Story-The Body of Evidence

It is hard to understand war until you live one. It is impossible to describe the debilitating dissonance of normal life constantly interrupted by death, of seemingly benign hisses and thuds that reveal themselves seconds later to be murderers and destroyers of homes. 

No one told Isra’ what war would be like. Why would they have told her? Isra’, Ahmad, and the whole family were hopeful through most of 2011, when there was little violence. Even through early 2012, when it seemed to be confined to specific areas, Isra’ remained hopeful. Each month brought a new cause for worry, and a new excuse for calm. 

In September 2012, Isra’ hoped it would be just another “tense month,” not the beginning of the flood. Syria was accustomed to these moments of crisis, of “escalations” that were followed by “de-escalations.” Everyone was accustomed to protests, anger, and then things subsiding.

It was clear by the end of September that this time was different. This was not going to end the same way as other series of demonstrations. Isra’ did not know how different it would be, though as usual, she prepared herself for the worst. 

Her friends Maryam and Nadine had just left for Lebanon with their families. The girls had lied to Isra’ telling her they would come back soon. Isra’ knew a goodbye from a simple departure. Part of her wondered if they were making the right choice, while a feistier part of her felt they were simply giving up.

While Isra’ knew herself to be a strong woman, she quietly questioned her strength as the goodbyes and deaths grew in number. She wondered how much she was supposed to endure, how much worry her heart could handle before actually shutting down or exploding

By the fall of that year, Isra’ felt a change in herself. In her ribs, her heart, her thoughts. 

Most mornings, she would wake up with a heaviness in her lungs, a pressure on her heart and abdomen that would sit firmly in place if she spent too much time alone before breakfast. In those moments, she would think at the speed of light. Her thoughts ran from memory to memory, from vision to vision, from face to face. In those moments, Isra’s heart tried to peer through the thick curtains of the future to see and prepare herself for what was to come. Of course, Isra’s heart had always prepared her for the worst, ever since she was little.

For most of her life, the anticipations of her heart had been harder than her reality. At least, that was until December 2012, when her reality caught up to her anticipations. Until the day her very foundations began to crack.

A few weeks before that day, Isra’ had already recognized that the sadness and darkness she felt had become a roommate of sorts. It was not going away. It spoke to her as soon as she woke up, interrogating her: Can you handle this?

In those instances, Isra’ would look directly at herself in the mirror, not finding a clear answer. Of course she could and did handle it—each new tragedy that came—yet every morning she began her day with a small ritual of self-doubt. Her ritual was part accusation, part failure, part hoping that the anguish would all somehow go away.

As a child, Isra’ grew up hearing about wars. Wars were far away, wars were in neighboring countries, but wars were not at home. The wars of home were distant memories clouded in stories from her father, grandmother, and great aunts. Guns, armies, and tanks were commonplace in the Syria of her childhood, but bombs, missiles, and widespread death were not. Those were just stories.

In a few short months, those stories came to life. Her worries became vivid and grew. Protests became firefights. Clashes with police became bloodbaths. Death came for those close. 

Each day brought news more dire, more scary. Each day brought death closer to her heart and her loved ones. War became a wave that she could not run from. A tsunami, the likes of which her heart had no way of knowing.

The night before the phone call, Isra’ had left her window open a tiny crack. The evening rain sent humidity pouring into the house, awakening old mold stains Isra’ and her mother had tirelessly removed. When Isra’ woke up, the room was cold and smelled moldy. She hated that smell. But, the birds’ song was clear and crisp—the kind they sing only after hiding from the rain. 

In the distance, Isra’ heard the ghoulish whistles of an explosion. 

Another good morning, she thought sarcastically. She changed and went downstairs to see what her sister and mother were doing. 

Isra’ opened the fridge, looking for anything to distract her from the routine. 

The phone rang.

Her mother handed her the phone. 

“It’s Noor.” Noor, Marwa’s sister, never called Isra’. Isra’s mother shrugged, confused as well, and handed her daughter the phone. 

Why would she call? Why didn’t Marwa just call? Isra’ thought. 

On the other end of the line, Noor was sobbing. An chill ran aggressively down Isra’s spine.

She dropped the phone. 

Light-headed, Isra’ began to tip over. Her mother caught Isra’ in her arms as she fell into her. 

Isra’ remembers little of that day her best friend died. Her mother tells her she wailed. She is told that her tears and screams were heard from down the street. Isra’ has no memory of those tears. 

She remembers the phone call from Noor, and little else. What few memories she has of that hour are little more than sensations in her body. The ringing sound in her ears. The silence that sank deep into her abdomen. The smell of smoke that wafted through the window. It was the same smoke from the whistling rockets that had woken her up. The smoke that triggered the onslaught of a previously unimagined future without her childhood cornerstone—her Marwa.

She remembers the feeling of someone pouring cement into her chest and stomach, the feeling of that heavy seat that death takes so effortlessly and crushingly. She remembers the insufferable dissonance of replaying living memories while seeing dead bodies. She replays those memories daily.

Isra’ and Marwa had grown up together. Isra’ and Marwa had conquered fears together as children and held each other’s hands as new ones developed. They cried, ate, and laughed together as sisters, neither having contemplated losing the other. And it was this loss that marked the start of Isra’s journey—a journey running from pain, instead of just worrying about it. She ran far, by force. Farther than she ever imagined, to lands cold yet free, to more uncertainty.

Her heart had not prepared her for that feeling, for what felt like the weight of bricks sitting below her heart whenever she thought of her friend, or heard her name. Her heart had not prepared her for the chill down her spine that ended with her eyes welling with tears that won’t show themselves. Every single time.

The mornings after Marwa’s death were gray.

Each morning began with news. News of more bombings, more death, more clashes. Isra’ absorbed so much news in the kitchen as she helped her mother prepare breakfast. Once a pleasure, preparing breakfast was no longer the same. In the kitchen, her mother was quiet, listening intently to the news. Vegetables were more expensive than before, so Isra’ and her mother had to come up with new ways to cut and display the cucumbers. Cucumbers and tomatoes were available most of the time, but other vegetables were harder to find and more expensive each week. The constant threat of scarcity spoiled the breakfast process. 

This morning ritual with her mother became more like a chore, filled with a sense of tension, sadness, and anxiety. Isra’ often forgot what they were making. Her mind would wander, her attention focused on the news. In certain moments, she would look down at what she was cutting, unable to recall why she was cutting them this certain way, or what she was to do with them next. When this happened, she said nothing. She looked over at her mother, chopping and stirring, hoping to remember what she was supposed to do next.

After breakfast, if she went out, her day was full of checkpoints. Each one was the same in appearance, yet unique in its demands. And Isra’ never got used to them, as others claimed to do. Each checkpoint meant nervously searching for her ID in her backpack while three guns were pointed in her direction. Sometimes, she would sweat. Her blood would pump fast, her hijab adding unbearable pressure to her mounting headache. There was barely enough time between checkpoints for her headache to calm, for her heart to slow, or for her hands to warm up.

While Isra’ was still able to enjoy coffee with her friends a few times after Marwa’s death, and while she still had moments of laughter, there was a lingering sadness that felt close over her shoulder each day. 

Each day there were more empty chairs in the classroom, more goodbyes without farewells, and fewer after-school meetings.

Isra’ felt the change that took place over the entire year, bookended by Khaled’s lost contact and Marwa’s death. She saw it, heard it, sensed it. She also felt it in her body, in her mind.

She was sick more often. She blamed allergies and didn’t know why she never felt well. There was always something wrong, whether a small ache, a running nose, a headache.

She sometimes felt dizzy, like she was on the verge of sleep, or like she had spun around in circles, but also wide awake. This happened a few times per week.

She slept differently. She was tired all the time. Her sleep was restless. She would wake up in the middle of the night, unable to fall back asleep.

She breathed differently. It took Isra’ months to notice this. Her breath was somehow shallow, as if she was unable to take in a full breath of the world around her. More often than not, she breathed like someone intensely focused, like someone who had been walking for too long.

She ate differently. She ate less, mostly drinking just tea and coffee, and eating bread. She was not hungry, though she still enjoyed preparing food with her mother.

She thought differently. Her thoughts grew dark, graphic, and full of doubt.