Story- Afraid of Mice

In many ways, Ahmad is a sharp contrast to his sister Isra’. He is short, but in a way that never made anyone really notice or comment. Isra’ never quite understood it.

Perhaps it was because Ahmad, unlike Isra’, carried himself with a joyful confidence. He was friendly, and his ceaseless smiling disarmed anyone who would dare judge him for something like his height. And importantly, Ahmad himself never made a fuss about his height. He truly didn’t think about it. He would often laugh at himself. When he couldn’t reach a shelf in the kitchen that his sister could reach, he would readily mock himself. And so would Isra’.

Apart from his height and his disarming extraversion, Ahmad and Isra’ were very similar. They had similar eyes—a perfect mix of their mother and father—bright irises of a light golden brown rimmed by green. If eyes are a window to the soul, then Ahmad’s windows were stained glass, colorfully illuminating all those around him.

Ahmad and Isra’ had the same smile—wide, toothy, and generously displayed, depending on who was around. Ahmad was more generous with his smile than his sister. But, behind Ahmad’s glistening smile was a high-walled world of ideas, pain, and worries. Few were his confidants. Many were his suspicions, even of those close to him.

After all, Ahmad was the son of his father, a father whose largest business venture was a disastrous experiment in betrayal by a distant and erratic cousin. In that battle which lasted nearly a year, trust was the biggest casualty. Ahmad was two years old at the time, and Isra’ had just been born. Neither of them have any recollection of those times. Their father would never speak of it, so what little crumbs of information they were fed came from their mother.

She says that their father changed dramatically after his business failed. A man previously more known and arguably more respected than even the local imam withdrew from many close friends. He had some money left, thankfully, and returned to his previous job at the bank, but he lost his optimism, his trust and his faith in his older brother Laith, who had encouraged him to start the business.

Since then, their mother tells them, Ahmad and Isra’s father focused almost exclusively on his family, on the children.

Ahmad recalls that intense focus and dedication fondly. What stemmed from an error, from embarrassment, what was rooted in defeat, made for a wonderfully attentive father. Ahmad’s father was generous with affection. And his ceaseless affection at home stood in jarring contrast to his external cautiousness, bordering on paranoia.

From the time he started school, Ahmad learned from his father that no one deserved his trust. “Trust is for your parents, for your sisters, and for your God,” he would tell Ahmad. And Ahmad learned quickly, reinforcing the lesson for his sister Isra’, who also picked up the trait.

For Ahmad, it was so much easier to navigate the world trusting no one. In his simple calculation—a calculation borrowed from his father—the reward of safety, of assurance, far outweighed the risks of ruined relationships, of heartache, and of weaponized secrets that come with broken trust.

Ahmad was the only son of the family. He and Isra’ were close in age. Between them were two years that felt like less. Their younger sister, Hoda, was nearly ten years younger. She was something of an enigma to the both of them. She was something of an enigma to the whole family; her personality, disposition, and interests were worlds away. Both Ahmad and Isra’ adored Hoda, but they lacked the borderline telepathic connection with her that they had always had with each other.

Indeed, Ahmad felt a specific attachment to Isra’, as they were close in age and in personality, and both raised by their father during the same period of his life, when his bitterness and mistrust were most intense. Isra’ and Ahmad understood their parents similarly, too, and Isra’ saw plainly the pressure that their father put on Ahmad—a pressure that was understandable, but excessive.

As the only son, Ahmad felt the weighty burden placed on his shoulders by expectation and by his father. His father was often the ambassador of expectations.

Ahmad knew what it meant to be the only son. It was not a fate he chose, but one he bore nobly and gracefully. Since his little sister Isra’ was born, when Ahmad was just two, he knew what it meant to protect. His heart was that of a protector, and his boldest moments in life—defying his own best judgment—were those in which he was protecting his sisters.

Ahmad had inherited obstinance from his father. He was thick-skinned and reckless in his protectiveness. Indeed, neither Ahmad’s height nor his disarming kindness were able to restrain his willingness to fight for those he loved.

Mistrusting and protective. Noble and predictably impulsive, when pain came for those he loved.

This protective streak made Ahmad’s father laugh whenever any incident happened. Truly, few things brought more joy to Ahmad’s father’s heart than watching his son make a fool of himself in defense of Isra’ and Hoda. Ahmad’s father chose to see the positive aspects. He was fully aware of his own influence in creating this character, this paranoid and protective knight in tiny armor.

Of course, the recklessness was not what made his father proud. Quite the opposite; he would always, with disappointing predictability, pull Ahmad aside after the fact and tell him to restrain his temper, however noble the intention.

Not long before the war started, Ahmad nearly hit someone in defense of his sister Isra’. That was perhaps the first time he realized the simultaneous beauty and risk in his personality. That particular story later became a family favorite, as well as a pivotal, embarrassing moment for Ahmad.

Ahmad’s father still can never finish the story without laughing hysterically and kissing his son on the forehead. Since the war, since the separation, Ahmad thinks of the story with compulsive frequency and manufactures the feeling of his father’s bristly mouth against his forehead. He lets his mind go back to that time as often as it wants, and the farther Ahmad and his family drifts from home, the more frequently he wanders back to that time.

It was the second day of Eid al-Fitr. Ahmad had returned just a month earlier from his military training. He was exhausted, but still overjoyed by the unlimited food, abundant water, and lack of wake-up calls.

The sky was gray not from clouds but from dirt, haze, and humidity. The milky sky would make for a deep, orange sunset—the type of sunset that Ahmad would long for with his entire heart as he got older. The type of sunset so entirely perfect that the only thing that could make it better was a soft recording of George Wussuf and the smell of arghileh. The type of sunset that invaded Ahmad’s dreams as he fled farther than he wanted from Damascus.

That day, neither Ahmad’s mother nor Isra’ had wanted to cook. Ramadan was full of enough scorching hot days so that on Eid, as the temperature climbed, Ahmad’s mother and Isra’ refused to turn on the oven in the sweltering heat, which had suffocated the kitchen since the morning.

In a rare moment of either exhaustion or generosity, Ahmad’s father decided that they would go out for dinner. We never eat at restaurants, Ahmad thought. 

That means I can’t wear shorts. It’s so hot. He pleaded with them to eat whatever was leftover. They refused—Ahmad was the only one who didn’t want to go out.

Ahmad was a casual dresser. He rarely changed out of casual clothes; only if he absolutely had to would he put on jeans or a buttoned shirt. He wore his Adidas sweatpants from the bala to class. To the mosque. And now, to dinner. He was casual, but never messy. If he left the house, every hair would be in place. His hair was precious to him. He cared a great deal about his appearance, but he also cared about being comfortable.

He had four pairs of sneakers, and only one worn out pair of leather shoes he had been given by his father. The leather shoes sat gathering dust most of the time, whereas Ahmad invested great care in washing the mud, dirt, and stains off his sneakers each time he wore them. He just did not see the point of fancy, formal clothes.

“They distract you from knowing the person,” he would tell people. His mother disagreed. His father did not care. His sister just laughed, finding her brother’s quirks endearing.

“Put a suit on a monkey and it’s still a monkey,” he would tell his mother, who would always plead with him to wear something other than sneakers and sweatpants to class. 

Or, “You can dress a marble statue in rags and it’s still marble,” he would tell her, kissing her hand and then tying his sneakers tight.

He wore his infamous Adidas sweatpants to go to dinner that night, to the customary embarrassment of his mother. They had all agreed on mashawi. A barbecue seemed the only thing reasonable. Something cooked outside, by scorching heat, was a fair tribute to the weather.

The restaurant was crowded. It seemed no one felt like cooking that afternoon.

Ahmad sat at one end of the table, with Isra’ and Hoda to his left. To his right, a few meters across the tiles, he saw a table of young men, around his age, eating together with two older women engrossed in their phones. Older sisters? Aunts? Relatives from Canada who were visiting for Eid but clearly didn’t want to be here? Ahmad ran through various scenarios in his head. For the past months, he had been overwhelmed by his military training. He had no time to think random, meandering thoughts. He had endured months of regimented life, torturous exercise, and the same people day after day who were constantly pranking him or yelling at him.

He gratefully accepted this moment to let his mind wander aimlessly.

As Ahmad scanned the tables blankly, Ahmad’s father ordered. Isra’ piped up as the waiter walked away. Ahmad was lost in his own thoughts, crafting elaborate stories about the table next to him.

The smell of shugaf ripped Ahmad out of his daydream. After months of food at the base, no dream was more important than the reality of grilled lamb.

With a mouthful of lamb and a grilled tomato, Ahmad was drawn back to the young men at the neighboring table. Ahmad arched his back, like a meerkat suddenly put on watch duty. One of the boys was pointing towards Isra’. Panicked with a mouth full of food, Ahmad stared. The other guy joined in, motioning towards Isra’ and licking his lower lip.

Ahmad shot up straight out of his chair. His sweatpants caught on a splinter at the edge of the table, tearing them right across the pocket. Still with blackened tomato skin hanging from his lip, Ahmad took two giant paces towards the boys.

“What are you doing?” he demanded.

One of the boys, somehow wearing a long-sleeved black shirt in this weather, looked stunned. The other was holding back laughter—stuck between a smile and full-face cramp.

“Look at me,” Ahmad insisted. He rested two fists on the table right in front of them. Now they both stared blankly at Ahmad.

“Sit down, habibi.” One of the guys tried to move Ahmad’s fist off the table.

Without a sound, Ahmad went straight for the boy’s throat. He clenched his hands tight under Black-sleeves’ beard, lifting up the outline of his jaw. Ahmad could feel his victim’s pulse under his sweaty thumb. 

Black-sleeves’ breath turned to panting. His nostrils flared in and out. His eyes were wide and dark with rage.

Through his breaths, Black-sleeves somehow regained an unlikely calm.

“I was wondering what she ordered. It looked good.” Unflinching, Black-sleeves just stared at Ahmad, full of shock—and, likely, pity.

Ahmad unclenched his grip, closed his eyes and took a breath before looking anywhere else at all. He knew, without looking, that the entire restaurant was staring at him. Whispering about him. Debating if he had over-reacted, if he had under-reacted, if Black-sleeves was the hero or the wimp. It was a scene Ahmad had watched countless times, yet he himself had never been the star.

Ahmad returned to his chair and put another piece of lamb in his mouth. As he chewed, he turned back to Black-sleeves, who put his hand over his heart and said, “My name is Adam, and I still want to know what she ordered.”

“It’s just mutabbal, but with extra pomegranate.”

Ahmad’s father patted him on the back lightly. Ahmad could tell his father was somewhere between raging anger and uncontrollable laughter. Surely, by the end of the night, Ahmad would hear both.

It was these stories of humiliating and endearing protectiveness that allowed Isra’ and Hoda to adore their older brother. They fought, but they loved him deeply. Ahmad’s steadfast protection would later be one of the things that kept them alive.

Well-liked and usually smiling, Ahmad did not fully understand Isra, or why she was so quiet. While he appreciated her quiet wisdom, he often wished she would say more, do more, laugh more. On one level, Isra’ wanted to take his advice. She wanted to be more of Ahmad, less of herself. But, on the other hand, they both knew Ahmad’s heart was quick-tempered. Quick to anger, and quick to pain. She also knew that, like her, Ahmad shared very little of what actually went on beneath the surface of his personality. All in all, they were similar structures with vastly different coats of paint.

While he was always perceptive and intelligent, Ahmad did not like school. It was too formal a structure for his wandering mind. Freedom, in the form of graduation, brought no clarity, though. Ahmad was without direction after finishing high school. Without aim, he followed his friends.

Upon graduating, he joined the military, offering two years of service despite his exemption as the only male child. It was just training, not combat. Yes, he felt some pressure, but he also knew this decision would buy him time as he planned and schemed about a number of business ventures with his best friends Qusay and Zaher.

They had, at different times, dreamt of starting a tourism company, a chauffeur service, a shipping company, and a delivery service. Nearly every day, a new idea came to them, and nearly every day, his impulsive heart would fall in love with his new idea. Not once did he tell his father, though. He dared not even mention the idea of going into business with his closest friends.

Ahmad finished his military service in 2010, well before the conflict started. His motives for entering the service were unclear, and he left the service still unclear, just more annoyed and more in shape.

Two years in training, and the only big change was that Ahmad absolutely hated the sound of a gunshot. This made weekend weddings, military parades, and wild graduation parties difficult. Constant vigilance, constant flinching, constant hoping that no one would ask him why he was so sensitive, particularly after two years of a training that was specifically designed to beat out of him whatever scared little boy was still in him.

In those rare times when he was caught flinching at the sound of anything resembling a shot, he would pretend to sneeze or shiver.

Isra’ saw through it.

On multiple occasions, Isra’ confronted him directly, with a directness that he found incredibly overpowering and disarming. And on multiple occasions, he lied to her, suggesting he was just playing or acting to elicit a laugh.

She eventually prised the truth out of him. Under the olive tree, he told her the story.

Early during Ahmad’s military training, a young recruit misfired a weapon during line-up drills, and the bullet grazed Ahmad’s ear. It was a small incident that, despite Ahmad’s best efforts, made its mark. 

The scar was almost unnoticeable—something easy to lie about.

“It was so early. I don’t blame him.” He smiled as he started his story, recalling the one advantage of being forced to wake up so early—the sunrises.

“It felt like wind at first, but then a ringing that would not stop.” At the time, Isra’ wanted to know all the details. Such curiosity about an injury would soon be unfathomable.

Blood began to seep from his ear four seconds after the bullet grazed him, he told her. Of course, blood was new to eighteen-year-old Ahmad. It dripped down his cheek and onto the pavement. And he just watched it at first, unsure where it was coming from—even if from him. He told her in great detail about the sound—the intense ringing mixed with a constant drip, as if the water in the tap turned thick and smooth, like shanineh

Ahmad shared with his sister in full detail how the pain set in fast, and he fell to the ground.

“My God, it hit me like a wave. The pain. Seeing the blood. I was convinced I was going to die.” He was looking at something in the distance as he recalled his feelings. Isra’ had never heard her brother talk this way—her fox ears were perked more attentively than ever.

“I was convinced that I had been shot in the head.” She held his hand, but he pulled it away and put it on his lap. “No, it was long ago. Don’t worry about it,” he reassured her.

Still, Ahmad had no idea how he had looked in that moment years earlier when he collapsed onto the pavement under the sunrise.

“I have no idea if I cried. But I was terrified. I honestly thought I was about to die.”

His fellow trainees would tell you he was silent. Stoic. Pale. Indeed, his father would have been proud. Naturally, a few of his fellow recruits made fun of him later that day, but mostly, all of them were stunned into seriousness. No one gets killed during routine training. The commanding officers brushed it off as a minor incident—though Ahmad suspected someone would get punished for what happened.

Even recalling the incident to Isra’ now, years later, his heart beat fast, beating with deep thuds that he described as “like too many horses running down a narrow path.”

He ended his story abruptly.

“Yeah, that’s it. I just still have this horrible reaction whenever I hear a gunshot. Like I’m back there. My heart races. I stop thinking for just a millisecond.” He took a deep breath. Isra’ was waiting for him to make eye contact again, to return from whatever uncomfortable place he was in.

“Yalla, I have to go see Zaher. Don’t worry about me, and don’t tell Mom, yeah?”