Story-From the Insides Out – Part 2

Part 2:

The decision was made. The whole family would leave and go to Jordan. 

To where exactly? Isra’ thought, in those moments after Ahmad closed the door to her bedroom. Perhaps he doesn’t know. 

Abo Ahmad was asking himself that very question as he closed the front door and wiped away tears that he did not want his wife to see.

Abo Ahmad had told his son and his daughters that this decision was for them. They were leaving, for the sake of the children’s future. 

Bullshit, Isra’ thought. 

Her father promised that it was only for a short time, until things settled down.

Double bullshit.

Isra’ did not believe him. Ahmad seemed to believe him. Isra’ had no idea that Ahmad had helped him plan this. In either case, Ahmad obviously presumed a rapid return—the bag he packed was about one third the size of Isra’s. 

Is he serious? Is he fooling himself? she thought, angry. 

Ahmad brought only a second pair of pants, another set of his precious sneakers, and his phone charger. Isra’ had packed books and notebooks. It was just her instinct. They had very different notions of emergency supplies.

They made it to the Jordanian border the same evening they left the house. The road from Damascus was easy. Isra’ had not expected that. It was as if the path had cleared just for them. Isra’ recalled the story of the prophet Moses, and the parting of the Red Sea as the Hebrews fled terror.

Isra’s mild sense of calm faded fast as the car slowed.

The border crossing her father talked to her about was actually a smuggling route. That became clear as the car came to a stop on a small dirt road, far from the duty-free markets and trucks she had once seen on the border years earlier. 

“Baba, are you serious?” she whispered from the back seat. Her heart was beating in her throat. Isra’ was scared. She had not felt this way for a month—an acute and palpable fear. 

When will it end? Will it even end? she thought to herself, as her father looked back at her from the front seat. 

Her father looked back at her with a slow blink, an admission of culpability and love. Isra’ could not help but acquiesce. He was just as lost. He was just as scared. 

Isra’ rested her forehead on the back of the front seat. She reached forward, placing her hand on her father’s shoulder. He put his hand on hers. It was trembling gently. 

Isra’ opened the door. 

She had assumed they would cross using the main road—the only way she knew, the only way she had thought to cross borders, until now. Smuggling felt somehow beneath her, the illegality of it striking her as more dangerous.

Her heart raced as her father explained the process to them, his voice cracking and weak. She saw pain in his eyes, and she saw his effort to hide it. If for no other reason than to save her father’s conscience, she played along.

“Do not fear, habibti,” he told Hoda, bending down to meet her at eye level.

“My friends have done it. Your cousin did it. It’s all arranged.”

Isra’ took Hoda’s hand for a moment.

It’s all arranged, Isra’ thought, as they stood by the car. The absolute insanity of it all struck her in that moment. From university to smuggling in three months. 

From joy to pain in less than one year. But, it’s all arranged. She laughed to herself, dumbfounded. Resigned.

They got back in the car, and the plan seemed to constantly change. For nearly another 50 kilometers, the ride was easy. Yet somehow the 2 kilometers across the border made up for all the ease that came before.

By the time they arrived at their departure point, it was pitch black. And it was cold, colder than it should have been in March. The poppies had not yet bloomed. 

They should have bloomed by now, she thought. The cold was too much for them, and for Isra’. She grew nervous again, feeling that something was not right. 

They got out of the car. Distant voices. 

A flashlight. 

A small group of ten people emerged from a small shed in front of them.

Ahmad grabbed her hand before she had time to think about her discomfort. She and Ahmad had not spoken for the entire ride. Or for weeks, for that matter. Nevertheless, Isra’ welcomed her brother’s hand

Isra’ remembers a fence getting clearer in the distance as they walked with a larger group across a wheat field. Ahmad was standing next to her, holding her sweating, cold hand. Ahmad was scared. Isra’ could feel it. Isra’ was mad at all of them, Ahmad included.

She felt cement in her legs. She wanted to put up a fight, to stay. She wanted to shoot roots from her legs, through her feet, into that field and just become a tree. 

No, she thought, as her legs moved forward. One foot in front of the other. Hushed but heavy. 

Her anger turned to terror as she heard a bullet whiz by. Ahmad clenched her hand.

They had been told about this. Ahmad had barely spoken to her in months, but he did not need to speak, just to grab tightly to her hand.

‘If there are bullets, you run.’ She remembered her father’s words from just minutes before.

‘There shouldn’t be bullets. But if there are, you run. You run and do not let go of whoever’s hand you hold.’

And so, she began to run. Her cement legs all of a sudden lightened. They lightened to the weight of feathers as another bullet whizzed by. She felt the broken breeze. 

Is this what Ahmad felt in training? This is why he was so scared, she wondered.

She thought of the strangeness of that very thought. 

She kept running in her flat, thin shoes across the field. Thorns pulled at her jeans—as if they, too, were trying to get her to stay at all costs. But without thinking, she ran, pulled by Ahmad.

She knew that someone would be waiting for them on the other side. Her heart beat fast and loud in her chest as she and Ahmad, with the rest of the family behind, ran the last hundred meters across the small farm. The sound of bullets rang sharply in Isra’s ears. 

The bullets seemed to fade slowly. Perhaps she tuned them out; perhaps they were getting closer. She still does not know. But she knows that, in that moment, her racing thoughts were silent. No racing thoughts, only racing legs.

As she ran with all her strength, her mind was blank. Her heartbeat was louder than the bullets. She felt the beat-beat-beat in her throat, her ears, her head. Her pulse thudded like a loudspeaker.

She ran. She ran until Ahmad slowed down. They reached a truck. With the others, they crouched behind the driver’s side, peering over the truck bed for a sight of their father, mother, and younger sister. Any one of them. 

The wait was unbearable. Isra’ needed distraction. In a moment of curiosity, following the trail of a bullet, she looked up. For an instant, she was greeted by a brilliantly glittered sky, by stars brighter and more numerous than she had ever seen as a girl who rarely ventured far from city lights.

She shook her head lightly, looking back across the field. Ahmad clenched her shoulder. 

“There.” He pointed with a tremble. 

Three shadows slowly emerged on the barely visible horizon. Their father was carrying Hoda on his back. Their mother clutched her abaaya at knee height. 

Whatever this was, it was over for now. Isra’ squeezed Ahmad’s hand. 

“What next?” she asked Ahmad, eyes wide, shivering, and completely unaware of the ashen color her face had taken. 

She looked down. Her hand was covered in blood. 

Bullet? she wondered. No

The blood came from her fingers, littered with shards of plastic. Something had shattered her phone screen, which was in her hand tight as she ran. 

She dropped the phone.