Story-When We Regret Past Choices

Ahmad first thought of leaving the camp just seven months after arriving. The first time the thought crossed his mind was the morning he smashed the mirror. That morning, he dismissed the thought. 

And he dismissed the thought over and over again as it kept coming back, each time more tempting, each time stronger, especially as it became obvious to Ahmad that nothing around him was changing. Nothing was changing, and Ahmad wanted to change. He needed to change, and he knew it. 

As time went on, Ahmad’s bitterness, frustration, and desperation grew, while his aspirations shrank. As seven months in the camp turned into two years and more, Ahmad put in tremendous effort to avoid thinking about the future, to avoid thinking about that foggy and ominous idea that had once excited him. The dull pain of the present was at least more stable than the stabbing an unknown future carried.

As months turned into years, most things in the camp—the faces, the routine, the environment—stayed the exact same. For Ahmad, the thought of leaving would not go away. The thought of leaving stayed faintly lit, like a small candle shining and burning at the very end of its wick, when all the visible wax is gone. Ahmad tried to put out that flame, for he knew no benefit would come from entertaining an idea that separated him from his family. 

It took Ahmad nearly three years to engage the thought of leaving, to open the wrestling ring that allowed him to confront the thought—with all its risks, hidden questions, and possibility of separation. As the third year in the camp peaked with a wet spring, Ahmad openly confronted his desire to leave. For the first time, he seriously contemplated the possibility of leaving. As he walked to the bakery, he would often imagine bringing the idea to his father. 

His father had always been a voice of caution, reason, and loyalty. And this decision was not one Ahmad would make alone. Before he brought it up with his father, Ahmad spent more than a month internally debating the decision to move. A month of lonely walks to the bakery, not knowing what to do, not knowing what he needed or wanted his father to say. 

What would he say? Ahmad thought. 

On some mornings, Ahmad imagined the conversation going smoothly, his father encouraging him to leave. On other mornings, Ahmad imagined the opposite scenario, and it was just as appealing. He imagined his father forbidding it, finding some depressed solace in the family staying together, even if miserably. 

Ahmad was torn—and he needed a push in either direction.

By the time Ahmad finally built up the courage to broach the subject, his father already knew. 

It was an ordinary evening when Ahmad addressed the issue with his father. They were sitting watching a football match between teams neither of them cared for. Ahmad’s father was eating watermelon seeds, passing them mindlessly through his fingers before each nibble, like a nun caressing rosary beads in her nighttime prayers. 

“Baba…”Ahmad built up the will and courage to finish the sentence. 

Ahmad’s father turned his head slowly. He locked eyes with Ahmad softly. 

Ahmad’s heartbeat pulsed in his ears and throat, and his leg shook restlessly.

As he formed his next words with great care, his father cut him off.  

“Go,” his father said. He maintained eye contact. Ahmad’s leg stopped shaking, as his mind went blank. 

Ahmad’s mouth was still open, ready for words not yet uttered. He locked eyes with his father.

“But—” Ahmad said. His father interrupted him again. 

“You need to leave. I know.” He spat a watermelon seed onto a tray resting by his elbow. 

Ahmad’s father scooted towards him and sat next to him, legs crossed so that Ahmad and his father’s knees touched at the caps. He reached out his two hands toward Ahmad, affectionately cupping Ahmad’s cheeks and jaw. He slowly pulled Ahmad’s face towards him, kissing him on the forehead, the very same way he did after the incident in the mashawi restaurant years earlier. 

Ahmad swallowed, the lump in his throat tightening rapidly.

“Go, my son,” his father added. “Go and build a life. Build a future for us that you will want to protect.” 

And with those words, Ahmad’s heart swelled with sadness and trepidation, unsure if it was stepping into light or into dark. This was what he had wanted, though he had not yet realized how afraid he was of what he wanted most. 

Ahmad closed his eyes in dutiful recognition that it was what he had to do. 

Ahmad had lived to protect his family. And in 2016, leaving them seemed the only way to continue that mission. Ahmad needed to leave Jordan. He knew in his gut, in his heart, that it was okay to go. The most difficult part of his decision was, of course, his sisters. 

Isra’ was not surprised by her brother’s decision to leave. Like her father, she had expected this step was coming, though she waited for Ahmad to tell her. Hoda was devastated. She had not imagined life without Ahmad, who had been there—a quiet foundation stone for her—over the past years. 

While Ahmad knew he needed to leave Jordan, he constantly wondered if leaving was a violation of a sacred commitment he had never abandoned since he was a child—a commitment to protecting his family at all costs. 

Everything Ahmad did, everything he was until that point, had been about protecting his family. 

Since Mazen’s death, but much more so after deciding to leave the camp, Ahmad could not shake a sinking feeling that perhaps, on some unconscious level, he had let his uncle die, preserving his own life in order to continue protecting his sisters and mother. Forgetting that he had been knocked unconscious that night by a steel door, Ahmad furiously wondered why he had not even tried to reach out and save his uncle.

Did I not love him? 

Did I not care? 

Was I afraid? 

I wasn’t afraid that night when I flipped a table for Isra’.

Am I doing the same thing again—abandoning my family?

He ended up nauseous every time he let these thoughts run wild, usually on mornings when he was the only one awake, as usual. In the weeks during which Ahmad prepared to leave Jordan, these thoughts ran around unbounded in his head. It was as if the decision to leave opened up space for thoughts darker yet. 

Every day Ahmad thought of his uncle. Every time he saw a metal door. Every time he met someone with his same name. Every time he saw a gun. Every time he played cards. Every time he smoked arguileh. Mazen’s presence and reminders were everywhere. And Ahmad had no way of knowing if those constant reminders were his punishment or his pleasure, if they were God’s way of punishing him for not saving his uncle, or his way of blessing, giving him constant reminders of a man who taught him so much. 

Before leaving the camp, Ahmad thought that perhaps a drastic move like this, leaving for Turkey to make a better life and support his family, would soothe the shame he felt for whatever he did or did not do that evening with Mazen years before. And in the days before leaving the camp, Ahmad clung tightly to the idea that, by moving, by starting over, he would reach some conclusion, some resolution.

And so, Ahmad left for Turkey in the fall, when traffic on his unspoken routes was low. Three years, five months, and three days after leaving home, he left once again. 

—  

Ahmad settled on the coast in Turkey, where the fog was thick and the olive trees numerous. 

To Ahmad, from the day he arrived, the sea in Turkey always looked warm. Even on those stormy winter days in the months after arriving, Ahmad found something about the sea inviting. It seemed warmer than his flat, warmer than his mattress which found a way to absorb whatever cold the tiles had been feeling.

Ahmad suspected, though hated himself for his pessimism, that the warmth he saw in the sea was just another lie. Just another promise pending a cold breaking. So many of his friends had crossed that sea chasing what deformed dreams they could build from the rubble.

Should I? he often wondered. 

You’ve just arrived. How can you think of leaving again? 

Ahmad wondered how much his desire to move had become pure instinct. After years of movement, he questioned the difference between his inertia and his conscience.

Is the other side worth it? Is the other side lonely? Is the other side home? After supposedly settling in Turkey, Ahmad felt no calm, no resolution, no clarity. 

Most days, when not working at the döner shop, Ahmad spent hours staring at the sea, wondering if he was turning into a poet or just inconsolably lonely. He hoped that if it were depression, it would be a creative depression—like Picasso’s. His moments of hopeful introspection always led him back to the facts.

Picasso died poor and sad.

One afternoon by the sea, the leaves were just starting to bud. Inside Ahmad, something was budding, too. Something was about to come out—though he had little idea what. Anticipation of any kind increasingly felt like dread. 

A knot in his stomach or throat could mean many things these days—joy, love, loss. It was all the same, all mostly unwanted anxiety that he felt right at the bottom of his throat, as if constantly holding back tears.

As the weather got warmer, Ahmad grew closer to the sea. And as Ahmad did not like wearing shoes, the beach was one of his favorite places. Whenever he visited—always alone—he would leave his sandals on the sidewalk. And he would walk as far as he could, often wearing an old t-shirt and those faded sweatpants from that night in the mashawi restaurant years ago. They still fit, as Ahmad had been the same height since he was a teenager. 

As Ahmad walked, he caressed a small off-colored patch that had been sewn into the sweatpants, the spot where they had ripped that night he flipped a table in the restaurant. His mind wandered back to that night.

That night, after they had gotten home, Ahmad insisted that his mother sew his sweatpants back to their original condition. They had caught a nail in the table and ripped on the side. Ahmad’s mother thought he was crazy, asking her to repair sweatpants that cost about four dollars to begin with.

“Mama, we have thread. We have needles. Why buy new ones?” He was insistent and stingy. They had not yet talked about what happened in the restaurant. 

She replied curtly, “Because, Ahmad, sometimes you’re allowed to mess up, start over, and move on.”

They both knew she was not talking about the sweatpants. He waited a few seconds. 

“I get it … but I really like these ones.” His eyes were downcast, and he put his hand on his mother’s leg. She took out her sewing kit, chuckling to herself for once again giving in to her son’s wishes. 

Now, in Turkey, years later, Ahmad wished he could ask his mother what exactly she meant. There was so much more she left unsaid. As he walked the beach, he wondered:

How can I start over? How can I move on? To where? 

Surely, she had forgotten their conversation by now. And Ahmad knew that asking her over the phone would be both ridiculous and alarming. His mother, in Jordan, knew her son as an eternal optimist. The family needed at least one, and Ahmad happily volunteered for that role when the war began. He had no idea the torture that role would bring, the tears that he could never let his mother or Isra’ see or hear.

He was their rock in a sea of violent waves. He was their foundation that could withstand an earthquake. He, of them all, could not doubt.