Story-When Everything is Lost

Isra’ suffered terrible flashbacks for much of her first year in the camp. Drowsiness brought only fear, no relief, because going to sleep meant reliving the slamming door, the blood-stained floor, the phone call from Marwa’s sister. And she would wake up choking, inevitably worried less about her own dreams and more about waking up Hoda, who usually fell and stayed asleep with great difficulty. 

More than flashbacks of pain, it was the dreams of times more joyful that felt like nightmares. 

There was more pain on the way, she knew. Flashbacks felt in one way like a reminder of how grotesque her normal had become. Dreams of childhood, of Damascus in the snow, felt cruel. 

In Isra’s estimation, pain would surely return. Those days of joy, of “then,” would not. 

Even after nights with no flashbacks, Isra’ would wake up with a weighted feeling in her chest. Something was sitting there and unwilling to move. Isra’ wondered if there was no longer room inside her body for the pain; perhaps it was now occupying space outside her, sitting firmly on her torso whenever she lay down. 

It took Isra’ nine months to cry in the camp. Nine months of numbness like her brother. Nine months of wanting the dam inside her to burst, but unable to crack it.

The day the tears made their way to the surface, they did not stop. 

It was early in the afternoon. 

Isra’s mother and father had gone to visit some distant relatives on the other side of the camp. It was a long trek to find others from Damascus in the camp. 

They took Hoda with them, as these relatives had a daughter around Hoda’s age. Ahmad had not yet come home from the bakery. 

Tired of her own boredom, Isra’ began to clean. 

If I am going to be miserable, I should at least be useful while being miserable, she thought. 

By cleaning, she had hoped that she might give her mother a welcomed break from the usual routine. 

Isra’ also had no desire to leave the house. She wanted this time alone. She could not yet summon the deceitful friendliness that would be required if she stepped outside. 

And so, Isra’ swept. She swept a second time. She swept until the dust feared entering the window of the caravan. 

She then washed all of Ahmad’s laundry, amazed at how much flour can inhabit a simple shirt, unnoticed. 

This is why he wears white shirts, she noted to herself. 

The bakery was ruining Ahmad’s clothes, but his shirts were replaceable. As she placed Ahmad’s folded shirts next to the mattress, she noticed small, frayed holes in the side of his sneakers. 

Not so replaceable, she thought. They were the shoes he wore that night at the border. One of the few pairs he brought from home. She felt he must be worried. But she dared not ask. 

From the bedroom she moved to the kitchen. She scrubbed. She mopped. She washed the dishcloths, wringing out countless spices. She cleaned the kitchen as thoroughly as she ever had back home. 

After cleaning everything else, it was time for the stove. She noticed a large pot on the burner. The gas was off. But the pot was still warm.

For whatever reason, Isra’ approached the pot with a sense of trepidation. She suspected what was in it, yet she had no idea why it would make her nervous. 

She felt nervous in the place she had always felt safest, in her mother’s sanctuary.

Isra’ reached out with one hand. Slowly, she clasped two fingers around the lid. She lifted it slowly.

She peered forward and glimpsed into the pot. The smell of garlic overpowered her. 

Mama knew. Mama knew her daughter needed this time alone, and she needed bamia. Mama knew that Isra’ needed home. 

Isra’s hand dropped the lid. It clanged loudly on the spare burner. 

She slid down the tin wall, mop in hand, and began to sob.

Just like that day in her bedroom when she smudged her eyeliner, Isra’ put her two hands over her mouth, as if the sounds she was making, her wailing, was inappropriate. 

She sobbed, moving her hand to her chest, clutching her heart from the outside. 

She sobbed loudly, lying on the floor. Her tears formed little streams, flowing across the tiles and across the floor. 

Ahmad returned home unannounced, after minutes, maybe hours, had passed. The bamia had grown cold. 

From outside the house, Ahmad heard Isra’s wailing and burst into the kitchen. Still wearing his apron from work, he dropped to his knees, grabbed his sister, and cradled her head in his floured lap. 

Ahmad said nothing. He did not need to or want to. 

He felt pressure in his throat. He felt his eyes well up. This is where it usually stopped. This is where the door was closed.

For nearly a year, Ahmad’s tears had not reached the surface. The last tear to drip down his cheek was the single tear he shed the night Mazen was executed.

A year later, in the kitchen, he felt the flour clear in a little line beneath his eye. 

Whatever silence had been wedged between Isra’ and Ahmad for the past year dissipated in an instant. 

As he let his sister sob, Ahmad too began to cry. He cried for her. He cried for her pain. And for his. And Mazen. And home. 

Ahmad cried for all the things that he would never see or do again. 

There Ahmad stayed kneeling, holding his sister for another hour as she held his hand tightly and sobbed. He cried with her. 

After nearly a year of speaking nothing of what had happened to their lives, to their family, and to their relationship, Ahmad and Isra’ cried together for what they had lost. 

Eventually, they both sat up straight, backs against the wall. 

Ahmad reached for two bowls from above. He got up, ladled some bamia in each bowl, and handed one to his sister. 

Isra’ reached for two spoons. 

As they moved from tears to eating together, Isra’ felt something change in her chest. Something that had been stuck was dislodged. She did not feel better, but she felt that something had shifted, nonetheless. As she finished her bowl, she rested her head on Ahmad’s shoulder. And for a brief second, if even that long, Isra’ felt for the first time in nearly two years that she would survive this, that something—if even just her relationship with her brother—might still be okay.