Story-Making Connections

Ahmad finished his military training in 2010, along with many of his friends. They had entered the program together, and they ended together, just as they had entered first grade together and finished high school together. Ahmad’s friends from the neighborhood were stone pillars. Fixed, seemingly ancient—around since time remembered. Ahmad had never contemplated life without them. 

The military training was one more cycle completed together. In and out the revolving door, they graduated together. They were exhausted together. In that sense, the training had felt almost like two more years of school. New connections made, few lost, and hundreds of new stories.

Of his friends who entered the training with him, only one of them stayed longer, signing up for a full commitment.

After the conflict began, Ahmad thought about Khaled often, about where Khaled ended up. He was from Aleppo originally, a transplant to Damascus in the fifth grade. Ahmad, to his regret now, was among the first to tease Khaled for his accent when he first came to Damascus. 

Now, it is hard for Ahmad to fathom why an accent ever mattered. Humans forming their protective circles will resort to anything to find commonality, or to find difference. 

Through early 2012, when protests spread and violence accompanied them, Ahmad never felt the same premonitions his sister Isra’ felt. Isra’ regularly expressed her worries to her brother. Typical of Isra’, she would constantly ask “what if” questions. She would complain to her brother of an impending sense of doom—a sort of cloud she felt casting a shadow over her thoughts. She was worried about what would happen. What might happen. She often described this feeling to Ahmad as an ominous fog. Each time, he dismissed her as overreacting.

Ahmad, in contrast, did not worry, at least not then. He was not enough of a planner to respond to those seeds of fear that were planted in the minds of the entire country. In fact, Isra’s worry made him more resistant to such thoughts. Without effort, his entire way of thinking served once again to protect his sisters from pain. And in this case, that meant calming their worries with nonchalance, with a confident assurance that things would be okay. Whether he believed it himself was irrelevant. It was the role he needed to play to protect his sister. Thus, for the sake of his family, he became the best actor he could.

Ever since leaving the military training, Ahmad spent nearly half an hour every day under the olive tree in his grandfather’s backyard. It was his office in a way. His best thoughts came from there. It was also his confessional, an anonymous and firmly planted listener, unfazed by years of others making mistakes in this place.

 

As 2012 grew darker and ever closer came the worries Isra’ described came ever closer, those minutes under the olive tree became sacred for Ahmad. It was one of the safest spaces Ahmad could imagine. Apart from his sister, that tree became the thing on earth that knew Ahmad best.

He would sit quietly, sharing his thoughts with the bark that already held so many family stories. Stories from his grandfather. From his grandmother. From his late uncle who taught him how to climb to the very top of the trees in the October harvest.

As the conflict grew closer and wider, Ahmad wondered more often about Khaled. Under the olive tree, Ahmad wondered if Khaled had killed anyone, who he had killed. Or, if he had been killed, who had killed him. Ahmad thought of Khaled especially on days when the explosions were close. 

Khaled’s father was not unlike Ahmad’s own father, except without the tenderness, without the affection. Khaled’s father had spent more than thirty years in a small administrative office of the Ministry. He was bitter and cold, wanting a better future for himself but trying to realize it vicariously through his children. He had insisted that Khaled serve his country at all costs—as the country had kept them all alive during his thirty years of service. The state was both their livelihood and their debt, and Khaled was the one who had to repay it.

If only Khaled knew then, Ahmad thought, if only he knew what was going to happen, would he have listened to his father?

If he knew, he would have left, with us, with me.

Does his father feel bad? Does his father regret sending his son to die?

What am I doing? I don’t even know if he’s dead.

These questions made Ahmad more grateful for his own father, for their ability to communicate even if it was often through shouting.

Of course, in 2010, when Ahmad and Khaled finished their training, no one knew what was going to happen. Ahmad was just twenty years old. War was not something he could or should have known. At least not the kind of war that came.

In contrast to war, the training Ahmad and Khaled went through was easy, aside from the minor gunshot wound. So much of their time in those two years was spent trying to get each other into trouble, just to see the captain slap one of their friends straight across the mouth.

Ahmad laughed to himself as recalled their pranks. His laughter mixed with a wince, as he remembered their worst prank: dragging their friend Ra’ed’s mattress outside while he slept, only for him to wake up half naked and freezing—unable to get back inside on time to dress for the morning run. 

Ahmad had known many friends, a few years older than Khaled and him, who had gone through the same training and been changed by it. In two short years, high school graduates became different people, some almost unrecognizable to the boys they were before. So many boys from the neighborhood returned from their two years serious, immediately heading to a job, to marriage, to something predictable and calm. Ahmad assumed that the intensity and deprivation of training scared them all towards stability. 

But, for Ahmad, the two years of training did little for him. It did little to him. He felt the same, as he did before, with the exception of his gunshot sensitivity, his weight, and a chest of laughter. He still wanted more, something big and creative, some new project with his friends, many of whom were inevitably going to follow the wide road of a boring job and predictable marriage.

Those around him expected some big change, some big insight after those years away. Of course, Ahmad did learn from the experience, even if he did not change much. If pressed to pinpoint any changes or growth he went through, Ahmad would tell his family that he was more grateful for his freedom, for the freedom they have to sleep and eat freely.

Sometimes late at night, when their mother and father were asleep, Ahmad told Isra’ and Hoda more about his time in military training. He told them of each time Khaled or Nawar or Zaher got in trouble. Of course, to the girls, these stories were wild fantasy—most girls had insight to the military world only through their brothers and fathers.

“They used to withhold food. Make us hungry,” he would tell them.

“They used to deny us sleep.” He would close his eyes, a small homage to unrestricted sleep.

And his personal favorite he saved for last. “And we learned, like a sixth sense, to know when the captain was coming. I could feel it, in my skin—like an alarm warning us all to clean up, stand straight, and stop talking.” And on nights when their pranks woke up the captain from his slumber, they all felt that tingle down their spine, a tingle of regret.

Deprivation. Fear. These two pillars of military training pushed Ahmad into himself. And that deprivation did indeed make Ahmad more grateful for his schedule and his family. The intense periods of deprivation during training made him acutely aware of what his body needed, of what his body wanted, of that alarm tingling across his skin when something ominous approached. His internal alarm.

More than before, he learned to recognize when he needed sleep. When he needed food. When he needed to go for a walk. When he needed to sit under his favorite olive tree in his grandfather’s garden. And when a figure of authority was coming for him.

Military training didn’t turn Ahmad into a planner. It did not make him abandon his sweatpants and sneakers in exchange for any uniform. It surely did not dull his protective instincts. If anything, it turned his protective instincts inward, teaching him quicker self-defense, self-awareness.

Those two years did not change Ahmad in any fundamental way, but they made him more aware and more responsive to himself and to the needs and wants of his heart.

One afternoon, as he and Isra sat under that olive tree in their grandfather’s garden, Ahmad suggested a possible theory for his heightened sensitivity.

He told her, inquisitively, “When you don’t have sleep, food, water, or family, you start to miss them. You don’t know what you need until it disappears from between your hands.”