Story-More Than You Were Meant to Handle

Ahmad was sitting on the floor, near his sister Isra’. It was freezing inside the house, even though all the doors were shut and two heaters blazed in the living room. February 2013 had been neither warm nor kind. 

Ahmad was playing cards with his father. His Uncle Mazen sat at an angle, almost able to see Ahmad’s cards, if only he tilted them slightly to the right. Ahmad and Mazen always fought when playing cards. There was rarely a round of tarneeb that did not end in one of them getting up, red-faced and flustered, and walking out with a slam of the door. Ahmad’s father would laugh, finding amusement in his son and Mazen fighting the same way he himself had fought with Mazen in the past. And inevitably, Ahmad’s father would at some point bring up Ahmad’s quick temper and the story of the mashawi restaurant. That story was the proverbial refrain used to warn Ahmad from embarrassing himself by overreacting. Of course, the cyclical nature of life and personality was most evident during tarneeb.

Isra’ sat on her phone, far enough from the card game to avoid the madness but close enough to predict who would win. She knew to stay away, as arguileh coals, watermelon seeds, or teacups—anything near or on the table—could come flying across the room at any moment. Like her father, she laughed at the epic struggles between Ahmad and Mazen.

As the card game went on, she sat texting with a few friends and looking at photos from university. Those days felt ancient, covered in a layer of ash.

Tense as any tarneeb game, the only interruptions to the focused silence of the game were the sounds of cards slapping on the table and the rhythmic bubble of the arguileh.

This routine was a sacred break from the unpredictability of the conflict. Each day brought something new—sometimes hope, mostly devastation. Few things were able to stay the same. Life had been forced to shrink and retreat to safe spaces once considered boring. Friday tarneeb felt somehow luxurious, like a secret that the perniciously curious war had not yet learned and therefore did not yet try to take away.

This Friday, this time, the card game was peculiarly intense. Isra’ could feel it across the room. She flinched as Ahmad’s cards slapped the table harder, even knocking the teapot onto the rug.

“You’re going to lose,” she teased him. 

“Wait for it,” Ahmad brushed it off.

The frustration in the room, in Ahmad’s eyes, in Mazen’s silence, was not entirely about cards. The movements of their hands and the fluctuations in their breaths belied something new, a cracking dam of worry whose breaching would have violated the sacred normalcy of the Friday night ritual. The only allowable expression was through their cards.

Uncle Mazen had recently lost close friends. Ahmad and Mazen had a common friend, Hani, who had been killed just two days prior. Neither Ahmad nor Mazen allowed themselves to feel Hani’s loss, or even to feel anything at all. They were too scared—scared of what others would think or ask, and scared that someone even closer to them was next.

Mazen and Ahmad were beginning their eighth round of tarneeb when there was a knock at the door. It was late. It was Friday. It was war. No one should have been at the door.

As Ahmad reached out to open the door, it burst open with a deafening thud. Fifty kilograms of iron smashed into Ahmad’s face, knocking him to the ground instantly.

He hit the floor face down, the right side of his jaw splayed open in plain view. The gash on his head and cheek gushed deep red across the even darker carpet. 

Ahmad tried to say something, but it came out as a gurgle, choked by blood. 

He lost consciousness.

It happened fast. Those who barged in were wearing masks. Their shouts were muffled. Whatever words and terror they were bringing in from the cold was entirely unintelligible. 

All this time, Isra’ was frozen, a mere object in the corner of the room of no interest to them. 

She sat with her knees at her chest. She was paralyzed but aware, knowing on some level what was happening, but seconds behind in actually processing it. Like a phone screen stuck on “loading.” 

Armed men poured in through the door. Isra’ observed little other than the guns in their hands. Her gaze was drawn to Ahmad’s bloody face. She had no idea if he was dead or alive.

Three men grabbed Mazen, kicking over the tarneeb table and sending seeds, teacups, and coals flying. Ahmad’s father reached out to move the coals away from Isra’, who sat back to the wall, eyes wide and still completely lifeless.

As Isra’s father reached out towards his daughter, the armed man firmly planted at his side slapped him across the face. He dropped his arm, attempting to reach to the ground and prevent himself from collapsing. He touched the hot coals. His hand coiled back as the coals began to singe the fibers of the carpet.

Isra’ wanted to move. She did not. She could not. 

Isra’ registered that her father fell silent. She was beginning to process what was happening.

She could not read her father. Perhaps for the first time in her life, she could not tell what her father was thinking.

Ahmad, right in front of Isra’, was still on the ground. Unlike her, he seemed to know exactly what was happening, despite just regaining consciousness. He was silent. He put a weak index finger to his lips and looked at Isra’, signaling to her to be quiet. 

He lifted his other hand and wiped the blood out of his eyes, but it was more than a drip. It was flowing from his head down his messy brown hair, pouring gently from his temple and then his nose to the ground below. It formed a small pool that he smeared with his forearm as he tried to move into a kneel—arms over his bloody head.

There was shouting, but the world grew quiet to Isra’. Isra’ and Ahmad looked at each other, knowing that nowhere else was safe to look. 

Isra’ watched as Uncle Mazen was dragged across the room by his collar. He struggled, writhing around like a sheep being pulled from the pen for a known fate. 

Ahmad’s face showed no expression, but a single tear fell down his cheek, cleaning away some blood as it fell. Ahmad turned his eyes from Isra’ to his uncle. He and Mazen silently locked eyes as Mazen was dragged past. 

Mazen stopped writhing, subdued.

The door slammed shut. Seven seconds. Six, five, four, three, two…

Three shots. 

Muffled shouting.

Isra’ hit the floor. Blackout.