — through a hole known only to him. He witnesses hangings (every Tuesday and Thursday) frequent enough to keep pace with Assad’s security apparatus, “at a time when hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood detainees were coming in every day.”

“[T]hree years before I returned from Paris,” Musa learns later, “a student who was with us…had written a report…that I’d made some remarks hostile to the current regime and disparaging to the President — an act that was reckoned among the worst of crimes.” 

As Capote’s In Cold Blood, Mustafa Khalifa’s Al Qawqaa (2006) ostensibly retells a nonfiction quiver empty. We begin knowing the alleged crime, the length of the imprisonment, and, as certainly as we know the Clutters are murdered brutally, that the narrator will live to become a memoirist. But, as in Capote’s feat, the quality of Khalifa’s description whisks foreknowledge from the reading experience.

The back cover to the English edition (The Shell, 2017, Paul Starkey trans.) suggests Solzhenitsyn. But Wiesel’s Night came first to this mind. It too describes a hell — “Every few days one or more people would be killed as the food was brought into the dormitories.” — impossible in nature.

Impossible, that is, without designs of man. 

“In front of the precious container of lentil soup, the sergeant grabbed the fedayi who’d carried the dish in… ‘Now dip your hands in the soup and let’s see…’ His hands emerged from the soup with the skin peeling. Then the sergeant forced him to carry the container into the dormitory.”

The Capote analogy breaks across Musa’s innocence, but also in the unmeasured distance between Khalifa the author and Musa the narrator. Both an accused, one senses fictionalisation by omission mostly, “I cannot write and say everything,” rather than distortion.

Although. Apolitical (“my uncle was a communist minister”) Musa is pulled under by a thrashing, paranoid leviathan, while Khalifa himself “was also a part of the Communist Action Party,” one-time member Dr. Jalal Nofal told these ears just days ago. Le biographie de l’auteur in the French edition, La Coquille (2007, Stéphanie Dujols trans.), mentions political involvement and both 1979-1980 and 1982-1994 as periods of imprisonment. Musa’s detention is approximately 1980 to 1994.

An unsympathetic, crass, or simply unconscious reader might immediately cast the device of an artificial backstory onto coals like subterfuge and revelation and agenda. This almost always furthers a presumption all too familiar to Syrians — that of a virtuous strong and a slippery weak as the ontological order of things. Another short bio, also in French, states La Coquille “constitue un témoignage romancé” — constitutes a romantic (or romanticised) testimony. We are not told where the borders of contrivance lie and thus reactionaries can everywhere attend doubt. However thin such soot, power is served at the expense of truth and reconciliation.

Par exemple, the following comment was left below an excerpt of La Coquille: “c’est de la pure propagande de la Merde sionistes.” [sic]

How the slothful can retread familiar ground. See, Tadmur fictionalised is an instrument because cui bono is a vector of proof not a guiding principle of inquiry. Besides, Syrians are incapable both of democratic self-governance and of penning exquisite literature. Corroboration withers much hand-waving claiming insight. And corroboration springs forth.

“On a cold day,” a young Tadmur survivor told the aforementioned Jalal,

they put us out in the yard to stand there as punishment. A small bird fell on the ground, unable to move its wings or fly. I stared at it with the tenderness of a child, but one of the guards saw me and asked me whether I liked it. I remained silent because I was afraid to answer. So he asked me again… I hesitantly answered that it was a nice bird. He ordered me to go and get it. As I held it, the bird was chirping in my little hands. For a short while, I thought the guard didn’t lose all of his humanity or maybe he is here against his will. I hadn’t completed the thought when I heard him asking me to swallow this bird.

Musa remembers “the sergeants…spent a significant part of their time catching mice, cockroaches, and tortoises, and forcing the prisoners to swallow them.”

Jalal, a psychiatrist, noticed his nonfictional storyteller would not sit still. “Up to this moment, I hear its chirping coming from my throat…especially in moments of silence.”

Meanwhile, a guard “grabbed my testicles and squeezed them hard,” after “he spat all the contents of his mouth into mine.” Musa gulps, in “a terrible wave of pain,” and reports never feeling clean inside thereafter.

“Today my breakfast was three olives,” Musa still, “a small spoonfull of jam for supper. If there were eggs for breakfast, it was a boiled egg between three prisoners.”

“[T]he breakfast of people, three olives for each one. Or if it is egg, for four person one egg, one boiled egg,” now Muhammed, a third Tadmur survivor, untethered to the others here, telling me last year. His liver began failing in his fifth year — he was unable to digest fats. “They brought jam in the breakfast. My friends would give their portion of jam to me.” 

Khalifa rarely paints the inmates who shun Musa as virtuous. But in describing the process of punishing night whisperers, his account matches Muhammed’s exactly. “[I]f a sick or elderly man had been ‘noted’ by the guards,’ then one of the fedayeen (“strong and physically fit young men”) would take the place of the sick man and receive the five hundred lashes.”

Muhammed entered, “my kidnapping I say,” Tadmur in 1980 also. He was sixteen and judged innocent two years later. “The same court had over many years delivered innocent verdicts on prisoners arrested by mistake who were actually still children,” The Shell details. But “[the court] did not have the right to release an innocent man…the first and second dormitories were known even to the police as ‘the innocent dormitories.'” Muhammed spent nine more years in, Faraj Bayrakdar words, “a kingdom of death and madness.”

Why conduct Milgram experiments when there was Tadmur? “The new arrivals were always reluctant to take hold of the whip or the cane…. their beatings would be light and uncertain.” Hangings “would make them vomit.”

A peculiar anecdote in Ross’s The Missing Peace, tells of Hafez receiving news of a son’s death. Seeing officials crestfallen, he first asked “if there was a coup.”

“This was not a man who felt secure.”

For what then, all this madness?

Too much Lear could be invoked here. But an entitled authority, raging, “The tempest in my mind/ Doth from my senses take all feeling else/ Save what beats there—filial ingratitude” — does capture something of Bashar. Deified for seventeen years, as Hafez was for thirty — in the dawn chants of every drilling conscript, in the “prison radio… blaring out songs praising the Head of state” — he still now talks as a parent to misbehaving children. But Bashar is too often caricatured. Enfant terrible, oblivious Lear, dead-eyed banshee. Beware that which cartoons hideous human reality.

An Eichmann and a Gaddafi, he is simultaneously a real man who sleeps at night and a ridiculous figure. The inheritor of his father’s banality and sprawling network of paranoia and nonsense. To no end.

Musa, freed, has “lost the capacity for astonishment.” But the nightmare follows him. And it reminds him that his waking freedom is both real and the nightmare still.

“Dust. Dust covered everything — lanes, streets, walls, everything was covered in a layer of fine yellow dust. The green tree leaves… were now covered with this fine layer of dust.” A century, a sea, but not a world apart, from snow “falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills… it lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns.”

And the “faces of people,” whether “in the squares or on the sidewalks,” as Musa wanders the city he once hoped to stalk through an aesthete’s lens, “covered in this layer of yellow dust.”

The dizzying apogee, a Joyce signature, pulses a sublime resonance, last punctuation read. Khalifa’s climax only devastates. A thunderbolt. Paralysis.


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?


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.” 



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.


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.


Idlib countryside


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.


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.


“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.



“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.


Last week. Power out when I woke up. In the street a big black armoured car. Then total normalcy. Turns out the power bill just hadn’t been paid. Saw another armoured car that day but didn’t hear anything of it.

Today. Frighteningly cold. The people in bad situations are likely freezing tonight. There is a woman in Kilis, about 30 minute drive south. I interviewed her maybe six months ago. She has kids. Her husband died, though not as a result of the conflict.  She lives in a empty car garage, tarps for walls. It is -10 and windy tonight. They have a wood burning stove, so I hope tonight they have wood. No income she collects discarded bread and goes through garbage. When we came into her abode there was a pile of hard bitten mouldy bread in a corner, kept away from where they sleep and play. The bread in that pile was for eating.

She used to watch Turkish soap operas in north Syria, but in south Turkey doesn’t have a television in her hovel. She gave her son a Turkish name after one of her favourite characters before she knew she’d be flung from her home. She laughed, hoping it would serve him well. I remember one quotation without looking at my transcript and notes. “God has forgotten us.”

Heading west to Antakya tomorrow.

Life’s Good, Brother


It was on the fifth visit I saw Nazim high on the wall, a portrait only for wandering eyes. His Life’s Good, Brother arcs nebulous degrees of biography over decades of haunting loss, exile, and imprisonment. In English it reads as a staccato never grating, teasing coalesce as time flies.

Detention and imprisonment based on beliefs and affiliations dominate each character in the book. The narrator’s visit to the USSR, to fall in love with many ideas and one woman, follows him for the rest of his days.

“We started moving again. Groups on side streets waited to join the march. “Our bakers!” Kerim exclaimed. On the side street, with their zipkas, caps, and flags both with and without the star and crescent, are our Black Sea men. “1 May” was written in Turkish on their banners. Russia had countless local cooperatives of Laz bakers, but their central cooperative is new. And the Chinese are in the business of laundry and ironing. But both our workers and the Chinese keep their own citizenship. They vote in the Soviet elections and can be elected, join the syndicates, or become members of the Bolshevik Party. me, for example, a Turkish national, if I stand for election, I can be voted to the presidency of the Supreme Soviet. My God, how beautiful! So many parts of the world exist in one immense country! Here you’re not asked your religion, country, or nationality. No. Instead, you’re asked: “Do you live by exploiting others? Have you been a priest or a hodja? Have you worked for the police, the bourgeois gendarmes?” And if you answer, “No,” you’re okay, and you become a part of this great country, as if you were born here. what a beautiful, think, Anushka, how beautiful! To fall in step with people whose language you don’t know, whose customs and traditions you don’t know, and not feel like an alien. Feeling like an alien must be very sad, Anushka; I don’t know, I’ve never lived through it, but an Albanian gardener who worked at my grandfather’s seaside house had lived in Istanbul for who knows how many years. “Istanbul is beautiful,” he’d say, “God bless its owners. But I’m afraid I’ll die here, from from home.”

Maybe exile is just a matter of degree.

My friend called excitedly seventeen times today. He has a job interview tomorrow, 11:00 a.m.

He has worked at a coffee shop for three years, experiencing many of the problems Syrians in Turkey face. He often gets shorted (they pay him 250 when he is owed 300), his paydays are consistently pushed back, and Turkish coworkers doing the same job (and/or with less experience) get paid more than him. He never gets raises.

“What can I do my friend?” he asks ad nauseum.

He’s got this down on his luck shtick honed to the point I began excoriating him to be more positive because I just couldn’t take it anymore. Though surely this is in part because of the small selection of English available to him. Like many Syrians here he suffers by comparing his situation to what he had in mind for himself, what he had before, what others have now.

When he phoned to say he couldn’t open the cafe in the morning because of the interview the manager told him either to reschedule it for the afternoon or to effectively quit his job. This is far from the first time he’s been strong armed — “They have no mercy. They want me to work as an animal.” — the capricious and arbitrary powers granted by the informal employer and the guest worker. During Ramadan this summer he was the only staff member fasting yet the hardest worked.

We went to the barbershop for the better part of two hours after that. He got his already clean cut sharpened and his beard lightened. The barber there, a young smiler from Aleppo, frets over every hair on your head. So said sharpening took twenty minutes while a full cut lasted an hour. Total price for the latter: $3.90 USD.

It helped. His mood buoyed, we stopped by the cafe and he handed in his keys — he won’t open tomorrow. If he gets the job he will almost quadruple his monthly take home pay — certain friends won’t suffer anymore bellyaching — and he’ll have a path for advancement.

We mellowed with çay towards midnight, a small live performance on. I saw Nazim’s picture while my friend unwittingly paraphrased the title to explain his mood with an optimist’s sigh.

“When you are bad man bad things happen to you and when you are a good man good things happen.”

I don’t believe it but tonight he did.




DSC_0040.jpgIstanbul’da means “in Istanbul” — I don’t know how to use that properly in a construction. I arrived to Gaziantep airport late this afternoon and snuck a portion of katmer (pictured) into my mouth at the gate.

Katmer is fried pistachio phyllo pastry. I like it with an espresso on the side. Many places in Gaziantep serve it for breakfast and sell out by noon.

The more I learn about the Turkish language, the more I like it. I wish I had invested in learning it at an earlier juncture. But of course we feel this way about all languages, at all times. My friend Mustafa, fluent in Turkish after four years away from Aleppo, always tells me Turkish is easy, pointing out that if you think otherwise you’ll only make it harder on yourself.

Taksim is empty despite perfect crisp temperatures. I grabbed a kofte sandwich from a street vendor and headed to Hafiz Mustafa, a dessert cafe here that is open 24 hours. Some patrons were irking me there. There are more beggars in the square today than tourists, all asking in Arabic. It is a poor location to gauge poverty, certain beggars being schemers, compared to the outskirts of Turkey’s cities, from Antalya to Gaziantep to Istanbul. And the state of construction never changes in Taksim, the government can’t seem to finish the same sidewalks after four years.

More rain today in Gaziantep. At the gym today I met a Turk originally from Istanbul who had lived the last ten years in Cyprus. He had come to Gaziantep for a few months training “And then back to Cyprus [forever I gathered]. Enough time here! Why did you come to Gaziantep? It is not a tourist city.”

If I escape the rain, I’ll be glad to fly to Istanbul. But I think there are clouds everywhere over Turkey these days. I notice the latest attack really affecting the moods of those in my network. Someone was going to visit me in Istanbul Sunday, but cancelled, yesterday the last straw. When I checked up on people’s New Year’s, most had had the air taken out of their balloons.

I walked to the çarşısı (bazaar or pazaar in Turkish, I think) with a couple from Hama in the early afternoon rain. There we met a man named Ali who sells antique carpets — Turkish, Kurdish, Iranian, Iraqi — some over 100 years old. There was a language gap (I had the best Turkish of the three of us, problematic), but no matter, we were received warmly and served çay. Despite a limp, Ali was rolling out antique carpets for my appraisal. They looked old and battered. “If you gave me one, I wouldn’t put it in my home,” my friend said. Some did look positively derelict.


I noticed yesterday a number of my Syrian friends on facebook had birthdays. If you don’t know the day of your birth, just the year, it is common to enter it into facebook (and more official documents) as January 1st. I know a lot of my Syrian friends also don’t use their real names on facebook, so it is also a method of anonymity.

The media here (twitter too, of course) seems to be now splashing the killers’ face everywhere it can, his selfies, his videos. I suppose that can be justified while he remains on the loose. But still — perpetrators gain renown while victims are swallowed by anonymity.


That is one thing that struck me from the beginning. Despite all the talk of technological change and surveillance and satellites, there are people at the bottom of the Mediterranean who sunk without a trace or an inquiry or a paper trail and there are people who died whose stories were lost immediately and forever because no one interested knew where they were at the time.

“You die twice, the second time when you are forgotten,” I paraphrase what an Irish friend quoted to me, north of Dublin about a month ago. The second time should take a while, I suppose, but some Syrians experienced both at once.




The sun has returned to Gaziantep.

Last night around 21:00 I was walking home when I saw a Syrian woman and her two children rooting through a dumpster. It isn’t unusual — they have a method and a cart for collection. The economic situations remain largely unchanged for Syrians in Turkey.

When I woke up this morning there was news of another attack in Istanbul. I am flying there Tuesday; today is the day to book a hotel surely.

Sanko Park was not open. It’s a mall here, with a Starbucks, a movie theatre, an ice skating rink, a pool hall. Usually it opens at 10:00 but as of 11:48 they were still not letting people inside — many tried, to be turned around by security, and then waited in a conspicuous crowd right outside the mall’s metal detectors.

So I sat in the park nearby re-reading Antifragile by Taleb. Finally the weather allowed this. The thrust of the book is that antifragility is undervalued, underconsidered, and wholly distinct from robustness or resilience. I think post-traumatic growth is a useful term (mentioned by the author).

We know the idea of antifragility intuitively, that if you sit as a couch potato, you’ll decay, but the opposite, vigorous exercise, fasting, sweat, et al can strengthen you. This positive reaction to stress is not the same as resisting harm, where you remain unchanged, neither fitter nor fatter, after exposure.

In any case I came across this early on in the book,

For revolutions feed on repression, growing heads faster and faster as one literally cuts a few off by killing demonstrators.

Hydra is the metaphor of course (Taleb loves eight or more analogies to make every point). (italics his, and I shudder at the diction).

I am not so sure how well this fits with the Syrian revolution. When the Hama massacre happened, my understanding is, this ushered in nearly three decades of uninterrupted suppression — the kingdom of silence. And it is well named a massacre — the Assad regime killed a lot of innocent people that year. A couple paragraphs later,

It is that political movements and rebellions can be highly antifragile, and the sucker game is to try to repress them using brute force rather than manipulate them, give in, and find more astute ruses, as Heracles did with Hydra.

I guess the out here is ‘can’ — Taleb isn’t making the mistake of claiming to understand the nature of reality. He is just saying ‘this phenomenon sometimes acts in this way’ where the phenomenon is rebellions and antifragile is the way. Insofar as I understand Hama, brute force did work for the regime.

Brutal force did not work in 2011 — news of the regime locking up, torturing, and killing fourteen year old boys in Deraa, while its agents taunted their parents, stoked the uprising. And as the army began shooting protestors, more protests erupted, Syrians began getting more organised — repression fed the revolution in 2011, but didn’t in 1982.

But look at that second half of the second quote — “manipulate them, give in, and find more astute ruses.” Assad has played a very good manipulation game. He gave in every where it didn’t matter. He waited out the revolution as it changed. So has the conversation.

For example the idea that Assad was, is, and will be, a protector of minorities in Syria has made a comeback. It has been repeated to such an extent that some people believe it. The arc of its believability has not been steady, it is more believed now than it was in 2013, but less than it was in 2010. Of course it was never true. The regime has always used each minority individually as it suited its interests, straight out of Machiavelli’s playbook. Yet some slice of those who considered themselves informed count protection of minorities as a point in Assad’s favour. In that vein, they also frame matters as a dichotomous choice, clarified by tallying a scoreboard of points, for and against the regime.

So repression rightly tuned succeeds. The problem sometimes with Talebian claims that include phrases like “more astute ruses” is that they risk boiling down to saying “better solutions work better.” But Taleb would be the first to point out that theoretical, universally applicable explanations of the world — actually he despises such foolish ‘platonicity’ —  are inaccessible. He uses the bed of procrustes often to illustrate that you can’t fit everything in the real world into some theoretical framework.

Instead we have piecemeal wisdom and habits and practices — aphorisms and human attempts at their application.