Story-Losing Yourself and Others

Damn you, Ahmad wanted to scream at him. He gritted his teeth, his beard hiding his clenched jaw. 

“Sure, I’ll work late,” was what he said instead. It was nearly forty degrees, and the open oven added another fifteen. He was supposed to finish at two in the afternoon, as he got there at four thirty that morning. 

Ahmad had been in the camp for just a short time. He almost immediately got a job after arriving, working for nearly nothing at a shop making fatayer

It took just two weeks in the camp for Ahmad’s boredom to exceed his patience. He was a city boy, first of all. And more than that, he felt caged. Surrounded by fences. Unable to move freely. Unable to run, to hop in Khaled’s car and drive somewhere high, above whatever they needed to leave behind below. 

For most of his life, Ahmad’s temper flared up only in defense of those he loved. Rarely was it directed at them. Always to defend them, never at them. 

He had been so calm crossing the border. He held Isra’s hand and she ran with him. He handled the family’s registration at the camp. He set up the tent. He paid detailed attention to the procedures, rules, and regulations. From Isra’s perspective, Ahmad was unfazed by the devastating events of the past three months. She was in awe of his composure under stress, at how tall he stood in the face of what had left her absolutely shattered. 

Ahmad and his father had taken care of the burial and services for Uncle Mazen in Syria. Ahmad himself spent the night after the incident in the hospital, receiving about fifty stitches on the side of his head and pain medication for two broken ribs. 

From the hospital to the grave site, Ahmad was silent. From the grave site home, Ahmad was silent. 

In the weeks between the loss of their uncle and their move to Jordan, Ahmad did not stop working. He contacted hundreds of people and, with his father, researched everything about routes and risks. Of course, most of this time his sisters had no idea what he was doing. They simply saw him as subdued, serious, avoiding friends and anything that had the slightest hint of social or political involvement. He existed. He existed dutifully and diligently for his family. 

Months later, in the camp, Ahmad was still diligent and dutiful. But he was not happy. He rarely smiled. His job was exhausting, with ten-hour days in sweltering heat and rude customers. 

He would get up at four o’clock each morning. It was an incentive to pray fajr each morning, something new for Ahmad and much lauded by his mother. 

The bakery was nearly a kilometer from their tent. He would walk, often before the sun could scorch the world anew, and have plenty of time to think. In a way, his walks before sunrise replaced the olive tree in the family garden, which he missed more than most other things he left behind in Syria. 

I’m better than this, he would think on half of the days he went to work. He would kick the dirty pavement and scoff. 

I would go insane if I did not have this job, he would think the other half of the days. 

At least it’s something to do. At least it’s something. 

Ahmad made no effort to make friends in the camp. He knew only a handful of people from home in the camp, but he did not feel particularly close to any of them. Most of those around him were from other parts of the country. Like in fifth grade, accents once again seemed to matter. 

Ahmad spent most of his days alone. Alone was manageable. Alone required no effort. Alone was a table for one where no one cares what is served. 

In the family tent, Ahmad and his father did spend some time together, engaging in obligatory visits to neighbors and distant relatives who were, Ahmad thought, just pretending to play “community.” 

Do any of them actually think this is real? That we can actually live here? That any of us are happy? He did his best to let his characteristic smile make an occasional appearance. It was easiest when he tuned out the conversations about politics, sports, or work, and let his mind drift to Batool, or his friends, or the sea. He loved the sea. 

In addition to starting to pray fajr, Ahmad had also started smoking cigarettes. The irony was not lost on him. He was well aware of the laughable notion of picking up such diametrically opposed habits simultaneously. Both seemed birthed by necessity and circumstance. Both seemed to soothe his heart, which he felt was smaller and more distant now than ever. 

Most often, Ahmad slept as soon as he got home from work. He slept so much since coming to the camp. He would wake up before lunch, helpful in setting the table, and silent as he ate. 

Ahmad was deeply grateful for his family, that they were all here. All alive, able to eat together, able to eat at least some of the same things that they would eat at home. He was grateful. At these lunches, he felt his muscles relax. He felt a looseness that made him feel relieved but sad, grateful but on the verge of tears. In this love that prevailed and remained, he felt alone. He felt, perhaps as a rolling accumulation of the past years, a sense of loss.