Story-Introduction to Stress

Though short-lived, Ahmad’s experience in the military was not easy. Some aspects of the training were fixed and predictable. The food was always the same, just never enough. Every day he got injured in some way—a minor scrape, a muscle ache, a headache, a slap across the face. Every night he went to bed at the same time.

Other aspects of the training were completely unpredictable. Some nights his fellow trainees would prank each other in their sleep, and the pranks were sometimes out of control. One time, as Ahmad’s leg hung off the side of the bed, his friends tied a trash bag around his feet and lit it on fire. Ahmad screamed. The Captain came in and slapped him hard across the face. He slapped him right on the scar on his ear, and it rang dull and intense as his eye puffed up bright red.

Other times, the whole team was woken up before dawn, before the world was awake, for Fajr prayers and then a forced run for miles. There were days when Ahmad was forced to exercise all morning after just two hours of sleep.

While he didn’t have access to his phone all the time, in brief moments of freedom Ahmad would take it out and record notes. He wanted to record what this experience felt like. He wanted to share the pain with others when he finished. He wanted to be able to tell the story, as if in the moment, to his father when he went back home. Baba had been through the same thing, of course, and Ahmad knew his father would find some humor in his complaints. He wrote:

“The running. It does not end. Today we ran on the gravel around Tedmur. The rocks are little marbles—nearly all of us slipped and fell more than once. My hands are covered in scrapes. Raw. They sting to the touch. Today we ran 20 kilometers without rest. Carrying packs. Halfway through the run it reached 30 degrees, and that was at sunrise. We baked. My eyes were watery much of the time. I felt nothing. Numb and weak. I have no idea what pushed me forward. Perhaps fear of falling, again. Perhaps fear of getting slapped across the face for falling, again. Fear of being slapped right on my scar. Perhaps the fact that Khaled and I bet 50 lira to see who would fall down more. And now, hours later, my legs feel tingly, as heavy and immobile as concrete…”

Ahmad’s phone was filled with messages like this. Mostly complaining. Mostly to his father. Some to his unrequited love Batool, who stopped speaking to him a few weeks before he left for training but whose place in Ahmad’s heart was unshakable. 

Ahmad knew that Batool would never read the notes on his phone. But his energy was renewed by just the thought of her reading them. by the thought of her smiling and laughing and mocking him for an experience she herself would never have to endure or even understand. The vision of his beloved—more satisfying than food for a man with fading hope.

He knew he would not give up during the course of the training, because none of it was real. It was something he, and all those before him, had to do. It was a test, designed to push them to their end. So Ahmad approached it with curiosity more than anything else. 

None of it was real, of course, until three years after he finished his training, when Khaled was stationed back at the same camp. When Zaher was given a new gun, this time loaded, and instructions neither Zaher nor Khaled had ever imagined in their wildest nightmares.